Gettysburg’s Leister Farm

3 07 2019


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An edited version of this article appeared as the first of a series I wrote for Civil War Times magazine, beginning in the June 2010 issue. The column was first called In Harm’s Way, and later as Collateral Damage.

The Leister House

The Leister house is best known for serving as the headquarters of Union Major General George Gordon Meade during the battle of Gettysburg – particularly as the site of the famous council of war held in its cramped interior on the evening of July 2, 1863.

The 1.5 story log house on Taneytown Rd. south of the town of Gettysburg was built no later than 1840, by Thomas Nolan. The farm at 10 acres was small for the day, as was the house at about 390 square feet plus floored attic. The main living area consisted of two rooms: a kitchen and a living/bedroom. Nolan sold the farm to Henry Bishop, Sr. in 1840, and Lydia (Study) Leister purchased it from Bishop for $900 on March 30, 1861, apparently with funds left her by her father but held in trust until her alcoholic husband’s death. Lydia and her husband James moved to the Gettysburg area from Maryland in 1850, and James died on Dec. 11, 1859, leaving behind his wife and six children, at least two of whom were living with Lydia on the farm at the time of the battle.

On July 1, 1863, Lydia and young Hannah and Matilda were advised by a mounted Union officer to leave the farm for their safety. They eventually found shelter on the Baltimore Road. The farm’s location was ideal for communications; the house and outbuildings were occupied and the grounds used as a signal station, the fields crossed frequently by troops, messengers and staff. On July 2nd and 3rd, Meade established his headquarters there. By the afternoon of the 3rd, it was being used as an aid station. Gettysburg resident Daniel Skelly visited the farmhouse on July 6th:

“In the front room of the house was a bed, the covers of it thrown back; and its condition indicated that a wounded soldier had occupied it. I was told that General Butterfield, Meade’s chief of staff, who had been wounded, had been placed upon it before being taken to a hospital.”

When Lydia and her children returned, they were greeted with devastation. In 1865 she described the scene to author John T. Trowbridge:

“I owed a little on my land yit, and thought I’d put in two lots of wheat that year, and it was all trampled down, and I didn’t get nothing from it. I had seven pieces of meat yit, and them was all took. All I had when I got back was jest a little bit of flour yit. The fences was all tore down, so that there wasn’t one standing, and the rails was burnt up. One shell came into the house and knocked a bedstead all to pices for me…The porch was all knocked down. There was seventeen dead horses on my land. They burnt five of ‘em around my best peach tree and killed it; so I ha’n’t no peaches this year. They broke down all my young apple trees for me. The dead horses sp’iled my spring, so I had to have my well dug.”

Trowbridge reflected on Leister:

“This poor woman’s entire interest in the great battle was, I found, centered in her own losses. That the country lost or gained she did not know or care, never having once thought of that side of the question.”

Lydia was eventually able to repair her house, even building a two story addition. She also expanded the farm, purchasing additional acreage from neighbor Peter Frey. She sold the bedroom table used by Meade during his stay to an Edmund Cleveland of Elisabeth, NJ (the table subsequently made its way back to the Park’s collection), and also sold for fertilizer the 750 pounds of bone from the dead horses, from which it took over 18 months for the meat to rot. She lived on the farm until 1888, when poor health caused her to move into town. At that time, the Gettysburg Battlefield Preservation Association purchased the farm from Lydia for $3,000.

The original farm house was lived in continually by tenant farmers into the 1920’s. In 1933 the property was taken over by the National Park service, at which time it ceased to operate as a tenant farm and the buildings used for storage. In 1961, extensive excavation and reinforcement of the foundation was done, and the house was fully restored in 1966.

Upon selling her farm to the GBPA, Lydia had the two-story addition removed to a lot she purchased in town. She lived in that dwelling, which today is known as the Gettystown Inn near the Dobbin House on Steinwehr Ave., until her death at the age of 84 on Dec. 29, 1893, and is buried in Gettysburg’s Evergreen Cemetery. Over the years Lydia Leister had filed claims against the War Department totaling just over $1,311 for damages to her farm during the battle. Settlement was made for $52.50.

