Lincoln Memorial Myths

Almost since its completion in 1922 the memorial to Abraham Lincoln has conjured up several myths associated with its architectural details.  Whereas there are symbolic representations, such as the 36 exterior columns representing the number of states at his death, other suggested symbols are pure myth.

"Abraham Lincoln" by Daniel Chester French
"Abraham Lincoln" by Daniel Chester French

NPS / Terry Adams

A face is carved in the back of Abraham Lincoln's head

Many visitors to the memorial peer around the side of Daniel Chester French's statue of Abraham Lincoln looking for a face ambiguously carved in Lincoln's hair. However, not all can agree on whose face it is, or evenwhere it is on the statue. The most plausible explanation is that it is Robert E. Lee's face, looking toward his old home Arlington House across the Potomac River. The truth is that the "face" is nothing more than the viewer's interpretation of Lincoln's hair. The true meanings of the Lincoln Memorial - strength, peace, and union - are much more overt than a pareidolia in a barely visible part of the statue. For the overt symbol of the Lincoln/Lee connection, or more accurately the Union/Confederate connection, look no further than the Arlington Memorial Bridge. 

Lincoln's hands are making sign language symbols of his initials "A" and "L"


Sculptor Daniel Chester French used molds of Lincoln's hands cast in 1860 to guide his work. These molds were created with Lincoln's hands in a loose fist. Instead of keeping both hands closed, French chose to relax Lincoln's right hand. From this presentation, many infer the duality of Lincoln's power and strength on the closed left hand, and his compassion and peace on the right. This interpretation fits in with the motif of oak leaves and olive branches throughout the memorial, symbols of strength and peace, respectively.

The idea that French coded Lincoln's initials into his hands likely stems from another of French's sculptures, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet and Alice Cogswell. Gallaudet was a co-founder of the first school for the deaf in America, and French's statue honoring him now stands at Gallaudet University in northeast Washington, D.C. In that statue, Gallaudet is depicted with Alice Cogswell, his first student, who is signing the letter "A" with her right hand, symbolizing her education in sign language.

While French had an understanding of sign language characters, he did not incorporate explicit symbols into his sculpture of Lincoln. 

A word is misspelled in the Lincoln Memorial

Partially true.

In Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, depicted on the north wall of the memorial, an engraver inadvertently carved a letter “E” where he meant to carve an “F.” This error was corrected by filling in a portion of the carving to revert it to an "F." 

Abraham Lincoln is buried under the Lincoln Memorial


After his death, Lincoln’s body was taken to his home in Springfield, Illinois where he was buried. The memorial was built as a place to remember Lincoln, not to house his remains. 

The number of steps on the Lincoln Memorial is significant.


Some assume the 57 steps leading to the chamber equal his age at his death; however, Lincoln was just 56 years old when he was killed in April 1865. There is no significance to the number of steps. 

Last updated: October 24, 2017