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By Cory Runk – Abraham Lincoln, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, these historic figures have greatly impacted the history of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The Battle of Gettysburg has always been the main attraction but there is a lesser known side to Gettysburg’s story, the presidential side.
In honor of Presidents Day, I wanted to find the places that were connected to some of the greatest people that lead our country. After doing some research on the historic political figures that have made their way to Gettysburg, I set out with my camera to explore Gettysburg and find my favorites. Here is a list of four presidential places in Gettysburg in no particular order.
At the 1938 reunion of the Battle of Gettysburg, The Eternal Light Peace Memorial was erected to commemorate the 1913 reunion for the 50th anniversary of the battle. On July 3, 1938, during the 75th anniversary of the battle, President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the Eternal Light Peace Memorial with a heart-felt speech aimed at continuing the peace between the north and the south. His speech concluded at sundown which was then followed by the unveiling of the memorial by one soldier from each side and lit to signify a continuity of peace.
When I first saw this memorial as a kid on a school field trip, I was instantly enamored with the memorial because of the flame’s ability to stay lit. Before knowing it is a gas fed torch, seeing a flame like that as a kid was something that caught my attention and became my favorite memorial to see. Now as I look at it, I see it for what it really is, a memorial to unite differences nationwide. This was apparent when reading the inscribed motto on the base of the memorial, “Peace Eternal in a Nation United”. This memorial was so powerful, it was the inspiration for President John F. Kennedy’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery. Mrs. Jackie Kennedy got the idea from their visit to Gettysburg and President Kennedy’s admiration for the memorial. Not only does this memorial provide a great message, it is also in a beautiful location that allows viewers to see the surrounding mountain ranges, the outskirts of town, and most of the western battlefield.
One of the most hallowed and historic places in Pennsylvania, The Soldier’s National Cemetery is home to thousands of soldiers, stories of valor and a historic speech. Shortly after the Battle of Gettysburg, local attorney David Wills, among others petitioned for a national cemetery in Gettysburg. After locals were scrambling to bury the dead soldiers anywhere they could, the State of Pennsylvania finally acted and purchased land along Baltimore Pike to create the cemetery. In November of 1863, after completion of the cemetery, President Abraham Lincoln and his fellow cabinet members traveled to Gettysburg to dedicate this hallowed ground. On the afternoon of November 19, 1863, President Lincoln delivered a speech after a two-hour oration from Edward Everett. This speech was intended to be a “few appropriate remarks” but then turned into a two minute speech that would forever live in the history books, The Gettysburg Address.
When walking through the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, I felt a very somber feeling but also a feeling that this is a great place of history and a place that should be honored when visiting. It was hard for me to wrap my mind around the amount of soldiers that were laid to rest around me but even harder to stand where Lincoln gave his speech and imagine that moment. To be apart of the thousands of people gathered there to witness a great man working to restore peace in our nation. People attending the ceremony at the time wouldn’t be aware of the power the Gettysburg Address had on the country moving forward. But looking back and reading the words, I could feel how powerful they really were.
After an illustrious career as an army general during World War II, President of Columbia University and Supreme Commander of NATO, Dwight D. Eisenhower and wife, Mamie Eisenhower were looking for a place to call home. While searching for a place to settle into, the Eisenhower’s looked to a place that was very familiar to them from President Eisenhower’s early military career when he was stationed near Gettysburg during World War I. After speaking with friends who recommended them to come back to Gettysburg, The Eisenhower’s purchased a 189-acre farm less than a half a mile from the Gettysburg Battlefield. After purchasing this home, Eisenhower became President of the United States of America in 1953. During their time on the farm, they had the pleasure of entertaining some very prominent guests, such as Premier Nikita Khrushchev of the Soviet Union, President Charles de Gaulle of France, Prime Minister Winston Churchill of Britain, and Gov. Ronald Reagan of California. All were treated to a tour of the battlefield and a dinner party in Eisenhower’s favorite spot in the home, his sun room.
When touring The Eisenhower National Historic Site, you really get to understand the Eisenhower family on a personal level. While I was walking the halls of this home, I felt like I was connecting with his family by listening to the many stories of the Eisenhowers. One thing that stood out to me was that Dwight and Mamie wanted to live their lives in Gettysburg as normal as possible. This included walking the streets of Gettysburg, taking in local shows at the Majestic Theatre and playing bridge at a private residence that is now the Swope Manor B&B in present day Gettysburg. You come to appreciate their warm personalities and their historic home.
David Wills was born and raised in Adams County, Pennsylvania. He moved to Gettysburg in 1859 to open a law office after spending some of that year with Thaddeus Stevens in Stevens’ law office in Lancaster, Pa. Shortly after the Battle of Gettysburg concluded, David Wills became a prominent figure of the establishment of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg. Once the cemetery was completed, a dedication day was to be held on November 19, 1863. On November 18, 1863, David Wills and his wife, Catherine invited President Abraham Lincoln and his dignitaries to dine with the Wills and stay as overnight guests. On this night, in David Wills’ bedroom (then Lincoln’s bedroom as a guest), Lincoln finished his speech known as the Gettysburg Address. Little did President Lincoln know, this speech would live in the annals of history.
As you walk through The David Wills House, you feel like you’re walking through history. With portions of the house dedicated to museum-style exhibits with rich historic information of civilian life in the town of Gettysburg, images of the Wills family and videos surrounding Abraham Lincoln, you immerse yourself into life in 1863. As you move from room to room and visit each of the exhibits, you come to the living-history exhibits with original artifacts from the house including Lincoln’s horse saddle and objects from David Wills’ law practice. When you finally reach David Will’s bedroom and see it arranged like it would have been for President Lincoln’s stay, you can just picture him trying to put the finishing touches on his immortal speech. Visiting the David Wills house prior to visiting the National Cemetery provides a well rounded understanding of the power the cemetery and the magnitude of Lincoln’s speech had on our country.
After researching and exploring these sites, I came to appreciate the people and the stories attached to these historic places more than I ever did. In honor of that, I wanted to put together a list of places that I thought were very influential in the Presidential history of Gettysburg. A list that could be used as a guide for incoming travelers around the Presidents Day Weekend who were looking for a historic winter getaway. I encourage anyone reading this to build upon this list and make your own Presidential places list and share it with us when you’re exploring Gettysburg.
About the Author
Cory Runk is a native of the Adams County area and has spent many years frequenting the fine establishments of Gettysburg. Despite spending the majority of his life in or around Gettysburg, Cory still manages to learn new and interesting facts about the town and finds that to be one of the greatest features of the town. Cory is an avid photographer, nature hiker, sports enthusiast, and beer lover. Cory currently lives in Waynesboro, Pa., with his wife, Bridget.
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