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History of the Soldiers' National Cemetery at Gettysburg

Soldiers' National Cemetery at Gettysburg
(National Park Service)
 

Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin visited Gettysburg soon after the battle and was appalled at what he saw- ruined farms, homes filled with injured men, fresh graves of the fallen in every conceivable place on the field. Many of the Union dead lay in unmarked graves, only the fresh sod thrown over the remains identified the site as a burial. Heavy rains had washed away the earth from many of the shallow graves. Grotesquely blackened hands, arms and legs protruded from the earth like "the devil's own planting... a harvest of death" while the stench of death hung heavy in the air.

The governor was not the only official upset by these conditions. Several patriotic citizens of Adams County approached Curtin with plans to establish a special cemetery for the Union dead, whom they feared would soon be forgotten if something proper was not done. Governor Curtin welcomed the proposal and agreed that the commonwealth of Pennsylvania would provide funds to establish the cemetery and help finance reburials of an estimated 3,600 bodies. He appointed David Wills, a Gettysburg attorney, as the state agent to arrange for the purchase of land on Cemetery Hill and to oversee improvements of the property. Governors of other northern states pledged their support and agents from New York, Ohio, Indiana, Connecticut, and Massachusetts arrived in Gettysburg to offer assistance and direction for the burial of their native sons.

Most fittingly, the "Soldiers National Cemetery" was established on Cemetery Hill, a central part of the battlefield. Landscape architect William Saunders was hired to design the cemetery and his plan was heralded for its simplicity and equality. Re-interments began that fall. Union dead were buried in semi-circular rows in state plots in the cemetery, the final resting place for defenders of the Union cause.

 

The burials were far from complete when the cemetery was dedicated on November 19, 1863. The honorable Edward Everett was committed to deliver the keynote address while President Lincoln was invited to give "a few appropriate remarks" for the occasion. The president accepted the invitation, knowing full well that his presence would provide his political foes with plenty of fodder though he was more concerned with the human cost of the bloody war and the anxiety of the war weary northern people, anxious as to what course would then be followed.

Hotels and lodgings in and around Gettysburg were filled to capacity the day before the dedication. Under a gloomy sky, the president arrived in Gettysburg on a special train from Washington and was greeted by a throng of well wishers. Escorted to the home of attorney David Wills on the town square, Lincoln spoke briefly to the crowd and soon after retreated to a second story bedroom where he worked to complete the second half of his address begun while still in Washington. The Wills home was soon filled to capacity with dignitaries and prominent citizens. Every bedroom was taken by the time Governor Curtin arrived, so he was resigned to get a few hours of sleep on a living room sofa.

Morning dawned bright and clear on November 19, disturbed only by the booming of signal cannon from Cemetery Hill. The processional began at 10 o'clock, the participants marching south on Baltimore Street to the cemetery grounds where a special platform had been constructed at the edge of the new cemetery. The president rode a horse in the procession, followed by dignitaries in carriages, military bands and soldiers in their finest dress uniforms. Arriving at the cemetery, the officials were welcomed by a massive crowd of over 10,000 people, pressed tightly around the speaker's platform and ready to hear patriotic hymns and Mr. Everett's address. After a brief delay, Everett was introduced and looked over the hushed crowd. His voice filled with emotion, he recalled the history of the locale and compared the honoring of deceased Union sons to the funerals held for heroes of ancient Greece. The elderly speaker gave a brief history of the great battle, the country's close relationship with current affairs in Europe, and his view on the eventual outcome of the war. Nearly exhausted after two hours of speaking, he closed with a strong sentiment for once again raising the flag of the Union over southern capitols.

There was a brief musical interlude. The president rose and faced the crowd, now pressed close to the front of the platform. He spoke steadily for two minutes and then returned to his chair, accompanied by polite applause.

 
President Lincoln speaks at Gettysburg
President Lincoln delivers the Gettysburg Address, November 19, 1863, as depicted by artist A.R. Keller, 1904.
Library of Congress
 

Many listeners were stunned. The speech was so short and many near the back of the crowd had not heard a word of it. Yet, what they did hear was poignant. The president spoke of the honored dead who gave the "last full measure of devotion" to the nation, and how the memory of that devotion should inspire the northern people to support the Union cause, a devotion that would result in a nation that few could actually comprehend- one with a "new birth of freedom" with a government run by the governed- the people of the United States.

