Gettysburg 150th: A historic battle, an amazing town

Meanwhile, there were the dead to cope with. Besides 7,000 dead soldiers, about 3,500 horses, mules and other animals were killed. The dead soldiers were hastily buried. Rains in subsequent days unburied them.

Accounts of the day describe the air of Gettysburg as heavy with the smell of putrefying flesh. The town hadn't been prepared for a battle, and it certainly wasn't prepared for the aftermath.

Pennsylvania Gov. Andrew Curtin, who arrived about a week after the battle, was horrified by conditions and appointed local lawyer David Wills to manage the situation.

Burial ground was purchased, and the Northern states became involved. Plans were drawn, and the dead eventually were laid to rest, but none of it happened quickly: It was more than four months before those grounds were consecrated.

And who would be the most fitting speaker for that task? Well, when you think of Gettysburg and addresses, you naturally think of Edward Everett. Don't you?

Lincoln was a surprise speaker. As preparations were made for the ceremony, Everett was chosen as the keynote. The former governor of Massachusetts and president of Harvard was a natural choice; if he were alive today, he probably would be a speaker at a TED conference.

Lincoln was invited, but few people expected him to attend, given the press of business in Washington. When he RSVP'd yes, he was invited to give "a few appropriate remarks."

He took them at their word, but it's amazing he could concentrate.

The town was abuzz with news of Lincoln's arrival and the dedication. There was not a room to be had on the night of Nov. 18, 1863.

Lincoln had a room, fortunately, in David Wills' house. On Lincoln Square today, a Seward Johnson sculpture of Lincoln shows the president, standing with a modern-day figure, gesturing with his stovepipe hat toward the second story of the Wills house. That's where Lincoln stayed, but he wasn't the only guest.

The house was substantial but about three dozen people also were staying there; based on my tour, it wasn't that substantial. Indeed, some guests had to share bedrooms and beds. At least Lincoln didn't have to.

On a tour you can see the re-created room where the president slept and where he made final revisions. And you can wonder how Jennie Wills coped with this frenzy of activity: Her husband was trying to find a way to cope with the dead, her house suddenly was bulging with important guests, including the chief executive of the United States, and she had 38 dinner guests to feed. Never mind that she had three young children and was pregnant.

That's the backdrop against which Lincoln made revisions to his address, of which five copies are known to exist. Lincoln, by the way, also was ill; he was thought to have a mild form of smallpox.

Lincoln's speech was brief but brilliant and resounds with clarity today. The National Cemetery, south of town, is the resting place of more than 3,500 Union soldiers; a few Confederate soldiers were buried here by mistake, but the rest were disinterred and sent home, many not being reinterred until almost a decade after their deaths.

I heard Lincoln's words, delivered here Nov. 19, 1863, in my mind's ear as I peered at the gravestones.

We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives. And the stones said: Indiana: 6 bodies. Delaware: 15 bodies. Unknown: 143 bodies.

That all men are created equal. And the stones said: E. Dennis; Lt. Christian Balder; George Smith; Capt. W.W. Harris; officers next to enlisted men.

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. Everett said later in a letter to Lincoln, "I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes."

And that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth. Five hundred thirteen days later, Lincoln was dead. Nearly 54,000 days after Lincoln's death, this country is still alive.