Three weeks after the battle of Gettysburg, when photographer Frank Gutekunst took this picture of the Evergreen Cemetery’s gatehouse the people of Gettysburg were still feeling the devastating effects of the battle. Although the Union troops had effectively repelled Confederate forces from the small Pennsylvania town, the remnants of death and destruction remained. And while the armies returned to Virginia, the task of cleaning up the mess left behind fell to the citizens of Gettysburg. Thousands lay dead across the battlefield; still more remained behind because their injuries proved too severe for travel.
At the time of the battle, the population of Gettysburg numbered approximately 2,400 people. This represents roughly a quarter of the number of soldiers who were killed during the battle. With more corpses than citizens, the townspeople had the arduous task of recovering and burying the bodies in order to minimize the impact that thousands of decaying bodies would have on the air in the days following the battle.
In addition to the loss of life, the surrounding field and ground were devastated by the impact of the battle. Farmland turned to fields strewn with bodies; of the landscape was further scarred by earthworks It would take months before the landscape would recover from the devastating battle, and even then its recovery was only somewhat complete. From that point on, the town would forever be equated with the battle that had occurred in the surrounding farmland, and forever associated with the horrors of civil war.
When Gutekunst captured this image, he also captured to some extent a portion of the devastation that had come to town. One need only look at the ground in front of the gate to see that even hallowed ground was not spared from the ravages of war. Gutekunst’s photograph captures a solitary structure standing amid devastation and turmoil. When viewing this photo one gets the distinct impression that Gutekunst wanted to convey that in the midst of devastation and destruction death, as symbolized by the cemetery gatehouse, an ever-looming presence.
In the weeks following the battle the townspeople desperately attempted to clear the bodies from the field. This resulted in hundreds of bodies dumped into shallow graves and quickly covered up so that other bodies could be attended to in a similar fashion. However, while soldiers were seemingly put into unmarked graves in the months following the battle, many soldiers would find their actual final resting in the new Soldiers’ National Cemetery created adjacent to Evergreen cemetery.
Upon seeing the way in which the dead were being handled and treated, Pennsylvania Governor, Andrew Curtin (who was in town helping to care for sick and wounded before being called back to the state capitol in Harrisburg), expressed his desire to see the Union dead laid to rest in an area specifically set aside as a place to honor the sacrifice they had made. Leaving the task to local attorney David Wills, the Governor soon had his wish as seventeen acres on Cemetery Hill were purchased for creation of a cemetery honoring all who had lost their lives for the Union cause in the three devastating days of July.
In the months after this photograph was taken, the land surrounding the gate and encompassed by the cemetery would be further disturbed as thousands of Union dead were exhumed and reburied in their final resting place. The gatehouse that Gutekunst captured in his photo has come to represent a variety of emotions for individuals. To some the gatehouse is a reminder of the proverbial gate that so many passed through as they were struck down on the field of battle. For others the gatehouse represents a sense of resilience, as the gatehouse much like the Union cause saw much devastation yet remained standing.
Maintained today by the Evergreen Cemetery Association, the gatehouse continues to be one of the primary entrances into the cemetery. While Evergreen Cemetery is often overshadowed by its very public neighbor, the Soldiers’ National Cemetery (which is currently maintained by the National Park Service) the gatehouse and the cemetery remind visitors and townspeople that life in town existed before the battle and continued after it. Although thousands died during those three days in July life as the town knew it continued, people continued to live and die outside of the constructs of war.
At the time he took this photograph Gutekunst had no way of knowing just how significant the land adjacent to Evergreen Cemetery would become in the annals of American history. In his remarks at the dedication of what would become the National Cemetery President Abraham Lincoln eloquently captured the feelings of a grieving nation, expressing the pain of so heavy a loss, but also the determination that the cause for which so many had died would live on. Although he could not have anticipated the remarks made by the President, or indeed even the extent to which the cemetery would become part of our national culture, the image captured by Gutekunst serves as a poignant reminder of the horrors of war as well as a memorial to those “who here gave their lives that that nation might live.”