Virginia 2015: The Soldier’s National Cemetery

Day 2, October 5, 2015

It is called the Soldier’s National Cemetery – officially.  But like me, perhaps you have always thought of it as Gettysburg National Cemetery.  We took the time to visit when we visited Gettysburg. The cemetery already existed as the town cemetery at the time of the Civil War, but after the battle work began to designate one cemetery for the Union dead. Immediately after the battle, the dead had been hastily interred at several nearby sites, including churchyards, on the grounds outside hospitals, and on the fields of the battlefield itself. Some corpses were not found until much later, and had begun to decompose without being buried.

As land was acquired adjacent to the town cemetery, the remains were reinterred. They first had wooden markers, but then flat stone markers were laid in 1865. The Civilian Conservation Corps set the gravestones in concrete in 1934. The Civil War graves are set in concentric semi-circles radiating out from The Soldier’s National Monument, begun in 1865 and dedicated in 1869.  Today, the remains of 6,000 servicemen are buried here, including about 3,500 Civil War soldiers.  Over half of the Civil War burials belong to unidentified soldiers.  Later burials include servicemen extending up through the Vietnam War in 1972, in a later acquired annex of land.


Gettysburg National Cemetery. The flat markers in the foreground are the Civil War graves.

Gettysburg National Cemetery. The flat markers in the foreground are the Civil War graves.


A view of the Soldier's Monument, with Civil War graves in the foreground.

A view of the Soldier’s Monument, with Civil War graves in the foreground.

Of course, the cemetery is also famous for the speech that was given here. Lincoln’s Gettysburg address is one of the most recognizable speeches in U.S. history, although Lincoln didn’t think at the time that it would be long remembered. He even said so in his remarks.  In fact, his speech here was mostly an afterthought. Edward Everett, Massachusetts statesman and orator, had been chosen to give the dedication at Gettysburg. The cemetery committee asked the President at the last minute to give “a few appropriate remarks,” after Everett finished speaking. Here’s what Lincoln came up with:

“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 battlefield 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.”

Lincoln only spoke for about two minutes – far less than the two hours that Everett spoke. In fact, there are no photographs of Lincoln speaking – historians believe it is because the photographers capturing the event were surprised by the brevity of his remarks. But the speech brings tears to my eyes every time I hear or read it, and I can’t imagine I’m the only one so affected.

Another view of the Soldier's Monument

The New York State Monument at the Soldier’s National Cemetery

For a long time, Lincoln was believed to have given his speech near the Soldier’s Monument, but more recent historians studying photographs place the dais within the existing town cemetery, Evergreen Cemetery. The ranger was kind enough to point out where to stand and look through the fence to get a rough idea of where Lincoln stood.  If we hadn’t spoken to the ranger, we wouldn’t have known, as the signage at the cemetery still gives the old location.

To the right of the cannon, there is a small tree. Behind that is a mausoleum believed to be near the site where the dais was placed for the cemetery dedication.

To the right of the cannon, there is a small tree. Behind that is a mausoleum believed to be near the site where the dais was placed for the cemetery dedication.

The cemetery is beautiful – with historic wrought iron fences and brick work, and pathways. The various trees are marked with their species names, and the squirrels and birds clearly enjoy it.  We wandered among the graves and the trees for a little while, reflecting on the incredible sacrifice of these men, and the importance of this place.

Some of the World War I graves at Gettysburg

Some of the World War I graves at Gettysburg


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