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Civil War Era National Cemeteries: Honoring Those Who Served
Gettysburg National Cemetery is the final resting place for more than 3,500 Union soldiers killed in the Battle of Gettysburg, a Union victory often cited as a turning point in the Civil War. Numerous monuments stand in both the cemetery and battlefield to commemorate the Union and Confederate troops who fought there. At the cemetery’s dedication on November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln rose to deliver “a few appropriate remarks,” now known as the Gettysburg Address. His two-minute speech served as a reminder of the sacrifices of war and the necessity of holding the Union together. Today, the battlefield and national cemetery form the Gettysburg National Military Park, a National Park Service unit dedicated to preserving and interpreting the battle, its aftermath, and the repercussions of Lincoln’s famous words. A visitors center and museum offer tours and auto, cycling, and hiking paths to park guests. The Gettysburg National Cemetery is one of 14 national cemeteries managed by the National Park Service.
In June 1863, Confederate forces under the command of Robert E. Lee pushed into Union territory. The Confederacy hoped that by bringing the war into the northern states, northern politicians would abandon the war and normalize the South’s secession. Union forces responded to the invading army, culminating in a confrontation near the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
For three days, more than 150,000 soldiers clashed in a series of Confederate assaults and Union defenses. On the third day of the battle, Lee ordered an assault on the Union’s center, a move now known as Pickett’s Charge. More than 12,500 Confederate soldiers marched on the Union position, coming under intense artillery fire. Union guns decimated the attacking Confederates, injuring or killing nearly 50 percent of the approaching brigades. The charge’s strategic failure and loss of men forced Lee into retreat. Three days of fighting at Gettysburg took a horrible toll on both sides, 10,000 soldiers killed or mortally wounded, 30,000 injured, and 10,000 captured or missing.
With the support of the Pennsylvania Governor, a committee formed to select an appropriate site for the cemetery and oversee the interment of Union remains. The site chosen encompassed the hill from which the Union center repulsed Pickett’s Charge. State-appropriated funds purchased the property, and the reburial process began four months after the battle on October 27, 1863.
Confederate burials did not receive placement in the national cemetery. Efforts in the 1870s by Southern veterans' societies eventually relocated 3,200 Confederate remains to cemeteries in Virginia, Georgia, and the Carolinas, such as Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. A few Confederates do remain interred at Gettysburg National Cemetery.
A few weeks after the burial process started, a dedication ceremony was held at the yet to be completed Soldiers' National Cemetery. The cemetery committee chose Massachusetts statesman and orator Edward Everett to deliver the main speech. The committee asked President Abraham Lincoln to deliver “a few appropriate remarks.” At the November 19 ceremony, Everett spoke for two hours on the causes of war and the events that led to the Battle of Gettysburg. After his remarks, Lincoln rose and spoke for two minutes; his brief speech today is known as the “Gettysburg Address.” His speech honored the brave men who fought and invoked their sacrifice as a cause to continue fighting for the preservation of the nation.
Landscape architect William Saunders designed the cemetery as a wide semi-circle, radiating from a central point to be decorated with a grand monument. The cemetery’s sections were divided by state; smaller states closest to the monument and larger states along the outer portions. Reinterments continued through March 1864.
By 1872, construction of the cemetery was complete, and administration of the national cemetery transferred to the Federal Government. In 1879, the cemetery erected a rostrum near the Taneytown Road entrance. While far from the site where Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, the brick rostrum served as a platform for other presidents attending memorial ceremonies at Gettysburg, including Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Between 1898 and 1968, the government added sections to accommodate the graves of veterans from the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. The cemetery’s annex is located due north of the historic original 17-acre property. Today, more than 6,000 veterans lay at rest in the national cemetery.