November 2, 1863 (Monday)
Shortly following the battle of Gettysburg, Governor Andrew Curtain of Pennsylvania ventured to the battlefield. By the time he arrived, the armies had passed on, leaving their dead and wounded behind them. Those who still clung to life or were in a state of convalescence were sheltered in Camp Letterman, east of town. He, like anyone might be, was moved and wished to do something to commemorate the Union dead. Before returning to his duties in Harrisburg, Governor Curtain appointed David Wills, a Gettysburg lawyer, with the task of seeing what he could do.
Wills, in his walks of the fields and hills that had, until July, been peaceful and beautiful, witnessed macabre displays of bodies half buried in hastily dug graves. What organization there existed would soon be lost to the ravages of weather and time. So that these men who fought would not be forgotten, he took it upon himself to come up with a plan to gather the remains in one place.
On July 24, not even three weeks after Longstreet’s disastrous charge, Wills submitted to Gov. Curtain a proposal to construct a cemetery on the battlefield itself. Curtain immediately approved the idea, and Wills set about contacting the governors of the other Union states, and trying to acquire land. He suggested a large tract on the east side of the Baltimore Turnpike, opposite the Evergreen Cemetery.
At the same time, rival Gettysburg lawyer and president of the Evergreen Cemetery, David McConaughy, began buying up battlefield land. Even before Lee’s invasion of the north, McConaughy wanted to establish some sort of soldiers cemetery in Gettysburg. His efforts before the battle allowed him to purchase not only land adjacent to the Evergreen Cemetery, but plots along Culp’s Hill and Little Round Top.
The day after Wills wrote the Governor about the idea for the cemetery, McConaughy wrote the Governor about his recent purchases of “the more interesting portions of this illustrious Battlefield,” and wished to sell them to the state. Specifically, the soldiers’ cemetery would be part of Evergreen Cemetery, and a “a noble National Monument in memory of the battles and the dead” would there be erected. Curtain seemed sure to bite until Wills wrote telling him that the other state governors wanted land independent of the town’s Evergreen Cemetery.
Wanting badly to make a bit of coin on the side, by August 5th, McConaughy suggested that he might be willing to sell the land adjacent to the Evergreen Cemetery (the Cemetery in Cemetery Hill) to the state. There was, however, a catch. “To enhance the interest of our grounds with the glorious memories of these Battles, and the ashes of the heroic dead,” McConaughy stipulated that no wall should be built to separate the soldiers’ cemetery from Evergreen.
For this, David Wills could not stand, and he threatened to move the cemetery to some other location. Fearing that it would be moved too far away from Evergreen, the cemetery board and other prominent Gettysburg citizens went over and around McConaughy’s head and about the 17th of August, agreed to sell the adjacent land without any restrictions.
This put McConaughy into a sour mood, which was only lifted when he figured out that he owned what was soon to be some of the most historic land in America. He quickly formed the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association, and sold shares at ten dollars a piece. Soon, his venture would overshadow the cemetery, but that is a story for another time.
After McConaughy was out of the picture and the land secured, Davis Wills enlisted architect William Saunders to design the cemetery. It was decided, as Wills wrote the Governor on August 17th, that “it would be showing only a proper respect for the health of this community not to commence the exhuming of the dead, and the removal to the Cemetery, until the month of November; and in the meantime the grounds should be artistically laid out, and consecrated by appropriate ceremonies.”
While Saunders the architect handled the artistry, Wills took charge of the “appropriate ceremonies.” On September 23, he wrote to Edward Everett, one of the most famous men in the country. Everett had been a pastor, a senator, the governor of Massachusetts, ambassador to England, Secretary of State, had run against Lincoln (for the Vice Presidential seat) in the 1860 election, and most recently was a lecturer and supporter of the administration. After explaining that there would be a cemetery at Gettysburg, he popped the question.
“The burial ground will be consecrated to this sacred and holy purpose on Thursday, the 23rd day of October next, with appropriate ceremonies,” wrote Wills to Everett, “and the several States interested, have united in the selection of you to deliver the oration on that solemn occasion.”
Everett replied three days later, accepting the invitation. “It is,” he wrote, “however wholly out of my power to make the requisite preparation by the 23rd of October.” He very much doubted that “during the whole month of October, I shall have a day at my command.” After noting just how long it would take him to travel to Gettysburg, he concluded that “I cannot safely name an earlier time than the 19th of November.”
Wills knew that Edward Everett would be the big draw, and changed the date from October 23rd to the requested November 19th.
The architect William Saunders worked quickly and by October 17th, the bodies of Union soldiers were being removed from their battlefield graves and taken to the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. With the ceremonies fast approaching, Wills also selected bands and ministers to play and give prayers, he even asked Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to compose and read a poem. Invitations went out to William Cullen Bryant and John Greenleaf Whittier, but also he wanted President Lincoln to be there.
Governor Curtain probably talked to Lincoln about it in October. By the time the remains were being reinterred, Wills was telling everyone that both Edward Everett and the President would be there. No formal invitation was sent to Lincoln until this date.
He gave Lincoln the back story, much like he did for Everett, and then invited the President to speak:
“It is the desire that, after the Oration, you, as Chief Executive of the Nation, formally set apart these grounds to their Sacred use by a few appropriate remarks. It will be a source of great gratification to the many widows and orphans that have been made almost friendless by the Great Battle here, to have you here personally; and it will kindle anew in the breasts of the Comrades of these brave dead, who are now in the tented field or nobly meeting the foe in the front, a confidence that they who sleep in death on the Battle Field are not forgotten by those highest in Authority; and they will feel that, should their fate be the same, their remains will not be uncared for.”
In an attached letter written the same day, Wills offered his home to the President: “As the Hotels in our town will be crowded and in confusion at the time referred to in the enclosed invitation, I write to invite you to stop with me. I hope you will feel it your duty to lay aside pressing business for a day to come on here to perform this last sad rite to our brave soldier dead on the 19th instant.”
Lincoln would go on to accept both invitations.1
- Sources: Revised Report of the Select Committee Relative to the Soldiers’ National Cemetery Published by Singerly & Myers, 1865 – I actually have this book in my collection. It’s not in the best shape, but not bad for being printed in 1865. Gettysburg, Memory, Market, and An American Shrine by Jim Weeks; This is Holy Ground by Barbara L. Platt; The Gettysburg Gospel by Gabor Boritt. [↩]