Following the Battle of Gettysburg in July, Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin had directed Gettysburg attorney David Wills to purchase 17 acres of the battlefield to develop a burial site for the fallen Federal soldiers. The land was adjacent to the Evergreen Cemetery already on Cemetery Hill.
Wills hired landscape artist William Saunders, who designed the cemetery so that each state had its own section, and each section led to the center point. Wills informed Curtin 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.”
Officials were still transferring the 3,500 fallen soldiers to their final resting places when they scheduled a dedication for this new national cemetery for October 23. Wills wrote Edward Everett, a nationally recognized orator and a former Harvard College president, Massachusetts governor, U.S. senator, foreign ambassador, and secretary of state: “The burial ground will be consecrated to this sacred and holy purpose on Thursday, the 23rd day of October next, with appropriate ceremonies, and the several States interested, have united in the selection of you to deliver the oration on that solemn occasion.”
Everett tentatively accepted, writing, “It is, however wholly out of my power to make the requisite preparation by the 23rd of October.” In fact, he doubted that “during the whole month of October, I shall have a day at my command.” Factoring in speech preparation and travel time, “I cannot safely name an earlier time than the 19th of November.” Due to Everett’s fame, Wills accommodated his schedule and changed the ceremony date to the 19th.
As officials transferred the bodies to the new grounds, Wills and the organizing committee worked to enlist others to participate, including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, and William Cullen Bryant. Some committee members pushed for inviting President Abraham Lincoln to the ceremony, while others questioned “his ability to speak upon such a grave and solemn occasion.” They finally agreed to invite the president less than three weeks before the event, in a letter written by Wills:
“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.”
Wills attached a personal message to the formal invitation: “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.”
The committee chose Ward Hill Lamon, Lincoln’s close friend and bodyguard, to be the grand marshal of the ceremony procession, largely to entice Lincoln into attending. Despite the short notice, Lincoln accepted both invitations.
- Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, (Kindle Edition), 2011.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York: Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (Kindle Edition), 2011.
- Hoffsommer, Richard D. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.