Wills 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 had three children. Wills achieved a variety of accomplishments, such as being appointed president of the Gettysburg Borough Council in 1872, and becoming an Adams County Judge two years later. He also served on numerous boards of directors, including that of the Bank of Gettysburg and the Gettysburg Railroad Company.
The Civil War came to the doorstep of the Wills home in 1863. Confederate soldiers first came to Gettysburg in search of supplies on June 26. 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. Local citizens huddled in his cellar. After the battle the Wills home filled quickly with wounded and dying soldiers. Local women acting as nurses tended to these men, and the U.S. Sanitary Commission (an early version of the American Red Cross) established a temporary warehouse here. The U.S. Provost Marshall used the home as headquarters, and Gettysburg’s leading citizens met here to make plans for proper burial of the dead.
The President in Gettysburg
As many as 20,000 people converged upon Gettysburg to attend the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery and to catch a glimpse of visiting dignitaries.
President Lincoln arrived in Gettysburg on the evening of November 18 and was escorted to the Wills home. The galleries on the second floor follow the events of Lincoln’s visit through his immortal address on November 19. You will hear the story of how Gettysburg managed the vast number of visitors and how David and Catherine accomodated the distinguished guests who spent the night at their home. You will stand in the bedroom where Lincoln finished revising the Gettysburg Address and learn why this speech continues to endure.By 10 am on November 19, 1863, dignitaries were assembled outside of the Wills home for the procession to the new Soldiers’ National Cemetery. The ceremony began with music and an invocation. Edward Everett’s two-hour oration was followed by a funeral dirge, and then the President arose to deliver his, “few appropriate remarks.” He spoke for about two minutes. The brevity of Lincoln’s speech surprised many, but his words were long remembered.
As the death toll mounted during the first two years of the war, many wondered whether any cause was worth the awful price. The Gettysburg Address was Lincoln’s effort to define and defend the war’s objectives and the need to see them through — whatever the cost. The war, he said, was a test of whether a nation, “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” could survive and remain true to its founding ideals.