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Bucket List Trip – Gettysburg

Part 3

My last entry for my “bucket list” trip to Gettysburg and Washington, D.C. My sons Matthew and Glenn Peterson and son-in-law Erik Craig engineered the car ride from my home in Southern Illinois. Every warhistorybuff has read something or seen something about the great battle July 1-3, 1863, and it was a somber experience to walk on the hallowed ground. Here are some more thoughts.

Bust of Abraham Lincoln in a Gettysburg shop.
Abraham Lincoln reigns over a Gettysburg antique shop.

The spirit of Lincoln infuses Gettysburg even though the 16th president didn’t lead armies or fight on the battlefield. His Gettysburg Address on Nov. 19, 1863, dedicating the new national cemetery has become immortal. Even Winston Churchill, considered one of the greatest orators of the English language, was in awe of the self-taught Lincoln’s public utterances.

The bedroom where Abraham Lincoln may have wrote the Gettysburg Address.
Lincoln slept here – He really did. The president stayed in the home of prominent Gettysburg attorney David Wills on Nov. 18, the night before the ceremony. Lincoln either wrote or applied the finishing touches to the Gettysburg Address here.

As head of the organizing committee for the cemetery dedication, Wills had invited the president to the event to deliver “a few appropriate remarks.” When Lincoln arrived at the Gettysburg train station on Nov. 18 he walked to the Wills house with local constable and unlikely hero John Burns and sat with him at a church service before the cemetery dedication. Burns was 69 years old (some said 72) at the time of the battle. He should have hid in a basement like most of the residents to avoid the bullets. Instead, the War of 1812 veteran ran toward the opening sounds of the conflict on July 1, wearing a coat with tails and a top hat and carrying his old flintlock.

After trading for a modern rifle, he fought with Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan boys from the Union Iron Brigade. Wounded, he was left in the confusion when the Confederates pushed the Yankees out of McPherson Woods. The rebels could have shot him on the spot as a civilian bushwhacker but instead one of their surgeons treated his wounds, and he returned to his house. He died in 1872.

The traditional site of the Gettysburg Address in the national cemetery.
The spot … or is it? The Soldiers’ Monument in the national cemetery is the traditional site of the Gettysburg Address. The speech was only 271 words long in 10 sentences and took less than two minutes to deliver. No photographs exist of the actual speech because the painstaking process to prepare a photographic plate took more than two minutes.

Scholars studying descriptions of the dedication have decided the real location of the address was several yards away, closer to if not in the adjoining village Evergreen Cemetery. Edward Everett, a well-known Massachusetts orator, politician, Harvard president, diplomat, and minister gave the main address for two hours. His famous quote about the cemetery dedication in a letter to the president: “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.” Everett unfortunately died in 1865 before the end of the war.

Historians later determined from remarks Lincoln made to his entourage, his pale appearance, and a fever he was fighting that on the train trip back and forth to Gettysburg and Washington he was suffering from the early stages of smallpox.

A pyramid of Lincoln Books at the Ford's Theatre museum.
This three-story tall pyramid is composed entirely of Lincoln books. It sits in the Ford’s Theatre museum next to the Petersen boarding house, where Lincoln died on April 15, 1865.

Some 16,000 books (ironically about the 16th president) and articles were written about Lincoln, the most literature on any American. I don’t know if all 16,000 are in the book pyramid. I kind of doubt it. Humorously, I’ve noticed every new book added to the Lincoln bibliography that I’m tempted to buy claims to be the “definitive work” about the man.

The derringer John Wilkes Booth used to kill the 16th president.
A final note: The derringer John Wilkes Booth used to mortally wound the president is suspended in a modest and easy to overlook display at the Ford’s Theatre museum just a few steps from the book pyramid. The FBI verified its authenticity in 1997 after a gang of thieves claimed they had the real gun. I stood mesmerized staring at the weapon thinking how it changed our history. A museum guide said that was a common reaction among visitors.
Posted in Lincoln, Gettysburg, U.S. president, museum, Confederacy, Civil War, Historical Site, military, War Book, War History

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