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New museum examines Lincoln at Gettysburg

You could call it the original Lincoln Bedroom, but Abraham Lincoln didn't just sleep here.

Gettysburg PA, February 10, 2009 — The second-floor room that overlooks Gettysburg's town square was also where Lincoln put the finishing touches on his Gettysburg Address. The concise yet powerful speech dedicated a national cemetery at the site of North America's bloodiest battle and envisioned "a new birth of freedom" in a nation divided over slavery and states' rights.

On the eve of his historic address, Lincoln was the guest of David Wills, a wealthy 32-year-old lawyer who bore the burden of coordinating the town's recovery from the three-day Battle of Gettysburg and spearheaded the Soldiers' National Cemetery.

The house where Wills lived from 1859 until his death in 1894 is now the latest addition to Gettysburg National Military Park — a museum focused on the address and the aftermath of the epic Civil War battle. The David Wills House celebrated its grand opening on Thursday, Lincoln's 200th birthday.

The house, also home to Wills' law office, has undergone $7.2 million in renovations paid for by the federal government. The National Park Service acquired it four years ago in a partnership with Main Street Gettysburg, a nonprofit preservation group that will operate the facility.

The site is historically significant not only for hosting Lincoln but also for serving as a command center following the battle, said Barbara Sanders, an education specialist for the park service. It features seven exhibit galleries, including one that recreates the interior of the law office complete with Wills' desk and law books.

"That law office becomes kind of the central office for the aftermath," Sanders said, likening it to the Red Cross or the Federal Emergency Management Agency of its time.

Wills' house served as a hospital for wounded soldiers, a supply warehouse for relief agencies and the destination for letters from family members seeking help with recovering the bodies of loved ones who died in battle.

More than 51,000 Confederate and Union soldiers were killed, wounded or captured, and many of the dead were buried hastily or not at all.

"He received letters from the governors of the Northern states that had troops here, and that's where the idea began at a meeting ... about getting a national cemetery together," Sanders said.

Commissioned by then-Gov. Andrew Curtin to help with the emergency and buy land for the cemetery, Wills invited Lincoln to attend the dedication ceremony on Nov. 19, 1863, but only to deliver "a few appropriate remarks."

The main attraction was Edward Everett, a former Massachusetts congressman and prominent orator who frequently spoke in favor of the Union cause; his speech would last two hours.

Lincoln's 272-word speech took about two minutes to deliver.

The night before, Lincoln retired early from a dinner party where he was one of 38 guests and repaired to the bedroom above Wills' law office to work on the final draft of the speech. That bedroom is also being recreated and will display the mahogany bed in which Lincoln slept.

Other artifacts to be displayed in the museum suggest that the war was not all that weighed on Lincoln's mind. They include a telegram from Lincoln's wife about his son Tad, who was sick when he left for Gettysburg. An audio program in the restored Lincoln bedroom will give visitors an idea of what the president was thinking about his ill son, his speech, the war in general, and even a crowd that had gathered outside and clamored for him to speak to them.

"We didn't want that to be a room where Lincoln was deified," Sanders said. "We wanted it to be a room where Lincoln was humanized, where you can kind of get inside his mind and understand where he was and where the country was, and what these words meant."

In the years since Wills' death, different owners remodeled the building for different purposes, including a drugstore on the first floor between 1936 and 1995. A privately operated "Lincoln Room" museum occupied the second floor from 1945 until 2005.