Something Must Be Done: The Construction and Dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg

By Hannah Christensen ’17

Not only did the armies leave something of a state of chaos behind them after the battle of Gettysburg; they also left their dead buried poorly almost everywhere. Within days, the combination of rain and pigs rooting around the battlefield had exposed multiple skeletons and partially-decomposed bodies. The smell was horrendous, and residents and visitors alike were shocked by the state of the burials.

Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin was among these visitors. After seeing the state of affairs during his tour of the battlefield on July 10th, Curtin appointed local attorney David Wills to act as his “agent” in affairs related to Pennsylvania’s dead. As agent, Wills did everything from helping families locate loved ones’ bodies to disinterring and sending those remains home. This process was made more complicated by the fact that those grave markers that existed were only partially legible, if at all.

Wills also got to know other state agents, including William Yates Selleck of Wisconsin and Henry Edwards of Massachusetts. It was Edwards and Massachusetts officials who brought up the idea of purchasing part of the battlefield to turn into a cemetery. Wills also got the head of the Christian Commission of Pennsylvania, Andrew B. Cross, in on the idea. When Wills wrote to Governor Curtin about it on July 24th, the governor quickly authorized him to get to work. Continue reading “Something Must Be Done: The Construction and Dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg”

The Legacy of Battle: Pennsylvania College in the Post-Civil War Era

By Meg Sutter ’16

For Parts 1 and 2 of this three-part series, see “The Calm Before the Storm: Pennsylvania College in the Antebellum Period.” and “’We will close . . . you know nothing about the lesson anyhow’: Pennsylvania College during the War”

The war did not end with the Battle of Gettysburg, of course, and Gettysburg and Pennsylvania College were still impacted after the battle and the end of the war. In November 1863, David Wills, an 1851 graduate of Pennsylvania College, invited President Lincoln to give an address dedicating a National Cemetery to those who had died at Gettysburg giving their “last full measure of devotion.” Dr. William E. Barton in Lincoln at Gettysburg described November 18, 1863 as “Gettysburg’s greatest night . . . John Hay and other gay spirits made a festive night of it. They had an oyster supper at the college, other re-freshments elsewhere, and went abroad singing John Brown’s Body and other up-to-date music.” It is known that some of the students followed a procession up to the National Cemetery for President Lincoln’s dedication and his famous Gettysburg Address the next day. One lucky college student who witnessed the Address was Dr. P. M. Bikle, class of 1866. He claims that the college students were “tail-enders” ordered to follow at the end of the procession, but that they were pleasantly surprised when they were ordered to march to the front of the crowd and “halt directly in front of the large platform built for the speakers and other dignitaries.” He provides an accurate statement of the reaction to Lincoln’s Address: “Mr. Lincoln’s speech was simple, appropriate, and right to the point, but I don’t think there was anything remarkable about it.” Many will of course disagree with Dr. Bikle’s statements now because the Gettysburg Address further embedded the name ‘Gettysburg’ into history. Thus, a tradition was begun in which all Gettysburg College students now walk to the National Cemetery during orientation week to hear the Gettysburg Address read.

The next August, Gettysburg would once more be disturbed when Chambersburg was burned just 25 miles down the road. Many students left, but Commencement still occurred on August 11, 1864 with only two of the remaining twelve students in the senior class present. All twelve did receive their diplomas, however. Statistics show that 27 undergraduates and 27 former students of the college served during the Civil War, but this did not include the 54 who joined Company A of the 26th Pennsylvania Emergency Militia. Robert Fortenbaugh recorded the total number of former students and current students who served in the war as 950 men, both graduated and matriculated at the College. A total of 116 graduates saw service with 11 killed, six for the Union and five for the Confederacy. Three of them died at Gettysburg. Pennsylvania College was majorly impacted by low enrollment following the battle. By the Fall term of 1864 only 61 non-preparatory students enrolled compared to the average immediately before the war of about 92. Continue reading “The Legacy of Battle: Pennsylvania College in the Post-Civil War Era”

Bury Them in Peace

The creation of the Soldiers??? National Cemetery in Gettysburg was designed to honor the fallen Union soldiers of the battle with a peaceful final resting place easily accessible for visitors. This was a difficult, costly, and momentous undertaking…

This post was first published on the Civil War Institute’s previous blog901 Stories from Gettysburg.
The creation of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg was designed to honor the fallen Union soldiers of the battle with a peaceful final resting place easily accessible for visitors.  This was a difficult, costly, and momentous undertaking, but its success is as important today as as it was in 1864. While only a small percentage of the total number of visitors to Gettysburg see the National Cemetery, it is important to recognize the hard work and dedication which went into its creation. Equally as important are those who were not buried in the cemetery, those who were left buried on the field until 1871, the Confederate dead.

After the initial burials of the dead soldiers of Gettysburg in July 1863, townspeople and officials noted a few problems with the grave sites: agricultural issues because bodies were buried on working farms, visitation issues for both known and unknown soldiers, shallow graves that failed to show the respect due for men who had died for their country, and the lack of a place  for communal remembrance. As a solution, Dr. Theodor Dimon, a relief surgeon sent from New York, suggested part of the Evergreen Cemetery should be purchased and turned into a national cemetery for the interment of the Union dead, as made possible by the passage of a law in 1862 allowing the Federal government to purchase land for use as national cemeteries. David McConaughy, president of the board of directors for Evergreen Cemetery, made a similar suggestion to the state of Pennsylvania to buy plots of land and bury all of the state’s dead there. Understanding the need for reinterment, David Wills, a prominent Gettysburg attorney, spearheaded the movement to purchase the land and create a national cemetery at Gettysburg for all Union men.

Continue reading “Bury Them in Peace”