Gettysburg Spring 2009 : Page 19

for example, he debated the question: “Should slavery be allowed in Washington, D.C.?” It was a hotly contested topic from the nation’s capital to the corridors of Pennsylvania Hall to points north and south. The issue of slavery in Washington, D.C. was part of the Compromise of 1850, which was designed to defuse the political tension that was building over the slave vs. free status of new terri- tories. Although the Compromise was hotly contested, the death of its most prominent opponent, President Zachery Taylor, paved the way for its passage. Wills described his reaction to the President’s death in his diary on July 9, 1850: “Heard that General Taylor was very unwell…studied Greek and about 10-1/2 hours, heard bells of the churches begin to toll, knew immediately general was dead. I was very much shocked when I heard it but great as well as small must yield to death…a whole nation mourns the loss of its chief. How solemn the sound of those bells.” The following year Wills completed his studies at Pennsylvania College. He graduated with high honors, one of 14 graduates of Pennsylvania College’s Class of 1851. A prominent citizen Armed with his degree, Wills traveled south to Alabama, where he served as principal of the Academy at Cahaba, Alabama. Just one year later, he returned to Gettysburg to study law. Wills served as an apprentice to another leading player in the College’s history: abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, who had a law office on Chambersburg Street. It was Stevens, who as a young freshman member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives from Adams County in 1834, spoke convincingly in favor of a bill appropriating funds for a building to house the newly formed Pennsylvania College. He spoke so convincingly that the legislature approved an $18,000 appropriation, which made it possible to finance a site and construct Pennsylvania Hall — on land that Stevens sold to the College for a nominal sum. Like Wills, Stevens would later become a trustee of the College. Law was a good match for Wills. After passing the Bar of Pennsylvania, he began his practice in 1854. As was the custom of the day, he traveled the local circuit, arguing cases as far a field as Philadelphia, Lancaster, and Chambersburg, but it was in Gettysburg near where he grew up that he chose to settle. It didn’t take long for the young graduate to make his mark as a prominent citizen of the town. Just three years after graduation, Wills was elected burgess of the Borough of Gettysburg and first superintendent of the Schools of Adams County — a post he would hold for four decades. In 1856 he was elected director of the Bank of Gettysburg and of the local railroad company, a manager of the county’s Fire Insurance Company and also of the Gas Company that brought electric light to Gettysburg. His travels throughout the eastern part of the state helped build his practice, but they also made it possible for Wills to visit his childhood sweetheart, Catherine “Jennie” Smyser, whose father had moved his family to Norristown upon his appointment as a district judge. Love, marriage, war Wills married Jennie on June 19, 1856. Three years later the couple moved into what is known to this day as “The Wills House” on the southeast corner of the square in Gettysburg. The first floor housed Wills’ law office with its separate entrance on York Street. The family quarters on the second floor were soon filled with children as well as the widowed fathers of both David and Jennie. The Wills had seven children; three daughters survived to adulthood. Jennie was pregnant with her fourth child in July 1863 when the Army of Northern Virginia invaded Pennsylvania and confronted the Army of the Potomac in Gettysburg. The town witnessed the bloodiest battle in American his- tory with 5,500 soldiers from both armies killed and 22,000 wounded. Another 4,000 of the wounded would eventually succumb to their injuries. The townspeople, including the Wills family, opened their homes to wounded soldiers, and for a time Jennie cared for General Winfield Scott Hancock who had been severely wounded at Pickett’s Charge. Downstairs, Wills’ law office became the administrative center of the clean- up process, serving as a 19th-century form of FEMA. Wills’ office was a depot for supplies for the U.S. Sanitary and Christian Commissions and a repository for mail from families looking for help finding their sons. The Cemetery Procession, led by Union Soldiers The only known photograph taken of the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln is in the middle. SPRING 2009 • GETTYSBURG COLLEGE 19

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