The Colonel and the Cemetery

Guest Post by  Charles W. Mitchell

On November 18, 1863, Col. John A. Steiner of the Potomac Home Brigade in Frederick set off for Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Steiner wished to attend the dedication of a new cemetery that would be both a resting place for Union and Confederate soldiers who had died in July on the adjacent battlefields and a symbol of national reconciliation that President Abraham Lincoln hoped would symbolize a reunified, post-Civil War America.

Steiner’s horseback trip to Gettysburg, which took most of that day, was a rare opportunity for a citizen far from the nation’s capital to see the President. “Morning cloudy & slight rain about 8 ½ o’clock left for Gettysburg arrived there about dusk,” he wrote in his small diary. “Found there an immense crowd very clear & pleasant.” That evening, Steiner may have been in the crowd that heard Lincoln speak briefly on the town square outside the home of lawyer David Wills, where the President was staying.

Early the next day, November 19, wagons, buggies, riders on horseback, and pedestrians clogged the roads leading into the small town. Trains disgorged more visitors. Steiner described the scene: “Morning cloudy but pleasant. After breakfast went over Battle ground with a number of friends.” He recorded his impressions of the ceremony: “Then at the stand from where the dedicatory ceremonies of the National Cemetery were had. Saw the President Mr. Everett & many others of our distinguished Statesmen & was much gratified.” (Edward Everett, the former president of Harvard and featured orator, spoke from memory for two hours.)

That Steiner said nothing further about his day in that small Pennsylvania town, still recovering from the bloody three-day battle that summer, deprived historians of a detailed eyewitness account. But he clearly enjoyed Lincoln’s brief remarks at the ceremony, as did many of the 15,000 people present. And thanks to the observations in his diary—sparse as they were—we know that this Marylander was glad to be part of this great civic occasion, his reward listening to a tall man with a high-pitched voice, wearing a top  hat, deliver the Gettysburg Address, 150 years ago.

mitchellCharles W. Mitchell is author of Maryland Voices of the Civil War, which won the 2007-2008 Founder’s Award from the Museum of the Confederacy for outstanding scholarship on the Confederate period.

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by | November 19, 2013 · 8:30 am

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