Widow Mary Thompson House (Gettysburg)

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Widow Mary Thompson House


:CSA1stNat: "The most unprotected, historically important building from the Civil War."

This picturesque, one and a half story stone house was built in 1834 and at the time of the Civil War was owned by the noted statesman Thaddeus Stevens. It was on July 1, 1863 that General Robert E. Lee established his personal headquarters next to this stone home. An ideal location, it was at the center and rear of his battle lines and it was on the same road that many more of his troops were quickly approaching.

LANDMARK PROFILE
  • Also Known As: General Lee's Headquarters
  • Battlefield: Gettysburg National Military Park, Pennsylvania
  • Location: 401 Buford Avenue (US Route 30)
  • Map Coordinates: +39° 50' 5.29", -77° 14' 42.67"
  • Admission: Free, Daily Open Access to Outdoor Property, House Open to Public on Select Days
LANDMARK DETAILS
  • Built: 1834 by Michael Clarkson
  • Type: 1½ Story 1,200 Square Foot Duplex with Stone Exterior
  • Construction: Cedar Shingle Roof
  • Property Size: 4.01-acres
  • Owner in 1863: Thaddeus Stevens (in trust for Mary Thompson)
    • Purchased Sherriff Sale at a cost of $16.00 in January 1846.
  • Tennant in 1863: Mrs. Mary Thompson
  • Current Owner: Civil War Trust, since 2015, with plans to turn over to the NPS when it's able to expand it's boundaries.
  • History after Battle:

    • 1863 - That autumn, Mary Thompson's House was listed on Map as "Gen Lee Hd Qt's"
    • 1873 - Mary Thompson's lived in the house until the time of her death
    • 1896 - A fire gutted the interior of the house, but the stone walls stood
    • 1907 - Longtime tennant Emma Feister was arrested for “keeping a bawdy house”
    • The Thompson House was not purchased by the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association, the War Department, or the National Park Service when it was available for sale, possibly because of the lewd activities known to be happening at the house at that time. Perhaps, it may have been because the 1st day's battle was a defeat for the North, and therefore a less desirable battlefield location to feature in the park, in their opinion.
    • 1913 - Route 30 became part of the Lincoln Highway
    • 1921 - Property was purchased by a new owner C.F. Daily
    • 1921 - The House was renovated and became the Privately Owned "General Lee’s Headquarters Museum"
    • 1945 - Eric Larson became the next owner of the property
    • 1960's - A hotel complex using the name "General Lee's Headquarters" was built behind the home
    • A dormered hotel luxury suite was added to the 2nd floor of the house
    • 1995 - Property purchased for $1.22 million by Bill and Tom Monahan
    • 2015 - Property and Hotel Complex were purchased by the Civil War Trust for $6 million
    • 2016 - On October 28, 2016, the site was reopened including a fully rehabilitated home, with landscaping retuned to its original 1863 appearance.

LANDMARK HISTORY

At the time of the battle, the house was the dwelling place of Mrs. Mary Thompson, who was known by the residents of Gettysburg simply as the "Widow" Thompson. She was not excited about having her house occupied by a "Rebel," but she "…testifies that the gentlemanly deportment of General Lee whilst in her house, but complains bitterly of the robbery and general destruction of her goods by some of his attendants."

At the time of the battle of Gettysburg, the Thompson house was probably a duplex. The eastern side of the house was unoccupied during the period of the battle, while the western side was occupied by the widow Thompson. As the battle raged outside, Mrs. Thompson and her daughter-in-law with two small children probably sought shelter in the cellar beneath the house. Lee's staff chose this house not only because of this close proximity to the center of the Confederate line, but also because the house with its thick wall afforded the General some physical protection from artillery shells.

There is some controversy as to whether this was the actual headquarters of Lee. Across the road is a peach orchard which is said to also been the headquarters of Lee in the form of tents. There is a monument there which marks the spot. Some believe his men were there and he stayed in the house.

In 1896 the Thompson house caught fire, and though the stone structure held, the inside was destroyed, and required an extensive restoration. At some point the structure was converted from a one and half story house to a two story house with the addition of two dormers.

In the Spring of 1922 the house was opened to the public as the Lee Museum by Mr. C. F. Daley who began displaying artifacts and relics found on the battlefield and brought back to town by visiting veterans. Since that time, the museum has been in continuous operation and remains one of the oldest museums in Gettysburg.

Even though the widow's house is commonly referred to as Lee’s Headquarters, and even though it was the center of fierce fighting on July 1, 1863, the Thompson property was never purchased by the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association, the War Department, or the National Park Service.

