Gettysburg National Military Cemetery

Gettysburg Cemetery

(Photo credit: Gettysburg National Military Cemetery, courtesy Edward Headington, Flickr Creative Commons)

Yesterday, November 19, was the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. That reminds me of my last time visiting Gettysburg and an odd story concerning a burial.

The last time I visited Gettysburg the ranger who was giving the tour of the National Military Cemetery there decided to do something a bit different. He wanted to take us to what he said was the actual spot at which experts now think President Abraham Lincoln gave his “few appropriate remarks” at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery on November 19, 1863. The two minutes of remarks Lincoln gave that day have become known to the world as the Gettysburg Address. Recent scholarship and photographic analysis suggest the spot where he delivered that address lies not in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, which is where everyone used to think it was, but a few yards away in the adjacent public Evergreen Cemetery. That burial ground, which is still used for funerals, is enclosed by a black iron fence with a gate that normally is locked. But that day the gate was open, so the ranger decided to take us in, even though it wasn’t a normal part of the tour.

Our ranger walked us over to the spot where Lincoln apparently gave his address, which today is just a regular part of the public graveyard and not marked in any special way. On a path surrounded by grave sites, he started talking to us about the Address in his booming outdoor voice. Suddenly, though, he turned his head and stopped. Less than 30 yards away, in a shady spot, two people were standing next to a still-open gravesite. It looked as if an actual burial had recently taken place. None of us had noticed the two individuals, and although they didn’t say anything to us we all got the sense that they weren’t too happy with us being there. The ranger communicated an apology to them by means of a loud stage whisper and we hastily beat a retreat back out the way we’d come in. He continued the talk on the other side of the black iron fence.

This was a little embarrassing for all, and I’m sorry that we disturbed someone’s grieving, but I’m not sorry that we went in. Nearby, at the entrance to the National Cemetery, the official Lincoln Speech Memorial stands, and it’s a fine monument. But it was a rare privilege to be shown the exact spot where Lincoln spoke his words that, more than any other, sum up the nation’s creed—or at least what we hope or wish the nation’s creed should be.

It’s worth pointing out that although we think of the dedication of the cemetery as being all about Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address, it was seen as nothing of the sort at the time. On the day Lincoln was there not to make a historic speech but only to assist in the dedication of the space as the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. He wasn’t even the main speaker that day—that honor went to famed Massachusetts orator Edward Everett. (Remember him? No, most people don’t.) Most people at the time paid little attention to what Lincoln actually said that day. It wasn’t seen as a big deal at the time. That’s maybe why there’s only one blurry photo in existence of Lincoln at the event. It was only later that we began to appreciate and celebrate his words. But back on November 19, 1863, the day was all about the dead soldiers.

Even though the location of Lincoln’s address now apparently lies just outside its borders, I remain intrigued by the boomerang-shaped piece of ground that constitutes the Gettysburg National Cemetery, lying on ground that was at the heart of the Civil War’s most famous battle. More than 3,500 Union soldiers are now buried there. Along with the battlefield the cemetery now forms the Gettysburg National Military Park, run by the National Park Service.

Gettysburg was the first military cemetery to be dedicated by the nation to its dead. Before Gettysburg, there was no formalized method of dealing with battle dead. Invariably dead soldiers were buried hastily by comrades, sometimes in a central pit and sometimes just wherever a vacant piece of nearby land could be found. Sometimes they were not buried at all. That started to change with Gettysburg. Four years later Congress passed a law to establish and protect national cemeteries and incorporated Gettysburg and other Civil War battlefield sites into a system of what would eventually become 147 national cemeteries. The most famous of these is probably Arlington National Cemetery, just outside Washington, DC.

The focal point of the Gettysburg cemetery today is the Soldiers’ National Monument, a huge, 85-foot high piece of granite and stone. A statue representing Liberty sits atop the monument, while four figures surrounding the pedestal near the base represent War, History, Peace, and Plenty. They give the monument a very mid-Victorian feel, although the 18 stars surrounding the pedestal—representing the 18 states of the Union with buried dead—remind us that this is a very American memorial.

