Lee's Headquarters

A Guided Tour

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Lynn Light Heller

People had been living peacefully in and around Gettysburg for more than 75 years before the Civil War brought mighty armies to the town and forever changed its character and landscape.

In 1863, Mary Thompson, a widow for more than two decades, had been living in a stone house on what is called Seminary Ridge for 17 years. 

On July 1, Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s staff selected Thompson’s house as the general’s headquarters, and Mary’s life was irreversibly changed.

When the largest battle ever fought on American soil descended upon Gettysburg, Mrs. Thompson remained in her home throughout, despite the proximity of her home to intense combat.

She tended to wounded soldiers around her home. Some were buried close to her house.

After the armies departed, reporters and sightseers came calling, wanting to see and learn more about Robert E. Lee and the battle that swirled around the stone house.

The evidence suggests that Mary was not fond of her newly found fame. Mary left Gettysburg for a short time after the battle, perhaps because of the crush of visitors.

Whether she enjoyed her fame or not, it did not help her financially, for Thaddeus Stevens, now a powerful antislavery U.S. Congressman, continued to assist Mary until his death in 1868.

Mary Thompson died of tuberculosis and old age in May 1873.

Her home continued to attract visitors long after her death and eventually tourists were able to stay in cottages next to the house. 

A motel and restaurant thrived on this part of the battlefield and a lucky few were able to sleep in the stone house.

By the early 2000s, the motel had a pool, gift shop, putting green and other amenities.

The owners approached the American Battlefield Trust in 2013, and the latter announced a fundraising effort to preserve and restore 4 acres, her stone house and a home across the road where her son, James Thompson, had lived during the Civil War.

In October 2016, the American Battlefield Trust unveiled the restoration effort. For the first time in more than a century, Mary Thompson, if she was still living, would recognize her home.

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