Our National Cemeteries: Gettysburg National Cemetery

Emerging Civil War is pleased to welcome back Brad Gottfried, author of the ECW Series book Lincoln Comes to Gettysburg: The Creation of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

Congress approved the authority to create national cemeteries on July 17, 1862, and there were twelve by the end of that year. Today there are 148 national cemeteries in 42 states administered by the Veterans Administration. Two others, Arlington and the Soldiers’ and Airman’s, are administered by the Army, and the remaining 14, usually associated with battlefields and historic sites, are maintained by the National Park Service. Gettysburg’s National Cemetery falls into the latter category.

That’s a total of 164 national cemeteries. While several were created before the Gettysburg Soldiers National Cemetery, none were as large or as well-conceived. My book, Lincoln Comes to Gettysburg, written with my wife, Linda, was published as part of the Emerging Civil War Series in 2021. It begins with a recounting of difficulties encountered in creating the cemetery. Eighteen states whose men participated in the battle were involved in the design and funding of the enterprise. It is a wonder that given so many folks around the table that all could finally agree on the seminal features of the cemetery.

New York monument in Gettysburg National Cemetery

David Wills, who represented Pennsylvania on the committee, was fortunate to borrow William Saunders, from the Department of Agriculture to design the cemetery. Saunders had a vision for the cemetery that required more land than originally purchased by the State of Pennsylvania. He later explained his approach to designing the final resting place for so many young men: “The prevailing expression of the Cemetery should be that of simple grandeur. Simplicity is that element of beauty in a scene that leads gradually from one object to another, in easy harmony, avoiding abrupt contrasts and unexpected features.”

The arrangement of the graves was the subject of considerable debate, but in the end, Saunders designed the final resting places of the approximately 3,500 Gettysburg dead using a semi-circle design grouped by state. Grouping by state was used by several subsequent national cemeteries, including the Antietam National Cemetery. One design element not copied by others was the use of flat stone plates to mark the graves, rather than distinct headstones. Other graves in the cemetery use the more traditional approach. In all, the cemetery contains the graves of about 6,000 soldiers and their significant others.

Saunders was first and foremost a horticulturalist, and this certainly showed in his design. “The disposition of trees and shrubs is such as will ultimately produce a considerable degree of landscape effect. Ample spaces of lawn are provided; these will form vistas, as seen from the drive, showing the monument and other prominent points.” Saunders understood the disruptive nature of roads and paths, so he kept these to a minimum, noting “roads and walks are exclusively objects of utility; their introduction can only be justified by direct necessity.”

Another distinction of the cemetery was that it was the first to be formally dedicated by a large “event of the century” ceremony. To achieve that distinction, it required the presence of President Abraham Lincoln and world-renowned orator Edward Everett.

If the trials of tribulations leading to the cemetery’s birth can be called the “Second Battle of Gettysburg,” its dedication and Lincoln’s visit are fraught with mysteries. These include: when Lincoln actually decided to attend the dedication, where he actually wrote his immortal address, where on the battlefield he visited prior to the dedication, the horse he rode, the location of the speakers’ platform, whether he read his speech and his affect during it, whether the audience applauded, and whether he was showing signs of smallpox during his visit. My wife and I had fun trying to piece the story together as we prepared the book.

I encourage all of you to visit the cemetery. The site, so seeped in history, provides a peaceful and sobering experience, where so many of our young men who gave their last full measure, are resting.

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