ECW Weekender: Remembrance Day at Gettysburg

There is always a lot to see and do when visiting the battlefield and town of Gettysburg. Most visitors head to the well-known and oft visited locations of Little Round Top, Cemetery Ridge, and the fields of Pickett’s Charge. Some will stop for a look at impressively large and symbolically laden state memorials such as those from Pennsylvania, Virginia, and North Carolina. Perhaps the most important place to visit is one that is not a deal-breaker for those running short on time, the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. It is here that the Federal dead who “gave their last full measure of devotion” rest and where Lincoln recommitted the northern populace and Federal government to the war effort. Every year in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the annual Remembrance Day Parade, luminary, and ceremony reflect and honor the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery and President Lincoln’s “few, appropriate marks.” In that spirit, take a weekend trip to Gettysburg and walk in Lincoln’s footsteps.

Although it will not take an entire weekend, following in Lincoln’s footsteps during your visit will give you an opportunity to not only further understand Lincoln’s time in Gettysburg, but also a chance to see a lot of historic structures and sights associated with it that few stop to see today. Begin your exploration at 35 Carlisle Street, the Gettysburg Lincoln Railroad Station. Parking is available in a paid deck nearby or metered street parking just in front of the building. The building has a different day and time schedule for open hours depending on the time of year so make sure to check their website before heading there.

A circa 2006 photograph of the Gettysburg Lincoln Railroad Station. Historical paint analysis has led to the restored building being repainted several different color schemes over the past decade. (Image courtesy of the author)

After an early departure from Washington, DC, President Lincoln, his secretaries, and numerous others in his party, as well as dignitaries to the dedication ceremony, arrived in Gettysburg in the evening of November 18, 1863. Nearing 6:00 pm, the train came to a halt at the platform and droves of visitors awaited the President to disembark from the car. Waiting closest on the platform was David Wills, the Gettysburg attorney that had invited Lincoln and had been the number one point-man on the cemetery project since it’s inception. With Wills was the dedication ceremony’s main speaker, Edward Everett. Wills had opened his home to both Lincoln and Everett, and an additional thirty-plus guests that he had also offered to stay with his family during the dedication activities. Lincoln, Wills, Everett, and other dignitaries were then escorted from the station by the Invalid Corps several blocks south to the home of David Wills.

I suggest keeping your car parked and just walking to the home of Wills, located in the town center, or Diamond on the southeast corner. The home, recently acquired and restored by the National Park Service is a self-guided museum that also includs recreated rooms such as Wills’ law office, and the room where Lincoln stayed during his visit. There is an entrance fee but it is worth the cost to be able to follow Lincoln to his “headquarters” during his stay in Gettysburg in 1863.

Historic image of the David Wills House. (Courtesy Gettysburg National Military Park)

When Wills returned to his home with Lincoln, Everett and the others, there Mrs. Wills and the couple’s young daughters awaited their arrival. Mrs. Wills, expecting another addition to the family in just several weeks, had prepared a lavish meal for the family and all thirty-eight guests that were staying with them. The guests at dinner included: Everett, three cabinet members and three former governors, a one governor-elect, five major generals, three foreign ministers, numerous others. Following dinner and some casual discussions, Lincoln asked to be excused to his private room that had been given him by the Wills family for his stay. Later that night, Wills remembered, “between nine and ten o’clock the President sent his servant to request me to come to his room.  I went and found him with paper prepared to write, and he said that he had just seated himself to put upon paper a few thoughts for tomorrow’s exercises, and had sent for me to ascertain what part he was to take in them, and what was expected of him.  After a full talk on the subject, I left him.”  Lincoln, following this work, left the Wills home, walked next door to the Harper house where his Secretary of State William Seward was staying, had Seward look it over, and then returned for the evening to settle in for some much-need rest.

At this point you could either return to your vehicle and drive to our next stop, or continue walking several more blocks southward along Baltimore Street to the Gettysburg Presbyterian Church.

The “Hero of Gettysburg,” John Burns. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

After the procession to the dedication ceremony on November 19, 1863, and the ceremony itself, the crowd dispersed and Lincoln and the other guests of Wills returned back to the residence. Another lavish meal awaited them, in addition to the “Hero of Gettysburg,” John Burns. The aged town constable had fought with Federal soldiers west of Gettysburg on July 1 and had been wounded several times. His actions had earned him notoriety across the north and was one person that Lincoln had to meet while in Gettysburg. They would take their meeting “on the road” as they walked to the Presbyterian Church to attend a Republican political rally from the state of Ohio. Lieutenant-Governor-elect of Ohio, Charles Anderson, brother of Maj. Robert Anderson of Fort Sumter fame, was the main orator for the gathering, and as one eyewitness noted “drowsiness claimed” John Burns and before long he “nodded and slept ‘the sleep of the just’ until the stir of the departing audience and the cheers of the crowd that had surrounded the church aroused him.”

Today, the original pew that President Lincoln and John Burns sat in is still in the church as well as the one the Eisenhowers used as well, despite major building renovations in the 1960s.  The church, with an active congregation today, has open hours in which you can go and see (and sit in!) these historic seats.

Our final stop will be at the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. You have already walked halfway there, and if feeling adventurous, can continue walking southward along Baltimore Street to the original front entrance to the cemetery along the Baltimore Pike. This is the exact route the procession took on November 19, 1863. If you do walk, as you near “Twin Oaks,” modern day Mr. G’s Ice Cream, you will notice two, massive witness trees that stood during the time of the battle and procession to the cemetery dedication. If you choose to drive, go back to your vehicle and either drive to the Taneytown Road cemetery parking lot and enter the cemetery at that entrance, or drive to street parking near the Baltimore Pike entrance. Once arrived, enter the Soldiers’ National Cemetery and head towards the center, or the large Soldiers’ National Monument.

A grave to Lewis Eggleston, soldier of the 6th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, killed at the Railroad Cut on July 1, 1863. Eggleston’s remains were later re-interred in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery from their location on the first day’s battlefield. (Image courtesy of the author)

Following the procession through town, the speakers and dignitaries for the dedication ceremony of the cemetery mounted the platform around 11:15 a.m.  The ceremony began with a musical selection, followed by an invocation given by Reverend Thomas H. Stockton, chaplain of the U. S. House of Representatives.  The New York Times wrote that the opening prayer “was touching and beautiful and produced quite as much effect upon the audience as the classic sentences of the orator of the day.” After another musical performance and the announcements of regret from those that could not attend, the main speaker, Edward Everett was introduced. His memorized oration would last 1 hour and 57 minutes. Another musical selection was performed, and then the President was introduced. Lincoln stepped forward and delivered his “few appropriate remarks,” lasting little more than two and a half minutes. A young audience member that day, Daniel Skelly, later recalled, “I was too young to judge the character of Lincoln’s brief address… but what impressed me most was its delivery.  The words seemed to come from the soul of the man, from a heart torn by anguish.  He spoke in a quiet, forcible, and earnest manner with no attempt at oratory….and the scene with all its accompaniments marked itself so unmistakenly on my mind that I have never forgotten it.”

I hope you enjoyed this weekender and take the time to visit these sites and this story on your next trip to Gettysburg!


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