Friday, October 16, 2009

Book Review: The Story of Lee's Headquarters

Smith, Timothy H. The Story of Lee's Headquarters: Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Thomas Publications. Gettysburg, PA. 1995. 92 pages, 67 pages of text. Index, notes, maps, b/w photos.

On the Chambersburg Pike, situated on Seminary Ridge, near the Quality Inn sits a small but extraordinary building today known as General Lee's Headquarters Museum. Author Timothy H. Smith takes us on a brief but enjoyable tour through the history of this building and the surrounding area that despite it's importance in the first days fighting is still not part of the Gettysburg National Military Park.

Built in 1833 or 1834 by Michael Clarkson the property was purchased by Thaddeus Stevens in trust for Mary Thompson in 1846. Ms. Thompson lived in the house until her death in 1873.

The house and it's occupants were witness to some of the heaviest fighting of the battle during the first days fight. The Confederates eventually were able to gain control of the area and force a Union retreat. The main escape route for Union soldiers was the Chambersburg Pike into Gettysburg toward Cemetery Hill. This came to be known as having to "run the gauntlet" due to the fact that Confederates were closing in on three sides. On the first day of battle more than 2,000 Union soldiers were taken prisoner here and also by being caught in the railroad cut just north of the Pike.

General Lee arrived during the late afternoon on July 1, 1863 and Smith uses many eyewitness accounts to place him inside the Thompson House. After the war the home became known as General Lee's Headquarters. Tourists came to see where Lee commanded from. In the fall of 1863 John Bachelder published a map with the Thompson House being labeled "Gen Lee Hd Qt's" (page 50). Many other maps labeled the house in a similar way.

Around the turn of the century a movement sprang forth to try and discredit the story that Lee used the Thompson House as his headquarters. One author, Henry Dustman, went so far as to claim Lee never set foot in the house. Another writer claimed to have interviewed a woman (he insinuated it was Mary Thompson) who claimed Lee did not stay at the house. The problem was the interview took place a year after Ms. Thompson died.

Brief mention is given to later owners of the house such as Clyde Daley and more recently Eric F. Larson. I would like to have known more about these men and the development of the museum and the grounds around it. That really does not seem to be important to the story Smith is telling and the book is not lessened in any way.

Smith has written a brief but fulfilling book on the Thompson House. He uses a nice mix of primary and secondary sources to prove that Lee was indeed at the Thompson House and that while he did not use it as an exclusive headquarters that is not what is important. What is important is that this house and the land surrounding it saw brutal fighting and we should remember what happened there. Overall a highly recommended book for anybody interested in the history of Gettysburg.

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