Imagine spending $6 million to buy a moneymaking hotel complex on four acres of land and then bulldozing everything except one small building.
That is what the Civil War Trust did this year to rescue what had been the headquarters of Gen. Robert E. Lee during the Battle of Gettysburg.
“It’s just the way Robert Lee saw it,” said a delighted Trust president, Jim Lighthizer, as he walked around the 1½ story 1832 house, the former home of Mary Thompson that now stands alone on Seminary Ridge next to Chambersburg Pike. Gone is the 48-room, brick motel with its extensive parking lots, swimming pool, fitness center and gift shop that had formed a cocoon around the historic building.
The public is invited to tour the stone house with its restored interior and exterior at a ribbon-cutting on Oct. 28, tentatively scheduled for 11:30 a.m.
The Trust rarely buys a historic building. It is battlefields that interest the organization that has saved more than 42,000 acres of hallowed ground, most of which is turned over to the National Park Service or a similar preservation group. Lee’s Headquarters was different.
“It was arguably the most unprotected, historically important building from the Civil War,” Lighthizer said. “This was huge, huge. Here was a physical space where enormously important events took place.”
Thompson, who was about age 70 and a widow at the time of the battle, sheltered in place during the heavy fighting that swirled around her house on July 1, 1863. Within a few hours, windows were broken out, a fence destroyed and the grounds trampled but the solid stone walls held up well. As the Confederates pushed the Union forces off Thompson’s property in the late afternoon, Lee arrived at what would be his headquarters inside and outside the house for the next three days.
Although the house is what drew the attention of the Trust, in this case the grounds are also important not only for the intense fighting that took place and the hospital established there, but also the excellent view the ridge offered Lee to watch Union movements in the town. It still offers a wonderful view of Gettysburg.
The modern hotel that the Trust hurried to tear down is also what had protected the Lee Headquarters for much of the 20th century and early 21st century. Beginning in the 1920s, the house was converted to a Civil War museum and a tourist court opened nearby. That morphed into the sprawling hotel complex that used General Lee’s Headquarters as part of its name. The first floor of the house continued in use as a museum but the upstairs was offered as a luxury suite associated with Lee’s presence in the building.
Although Lee’s Headquarters was not a secret, few tourists knew of its existence. Always in private hands, the building does not appear to have been a part of any organized battlefield tours. Lighthizer estimated that 80 percent of the visitors to Gettysburg never knew the building existed. That should change. When the Park Service is able to expand its boundaries, the Thomson house and land will be given to the government.
Visitors to the Thompson House will see a roughly 1,200-square-foot, duplex with a handsome stone exterior. At this point, there is no furniture in the house — and there probably will not be in the near future — or anything to reflect Thompson’s lifestyle outside the house. Plans call for the Trust to replicate a picket fence, flower arbor and doghouse that are visible in photographs made of the house by Mathew Brady a few days after the battle. An apple orchard will be planted at the rear of the building to resemble the one Thompson had.
Lighthizer, who is well known for his ability to raise millions of dollars to save targeted Civil War battlefields, said he was amazed how quickly the donations came in for Lee’s Headquarters when he made an appeal to the organization’s 55,000 members. This time he was raising money for the most expensive per-acre purchase — close to $1.5 million per acre — the Trust had ever attempted.
“It took less than a year,” he said. “We were talking about the most famous man in Civil War history and country’s best known battlefield. Everyone knows those two names. Everyone wanted to help.”