[See here for some photos of the Leister house and farm. Thanks to GNMP and Ranger Troy Harmon for access to the house on a very, very cold day.]

Sources: Gettysburg National Military Park files; http://www.dobbinhouse.com; National Park Service Cultural Resources Management Bulletin Vol. 5, #4, December 1982, “The Mystery of General Meade’s Table,” Ronald Sheetz, http://crm.cr.nps.gov/archive/05-4/5-4-all.pdf; “A Strange and Blighted Land,” Gregory Coco; “A Vast Sea of Misery,” Gregory Coco; “The South: A Tour of its Battle-Fields and Ruined Cities,” John T. Trowbridge.





Henry P. Bottom House, Perryville Battlefield State Historic Site

9 10 2016
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1862 Perryville Property Map (Courtesy of Perryville Battlefield State Historic Site – PBSHS) HPB marks the Henry Bottom Farm

In recognition of yesterday’s 154th anniversary of the Battle of Perryville, here is the unedited version of my Collateral Damage article which ran in the June, 2011 edition of Civil War Times magazine. Click the images for larger ones.

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H. P. Bottom House today (battleofperryville.com)

On the morning of October 8, 1862, northwest of the town of Perryville in Boyle County, Kentucky, Union Major General Don Carlos Buell’s gathering Army of the Ohio faced east across rolling terrain toward Confederate General Braxton Bragg’s Army of the Mississippi. Between the lines of Maj. Gen. Alexander McCook’s First Corps of Buell’s army and Maj. Gen William Hardee’s Left Wing of Bragg’s lay the farm of Henry Bottom. The area of the house and barn, on the western bank of mostly dry Doctor’s Creek where it crossed the Mackville Road, was also improved with stone and rail fences, some lining the road and creek, which would both afford cover and make maneuvering bodies of men problematic. On this very hot, dry, and dusty day the homestead’s location in the valley separating the two armies and its proximity to a water source placed it squarely in the path of the gathering storm. Bottom’s 760 acre farm was the ground over which much of the battle would rage. The battle would be marked by command confusion, erroneous assumptions, personality conflicts, and miscommunication on both sides, and proved to be the climax of a Confederate campaign meant to carry the war in the west from northern Mississippi to the banks of the Ohio River.

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Henry P. Bottom (PBSHS)

Henry Pierce Bottom was born in 1809. He was a Baptist, a farmer, a cabinet maker, and Justice of the Peace, which earned him the moniker “Squire”. He took Margaret “Mary” Hart, 10 years his junior, as his wife in 1840. They had two sons: Samuel (1841) and Rowan (1848). Also living at the Bottom House in October 1862 was Henry’s 77-year-old uncle, William. Henry owned eight slaves, aged three to sixty-two, and Uncle William owned two more, aged two and twenty-two. All ten slaves lived in one dwelling on the property.

Henry was surrounded by relatives: across the road to the north lived his mother, the widow Mary “Polly” Bottom; to the south was his cousin Sam; to the northwest another cousin, the widow Mary Gibson. In 1860 Henry’s farm, where he raised cattle, sheep, and swine, and grew oats, wheat, rye, corn, peas, beans, and potatoes, was valued at $16,000.

On the day of the battle, the Bottom’s substantial barn was filled with threshed wheat and oats for the approaching winter. During the fighting around the buildings, mostly between Colonel William Lytle’s Union brigade and those of Confederate Brig. Gens. Daniel Adams, Bushrod Johnson and Patrick Cleburne, several shots from Confederate artillery struck the barn. One of those shells set the structure ablaze. The heat was so intense that nearby Union soldiers could do nothing to help their wounded comrades trapped inside. This inferno in turn started a grass fire which would eventually kill a few more incapacitated men lying in the open.

