Dedicating the Gettysburg National Cemetery

Years before Gettysburg became nationally known, a young Oliver N. Worden passed through town while traveling. “This little town was then only noted for its Lutheran College and as the residence of Thaddeus Stevens, and all I remembered of it was its quiet and the politeness of a foreign resident who took some pains to gratify the request of a stranger lad in his lone journey,” he wrote. “Little did it seem probable that I should ever visit again or that so sequestered a spot would become the theater of one of the greatest, most memorable battles history has to record.”

          Fast forward to November 1863 when Worden, now editor of the Union County Star and Lewisburg Chronicle newspaper, returned to the “little town” to participate in the dedication of the national cemetery. He spent time touring the battlefield before the dedication ceremony and left a remarkable account of who and what he saw during his visit to Gettysburg. The article saw publication on the first page of the December 4, 1863, edition of his newspaper.


The crowd at Gettysburg after the dedication of the National Cemetery on November 19, 1863. Our correspondent Oliver Worden was present and recalls sighting John Burns, Governor Andrew Curtin, and even President Lincoln. 

          I had not time to visit all points of the engagement. The Cemetery Hill proper has little left to tell of the strife except strips of cotton and woolen clothes, leather, bones of cattle and horses, and some few leaden and iron scraps of which I gathered a handful as I stood on one spot. The dead of both hosts were buried mostly where they fell and the graves of many are marked. Some bodies have been taken home, but many are indistinguishable and will so remain until the great resurrection.

          The national cemetery is on the very point of the hill where was some hard fighting northwest of the old village cemetery which it adjoins and was purchased by Pennsylvanians for the purpose. In a half circle, the bodies of all known Union soldiers are being carefully buried with stone walls at their heads, each in rows corresponding with the states they were from and the unknown in the outer rows on each side. Room is laid out according to the number supposed to be from each state. Already nearly 1,200 have been deposited there: 158 from New York, 139 from Massachusetts, 100 from Pennsylvania, 48 from Michigan, 31 from Indiana, etc., and 582 unknown. At each man’s head is the original rough board marking the spot where he was first buried. All these inscriptions are hereafter to be copied in marble. One had only the word “Mass.” All we know of him is that he was a brave soldier from the patriotic state of Massachusetts. Others had name, office, company, regiment, state, date of death, etc. Of all before me, I know of but two- Sergeant Philip Peckens [Co. F, 141st Pennsylvania] of Montrose and Corporal Joseph Gutelius [Co. D, 150th Pennsylvania] of Mifflinburg. Richest flowers were scattered upon acres of unmarked graves and some fond ones weeping here and there.

          The remaining bodies of known Union soldiers not removed by friends are to be taken up and interred here and a monument to be raised at the south side overlooking all the field. Some of the Rebels’ graves are also marked and will be left as they are- brave men, many of them, but in the worst of causes as many before death confessed with bitter tears. But to this beautiful resting place of nearly 3,000 self-sacrificing Americans will be ever applicable those oft-quoted lines of the English poet “how sleep the brave who sink to rest, by all their country’s wishes blest.”

The cemetery was still a work in progress when Worden visited in November 1863, and he made sure to visit the Pennsylvania section where he found the graves of two soldiers that he knew personally. The Pennsylvania section that Worden visited is No. 18, located on lower center of the semi-circle.

          The view from Cemetery Hill is most charming, taking in on three sides a wide scope of country diversified by village, college, and farm buildings, orchards and forests, and in the dim distance rising to the dignity of mountains. But I cannot linger. A thousand interesting incidents of the place and occasion might be added had I the time or you the room. The danger to our land, averted at this turning point, we comprehend more as time passes and will be the fireside talk of thousands upon thousands for years to come.

          It is said that the Rebels wondered at the stupid stolidity of the people of Cumberland Valley in not resisting their march and were continually apprehensive of ambuscades and surprises. Only one citizen of Gettysburg was aroused to a fighting pitch. John Burns fought in 1812 and in Mexico and in 1863, putting on his Sunday clothes, he entered the Union ranks at Gettysburg and received three considerable wounds. You may be sure that Abraham Lincoln found him out and arm in arm they went to the meeting of the Ohio delegation in the Presbyterian house where the people were addressed by the lieutenant governor-elect of Ohio Charles Anderson, brother of General Robert Anderson. Jenny Wade was the only woman killed in town. She was baking for our troops when a ball entered and killed her instantly. A Rebel officer fell near the house for whom his friends procured a rich coffin, but they fled and this good girl had his coffin for her burial.

          The people of Gettysburg appear to have done their best to entertain the unwanted throng of visitors. It was a grand gala day, only saddened by the memory of the many hundreds of noble youths from, all parts of our land who had poured out their blood on these fields for a nation’s salvation. The cessation of business, the flags and banners everywhere in sight, and the hospitality of the people were all evidence of the popular sympathy. The veteran editor Mr. Harper invited me to his home where were Secretary William Seward, General Simon Cameron, the Italian minister, and other guests. His next neighbor Mr. Wills, chief originator of the cemetery enterprise, had his corner mansion open also with President Lincoln welcoming in the eager crowd at the door on one street, Governor Andrew Curtin bowing them out at door on the other street. It was a trial of patience and a labor of love which I watched for a long time, and I must say that Andy beat a retreat and took refuge in the throng outside before Old Abe had discontinued the shake of the hand and the cordial word, but he also gave out at last and subsided to a needed respite for dinner. And so farewell Gettysburg!



“Gettysburg Battles and Burial Field,” Oliver N. Worden, Union County Star and Lewisburg Chronicle (Pennsylvania), December 4, 1863, pg. 1 


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