Some great news today from our friends at the Civil War Trust: On the 151st anniversary of the start of battle of Gettysburg, the Trust has announced a fund-raising effort to acquire one of the most prominent landmarks on the Day One battlefield.
The Trust launched this morning a $5.5 million effort to preserve and restore site of Robert E. Lee’s headquarters.
“For decades, the small stone house on Seminary Ridge from which Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee commanded his army during the Battle of Gettysburg has been unprotected and surrounded by commercial development,” the Trust said in a press release. “But thanks to a national fundraising campaign announced today by the Civil War Trust and other national and Pennsylvania conservation leaders, permanent preservation of General Lee’s Headquarters may soon be realized.”
The Trust held a news conference on the battlefield this morning where they were joined by dignitaries including Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett. “From Independence Hall to Gettysburg and the Flight 93 memorial, the Pennsylvania landscape bears witness to some of the most pivotal moments in American history,” Corbett said. “It is an honor for me to be here as we announce a campaign to ensure that another chapter in that story remains available to our children and grandchildren.”
To make that vision a reality, the Civil War Trust has formally launched the fundraising campaign to acquire the four-acre Lee’s Headquarters site. A Trust spokesman told ECW that the work has been going on behind the scenes for much longer, however. Thanks to the generosity of major donors, a considerable portion of the fundraising goal has already been met. In addition, the Trust expects to apply for a Civil War Land Acquisition Grant of up to $1.5 million from the American Battlefield Protection Program, an agency within the National Park Service. The Trust must raise the remaining $1.1 million by the end of 2014.
“Projects like this—where we have the opportunity to save sites of indisputable significance to the outcome of the Civil War and, with it, the shaping of our nation—are exactly why the Civil War Trust exists,” said Trust president James Lighthizer during the news conference. “Ambitious efforts like the purchase of Lee’s Headquarters will be among the most permanent and meaningful legacies of the sesquicentennial commemoration.”
The property played a key role in combat on July 1, 1863, and includes two historic buildings, notably the Mary Thompson House, used throughout the remainder of the battle as Robert E. Lee’s headquarters. Since 1921, a museum has operated out of the house, with other businesses, including a 48-room hotel and a restaurant, occupying adjacent modern buildings. The Trust’s purchase agreement with the Belmar Partnership includes the 4.1 acre-property and all buildings on the site.
“To the preservation community, this land was long considered lost,” said Deputy Secretary of the Interior Mike Connor. “Thus, the journey we embark upon today is especially meaningful—we are not just protecting a piece of American heritage, we are reclaiming it for future generations.”
The sale is expected to be completed by early 2015. Prior to the acquisition, the Quality Inn at General Lee’s Headquarters, under the management of Impact Hospitality, and the Appalachian Brewing Company will continue normal operations. Those businesses currently on the property will be vacating of their own will, a Trust spokesman stressed. “No one is being kicked out or forced out,” he explained. “That’s one reason why this process has taken so long. Everyone wanted to make sure there was a smooth transition for all parties, especially the businesses.”
Once business operations have concluded, the Civil War Trust will begin the restoration phase of the project. The Trust was also recently informed by the Belmar Partnership, the owner of the property, that it will gift a significant portion of the artifacts in the collection of the General Lee’s Headquarters Museum to the Trust.
“This transaction is yet another example of the way relationships like the one we enjoy with the Civil War Trust add immeasurably to the strength of the National Park Service,” said NPS director Jonathan B. Jarvis. “From Gettysburg to Glorieta Pass, this is a public-private partnership setting aside our nation’s treasures for the benefit of all Americans.”
After purchasing the property, the Trust will work closely Gettysburg Foundation — the nonprofit partner that owns and operates the Museum and Visitor Center at Gettysburg National Military Park and pursues a broad preservation mission including land, monument and artifact preservation, as well as battlefield rehabilitation — who will steward the property, ensuring its safekeeping and maintaining public access. The two organizations have a history of partnership stretching back to 1997. Eventually, this land will be donated to the National Park Service for incorporation into the existing battlefield park.
“In the protection of Lee’s Headquarters, the Trust and the Foundation have the opportunity to shepherd and safeguard one of the most exciting historic resources on the battlefield,” said Gettysburg Foundation chairman Robert Kinsley. “Together, we will see that this site is protected for future generations, and becomes the property of the American people.”
Some of the heaviest fighting on July 1, 1863, took place around the home of 69-year-old widow Mary Thompson, a building co-owned by U.S. Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (who, as depicted in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, was instrumental in passing the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution).
Retreating federal soldiers formed a new line on Seminary Ridge and three guns of Battery B, 4th U. S. Artillery were positioned around the Thompson house, delivering raking canister fire into the Confederates. Brig. Gen. Alfred Scales reported that 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.” Eventually, they could go no further; every field officer in the brigade, save one, had fallen. The 13th North Carolina lost 150 of 180 men under the hale of 57 canister rounds expended by Stevens’s battery. Eventually, however, the Confederate tide seized the ridge and the Federals fell back through town.
That evening Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee arrived on the field and established his headquarters on the Thompson property. From here he dispatched and received couriers relaying the unfolding events at Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill. On this land, Lee discussed with his lieutenants the attack that would come to be known as Pickett’s Charge, setting in motion a chain of events that determined the outcome of the battle.
The Civil War Trust is the largest nonprofit battlefield preservation organization in the United States. Its mission is to preserve our nation’s endangered Civil War battlefields and to promote appreciation of these hallowed grounds. To date, it has preserved more than 39,000 acres of battlefield land in 20 states, including 940 acres at Gettysburg. Learn more at www.civilwar.org.