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Yale acquires ‘definitive’ trove of Lincoln and Civil War-era photos

In 1897, Frederick Hill Meserve began a family history project. Five generations later, his family’s collection tells the story of an entire nation—and now, Yale will help with the telling.

After Meserve started collecting material to illustrate his father’s Civil War diary, the effort spiraled into a vast archive that includes what Yale calls “the definitive assemblage of portraits of Abraham Lincoln,” along with tens of thousands of photographs of soldiers and politicians, writers and scientists, actors and singers of the time.

Now Yale is acquiring the Meserve-Kunhardt collection, a move that will make it more accessible to the public than ever before. The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library and the Yale University Art Gallery announced the acquisition just before the April 13 premiere of the HBO documentary Living with Lincoln, about the Meserve-Kunhardt family’s efforts, and the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination on April 14.

The collection’s images of Lincoln—taken by pioneering photographers of the 19th century, such as Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner—span Lincoln’s political career, from a portrait taken before his bid for the presidency to the last image taken of him in his lifetime.

Beinecke curator George Miles ’74, ’77MPhil, is particularly excited about the acquisition of Alexander Gardner’s “mammoth” photograph of Lincoln’s second inaugural address in 1865, just weeks  before his assassination.

“It’s incredibly scarce,” says Miles, co-curator of the Yale Collection of Western Americana. “It wasn’t printed very frequently and very few prints are known to survive and the negative is lost. You can see John Wilkes Booth and others in the conspiracy in the crowd, watching and listening to Lincoln during that address.”

To date, the Beinecke’s American holdings are primarily in Native American portraiture and Western landscape photography, not Civil War photography or “celebrity portraiture,” Miles notes. He calls the new collection “remarkable for the ways in which it complements what we already have, and fills in what we don’t.” In addition to Lincoln, notable figures in the Meserve-Kunhardt collection include Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Susan B. Anthony.

The Beinecke and the Yale University Art Gallery are still deciding how to divide up the collection. YUAG Director Jock Reynolds says the majority of the collection will reside with the Beinecke, which is better set up to handle such an influx of research material.

The Beinecke’s willingness to take on the acquisition just a month before the library closes for renovations underscores how important the collection is to the university, Reynolds says.

The acquisition was made possible in part by a donation from the Rice Family Foundation, led by Eve Hart Rice ’73. Reynolds explains that the Rices, who have numerous alumni ties, first talked to the Meserve-Kunhardt family about Yale as a potential home for the collection.

“This is a wonderful case of Yale’s extended family helping to make this happen,” Miles says.


The Yale Alumni Magazine is published by Yale Alumni Publications Inc., an alumni-based nonprofit that is not run by Yale University. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the university administration.

Filed under Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University Art Gallery, Abraham Lincoln, Civil War
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