Exploring the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg

Looking out across the National Cemetery in Gettysburg towards the Soldiers' National Monument.

The Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg is some of the most historic and hallowed ground in Pennsylvania.

Cemetery Hill, near the site from which Union forces repelled Pickett’s Charge on Cemetery Ridge, was in the months after the Battle of Gettysburg transformed into the final resting place for over 3,000 fallen Union soldiers.

The graves of unknown Union soldiers with the New York Monument in the background.
The graves of unknown Union soldiers with the New York Monument in the background.

At a ceremony dedicating the newly-created cemetery on November 19, 1863 (4 months after the Battle of Gettysburg), President Abraham Lincoln delivered what is considered to be one of the most iconic speeches in American history, what later became known as the “Gettysburg Address”.

Historical marker near the site of the Gettysburg Address.
Gettysburg Address historical marker at the Soldiers’ National Cemetery.

So what does the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg look like today, and what can you expect to see if you visit?

Follow along as I share with you a brief history and description of this hallowed ground, consecrated by “the brave men, living and dead, who struggled here”, as President Lincoln put it.

Memorial to Hall's Battery at Gettysburg National Cemetery.
Memorial to Hall’s Battery at Gettysburg National Cemetery.

Construction of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery

On July 1-3, 1863 nearly 165,000 soldiers from the Union and Confederate armies fought fiercely at Gettysburg, leading to more than 7,000 combined deaths on both sides.

A historical marker at Soldiers' National Cemetery in Gettysburg.
A historical marker at Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg.

After the battle, bodies were scattered across the countryside.

Fearing an epidemic and trying to do the honorable thing for the fallen, the dead were buried in hastily-dug graves, but wind and summer rains removed the soil covering many of the shallow plots, exposing the bodies to the elements.

Touring Gettysburg soon after the battle, Governor Andrew Curtin was so disturbed with what he saw that he and local leaders decided the state should step in and fund the construction of a proper cemetery for the Union dead at Gettysburg.

Historical marker at the National Cemetery in Gettysburg PA
Historical marker at the National Cemetery in Gettysburg

Governor Curtin appointed local attorney David Wills to procure land for the cemetery, which fittingly resulted in Cemetery Hill being chosen, near the site on Cemetery Ridge where Union forces valiantly repelled “Pickett’s Charge”.

Landscape architect William Saunders was hired to design the cemetery, and his plan called for the dead to be buried in semi-circular rows arranged by state.

Unknown Union soldier's graves at the Gettysburg National Cemetery.
Unknown Union soldier’s graves at the Gettysburg National Cemetery.

At the central hub of the semicircle would be Soldiers’ National Monument, begun in 1865 and dedicated on July 1, 1869.

Soldiers' National Monument at he Gettysburg National Cemetery.
Soldiers’ National Monument at the Gettysburg National Cemetery.

The reburials in the new cemetery began in late October 1863, nearly 4 months after the battle.

The work was far from done when the cemetery was dedicated on November 19, 1863.

The keynote speaker for the dedication ceremony was Massachusetts statesman Edward Everett, who spoke for nearly 2 hours.

After a brief musical interlude, it was President Lincoln’s turn.

Gettysburg Address historical sig at the Soldiers' National Cemetery.
Gettysburg Address historical sign at the Soldiers’ National Cemetery.

His now-famous 2 minute speech not only honored the fallen soldiers, but called for a renewed sense of purpose in preserving the Union, that these dead shall not have died in vain.

They Gettysburg Address plaque on the Lincoln Address Memorial.
They Gettysburg Address plaque on the Lincoln Address Memorial.

The President attended a church service after the dedication ceremony, and then returned to Washington by train.

Lincoln Address Memorial at the Gettysburg National Cemetery.
Lincoln Address Memorial at the Gettysburg National Cemetery.

The Lincoln Address Memorial (dedicated in 1912), which now stands near the southern gate of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, is the only monument in the United States dedicated to a speech and not the person who gave it.

