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.





Popular History – What’s the Problem?

18 12 2015

563274521907e.imageI last wrote about my recent foray into popular history works concerning the American Civil War here. I wrote then that I was cutting the author, T. J. Stiles, slack in relation to what I described as errors of fact not necessarily substantial to the study. If you read the comments or follow Bull Runnings on Facebook, you know that shortly thereafter I gave up the, umm, endeavor, because it became evident that the author was building a case regarding the personality traits of the subject based on what I considered to be shallow and antiquated characterizations of a parallel subject. In addition I felt that those characterizations of that parallel subject were based on scholarship that was far from exhaustive at best and, well, biased at worst. Long and the short of it – I gave up on that book, something I am loathe to do.

So I picked a new read, Stacy Schiff’s The Witches: Salem, 1692. I’m finishing it up now. I like it. A lot. And that’s got me to thinking: why the different reaction? It’s not based on the authors’ skills as writers – both Stiles and Schiff have garnered awards, including Pulitzer Prizes. And it can’t be the quality of their research because I don’t know crap about the Salem Witch Trials, or for that matter 17th Century Massachusetts (which in many ways seems as confounding and contradictory as 19th Century Massachusetts and, let’s be real, 21st Century Massachusetts and everything in between). But therein I think lies the answer: I don’t know anything about Schiff’s subject. And so, I have to take her word. Not so Stiles.

Both Stiles and Schiff have written multiple books about historical figures and events. Both are wonderfully skilled writers. Why don’t they stick to one specific time period? Why? Because they don’t have to, that’s why. They’re that good. And if an author is that good, why limit him/herself? Which leads me to my ongoing complaint about the quality of Civil War literature, real Civil War literature, by authors whose main focus is that particular period of our history, often narrowed to a fine point within even that tight time frame (say Gettysburg, or Lincoln, or even Bull Run – though I try to read more broadly). For most of us, it’s all, by and large, tough to read. Even the super-rare, well crafted stuff. And why is that? Well, part of that probably lies in the opportunities available to really good writers like Stiles and Schiff to pick their targets and sell more copies of more generally appealing books. But another, big part has nothing to do with who writes these more focused books and everything to do with who reads them.

Us.

We know too damn much for our own good – at least, from a pleasure standpoint. We’re doomed to read these focused books as if it’s a job, analyzing every footnote. And we’re doubly doomed when it comes to popular histories that touch on our particular field of study, because we’re probably more familiar, to varying degrees, with the material and its nuances than any generalist author could ever hope to be. We have at least formed our opinions based on a lot of reading. Hopefully. And so, these works (like Civil War films) are typically enormously frustrating. For us.

It ain’t right, it ain’t wrong. It just is. (Dutchy in Ride With the Devil.)

It’s sad in a way, but we have to accept it. So I’m probably done with pop ACW. (I realize that some might argue that there are “specialist pop-historians” working in the genre, that is, who write shallowly on many ACW topics, but let’s leave that alone for now.) Conversely, I’ll probably not read more on Salem, or Carthage, or Montcalm & Wolfe, or Agincourt, or Gallipoli, to name a few, so as not to spoil what have been great one-off reads for me. Well, maybe more on Gallipoli. But that’s it. That is it. No more. I don’t think.





A Tip for Anyone Thinking of Writing About the Civil War…

12 11 2013

on-writing-stephen-king…and for just about everyone who has written about it and is thinking of writing more. If you read – or skim – many books or articles on our peculiar interest, it shouldn’t take very long before you realize most of it is crap. Not necessarily from a strict “history” sense, though there is a lot of that. But it seems to me that even really good history work is presented in a less than readable, not to mention entertaining, style. Come on. Admit it. You agree with me. Wholeheartedly. I know, you’re probably thinking that what I write here could be a whole lot better. You’re right.

OK, let’s cut to the chase. If you’re one of the folks to whom I’m referring in the lead-in, and haven’t done so already, get yourself a copy of Stephen King’s wonderful book, On Writing. Yeah, I know – he’s a novelist. It doesn’t matter. The lessons and tips in this book can’t help but positively affect what and how you write, regardless of genre. I won’t give examples because just about every page is gold, but you can go here to find some nuggets. And don’t think that because you’ve been published you don’t need any help – from what I’ve seen the odds against that are overwhelming. I beg this not as a writer, but as one of untold thousands of long suffering readers.





