a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Friday, September 26, 2008

A cemetery befitting of heroes

When the dust settled from the great Battle of Gettysburg, fence posts were uprooted and the bodies of Union and Confederates soldiers were strewn among 5,000 horses that also were killed.

“The only thing you can compare it to is a hurricane,” said National Park Service Ranger Angie Atkinson, while giving a tour in late August through the cemetery where many of the men were buried.

The town of Gettysburg, Pa., home to 2,400 war-weary residents, knew something important had just take place in the Civil War when the U.S. Army took victory over the three-day battle July 3, 1863. No one knew at the time, though, that the battle was turning point in the war for the North, Atkinson said.

Gettysburg quickly set out to honor the 3,500 dead Union soldiers who had been buried in temporary shallow graves with a cemetery befitting of heroes. The remains of another 3,320 Confederate solders killed in the battle would eventually be reburied in Southern cemeteries.

William Saunders, a botanist and native of Scotland who designed the park system in Washington, D.C., was selected to carve from the battlefield the Soldiers’ National Cemetery where President Abraham Lincoln delivered his most famous address.

Saunders spread the graves in a series of arches around an impressive monument, and he wanted the bodies to be buried randomly below flat grave markers. The states were quick to protest that plan so he relented and created sections dedicated to each state that sided with the Union. Separate rows were marked off behind them for the bodies of 979 unknown soldiers who were given knee-high white marble blank tombstones. They all were laid to rest in simple pine coffins, Atkinson said.

American sculptor Randolph Rogers, who designed the Christopher Columbus doors for the U.S. Capitol, was commission to create a national memorial of sorrow to stand in the center of the cemetery. He placed a statue of Liberty atop the marble monument, and she is holding a sword in one hand and a wreath of peace in the other. It was completed in 1869 with four statues seated around the base to represent the chapters of time – history, war, peace and plenty.

This cemetery is a short walk from the new $135 million Museum and Visitor Center of Gettysburg that opened this year. Go there. The place is outstanding.

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