Gettysburg College and the Gettysburg Address
We received the following media release from Gettysburg College, a four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences, and thought our readers might pick up a few facts about the Gettysburg Address they didn’t know before. The college has a number of exhibits and events in place for the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s memorable speech at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg.
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If not for a Gettysburg College alumnus, President Abraham Lincoln may not have delivered one of the most memorable speeches in American history in November 1863.
David Wills, an 1851 graduate of Gettysburg College (then Pennsylvania College) and prominent local lawyer who worked to establish Soldiers’ National Cemetery, invited Lincoln to give “a few appropriate remarks” at the cemetery’s dedication.
The night before he delivered the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln stayed at the Wills family home on the square in town, where he is said to have finished the 272-word address.
Alan Guelzo, the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg, says getting Lincoln to travel from Washington was no small feat. He notes that Wills wrote to him Nov. 2, and persuaded the president to make the trip, despite the fact that Lincoln was suffering from the beginning stages of what was likely smallpox. But Wills had important political connections, including having married into the family of Pennsylvania power broker Alexander K. McClure, which gave him access to Pennsylvania governor Andrew Curtin to pitch the cemetery idea in the first place.
Guelzo notes that Lincoln ignored his customary reluctance to travel because he knew it would be a good political event and was impressed by the uncanny co-incidence of the Gettysburg victory and the Fourth of July, and that gave Gettysburg an unusual prominence in his mind.
On November 19, 1863, townspeople, students, and the faculty marched to the National Cemetery to hear the now famous speech. Each fall, some 700 first-year students at Gettysburg College recreate the procession through town to hear an honored guest read the address and explore its enduring meaning.