Civil War Journal - The Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg

Benner's HillOn November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln dedicated the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg. His address took little more than 2 minutes and, through the years, has achieved status as the most celebrated speech in American history. The nation is celebrating the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth this year.

Much has been written about Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln, the Gettysburg Address and the Soldiers’ Cemetery will forever be linked together. The least written about of the three is the cemetery Lincoln came here to dedicate. As we approach Remembrance Day, there is no more appropriate time to write about the Soldiers’ Cemetery.

The Soldiers’ Cemetery was established as a final resting place for more than 3,500 Union soldiers who lost their lives at Gettysburg. David Wills, a local Gettysburg attorney, was appointed by Andrew Curtin, the governor of Pennsylvania, to purchase suitable ground for a cemetery, develop a plan for internment of the Union dead, and interact with the 17 other northern state governors who would participate in the process. Wills originally planned to have the Union dead buried randomly as they were re-interred in the new cemetery. Massachusetts, one of the Northern states that suffered casualties at Gettysburg, raised concerns over this plan and, as a result, the final plan adopted gave each state its own separate plot. Although not intended or foreseen, the plan had an unfortunate flaw. As soldiers were reburied, those who could be identified by name but not by state would tragically be interred in the “unknown section” of the cemetery.

The Union dead were re-buried in wood coffins placed in long, semi-circular 3-foot-deep trenches. Of the 3,512 burials, 979 were completely unknown and 1,664 were partially unknown.

Today, the Soldiers’ National Cemetery is a beautiful place to visit, with its neatly kept grounds, mature trees, memorials, plaques and artillery pieces that date from the Civil War. The cannons remind us the cemetery grounds were once part of the battlefield within the Union lines on Cemetery Hill. The memorials and plaques help define, illuminate and bring meaning to the events which occurred here. Some of the more noteworthy memorials and monuments in the cemetery include:

Speaker’s Rostrum
The red brick rostrum was erected in 1879 for use during memorial services. A number of American presidents have spoken from the rostrum or sat upon it during memorial services, including Rutherford B. Hayes, Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Lincoln Speech Memorial
This handsome memorial was erected in 1912 to commemorate the Gettysburg Address. The memorial does not mark the location where Lincoln gave the speech, but rather commemorates the speech itself. Etched on bronze panels on the face of the monument are the words of the Gettysburg Address and the personal letter of invitation to the president from David Wills.

The Bivouac of the Dead
This poem was written by Theodore O’Hara to commemorate American soldiers killed during the Mexican War
at the Battle of Buena Vista in 1847. Iron plaques along the walkways contain stanzas of the solemn poem.

Soldiers’ National Monument
Completed in 1869, this tall and impressive monument is located at the center of the semi-circular burial plots for the Union dead. Four marble statues are situated along the base of the monument. The statues represent Ceres, the goddess of plenty; Clio, symbolizing history; and two male statues which symbolize war and peace respectively. Atop the monument is a statue named The Genius of Liberty, affectionately referred to as Liberty.

The Site Where the Gettysburg Address Was Given
Today, the best available evidence—including photographic evidence—indicates the speaker’s platform stood 25 to 30 yards east of the Soldiers’ National Monument, just over the iron fence, inside Evergreen Cemetery. The site is not marked.

The most moving and important aspect of a visit to Soldiers’ National Cemetery is the opportunity to walk among the graves of the soldiers. Stopping here and there along the way to read some of the names of the soldiers is all you need to ponder what happened here in 1863. In a real sense, an emotional, spiritual bond is established with the soldiers as we feel a part of them and feel them with us. All of a sudden, 146 years peel away, and we feel as one with the soldiers as if they were family. They are family. Soldiers always pay the cost of freedom, and it is worthwhile to think on this for a few moments more as you walk through the cemetery. Consider visiting the cemetery during Remembrance Week or when the luminary display takes place in the cemetery. A lit candle is placed at the grave of each of the 3,512 Union soldiers in honor of their sacrifice.

I would like to leave you with my favorite quote from a soldier’s tombstone from long ago:
When you go home tell them of us and say for their tomorrow we gave our today

By Tony DeLacy

Tony DeLacy serves as a licensed battlefield guide at Gettysburg. These guides are independent contractors licensed and supervised by the National Park Service as historical interpreters of the Battle of Gettysburg. To book a battlefield tour, call the Gettysburg Foundation at 877-874-2478 or 717-334-2436.

Return to Archived Civil War Journal