The ceremony ended with a prayer and music. The president attended a church service in Gettysburg before leaving on his special train for Washington and a return to the business of what seemed to be an endless war. While Democratic newspapers ridiculed the president's speech, others hailed it for its simplicity. Lincoln and some of his closest aides doubted the effectiveness of the speech while others found the remarks to be inspirational. Perhaps the kindest compliment came from Edward Everett who wrote the president: "I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours, as you did in two minutes."

 

Burials in the cemetery were completed six months after the dedication. In 1865, the foundation was set for the Soldiers' Monument, the central memorial in the cemetery that was not completed until 1869. Sculptor Randolph Rogers' fine marble statues sit at four corners of the monument with the genius of Liberty standing on the top pedestal, overlooking the graves of the Union soldiers whose lives ended on the battlefield of Gettysburg. Administration of the Soldiers National Cemetery was turned over to the Federal Government in 1872 and transferred to the National Park Service in 1933.

The cemetery has expanded since 1863, with additional burials of United States servicemen and women in designated sections outside of the central Civil War-section of the cemetery. The Soldiers' National Cemetery was briefly closed to new burials in the 1960's until the annex was added in 1968, an area considered large enough to accommodate the growing number of requests from veterans and families of active servicemen killed in action while serving in Vietnam. Like the original cemetery, the annex was soon filled to capacity and the cemetery officially closed to new burials in 1978.

Within the grounds of the cemetery are monuments and markers to Union artillery batteries that were posted on the hillside during the battle of Gettysburg. One of the earliest memorials at Gettysburg stands at the Minnesota section- a memorial urn erected through donations made by family members and officials in Minnesota between 1865 and 1869. The only statue to an individual in the cemetery is to General John F. Reynolds (1871), located near the North Gate of the cemetery. The New York State Monument is also located in the cemetery. Dedicated on July 2, 1893, the monument overlooks the New York section of the cemetery. 979 New Yorkers were killed at Gettysburg, more than any other northern state. The state of Kentucky also has a marker in the cemetery located on the upper drive and adjacent to the Solders Monument with the text of the Gettysburg Address. Dedicated in 1975, Kentucky placed the marker at Gettysburg to honor native son Abraham Lincoln and the address he gave at the dedication ceremony on November 19, 1863. One of the more unique monuments in the park is the Lincoln Speech Memorial (1912) that stands near the southern gate of the cemetery. The remarkable monument bears the likeness of Abraham Lincoln and is a monument to the Gettysburg Address- the only monument in the nation dedicated to a speech and not the person who gave it.

 

The National Cemetery Annex, located at the northern end of the Soldiers' National Cemetery, was improved through a generous donation provided by the Freemasons in 1993. At the center of the annex is a plaza that honors the dead of all American wars and the "Friend To Friend" Memorial, which depicts the encounter of Union Captain Henry Bingham with Confederate General Lewis Armistead at Gettysburg. Sculpted by artist Ron Tunison, the memorial was dedicated in November 1993.

There is one Medal of Honor recipient interred at Gettysburg. Captain William E. Miller, who served in the 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry, received the medal for his actions in the cavalry battle east of Gettysburg on July 3, 1863: "Without orders, (Captain Miller) led a charge of his squadron upon the flank of the enemy, checked his attack and cut off and dispersed the rear of his column."

The dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery at Gettysburg was officially recognized as "Dedication Day" by the United States Congress in 1946 and been observed every year since. Likewise, Memorial Day is also observed at Gettysburg annually with ceremonies and a traditional placing of flowers on the graves by local school children.

Text by John Heiser, Gettysburg National Military Park
August 2013

Did You Know?

The Leister House in 1863. (Library of Congress)

The tiny home of widow Lydia Leister was used by Union General George G. Meade for his headquarters during the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863.