On November 19, 1863, thousands gathered in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to dedicate the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. Illinois played what was, in a sense, an outsized role in the creation of what became one of the most famous cemeteries in America.
A cemetery is planned
On August 1, 1863, David Wills, acting for Pennsylvania governor Andrew G. Curtin, wrote to governors of states represented in the fighting at Gettysburg (including Richard Yates of Illinois) to encourage their cooperation in creating a cemetery for the battle’s loyal dead. Pennsylvania had purchased land near the center of the battlefield and hoped to work quickly “as the bodies of our soldiers are, in many cases, so exposed as to require prompt attention.”
Preliminary work moved quickly. Plans were developed for landscaping the grounds, interring the dead in lots laid out state-by-state, permanently marking the graves, and creating a “suitable monument” honoring the dead. The costs were to be assessed to the individual states based upon population as indicated by their representation in Congress. Illinois was the fourth most populous of the states honoring the dead at Gettysburg.
The cemetery is dedicated
Dedication ceremonies of the new burial ground were set for November 19, 1863. Newspapers throughout the North reported on the preparations, including the announcement that the famed Edward Everett was to make the main address, to be followed by President Lincoln with a few short remarks. Governor Yates named Clark E. Carr of Galesburg and William L. Church of Chicago to represent Illinois at the ceremonies.
Two days before the ceremonies Governor Yates received a telegram from Ward H. Lamon, an Illinois attorney, friend of the president, and the designated marshal of the day for the Gettysburg ceremonies. The message, a Springfield newspaper reported, asked “that all flags be displayed on that day at half mast.” The editor, asking “One Day for the Gallant Dead,” called for “the suggestion [to] be regarded throughout this State, out of respect to the gallant dead.” Newspapers in Springfield and Jacksonville later proudly reported the participation of their citizens.
Other Illinois towns “participated” in other ways. Several newspapers published the poem ” The Dead on the Field of Gettysburg” on the day of the dedication or in their reports of the event. The La Salle County Soldiers’ Monument Association chose the day of the Gettysburg cemetery dedication to hold a public meeting promoting interest in creating a memorial to the county’s war dead.
Illinois takes a hand
Illinois could make no real contribution to the cemetery project until early 1865, when the legislature met for the first time since before the battle at Gettysburg. In his last message to the General Assembly before leaving office Governor Yates in January outlined the story of the cemetery’s creation and his cooperation with the project, though “Without express authority” to do so. He then urged members to support the appropriation necessary to cover Illinois’ portion of the cost.
Yates’s request was supported by commissioners Carr and Church, who appealed to state pride by reminding lawmakers that Illinois’ “gallant sons were the first to meet the advancing rebel invaders…whence those invaders were driven back in dismay and confusion.”
The legislature responded favorably. On February 16, 1865, the new governor, Richard J. Oglesby, approved a bill appropriating $3,000 to pay Illinois’ assessment of the cemetery’s startup costs and directing him to name a commissioner to represent Illinois as needed while the project continued. A further appropriation was required in 1867. Under the system of apportionment by population size Illinois, with only six burials in the new cemetery, contributed $11,774.84 toward the cost of its creation.
Some Illinois reaction to “a new birth of freedom”
Within a matter of days of the cemetery dedication President Lincoln’s short speech appeared in full in city and small-town newspapers throughout the North. Where any editorial comment appeared the reception was largely predictable-Republicans reported a masterpiece while much of the Democratic opposition saw a very lackluster production.
Some of the opposition press saw something downright dangerous. The Springfield Illinois State Register, one of Illinois’ most important Democratic papers, complained of the speech as a Republican attempt to “thrust their revolutionary dogmas [including emancipation] down the throats of thousands of people who had assembled for the purpose of doing honor to the gallant dead.”
Lincoln, the Register complained, began his address with the “political falsehood” that “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.”
“If the above extract means anything at all,” the writer charged, “it is that this nation was created to secure the liberty of the negro as well as of the white race, and dedicated to the proposition that all men, white and black, were placed, or to be placed, upon terms of equality. That is what Mr. Lincoln means to say, and nothing else. And when he uttered the words he knew he was falsifying history…” The president could declare a new birth of freedom, but many in the loyal states would require a great deal of selling before possibly accepting the idea.
Interested in learning more?
A fine full account of the development of the Gettysburg as a site of American memory is Jim Weeks, Gettysburg: Memory, Market, and an American Shrine (2003). A brief history of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery can be found at http://www.nps.gov/history/nr/travel/national_cemeteries/Pennsylvania/Gettysburg_National_Cemetery.html .