The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.) (MCT) - Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address lasted only two minutes, and yet it has been called the "most enduring speech in American history."
Lincoln's stay in Gettysburg to deliver the speech was brief, too _ he was in the south-central Pennsylvania town for less than 24 hours. And now, 146 years later, his Gettysburg address while visiting _ the stately brick home of attorney David Wills at 8 Lincoln Square _ is a museum.
Lincoln suppered in the David Wills House. He penned revisions and wrote the final draft of his speech for Soldiers' National Cemetery in the home's second-floor drawing room. And yes, Lincoln slept here, too.
You can see the carved mahogany bed in which the lanky president rested after his train ride from Washington, D.C. The coverlet that kept him warm. His view of the town square where a Confederate flag had flown just four months earlier.
The David Wills House museum opened in February, on what would have been Lincoln's 200th birthday.
It's the newest addition to the Gettysburg National Military Park, an attraction that also includes the new Museum and Visitors Center and the completely restored 360-degree Gettysburg Cyclorama Painting, Soldiers' National Cemetery, the battlefields and the Eisenhower National Historic Site.
Wills' prominence and his home's location on the southeast corner of Gettysburg's town square meant the Wills House was in the center of the action during the battle that raged July 1-3, 1863, as well as in the town's struggle to recover during the days that followed.
Before entering the mansion, you should look up and imagine Wills leading friends to the roof to watch the fighting on the Battle of Gettysburg's first day. Picture Mrs. Wills hiding the family silver on an upper floor to keep it safe from marauding rebel troops occupying the town.
Look down. The family and their neighbors spent the next two days of the battle in the home's basement, taking cover from rifle and artillery fire that sent deadly pieces of lead flying through the town's streets.
Not long after the battle's last shots were fired, Wills emerged to head the town's recovery effort _ no small task considering the three-day battle left an estimated 7,000 dead men where they'd fallen and an additional 44,000 casualties _ soldiers who were wounded, missing or taken prisoner. Dead and wounded soldiers outnumbered the Gettysburg civilians left to care for them by 11 to 1.
"No one there had ever seen death on this scale. Bodies were spread over 25 square miles," says one placard explaining the devastation faced by Wills and the rest of Gettysburg's residents.
Most homes and public buildings, including the Wills House, became hospitals. Battlefields became temporary burial grounds.
Pennsylvania Gov. Andrew Curtin appointed Wills to handle the crisis. Overnight, his stately home "became Ground Zero in Gettysburg's recovery effort, with Wills himself fulfilling the roles of the Centers for Disease Control, The Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency combined," says Dr. John A. Latschar, superintendent of Gettysburg National Military Park.
Mothers, wives, sisters and brothers searching for lost loved ones poured into Wills' first-floor home office to ask his help.
Gettysburg residents and farmers came, too, in the hopes he could help them get payment for damages to their homes, barns and crops.
Wills proposed creating a new Soldiers' National Cemetery to handle burial of all soldiers of the North, bought the land (funded by the state of Pennsylvania) and supervised the cemetery's layout, including a plan for men of all ranks to be treated equally.
Finally, he planned the consecration of the cemetery. He invited the greatest orator of the day, Edward Everett, to give the main speech. Just two weeks before the Nov. 19, 1863 ceremonies, he also asked Lincoln to make a "few appropriate remarks" following the oration that would "formally set apart these grounds to their sacred use."
He could not know how enduring those remarks would be.
Wills' spartan office, and Lincoln's bedroom are the only museum rooms restored to their 1863 appearance. The office, with only a fireplace, table/desk, chair, book case and gas lamps, still brings the tragedy into focus with its log book detailing the personal belongings found with each dead soldier, from gold rings, fish hooks and combs to 2 cents and testaments.
Thought-provoking galleries and two films _ "Battle Ground to Hallowed Ground" and "A Brief But Immortal Speech" _ are interspersed with exhibits including a diorama of Gettysburg's buildings and their uses during and after the battle; a skeleton key to Lincoln's bedroom; a telegram sent by Mrs. Lincoln to ease the president's worries about their son Tad, who was quite ill when Lincoln left for Gettysburg; a saddle blanket used by Lincoln on his horseback ride to the cemetery, and a "pain bullet" showing teeth marks left in the lead by a soldier undergoing surgery.
The museum debunks myths about the Gettysburg Address, too. Lincoln didn't scrawl the speech on the back of an envelope while traveling to Gettysburg. The first draft, on White House stationary, was written before the president left Washington. And the crowd at the cemetery dedication ceremonies on Nov. 19, 1863 didn't give Lincoln the silent treatment. Their lengthy applause interrupted his remarks several times.
But the biggest surprise in the museum is learning that Lincoln's Gettysburg Address was not an instant success.
Although Everett, the featured orator at the cemetery ceremonies, and some newspaper editors and writers recognized the speech as a "gem," there were others who sided with a Chicago Times reporter who wrote, "The cheeks of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat and dishwatery remarks of the man who has to be pointed out as the president of the United States."
But after seeing the Wills House focus on Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address, visitors will realize Lincoln was mistaken, too, when he said, "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here."
DAVID WILLS HOUSE
What: Home at Gettysburg National Military Park where Abraham Lincoln stayed before delivering his inspirational address. Now a museum, it holds displays and films about the battle, the town's struggle to recover afterward and Lincoln's stay and speech.
Where: 8 Lincoln Square, Gettysburg
Hours: Spring hours, through April, are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Summer hours, beginning May 1, are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.
How much: $6.50; $5.50, seniors; $4, ages 6-17.
Parking: Some parking is available at meters next to the Wills House on Gettysburg's center square. But it's more plentiful and less expensive at the nearby Race Horse Alley Parking Garage.
Tip 1: Because the David Wills House museum is so new, its programming and Web site are not complete. Check the site or call for latest info.
Tip 2: This thoughtful and quiet museum is not so great for the very young.
Info: 866-486-5735, www.davidwillshouse.org or www.nps.gov/gett
SO HOW TALL WAS ABRAHAM LINCOLN?
You can "size up" the 16th president because his life-size statue stands on the brick sidewalk next to the David Wills House, Gettysburg's newest museum. Stand next to his 6-foot-4-inch likeness and document it with a picture.
The image of the president, portrayed as pointing toward the rooms of the Wills House where he finished writing the Gettysburg Address and spent the night, is thought to be one of the most realistic representations of Lincoln in existence.
To create the sculpture, artist J. Seward Johnson Jr. worked from a bronze life mask, a cast of Lincoln's hands, an exact copy of his suit and photographs of the boots he wore.
© 2009, The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)
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