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Lincoln's Coffin Image Found in Robert E. Lee Statue Pedestal

Updated: Oct 29, 2022

By David J. Kent

Washington, DC

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

As widely rumored, there reportedly was a copy of a photo of Abraham Lincoln in his coffin among the items found in a time capsule pulled from beneath the statue of Robert E. Lee removed from Richmond this past September.

This was the second time capsule removed from the pedestal as it was being dismantled. The first, smaller, granite stone capsule was found unexpectedly last week higher in the pedestal than records indicated. That smaller box was opened last week and contained an almanac, a cloth envelope, and a silver coin. Disappointed by its contents, historians insisted there must be a second, larger, capsule lower in the pedestal. They were right.

The larger capsule had been predicted based on records kept at the time the statue was installed in 1890. Designed by French sculptor Marius Jean Antonin Mercie, the 14-foot-high statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on his horse stood on a 40-foot-high marble pedestal. It joined other statues of Confederate leaders lining Monument Avenue in the city that had been the capital of the Confederacy. Recent nationwide reevaluations of the appropriateness of symbols of the Confederacy led to all of the statues being removed in 2020.

This second capsule is the one historians had been waiting for. It was opened by trained conservators Tuesday, December 28, 2021 and found to contain newspapers, photographs, Confederate coins, multiple books with antique bookmarks, a piece of wood with a bullet in it, handwritten letters, and an image of Lincoln in his coffin.

In fact, the image is not a photograph at all, but an engraving of a female figure grieving over the casket, which appeared in the April 29, 1865 edition of Harper's Weekly. The only actual photo known to exist of Lincoln in a coffin was taken while he was lying in state in New York City. It was believed that all copies of the photo, which was taken without official authority, had been destroyed at the time. That is, until 1952 when a 14-year-old Ron Rietveld came across the only known copy of the photo in papers belonging to Edwin Stanton, who had been Lincoln's Secretary of War. He was also the man who ordered the destruction of all the photos (except, presumably, one he kept for himself).

Conservators will conduct a full inventory of the artifacts, stabilize and preserve them, then report to the public what they found.

In September 2021, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced that a new time capsule would be buried near the site of the pedestal once removal is complete. The new capsule will reflect “the cultural moment in Virginia’s, and the nation’s, history.” The thirty-nine new artifacts will include a COVID vaccination card, a photograph of a Black ballerina in front of the old Lee statue, a Black Lives Matter sticker, a face mask, a photo of the Virginia State Police at 14th and F Street NW in Washington helping DC Metro Police patrol the city after the insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, and a poem written in Braille.

The complete list of artifacts in the 2021 capsule is shown here.

Photo credit: Sarah Rankin, AP

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