LANDMARK CONTROVERSIES
'Lee's Headquarters' Label
1578673103812.png

General Lee's Headquarters Museum, ©Michael Kendra, Oct. 1999


After the conclusion of the 1st Day's Battle, General Robert E. Lee did setup his headquarters at the orchard across from the Thompson House, but it's also known that Lee took several meetings, and at least a meal, and some speculate maybe a nights sleep in the Thompson House. Dinner on July 1 was reportedly served to him and perhaps select staff members in the house by Mary Thompson's daughter-in-law, Mrs. James Thompson. His staff would be milling around in the near vicinity, so around the house was a convenient meeting spot for couriers, senior officers, etc., therefore in a larger sense, it can legitimately be considered as part of Lee's headquarters during the battle.

There is evidence that maps, drawn as early as the Autumn of 1863, marked the Thompson House as the site of Lee's Headquarters.

The controversy is that the house was labeled Lee's Headquarters, which perhaps officially, it was not, but the label was again applied and reinforced in the minds of visitors when the home became a Museum in 1921, and as travelers frequently passed signs on the newly paved Route 30 - Lincoln Highway the label stuck. Some authors began to rebuke this "label" with new claims that Lee never even set foot in the house.

Sgt. Martin V. Gander of the 39th Virginia Battalion wrote long after the battle: "placed four guards around the old stone house ... the personal headquarters of Gen. Lee the evening of July 1, 1863 about 5:30 p.m. at the command of Adj. Gen. [Walter] Taylor, who was in the field headquarters across the street in a tent with Col. Douglas. I delivered messages from Gen. Lee at the house to Gen. Ewell and Gen. Johnston [sic] all during the ... battle."

Civil War Trust Purchase & Removal of Taxable Property

According to Adams County tax records, the property was valued at $3.32 million for the 2013 tax year and generated $12,395.88 in property tax to Adams County, $11,690.21 to Gettysburg Borough and $34,228.15 to Gettysburg Area School District.

With the property’s sale to the Civil War Trust and eventual transition to the NPS, it will come off the tax rolls. Additional money, including a local services tax income and pillow tax funds from the hotel will also be lost.

Locals were very concerned about this local tax revenue that was "lost".

ADDITIONAL PHOTOS

1578673470045.png

Thompson House, Taken July 1863, LOC.

1578673549308.png

Photo by Mathew Brady, Taken July 1863, LOC.

1578673583429.png

Photo by Unknown, Taken in 1903, LOC.

1578673611440.png

Photo by William Tipton, Taken about 1913, LOC.

1578673647435.png

Photo taken in 1915.

ADDITIONAL READING
RELATED LINKS
citation information The following information is provided for citations.
Article Title:
Widow Mary Thompson House
Author:
CivilWarTalk
Website Name:
CivilWarTalk.com
URL:
https://civilwartalk.com/threads/widow-mary-thompson-house-gettysburg.167355/
Publisher:
CivilWarTalk, LLC
Original Published Date:
June 1, 2021

links to state and national monuments, and nearby landmarks Located at Gettysburg National Military Park, in Adams County, Pennsylvania (rev.6/1/21)
National Monuments
Eternal Light Peace Memorial Friend to Friend Masonic Memorial High Water Mark
Lincoln Speech Memorial Soldiers' National Monument
U.S. State Monuments
DE IN MD NY NY Auxiliary PA VT U.S. Regulars
C.S. State Monuments
AL AK DE FL GA LA MD MS NC SC TN TX VA
Union Regimentals
CT DE IL IN ME MD MA MI MN
NH NJ NY OH PA RI VT WV WI U.S. Regulars
Landmarks
Black Horse Tavern Cashtown Inn Alexander Dobbin House Evergreen Cemetery Gatehouse Jennie Wade House
Lutheran Theological Seminary McAllister's Mill Railroad Station
Thompson House David Wills House
Farms: Codori Bliss Brian
Daniel Schaefer Hummelbaugh Klingle Lady Leister McLean McPherson
Rogers Rose Rummel Sherfy Slyder Snyder Taney Trostle George Weikert Wentz
Points of Interest
New Museum & Visitor Center Benner's Hill Cemetery Hill Copse of Trees Culp's Hill
Devil's Den Peach Orchard Little Round Top
Big Round Top Sachs Covered Bridge
Spangler's Spring East Cavalry Field Soldiers' National Cemetery National Cemetery Annex

Gone But Not Forgotten: Old Museum, Visitor Center, & Electric Map Old Cyclorama National Tower
 
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