Bull Run “Historian’s Forum” Available Online

10 08 2011

The forum in which I participated for Civil War History and which I mentioned here can now be read in its entirety here.





Doors Are Closing and Opening All the Time

27 07 2011

It is my sad duty to inform you of the demise of Collateral Damage, my regular column in Civil War Times. Stonewall’s Winchester Headquarters, a story on the Lewis T. Moore house in the just shipped October 2011 issue of the magazine, is the last in the series. Editor and (still) friend Dana Shoaf informed me of the decision after he bought me lunch at Tommy’s Pizza in Gettysburg last month – I should have known something was up when he picked up the check!

It was a good run, starting with a piece on Gettysburg’s Widow Leister house in the June, 2010 issue, when the column (or department) was called In Harm’s Way – a title I liked better. All told I profiled a total nine homes and their owners: short of the twenty-four I would have liked to put together for a book, but nine more than I otherwise would have published had I not engaged Dana in a Facebook chat over the Christmas 2009 holiday. I thank Dana and the good folks at Weider History Group for the opportunity. I hope I added a little something to the record in the process.





Civil War Times August 2011

11 06 2011

Inside this issue:

Inside cover – a picture of John David Hoptak’s great big giant head.

Letters:

  • Praise and criticism of Kim O’Connell’s photo-essay of monuments at Gettysburg in the June 2011 issue.
  • Praise and criticism of Gary Gallagher’s article on James Longstreet in the June 2011 issue.
  • A little more artillery info provided by Craig Swain and prompted by David Schneider’s article on “Lee’s Armored Car” in the February 2011 issue.

Blue & Gray

  • Gary Gallagher asks, Did the Fall of Vicksburg Really Matter?

Collateral Damage

Your host discusses the stories behind the homes of two Pemelias – Higgerson and Chewning – on the Wilderness Battlefield. Thanks again to Noel Harrison of F&SNMP and author Josef Rokus for all their help.

Field Guide

  • The staff show us the Civil War sites of Frederick, MD.

Interview

  • Repeat Lincoln impersonator Sam Watterson (I like to think of him as Michael Moriarty’s fill-in on Law & Order).

Letter from the Editor

  • Editor Dana Shoaf says let’s refer to the observance of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War as something other than a celebration. Commemoration sounds good to me.

Features

  • The Winter that Made the Texas Brigade – Susannah Ural and Rick Eiserman on Hood’s Brigade and the winter of 1861-62.
  • Yankee Super GunCraig Swain wonders if the big guns of the 1st CT Heavy Artillery could have ended Pickett’s Charge before it began.
  • The Boy Brigadier – Iconoclast William Marvel challenges the long recognized answer to a favorite Civil War trivia question – Who was the youngest general of the war?
  • WWII Comes to Gettysburg – Jennifer Murray on the ‘Burg in the Big One.
  • “The South Was My Country” – Douglas Gibboney gives us a glimps of John Singleton Mosby’s life after the war.

Reviews





Civil War History, Vol. 57, No. 2

10 06 2011

Inside this issue are two essays:

  • “Living Monuments”: Union Veteran Amputees and the Embodied Memory of the Civil War – Brian Matthe Jordan
  • The Loyal Draft Dodger? A Reexamination of Confederate Substitution – John Sacher

Also inside is the journal’s first “Historians’ Forum”, this on The First Battle of Bull Run. Two historians, Ethan Rafuse and John Hennessy, and yours truly opine on various questions regarding the campaign and its legacy.

The experience was fun and informative for me. Editor Lesley Gordon started things off by sending us three questions. Emails were exchanged and things started to roll – good discussions were had. I learned a lot, and think I made one good point, at least. Thanks to Prof. Gordon for giving me the opportunity to participate in an unfamiliar forum. I think she has some really good ideas for the journal and am looking forward to what she comes up with next.

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