Greetings Cosmic Americans!
In 1863, Gettysburg was hardly the "sleepy little hamlet" of lore. While the population was only around 2500 or so, the bustling town was set to do great things. There were tanneries, carriage manufacturers, and shoe cobblers. Gettysburg was the seat of Adams County, several roads converged there, and the town boasted a brand new train station.
Then, over three days in early July 1863, 180,000 men showed up with their 50,000 horses and mules and all the accoutrements of war and had at each other - killing in great profusion. And just a quickly, they left. Lee's beaten army headed toward the Potomac - Meade's victorious Federals (cautiously) followed.
What happened in the town over the next few days, weeks, and months does not occupy the minds of those who follow the epic military saga nearly as much as it probably should. Both armies left behind thousands of wounded and dying men - with few, at first, to care for them. The handful of care givers had to contend with the most horrific of man's work. The psychological scars must have surely lasted a lifetime. Here I include one nurse's (Emily Souder) vivid and emotional description of the scenes immediately following the battle.
The amputation table is plainly in view...I never trust myself to look toward it...the groans the cries, the shrieks...I buried my head in the pillow to shut out the sounds which reached us, from a church quite near...the Union soldiers and the rebels lie side by side, friendly as brothers...Monday, there was no bread...manna in the desert...Almost every hour has its own experiences to tell...from seven in the morning till seven in the evening...I am sorry to say that I gave out totally...a perpetual procession of coffins is constantly passing to and fro...it will be a place of pilgrimage for the nation.
With oddly reconciliatory overtones, Souder sensed what would soon follow - the creation of a national shrine...not to both armies, but to Union. Spearheaded by Pennsylvania governor Andrew Curtain and prominent Gettysburg citizen David Wills, a plan quickly came together for the dedication of a national cemetery. Invited to the dedication were Massachusetts politician Edward Everett, President Lincoln, and poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Longfellow declined perhaps, as historian Gabor Boritt put it, because poets are "sensitive souls and muses often fail to speak upon demand."
Or...maybe he was just busy. Of course you know the rest...
Ultimately, the town and the entire surrounding area became a national shrine - not just the cemetery. As "altogether fitting and proper" as that is, the elevation to shrine status meant that Gettysburg would grow no more. And I am just fine with that.