After what was a tactical victory, Bragg’s Confederates withdrew on October 9, and Henry Bottom’s farm was in shambles. He had already suffered the loss of fences and barn, and the house and outbuildings were pockmarked with bullet holes. In addition, the battle resulted in over 1,400 men killed in action, most of whom littered the field afterwards. The Yankee garrison understandably focused on tending to their own, and consequently dead Confederates were left unprotected from the elements. As feral hogs from nearby woods became a ghoulish nuisance, Henry Bottom and other local slaveholders were impressed by the garrison to assist in burying the Confederate dead, which they hastily did. After the occupying troops marched off, Bottom, other locals, and some students from the nearby Kentucky School of the Deaf exhumed and relocated many of the bodies to a plot on his farm. There they interred the bodies of 347 men, about 30 of whom he was able to identify from their possessions, in a compact mass grave.

Henry Bottom remained on his farm after the war, but he was economically and spiritually broken by the effects of the battle – for the first time, he was forced to buy food to feed his family.

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H. P. Bottom House in 1885 (PBSHS)

Henry filed a claim against the U. S. government for damages that occurred after the battle as a result of additional demands by the army: $1,282 for “commissary” items such as pork, beef, bacon, cattle and sheep; and $3,580 for “quartermaster” goods including wood, corn, hay and oats. But in addition to showing that the losses were incurred after and not during the battle, a claimant had to prove that he had been a loyal citizen of the United States. Some of Henry’s neighbors claimed he was not only disloyal but was the area’s most prominent secessionist, and his claim was denied. But in 1902, his son Rowan re-filed the claim. The counter-testimony of other of Bottom’s neighbors attesting to his Unionism and disparaging the motivations of his detractors was considered by the Court of Claims, and Rowan was awarded $1,715 by act of Congress in 1914.

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H. P. Bottom on Cemetery Wall, 1885 (PBSHS)

Henry, who died in 1901 at the age of 92, is perhaps best remembered for his Confederate Cemetery. He had attempted to construct a stone wall around the site, but in 1885 it was incomplete and overgrown, and would remain so until the next century. On October 8, 1902, thanks to fundraising by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a twenty-eight foot tall granite monument was dedicated within the now completely walled-in cemetery.

The restored Bottom House can be viewed just outside the Perryville Battlefield State Historic Site, which consists of 745 acres, with another 300 protected by easements and over 7,000 total acres recognized as a National Historic Landmark. The park also includes a visitor’s center and museum, walking trails, and a Union monument near the Confederate cemetery. The “Squire” Bottom house is on private property.

Thanks to historian Kenneth W. Noe, author of Perryville – This Grand Havoc of Battle, and Kurt Holman of the Perryville Battlefield State Historic Site for their assistance.





Bull Run Articles in New “Civil War Times”

3 05 2016

Just a heads up: there are not one, but TWO new First Bull Run articles in the new (July 2016) issue of Civil War Times. The cover-story is yet another Hugh Judson Kilpatrick psycho-babble hit piece (at least, that’s what the cover would lead you to believe), but inside you’ll find two, yes TWO articles on The Only Battle That Matters (TOBTM). I can’t stress how very rare this is. Run out and get it now, before it’s replaced by an issue on Gettysburg.





New Bull Run Article in Civil War Times

5 04 2016

3John Hennessy, featured guide for Bull Runnings’ upcoming tour of the battlefield of First Bull Run, has an article on medical care at the battle in the new issue of Civil War Times.

That Sunday evening…the battlefield heaved and twitched under the weight of carnage. Hundreds of wounded men lay on the field, some of them struggling to breathe or signaling for help. Around them lay hundreds more, frozen in death. The nearly 900 dead men on the Matthews, Henry, Robinson and Chinn farms shocked observers by their sheer number. July 21, 1861, had been the deadliest day in America’s short history.

Check it out.