From the monument’s central point rows of Union graves radiate out in a huge semi-circular pattern. The cemetery’s sections were divided by state, with smaller states closer to the monument and larger states toward the outer rim. Today it looks peaceful and beautiful, but when Lincoln gave his remarks it was only a little over four months after the battle and the whole area still showed grotesque signs of war and destruction. Burials at the new cemetery had only recently begun, as soldiers were reinterred from graves hurriedly dug that summer. Thousands of rotting horses and other dead animals still littered the battlefield—including the site of the cemetery—and the smell of death was still palpable, even in the late autumn chill. One authoritative source estimates that by the time the battle was over some six million pounds of human and animal flesh lay rotting in the fields. What’s more, as the park rangers like to remind visitors, the nearby town of Gettysburg, with its population of only 2,400, had been overwhelmed with more than 20,000 casualties who desperately needed help. In those days the wounded often got left behind to be sheltered and taken care of by local people. Even though it had been spared from the battle, the town was shattered by the experience.

It was into this near post-apocalyptic environment that Lincoln ventured on the evening of November 18, 1863, when he arrived at Gettysburg’s train station. He had been persuaded to attend the dedication ceremony by David Wills, a prominent Gettysburg attorney. Lincoln was not in the best of health at the time. He told confidantes that he felt weak and dizzy. One recent study has even suggested he might have been in the early stages of a smallpox infection. Lincoln spent the night at the Wills residence in the center of town. No-one knows exactly when Lincoln penned his dedication remarks, but he likely began them on the train and put the final touches to them in his bedroom at Wills’ home. The newly restored David Wills House is open to the public today, by the way, and it’s well worth the visit. In addition to a number of exhibits two rooms have been restored to their 1863 appearance, including the one Lincoln in which spent the night. That room displays the bed where Lincoln slept.

It’ll be no surprise to anyone that Gettysburg National Military Park is one of the most heavily visited historical and cultural sites in the National Park Service system. It provides a full array of interpretive activities in pursuit of its goal of helping people understand how and why the battle that took place there was so important. Park rangers and the private interpretive guides licensed to work there are generally excellent. The massive new visitor center and adjoining museum is a must to visit, as is the newly restored and massive Gettysburg Cyclorama on display there. There’s also the nearby Eisenhower Farm, which has nothing to do with the battle but which is also run by the park service, with tours originating from the visitor center. Everyone who visits Gettysburg should see those things. But no-one should ignore the National Military Cemetery and the David Wills House. These sites tell their own tale about the events that happened here. They also offer just a little more insight into the man who, in his efforts to preserve the Union, charted a course that led to the bloody battle that was fought here.

Sources:

Jeanna Bryner (2007). Did Abe Lincoln Have Smallpox? NBC News. May 17. http://www.nbcnews.com/id/18727435/#.UoziaGSgmNw

David Wills House. National Park Service. Available at http://www.nps.gov/gett/planyourvisit/david-wills-house.htm

Drew Gilpin Foust (2008). This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York: Random House.

Gettysburg National Military Park. National Park Service. Available at http://www.nps.gov/gett/index.htm

Gettysburg National Cemetery, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. National Park Service. Available at http://www.nps.gov/history/nr/travel/national_cemeteries/Pennsylvania/Gettysburg_National_Cemetery.html

Donald Gilliland (2013). Why a “National Cemetery” at Gettysburg? The Patriot-News, Nov. 19. http://blog.pennlive.com/gettysburg-150/2013/11/why_a_national_cemetery_at_get.html

Soldiers’ National Monument. List of Classified Structures. National Park Service. Available at http://www.hscl.cr.nps.gov/insidenps/report.asp?PARK=GETT&RECORDNO=516

Short Speech Still Resonates: The Gettysburg Address Turns 150 (2013). All Things Considered. National Public Radio. November 19. Available at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=246201795

 

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