David Wills | Pennsylvania Civil War 150
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Pennsylvania Civil War 150

Pennsylvania Civil War 150

Civilians

David Wills

He provided a final resting place for Union soldiers. And incidentally, a nice spot for a speech.

In the days after the Confederate Army retreated from the North in July 1863, civilians labored to bury thousands of soldiers lying dead in towns and hillsides across south-central Pennsylvania. It was an enormous task, and most of the bodies ended up in shallow mass graves. Soon enough, though, the challenge of proper burial dovetailed with the Union's desire to honor the fallen.

Gettysburg attorney David Wills, whose home had become the center for the emergency cleanup, oversaw the purchase of 17 acres of battlefield for a Union cemetery. The government contracted with a local farmer to disinter the more than 3,500 fallen Union soldiers buried elsewhere. African-American laborers including Basil Biggs, reportedly an agent on the Underground Railroad, were hired to move the dead from cemeteries around the region to Gettysburg.

This was the first national cemetery: Soldiers National Cemetery. Soon after the reburials had begun, Wills organized a dedication. He sent invitations to dignitaries and asked Edward Everett, a dedicated Unionist and orator, to be the keynote speaker.

Almost as an afterthought, Wills sent an invitation to President Lincoln, requesting that he provide "a few appropriate remarks." To his surprise, the president agreed to attend.

On the eve of the November 19, 1863 dedication ceremony, nearly 40 guests filled Wills' house. President Lincoln was among them, and it is there that he stayed the night, putting the finishing touches on his remarks that we now know as the Gettysburg Address.

Image courtesy of Nicole DeSantis

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