David Wills—A Life in Gettysburg
David Wills was born eleven miles from Gettysburg in 1831. He attended Pennsylvania (now Gettysburg) College and by 1854 was an attorney and superintendent of Adams County’s schools. Two years later he married Catherine Jane “Jennie” Smyser and by the summer of 1863, the Wills had three children. In all, they had seven children: Catherine, Mary, Annie, Jennie, Emma, David Jr., and James.
War and the David Wills House
The American Civil War came to the doorstep of the Wills home July 1-3, 1863. During the Confederate occupation of the town, Wills saw “a group of rebels with an axe break open the store door” of one of his tenants. As the battle raged around the town, local citizens huddled in his cellar.
In the office on the first floor, David Wills performed many of the duties of today’s Federal Emergency Management Agency, Centers for Disease Control and an American Red Cross in the battle’s aftermath. David Wills arranged for the construction and consecration of Soldiers National Cemetery and President Abraham Lincoln’s visit. He gathered and warehoused supplies for the wounded and fought for compensation for the farmers who suffered losses during the battle.
A Final Resting Place
Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin visited the battlefield with David Wills on July 10, 1863 and was shocked by its condition. He designated Wills as state agent, charged with seeing to the proper burial of Pennsylvania’s dead. At a meeting of state agents in Wills’ house several days later, the idea of establishing a permanent national cemetery for all Union dead was advanced. Governor Curtin approved and gave Wills the authority to oversee its construction.
On November 19, 1863, as many as 20,000 people converged upon Gettysburg to honor the dead and to catch a glimpse of visiting dignitaries. At the David Wills House, you will stand in the room where President Lincoln finished revising the Gettysburg Address as a guest of the Wills family the night before the dedication and explore how and why the Gettysburg Address is remembered to this day.
A Full House
The David Wills House was among the largest in town and on the evening of November 18 it overflowed with dinner guests, 38 in all. Edward Everett, the French Minister to Washington, D.C., Governor Curtin and other dignitaries graced this house. Mrs. Wills prepared several bedrooms for overnight guests and every one was full, including her own – given to the President. Abraham Lincoln wrote portions of the Gettysburg Address before he left Washington, but finished writing it in that very room.