Oops…

29 11 2015

3The latest issue of Civil War Times (February 2016) is on newsstands now, and includes my review of a new e-book on page 66. The book is “If I Have Got to Go and Fight, I am Willing.”: A Union Regiment Forged in the Petersburg Campaign, a history of the 179th New York Infantry. I’d just like to clear something up with it. I’m not complaining, mind you, but there is a typo in the text that may be misleading. The text reads thus:

Click on the note number and you go right to the citation, without the need to flip back and forth. I would like to see these citations take another step, such as linking to public domain publications that are available online, taking readers to the specific passage when possible. Or for non-public domain publications, a link to purchase details (a possible revenue opportunity for publishers?) photographs, maps and illustrations that can be enlarged and swipe navigated, and links are provided to high-resolution copies on the author’s website.

That last sentence is confusing, and may lead the reader to believe I am suggesting that the book would be better if photographs, maps, and illustrations (don’t get me started on the jettisoned Oxford comma) could be enlarged and swipe navigated. Let me be clear – they can be and are in the book as is. Here is the passage as submitted:

Of course endnotes are actively linked – click on the note number and the reader is taken to the citation – no need to flip back and forth. I would like to see these cites taking another step, such as linking to public domain publications which have been digitized and are available on the web, even taking the reader to the specific passage cited when possible. Or for non-public domain publications, a link to purchase details (a possible revenue opportunity for publishers?) Photographs, maps, and illustrations can be enlarged and swipe-navigated, and links are provided to high resolution copies on the author’s website.

I’m not calling out my editors here: they are a great bunch and have been a pleasure to work with over the years. I just want to be clear about what the book does and does not offer. I admit that my placement of a question mark inside parentheses without a period to end the sentence may have contributed to the confusion. But you don’t have to publish too many pieces in periodicals to learn that there are things within and without your control. Like Dutchie said at the end of Ride With the Devil, “It ain’t right, it ain’t wrong. It just is.”

I apologize to the author, Ed Rutan, for this. As I told the magazine folks, I could have written a full article on the currently unfulfilled potential of the e-book. Mr. Rutan’s book is a notch above most in that regard.

 





Review: Rafuse (Ed.) “Corps Commanders in Blue”

26 03 2015

My review of Corps Commanders in Blue, written for Civil War Times, is running in the digital version of the June 2015 issue. For whatever reason, the review was reduced in length. As I believe this book was one of the best of 2014, I’m posting the full version below.

517bM0P30PL._SL500_AA300_Corps Commanders in Blue: Union Major Generals in the Civil War, Ethan S. Rafuse, Editor

Sometimes, too much familiarity with how “modern” armies operate can be a hindrance when studying those that operated under more primitive circumstances. Such is the case with the armies of the American Civil War. At some levels, strict obedience of orders was required. At others, limitations of distance and communications required subordinates to exercise much broader discretion than that with which we have become accustomed. Outside of army chief, at no level was an officer’s initiative and ability to exercise prudent discretion more desired and expected than at that of corps command. As such, the men who held these positions present a unique study opportunity, one seldom specifically explored. In Corps Commanders in Blue, editor Ethan Rafuse has called in eight prominent Civil War historians, including himself, and put together an equal number of case studies of Union Corps commanders, most familiar, and some less so.

John Hennessy starts things off with a very strong, and balanced, look at the Army of the Potomac’s controversial Fitz-John Porter, one ultimately critical of the “too superficial” conclusion that Porter was “ruined by his devotion to [George B.] McClellan.” Instead, it was his commitment to a conservative war policy – one that the Lincoln administration officially, at least, endorsed – that put Porter out of favor with the powers-that-were. Thomas Clemens gives a flesh-out of a relatively shadowy Joseph K. F. Mansfield, whose long antebellum army career could not overcome the “leadership and combat-experience problems” that pre-existed his late arrival to the Army of the Potomac’s 12th Corps prior to the Battle of Antietam. If Mansfield is shadowy, the subject of Kenneth Noe’s essay, Charles C. Gilbert, is a virtual unknown to many. His assignment to the command of the Third Corps of Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio was the result of a process of elimination of other candidates based on Buell’s personal and political considerations, and Gilbert’s experience in that role through the Battle of Perrysville was “a textbook case of how not to direct a corps.” In what may be the collection’s centerpiece essay, Christopher Stowe profiles George G. Meade in his role as commander of the Army of the Potomac’s 5th Corps. Stowe sets Meade’s record as corps commander straight, as an aggressive leader, as one who was held in high regard by peers and superiors, and as one who was clearly considered a leading alternative to Joseph Hooker as chief of the Army of the Potomac prior to Meade’s promotion to that post. Recent publications notwithstanding, Stowe notes that “[t]hroughout his career, Meade viewed himself not as a policymaker but as a public servant beholden to obey orders regardless of his personal feelings or impulses.”

