On November 19, 1863, thousands of people gathered in Gettysburg for the dedication of Soldiers’ National Cemetery. The keynote speaker of the event was Edward Everett. As his speech continued on and on, people standing in the crowd had to sit or risk their legs buckling. On the stage, the speakers had chairs to rest on until their time to speak came.
President Abraham Lincoln sat in a rocking chair between Everett and Secretary of State William Seward.
“Mr. Lincoln sat on the platform all the time in a rude, little stiff-backed chair, hard, and uncomfortable, but he hardly ever moved,” Dr. Henry Jacobs recalled in the Gettysburg Times in 1923. He had been a young boy in the audience at the dedication.
When Everett had finished his two-hour speech, the president stood up from his rocker, walked to the podium and delivered 286 words that we still recall today as one of the great speeches of American history.
Today, you can see the chair that President Abraham Lincoln was sitting in when he was killed. You can see the chair he sat in while writing portions of his Gettysburg Address, but as we approach the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, whatever happened to the rocking chair Lincoln sat on during the dedication ceremony?
That’s a tricky question.
Gettysburg College owns it…maybe.
In 1847, Gettysburg College (then Pennsylvania College) students built Linnaean Hall, primarily as a place to display their rock and mineral collections. Over the years, other collections were placed on display in the hall. At first, they were all scientific featuring shells, plants and animals. Then they became historical.
“Miscellaneous collections included coins, Indian relics; natural curiosities, battlefield memorials, and the like. A few stray items such as an ivory cane used by Abraham Lincoln, and a paper signed by George Washington, have also been found,” The Gettysburgian reported in 1937.
One of those “stray” items was apparently an armless, cane-backed rocking chair that is supposed to have been the one that Lincoln sat upon during the dedication ceremony for Soldiers’ National Cemetery. The problem was there is no record as to where the chair came from. The records may have been lost, damaged or never existed at all. The college did not have the controls that it does now.
This can be seen in the fact that Linnaean Hall had no security for its collections. “The building was open to visitors at all times, and as a result people finally began to steal the valuable collections,” The Gettysburgian reported in 1937.
The Lincoln chair was apparently a victim of such a theft. When it disappeared from Linnaean Hall in the early 1920’s, “No public ado” was made of it, according to the Gettysburg Times in 1945.
“College officials knew the chair had disappeared but there was nothing to indicate its whereabouts—and little reason to hope that it might ever be recovered,” the Gettysburg Times reported.
Linnaean Hall was demolished in 1942 and what remained of the exhibits were moved to the east end of the third floor of Glatfelter Hall, at least the collections that were still around.
“Since there was no place to store the large rock and mineral collections, and geology was taught no longer, they were hauled to a local dump and deposited. As a footnote to this travesty, the October 1, 1942 issue of the Gettysburg Times would note that ‘The accumulation of junk has been removed, the pigeons and squirrels have found new abodes, the students have no more windows to smash, the Owl and Nightingale Club has no place for its sign, and Joe the Janitor has several hundred square feet more lawn to mow,'” Jay Lininger wrote in his article “Chronicles of Central Pennsylvania Mineralogy” on Pennminerals.com in 1998.
A part of the college’s history had been lost, but as the saying goes, “History repeats itself.” So it would be with Gettysburg College as the chair that had mysteriously appeared as part of its collections and then disappeared would again just as mysteriously reappear.