Over 7,000 soldiers died in Gettysburg at the Civil War battle that lasted from July 1st to July 3rd in 1863. While the Confederates under General Robert E. Lee retreated in the pouring rain on July 4th, some Southerners stayed to bury a small portion of their dead. The rest of the fallen were left for Union soldiers and Gettysburg citizens, who had their hands full caring for the wounded, to bury.
There was little time. Over 5,000 shallow graves were dug along fences, in the Wheatfield, beside the Peach Orchard, on Culp’s Hill, in the fields of Cemetery Ridge and other battle locations.
Gettysburg attorney David Wills wanted to purchase land for a national cemetery as a burial place for those killed in the battle. He requested approval from Pennsylvania Governor Curtin, who granted it. Curtin also requested that Wills write the other 17 Union state governors. Fifteen approved the plan.
Wills bought 17 acres next to the town’s cemetery. A monument was to be erected in the center of a semi-circle of graves. There are 22 sections: 3 sections for unidentified soldiers; 1 for regular army soldiers; and the remaining 18 sections were for the 18 individual Union states’ soldiers.
About 25% of the soldiers were from New York, so that state has the largest section.
They began transferring bodies to the new cemetery on October 27, 1863. Only 50 – 60 were reburied on a daily basis.
Wills wanted to dedicate the new national cemetery in a ceremony. Edward Everett, a well-known orator of the day, was invited as the main speaker. President Lincoln and his Cabinet received invitations. Some notable Union generals were also invited.
President Lincoln accepted. Wills then invited him to make “a few appropriate remarks” at the November 19th dedication ceremony.
History has overshadowed the gifted Everett’s two-hour speech for Lincoln’s two-minute Gettysburg Address.
No one predicted just how much Lincoln’s “few appropriate remarks” would inspire a nation—even today—and deliver a message the people attending desperately needed to hear.
-Sandra Merville Hart
Carmichael, Orton H. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, The Abingdon Press, 1917.
Gramm, Kent. November: Lincoln’s Elegy at Gettysburg, Indiana University Press, 2001.
Klement, Frank L. The Gettysburg Soldiers’ Cemetery and Lincoln’s Address, White Main Publishing Company, Inc., 1993.
Sheldon, George. When the Smoke Cleared at Gettysburg: The Tragic Aftermath of the Bloodiest Battle of the Civil War, Cumberland House, 2003.