Lincoln's other bed

The Baltimore Sun

GETTYSBURG, PA. -In a second-level room of a red brick house, the bed where President Abraham Lincoln slept before his most famous speech made its debut yesterday.

The twin-size mahogany masterpiece is already the most popular exhibit at the David Wills House, which was swarmed with about 1,000 visitors on its first day open to the public, the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth.

It was a day marked by President Barack Obama at a ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda, where Obama said he felt a special gratitude to the 16th president. Obama flew to Springfield, Ill., last night to give a speech at the Abraham Lincoln Association's annual banquet.

Nearly 150 years ago, Lincoln was preparing his speech in the small Pennsylvania house.

On Nov. 18, 1863, Lincoln spent the night at the home of David Wills, a lawyer who had invited the president to make remarks at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery. Historians say Lincoln penned the final words of what was later called the Gettysburg Address in the room where he slept the previous night.

After a two-year, $7.2 million rehabilitation project, the National Park Service unveiled its newest museum to tell the story of Lincoln's speech. The museum also highlights the aftermath of the Civil War battle that happened that July. In all, there were about 43,000 casualties in one of the war's bloodiest encounters.

Yesterday, onlookers inhaled the historic significance. A line 100 people deep snaked around the building well into the evening. Cameras constantly clicked inside the refurbished house, built in the early 1800s.

Carrie Roush of Carlisle, Pa., brought her 9-year-old daughter, Trista, and 6-year-old son, Wyatt, to the free dedication. Roush, who homeschools her children, said she emphasizes respect for history in her teaching. When she heard about the museum, Roush said, she thought a field trip would best drive home her point.

"The impact of coming here is significant," she said. "We're experiencing walking where he walked, sitting where he sat. It's like we're walking back through history, and it's a good way for them to learn history."

The museum houses seven informational galleries on two stories. The top floors of the building will be office space and off limits to the public.

Park officials hope to draw about 70,000 people a year, and the city's convention and visitors bureau will begin its walking tours of Gettysburg from the Wills House. Main Street Gettysburg will operate the museum in conjunction with the National Park Service.

Visitors enter a reconstructed room filled with replica furniture of Wills' office, which at the time was one of the busiest places in the city. Wills' office was the center of Gettysburg's recovery effort.

Original documents are on display, showing Wills' efforts in establishing the national cemetery.

"I'm very impressed. I like to see all this information and enjoy seeing these letters and telegraphs that I'd never seen before," said Cora Chandler, who made the four-hour trip with her mother from Sussex, N.J.

A refurbished stairwell takes visitors to the second floor and the room where Lincoln stayed. Descendants of Wills' family held on to furniture and documents from the home for decades, refusing offers from those looking to buy the historical pieces, according to museum officials. Wills died in 1894, and his estate was divided among his four daughters.

The relatives are lending Lincoln's bed, a towel rack, a dresser and other items to park officials, who were able to reconstruct the room as it was in the 1860s, with the exception of a replica rocking chair. A refurbished fireplace sits in front of the bed.

"Their generosity was incredible," museum manager Jennifer A. Roth said of the family's donation. "They knew what they had, and they wanted to make sure it was at an appropriate place [to showcase it]. It ended up being the right time."

Family members have kept the furniture in near-mint condition, but some onlookers were skeptical. Myths, half-truths and rumors are not foreign to Lincoln's life, and they seemed to have followed him to the place where he lay his head for a night.

Paul Wargo of Dillsburg, Pa., and his wife lauded the museum and its interactive display screens but wondered if this truly was the bed in which he slept. Wargo said he has seen something to the contrary.

"There was an article in the local paper saying that someone who used to work here said she has the bed," Wargo said. "So I don't know."

Wills House workers stand by the authenticity of the home's items and say they hope the museum's opening will debunk some other widely held notions. Most historians have discredited the idea that Lincoln wrote the speech on the back of a napkin. Some believe Lincoln wrote much of it on an envelope while on the train to Gettysburg.

Lincoln wrote it on less dramatic material - stationery.

"That is an entirely fictitious thing," licensed tour guide Bob Alcorn said of the envelope story as he answered questions in Lincoln's room. "And it's something people need to know about. Having this place open up today, and people come in here and look at the space, that is a very positive thing for this town, state and, really, nation."

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