While the first four essays cover their subjects’ entire careers in corps command, the last four examine specific periods of longer lengths of service in that role. Stephen Woodworth’s coverage of James B. McPherson in the Vicksburg Campaign, and Mark Snell’s of William B. Franklin in the Trans-Mississippi perhaps got a little side-tracked in the weeds of the details of the respective campaigns. Ultimately, McPherson’s “remarkably limited amount of experience” in the campaign “did not subject him to the most severe of tests.” Franklin appears to have performed as well as could be expected despite the highly dysfunctional command structure with which he had to deal. Ethan Rafuse’s sketch of Joseph Hooker’s stint in command of the 20th Corps of the Army of the Cumberland in 1864 reveals a competent, effective commander doomed by his inability to play well with others including Grant and Sherman, and by conniving anglers like John Schofield. Brooks Simpson’s essay on Winfield Scott Hancock’s command of the Army of the Potomac’s 2nd Corps in the Overland Campaign is a focused look at how “The Superb” performed those tasks peculiar to running and fighting a corps. While Hancock’s multi-layered command role at Gettysburg may be more well known, the author with good reason argues that the 1864 campaign is a better barometer of his performance strictly as a corps chief. In the course of a year, the nature of the fighting in Virginia had changed significantly. Those changes, along with failing health, limited Hancock in the use of the tactical skills and inspirational leadership for which he was best known.

Corps Commanders in Blue is an important contribution to the study of command in the American Civil War. Hopefully readers will be seeing more along this line coming soon.





Wilderness – A Tale of Two Permelias

6 05 2014

In honor of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of the Wilderness and The Overland Campaign, here’s the original version of my Collateral Damage article that ran in the August, 2011 edition of Civil War Times. For real time tweets of the tours this week, be sure to follow Sesqui tourist extraordinaire Craig Swain @caswain01 on Twitter and look for the Overland150 hashtag.

The Higgerson and Chewning Farms in The Wilderness: The Widows Permelia

The Battle of the Wilderness, fought in early May 1864, marked the beginning of Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign. For two days, the Union Army of the Potomac and the Ninth Army Corps battled Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in a hellish tangle of thick, second-growth forest along and between the Orange Turnpike to the north and the Orange Plank Road to the south, in Virginia’s Spotsylvania County. Two farms, today located along Hill-Ewell Drive in Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, were in 1864 situated at the center of the fighting; both were witness to singular events.

The northernmost farm, also known as “Spring Hill” and “Oak Hill”, was the home of Permelia Chewning Higgerson, 34. Her husband Benjamin, who was 20 years her senior, had died of smallpox in December 1862. One year later, Benjamin’s son from an earlier marriage, James, died in a Richmond hospital, also from smallpox, which he had contracted as a member of the Ninth VA Cavalry. Living with the Widow Higgerson were her five children – four boys and a girl aged two to eleven. In 1860, Benjamin Higgerson’s real estate was valued at $500, his personal properly was worth $1,370, and he owned two slaves. The house was a small, three room, one-and-a-half story frame structure which sat in a clearing about three quarters of a mile south of the Orange Turnpike.