Lincoln Address Memorial marker at Gettysburg National Cemetery.
Lincoln Address Memorial marker at Gettysburg National Cemetery.

The Soldiers’ National Cemetery Today

The Soldiers’ National Cemetery was turned over to the Federal Government in 1872, and transferred to the National Park Service in 1933.

Gettysburg National Cemetery sign along Taneytown Road.
Gettysburg National Cemetery sign along Taneytown Road.

Parking is located near the southern entrance along Taneytown Road (Route 134) at GPS coordinates 39.81673, -77.23290.

A map showing where to park when visiting the Gettysburg National Cemetery
A map showing where to park when visiting the Gettysburg National Cemetery

It cannot be overstated that this is a cemetery, not a theme park, and visitors should act in a dignified manner when visiting.

Silence and respect marker at Gettysburg National Cemetery.
Silence and respect marker at Gettysburg National Cemetery.

The original Union gravesites fan out in a semicircular fashion from the base of the Soldiers National Monument.

Graves of unknown Union soldiers at Gettysburg National Cemetery.
Graves of unknown Union soldiers at Gettysburg National Cemetery.

The Genius of Liberty stands atop the Soldiers’ National Monument, sword in one hand and wreath of peace in the other, representing the competing costs of freedom.

Soldiers' National Monument at the Gettysburg National Cemetery.
Soldiers’ National Monument at the Gettysburg National Cemetery.

Numerous other monuments are scattered about the cemetery in honor of the various Union artillery batteries that defended key positions on Cemetery Hill during the 3-day battle.

Artillery monument at the Gettysburg National Cemetery.
Artillery monument honoring those that defended this position during the Battle of Gettysburg.

Between 1898 and 1968 additional sections were added to the cemetery to accommodate the graves of veterans from the Spanish-American War, both World Wars, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.

Graves of WWII veterans at the Gettysburg National Cemetery.

A rostrum (raised stage) was constructed in 1879, and has been the site of speeches by Presidents’ Theodore Roosevelt, William Taft, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, and Franklin D. Rooselevlt.

The Rostrum at the Gettysburg National Cemetery.
The rostrum at Gettysburg National Cemetery.

Near the North Gate of the cemetery is the only statue in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery dedicated to an individual, that being Major General John F. Reynolds, the highest-ranking officer killed at Gettysburg.

This was the first bronze statue at Gettysburg (cast from 4 bronze cannon barrels, thought to be from Confederate guns), and was dedicated in 1872.

General John Reynolds statue at the Gettysburg National Cemetery.
General John Reynolds statue at the Gettysburg National Cemetery.

The concept of “peace with honor” is conveyed in this American Legion plaque.

American Legion plaque at the Gettysburg National Cemetery.

Final Thoughts

In the letter inviting President Lincoln to attend the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, it was written “It will be a source of great gratification to the many widows and orphans that have been made almost friendless by the great battle here to have you here personally, and it will kindle anew in the breasts of the comrades of these brave dead who are now in the tented field that they who sleep in death on the battlefield are not forgotten by those highest in authority and they will feel that should their fate be the same their remains will not be uncared for.

The Soldiers' National Cemetery in Gettysburg in November 2020.
The Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg in November 2020.

When I look closely at this photo I took on my last visit to Gettysburg (November 2020), I can’t help but think that the brave dead indeed “are not forgotten by those in the highest authority”.

What appears to be an angelic figure flying over the Soldiers' National Cemetery in this photo from November 2020.
Sky above the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, November 2020.

Nearby Attractions

Sachs Covered Bridge near Gettysburg was crossed by both Union AND Confederate troops during the Battle of Gettysburg.

Side view of Sachs Covered Bridge near Gettysburg PA
Side view of Sachs Covered Bridge near Gettysburg.

Because of that, the State designated this “Pennsylvania’s most historic covered bridge” in 1938.

Southwestern end of Sachs Covered Bridge near Gettysburg.
Southwestern end of Sachs Covered Bridge near Gettysburg.

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