The home of Gettysburg attorney David Wills was the center of the immense clean-up process after the Battle of Gettysburg and where President Lincoln put the finishing touches on his Gettysburg Address, the speech that transformed Gettysburg from a place of death and devastation to the symbol of our nation's "new birth of freedom."
In honor of Abraham Lincoln's 200th birthday on February 12, 2009, the David Wills House opened to the public, offering visitors a world-class museum experience that tells the story of Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address. The museum features six galleries, including two rooms that have been restored to their 1863 appearance: Wills' office, where he received letters from families looking for loved ones after the battle and began planning for a cemetery and its dedication; and the bedroom where Lincoln stayed and prepared the Gettysburg Address.
The David Wills StoryWills attended Pennsylvania (now Gettysburg) College, and by 1854 was an attorney and superintendent of Adams County’s schools. Two years later he married Catherine Jane “Jennie” Smyser, and by the summer of 1863 had three children. Wills achieved a variety of accomplishments, such as being appointed president of the Gettysburg Borough Council in 1872, and becoming an Adams County Judge two years later. He also served on numerous boards of directors, including that of the Bank of Gettysburg and the Gettysburg Railroad Company.
The Civil War came to the doorstep of the Wills home in 1863. Confederate soldiers first came to Gettysburg in search of supplies on June 26. During the Confederate occupation of the town, Wills saw, “a group of rebels with an axe break open the store door,” of one of his tenants. Local citizens huddled in his cellar. After the battle the Wills home filled quickly with wounded and dying soldiers. Local women acting as nurses tended to these men, and the U.S. Sanitary Commission (an early version of the American Red Cross) established a temporary warehouse here. The U.S. Provost Marshall used the home as headquarters, and Gettysburg’s leading citizens met here to make plans for proper burial of the dead.
The President in GettysburgAs many as 20,000 people converged upon Gettysburg to attend the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery and to catch a glimpse of visiting dignitaries.
November 18, 1863: President Lincoln arrived in Gettysburg on the evening of November 18 and was escorted to the Wills home. The galleries on the second floor follow the events of Lincoln’s visit through his immortal address on November 19. You will hear the story of how Gettysburg managed the vast number of visitors and how David and Catherine accomodated the distinguished guests who spent the night at their home. You will stand in the bedroom where Lincoln finished revising the Gettysburg Address and learn why this speech continues to endure.
November 19, 1863: By 10 a.m. dignitaries were assembled outside of the Wills home for the procession to the new Soldiers’ National Cemetery. The ceremony began with music and an invocation. Edward Everett’s two-hour oration was followed by a funeral dirge, and then the President arose to deliver his, “few appropriate remarks.” He spoke for about two minutes. The brevity of Lincoln’s speech surprised many, but his words were long remembered.
As the death toll mounted during the first two years of the war, many wondered whether any cause was worth the awful price. The Gettysburg Address was Lincoln’s effort to define and defend the war’s objectives and the need to see them through — whatever the cost. The war, he said, was a test of whether a nation, “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” could survive and remain true to its founding ideals.
Last updated: November 23, 2021