Monday, October 24, 2016

Bye-bye, clutter: Civil War Trust completes Lee headquarters restoration at Gettysburg

(Photo courtesy of the Civil War Trust)

The Civil War Trust two years ago pledged to restore the site of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s headquarters at Gettysburg as much as possible to its July 1863 appearance when a maelstrom of war descended on the property.

The widow Mary Thompson would be proud. Her love for a dog and flowers have been restored for posterity.

This Friday, visitors will be able to see the exacting detail rendered in an ambitious $6 million project that included the razing of a motel and restaurant, the building of an interpretive trail and preservation of Thompson’s stone home.

Working from Mathew Brady photographs taken shortly after the battle, crews built replicas of an arbor and doghouse that were features of the small residence along Chambersburg Pike, the Washington Post reported.

Doghouse above number 6 in top photo (Civil War Trust)

The Civil War Trust, along with other preservation groups, will have an 11:30 a.m. ribbon-cutting ceremony to unveil all that’s been done on the 4-acre property.

Gary Adelman, director of historian and education for the Trust, told the Gettysburg Daily website that the transformation of the property will give Gettysburg visitors a new appreciation of what occurred July 1, 1863, the first day of the momentous battle.

Adelman says on a video“Now that we can stand here and not be standing in the bottom of a swimming pool, not with a putt-putt golf course right over, here, not with a hotel complex literally surrounding us over here -- we can now see what the soldier saw here on Seminary Ridge. This is the last position to fall on July 1, 1863, in this part of the battlefield.”

The Thompson home, built in about 1833, was co-owned by U.S. Rep. Thaddeus Stevens. Thompson, about 70, lived across the road from one son (also part of the Trust property); seven other children lived elsewhere.

The Federal army used the area as a defensive position as hordes of Confederates converged west of town. Among the units who held the ground for several vital hours were the 143rd Pennsylvania, Battery B of the 4th U.S. artillery and perhaps the 6th Wisconsin of the Iron Brigade.

Brig. Gen. Alfred Scales said his North Carolinians “encountered a most terrific fire of grape and shell on our flank, and grape and musketry on our front. Every discharge made sad havoc in our line, but still we pressed on at a double-quick.”

Widow Thompson may be figure at right (Library of Congress)

There was heavy fighting all around the house, leaving parts of the home’s wooden fences trampled and windows shattered by gunfire. After the Yankees were pushed back toward other positions (and a large surrender of U.S. troops in the Railroad Cut), Lee set up his headquarters for the next two days. Tents surrounded the Thompson home.

“This is the site of the nerve center of the Confederate army during the battle,” historian and Licensed Battlefield Guide Tim Smith told the Trust. There is some debate on whether Lee used the house or was in a tent nearby, Smith told Gettysburg Daily.

The house was used to treat wounded soldiers, with the widow among those rendering aid. Thompson died in 1873. According to the Trust, a longtime tenant was arrested in 1907 for “keeping a bawdy house.”

Interestingly, the property did not become part of Gettysburg National Military Park when it was created in the 1890s. The home became a museum (1921) and was surrounded by a motel and restaurant, virtually erasing any sense of its 1863 appearance.

Demolition of motel office (Civil War Trust)

The Trust in 2014 launched its fundraising effort to buy the property and museum collection. The hotel and restaurant were demolished, parking lots were removed and the property was regraded to more approximate its wartime appearance. The house itself saw extensive restoration – inside and out -- and got a new roof. New fences were built and trees planted.

Meg Martin, communications manager for the Trust, told the Picket that the Thompson house in the future will be open for special events. Visitors can walk the grounds and interpretive trail.

Officials would like for Lee’s headquarters to be managed one day by the National Park Service.

“We consulted with the Civil War Trust when they acquired the property and were very pleased by their intentions to remove non-historic intrusions and bring back missing features," said Katie Lawhon, a spokeswoman for Gettysburg National Military Park.

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