“When I Die, I’m Going to Leave a Piece of Ground Better Than I Found It”

I’ve wanted to return to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania since anthropologist Rob Tolley introduced me to Ohio Governor Charles Anderson and a speech he gave at Gettysburg hours after Abraham Lincoln’s historic address on November 19, 1863.

One of the treasures of the Anderson papers on which I worked with Mr. Tolley at the Ohio Historical Society’s Archives/Library is the complete, handwritten version of the remarks Anderson made at the Gettysburg Presbyterian Church that evening. Lincoln and other dignitaries attended Anderson’s speech, which concluded the events marking the dedication of the new soldiers’ cemetery that day. The speech was never published in full, so this handwritten document in the Ohio Historical Society’s collection may be the only full text of the speech that exists.

Mr. Tolley liked to point out that Anderson’s speech was classic entertainment oratory, packed with classical references and plenty of flowery language. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address only had 272 words, but one sentence in Anderson’s 39-page Gettysburg speech was 252 words long.

So, since we were in the neighborhood, we thought we’d see the place that witnessed those speeches – and that great battle on those three July days in 1863.

We began our visit at the Gettysburg National Military Park Visitor Center. The exhibit galleries of the Gettysburg Museum of the American Civil War provided the most comprehensive, extensive coverage at the battle that I’ve ever experienced. Displays of artifacts and multimedia presentations traced the causes of the war, the campaign to Pennsylvania, activities during each day of the battle, the Gettysburg Address, the results of the war, and the preservation of the battlefield.

One of the most memorable items in the exhibit was an original photograph of George Washington Sandoe and his wife, Diana. Pvt. Sandoe was the first Union soldier killed at Gettysburg; he had been in the army for six days. Sgt. Oliver Roe’s prayer was my favorite manuscript selection in the exhibit. “Give us this day our daily rations of crackers and pork and forgive us our short coming as we forgive our quartermasters….,” is part of the verse he wrote on a paper that he carried with him during the battle.

The battlefield was a lot bigger than I thought it would be. Seeing the farmhouses still standing in the field, I could hardly imagine what it must have been like to have been a civilian in the midst of the fighting. It must have been equally memorable to see the scarred trees, broken fences and soldiers’ possessions strewn over the field in those days after the battle. It was a somber, thought-provoking experience.

Gettysburg boasts another historic attraction: Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower’s farm.

After John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, the Eisenhowers left Washington, D.C. for the Gettysburg farm that they purchased in 1950; they also maintained a successful cattle enterprise there for 15 years. Not long after, when he was interviewed by Walter Cronkite at the farm, Eisenhower remarked, “When I die, I’m going to leave a piece of ground better than I found it.”

Now overseen by the National Park Service, the Eisenhower National Historic Site includes tours of the home, grounds, barns, putting green and skeet range.

Inside the Eisenhower’s home, we saw many gifts the Eisenhowers had received from friends and heads of state. The marble fireplace in the living room had been in the White House until Ulysses Grant removed it in 1873; it was an anniversary gift to the Eisenhowers from their White House staff. The porch was the Eisenhowers’ favorite room, where President Eisenhower painted and the couple watched television. A curio cabinet in the entrance hall contains some of Mamie’s knickknacks, including a presidential plate she purchased from a nearby souvenir stand and plastic figurines of presidents and first ladies that she collected from cereal boxes. In the dining room, we saw a tea service that a young Major Eisenhower bought his wife, piece by piece, with poker winnings.

Upstairs, Cindy admired the histories, biographies and Westerns that were part of the Eisenhowers’ personal library, on bookshelves in the sitting room. My mother liked the General’s dressing room, where he napped each afternoon following his 1955 heart attack. I was partial to Mamie’s dressing room, bath and master bedroom, all of which reflect her love of the color pink. Among the perfume bottles and pearls on the dressing table, you could just barely see Ike’s West Point photo, inscribed “To the dearest, sweetest girl in the world….”

Downstairs in the kitchen, the linoleum counters and pull-out mixer stand were reminiscent of 1950s style, as well as the fixtures of my kitchen at Bee’s Hive. The dimly lit den features an old fireplace and oven salvaged from a summer kitchen that stood near the house. Salvaged wood from the old farmhouse was reused in the construction of the floor and ceiling. I especially liked the red lamp decorated with fishing flies.

To read more about the Eisenhowers at Gettysburg, see “At Home with Ike and Mamie: A Life on View at the President’s Pennsylvania Farm,” from the Winter 2007 issue of Common Ground, a publication of the National Park Service.

This entry was posted in History, Museums, Ohio History Connection (formerly the Ohio Historical Society), Travel. Bookmark the permalink.

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