Gettysburg: Soldiers’ National Cemetery

Union Graves

Today marks the 149th Anniversary of the last day of the Battle of Gettysburg.  From 1-3 July 1863, the North and South fought here and turned a peaceful town into the site of the war’s bloodiest battle and the turning point of the American Civil War.  I briefly thought that I could turn our trip to Gettysburg National Military Park and Cemetery into one long post, I was wrong.  As we hiked, explored and listened to the stories of Gettysburg, I realized there was so much more to tell here.  The land is beautiful but I want to start with the end; the aftermath and the cemetery are my topic for today.

Soldier’s National Cemetery, now Gettysburg National Cemetery, is the United States oldest national military cemetery predating even Arlington.  The cemetery sits on Cemetery Hill and borders Evergreen Cemetery.  Evergreen Cemetery was the local Gettysburg cemetery at the time of the battle and part of a major Union artillery position during the Battle of Gettysburg.  As you walk through the National Cemetery, cannon represent Union positions during the battle.  Men fought and died on the land which became Soldiers’ National cemetery.

Cannon in the Cemetery

To better our understanding of the cemetery, we took a free guided tour offered by the Park Service.  Our Park Ranger was a seasonal Ranger.  When he’s finished teaching middle school history during the school year, he comes to work at Gettysburg to educate tourists like us during the summer–the ultimate summer job for a history buff!  The National Cemetery walk, offered daily, lasts about 40 minutes and is worth your time.  If you can’t make the talk, volunteers regularly hand out brochures describing the cemetery and its history.  While informative, the brochure is a bit dry when compared with a Ranger talk.

Our Ranger started by talking about the cemetery itself and its design.  Today, the cemetery feels more like a park than a battlefield in keeping with the design of its landscape architect William Saunders.  Trees, the majority planted after the battle and as part of a design plan, offer shade and park benches invite you to sit down and relax.  In the 19th century, cemeteries were designed to feel like parks–a place where you could go to spend the day and be with your departed loved ones at the same time.

George Nixon’s Gravesite

The Soldiers’ National Monument stands in the middle of the graves.  Saunders’ design called for the Union dead to be buried in a semi-circle spreading out from the monument.  Each state is represented by a larger headstone with its dead in identical small markers behind it.  Every effort was made to identify the soldiers, and failing that, to at least identify their home state. Unknown soldiers are located in their own section.  Some errors were made as workers disinterred thousands of soldiers from temporary graves located on and around the battlefield and then reinterred them.  Story telling and oral history are integral parts of history to me.  While oral history and first hand accounts have their limits–historians need to cross-check such material for accuracy–they do wonders for breathing life into long ago events.  Good historians and good history teachers are story tellers so are Park Rangers.  Our Ranger shared three men’s stories with us as we walked through the cemetery grounds.  He started by reading letters from a young man to his family to us.  We listened to the young soldier’s words; a mix of patriotism, fighting for a cause and mundane details filled our ears.  Hearing him ask his family to send shirts but not white ones too easily soiled and not manly enough for a soldier made us all smile.  We then walked to Amos Humiston’s grave.  Humiston’s story is one of the better known in Gettysburg.  Humiston was killed in the first day of fighting.  His body was found in town without identification and holding a picture of his three children.  The unknown soldier and his orphaned children became a cause celebrein the North.  The children’s picture spread across newspapers and turned into a national search.  Mrs. Humiston eventually saw the photograph and identified her children.  She would go on to run a Civil War orphan’s home founded in Gettysburg.  Our final gravesite was George Nixon’s.  George, married and father to nine children, signed up with the 73rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry and fought at Gettysburg.  Shot in the hip and leg during the second day’s fighting, Nixon found himself unable to move and writhing in pain in a no-man’s land on the battlefield.  Richard Enderlin, the company musician, crawled out under fire and dragged Nixon back to Union lines. Enderlin was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions. Nixon, unfortunately, would die days later in a military hospital.  George was the Great-Grandfather of US President Richard Nixon and decades later Richard Nixon would return to pay his respects.

Gettysburg Address Memorial

Lincoln, of course, is the most famous President associated with the cemetery.  His “few appropriate remarks” at the cemeteries’ dedication on 19 November 1863 have come down to us as the Gettysburg Address.  Lincoln’s words came after a 2-hour speech by Edward  Everett, a Massachusetts statesmen and the event’s main speaker.  The photographer didn’t even have time to take a picture of Lincoln while he was speaking.  Speeches at the time were supposed to last hours.  Our Ranger noted that the Lincoln-Douglas debates took hours and no one in the audience complained about being bored.  The Park Service has a copy of the dedication photo, showing Lincoln sitting down, near the site of the speech.  As you enter the cemetery, you’ll see a memorial to the Gettysburg Address.  Stop at the Lincoln Address Memorial and read Lincoln’s words–their power is undiminished.  Our Park Ranger ended the talk by rereading Lincoln’s words as will I:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

 Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead—who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

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