By Sean D. Hamill, New York Times
Gettysburg PA, February 11, 2009 — When President Abraham Lincoln came to this small town in south-central Pennsylvania in 1863, to help dedicate Soldiers’ National Cemetery, he needed a place to stay the night before.
David Wills, the lawyer who invited Lincoln to make “a few appropriate remarks” at the dedication, offered his and his wife’s own bedroom in their home on the town square.
It was in that room, historians agree, that Lincoln put the final touches on the Gettysburg Address.
On Thursday, on the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, dignitaries will gather here to open a new National Park Service museum in the David Wills House that — in part — recalls its role in the drafting of the address.
“He did take some time to revise it there after writing it before he left Washington,” said Ronald C. White Jr., a prominent Lincoln scholar and author of “A. Lincoln: A Biography.”
“But I’m still amazed at the number of people who think he wrote it on the back of an envelope and on the train to Gettysburg,” Mr. White said. “Maybe this will put that to rest for some of them.”
The museum’s larger purpose, however, is to tell what happened after the Civil War battle here that July, when dead and wounded soldiers outnumbered the town’s 2,400 residents by 11 to 1.
“We can’t tell the story of the Battle of Gettysburg without the town,” said John A. Latschar, the park’s superintendent.
From his law office on the first floor of his home, Mr. Wills proposed the creation of what is now called Gettysburg National Cemetery.
He then oversaw the effort to rebury and identify the Union soldiers who had been buried en masse on the battlefield, and helped grieving family members locate their husbands, fathers or brothers.
“Wills’s house is really the center of the aftermath,” said Jennifer Roth, a spokeswoman for Main Street Gettysburg, a local nonprofit group that will run the museum in partnership with the park service. “He’s sort of the FEMA of the time for Gettysburg.”
The park service spent $7.2 million over the last four years restoring the 191-year-old home and turning most of the three-story, red-brick building into a modern museum, with seven informational galleries.
But a focus of the tour that Main Street Gettysburg hopes will attract at least 70,000 people a year will be on two rooms that have been restored to circa 1863.
One is Mr. Wills’s law office on the first floor, which has been recreated with replicas and period pieces, but no original furniture.
The other room brings together, for the first time since Mr. Wills died in 1894, nearly every original piece of furniture or fixture that was in the bedroom where Lincoln edited his 10-sentence speech and slept.
Part of the back story, told briefly in the museum, is how fervently the Wills’s descendants held on to many of the objects and documents from the home, turning down lucrative offers and hoping the right organization would tell the story.
“My grandmother had a 2-inch-thick stack of letters with offers for the bedroom set from over the years,” said Allyn Reilly, a great-great grandson of David Wills, who donated the rosewood bed Lincoln slept in, as well as the washstand and chest of drawers from the bedroom.
“We had had offers, too, but, I wanted to see the furniture go to a public body, not a private collector or private museum,” said Mr. Reilly, who was still using the bedroom set before he and his wife donated it.
Two other relatives donated two framed prints, figurines, towels and a towel rack. The only piece that is not original is a rocking chair.
Being able to recreate the room stunned the park service.
“We assumed that if we got the right people hunting for long enough that you might find a handful of things associated with the house,” Dr. Latschar said. “But what we found? In my experience, that’s pretty well unprecedented.”
Though he has written three major books on Mr. Lincoln, Mr. White, for one, cannot wait to walk into that room.
“One can never discount the impact, the emotion, that you feel of actually standing in a place like that,” he said.