Permelia Higgerson (umm, yeah, on the left)

Permelia Higgerson (umm, yeah, on the left)

About one mile to the south was the home of Permelia Higgerson’s parents, William and Permelia Chewning. Like her daughter, Permelia Chewning was a widow. William had died the previous June at the age of 73 as the result of an injury sustained in an accident at a local mill. In 1860, William Chewning’s real estate was valued at $1,500 and his personal estate at a respectable $14,400. He also owned thirteen slaves. The 72-year-old Widow Chewning lived with her 38-year-old daughter Jane and 30-year-old son Absalom in a two and one-half story frame house known as “Mount View”, situated in a clearing on a ridge on the 150-acre farm. The farm produced wheat, rye, corn, oats, potatoes, and tobacco. It also had a commanding view of the surrounding countryside.

Both farms played prominent roles in the battle. On May 5, Union general James Wadsworth’s division struggled westward through thick underbrush to keep pace with the rest of Union 5th Corps attack on Confederate General Richard Ewell’s lines. Colonel Roy Stone’s brigade passed through the clearing around the Higgerson house, tearing down a fence and laying waste to the garden despite the Widow’s loud objections and predictions of their impending defeat. After passing the house the men entered swampy ground near a tributary of Wilderness Run: “That’s a hell of a looking hole to send white men into”, shouted one soldier; another advised his comrades to “label” themselves, as death was certain. Soon they found themselves mired in waist-deep water, causing a gap to open in the Union line just as Confederate troops crashed into the isolated Pennsylvanians. Heavy casualties forced them to retire, and as they poured past the house, the Widow Higgerson again pelted them with taunts.

Higgerson HOuse

Higgerson HOuse

Farther south, the placement of the Chewning house on high ground from which enemy positions were clearly visible made it desirable to both sides, and possession changed hands over the two days. At one point, a group of Union soldiers had taken over the house and was inside vandalizing it and preparing dinner when Permelia Chewning flagged down her relative Markus Chewning (a scout for Confederate General Fitzhugh “Rooney” Lee), who was coincidentally riding alone along the road from Parker’s Store to the south. After the Widow Chewning filled him in about what was happening, Markus rode rapidly around the house to convince those inside that they were outnumbered and should give up. The ruse worked – leaving their weapons inside the Yankees surrendered to Markus. Nevertheless, the writing was on the wall: Mount View was soon to become a hot place. The Widow Chewning gathered some things and left the house soon after.

On May 6, Confederate General A. P. Hill and his staff rode into the unoccupied clearing. They dismounted and soon heard the sounds of a body of nearby Federal soldiers breaking down a fence. Hill remained calm, telling them: “Mount, walk your horses, and don’t look back.” Although the Rebels were within easy range, the Federals held their fire and the party made their escape at a leisurely pace. A captured Yankee later told one of the escapees, “I wanted to fire on you, but my colonel said you were farmers riding from the house.”

The Chewning house and farm was in a shambles after the battle. Absalom later testified: “Everything was gone – all the crops, all the stock, all the fences. Also, a tobacco house, a shop, and an ice-house were destroyed. I found some of the materials in the breastworks around the house.” The Widow Chewning filed a post-war claim with the Southern Claims Commission for just under $3,600, including lost fence rails, cordwood, and livestock. The disposition of the Chewning claim is unknown. Fire destroyed the Chewning house in 1947.

The younger Permelia – Higgerson – remarried in 1867. She and William Porter had two children, Cyrus and Ann, and moved to Missouri on the Mississippi River to a place they called “Higgerson Landing”, consisting of a house, a store, and a one-room schoolhouse that survives to this day. Permelia’s second marriage eventually fell apart. About 1871 William Porter ran off to Louisiana and Montana with Permelia Higgerson’s 16-year-old daughter, Jacqueline. After fathering four children with her, Porter deserted Jacqueline as well. The Widow Higgerson passed away in 1897 in Missouri. The Higgerson House disappeared in the 1930s, but remnants of its chimney survive today.

Higgerson House Chimney

Higgerson House Chimney

Thanks to Josef W. Rokus and Noel Harrison of Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania NMP for their assistance in preparing this article.