The tiny Leister House along the Taneytown Road is best known for serving as the headquarters of Union Major General George Gordon Meade during the Battle of Gettysburg. It was here, in its cramped interior, that Meade convened his famous council of war on the evening of July 2, 1863.
The 1½-story log house south of Gettysburg was built no later than 1840 by Thomas Nolan. At 10 acres, the farm was small for its day, as was the house—only about 390 square feet plus a 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. Lydia and her husband, James, had moved to the Gettysburg area from Maryland in 1850, but James died on December 11, 1859, leaving her with six children, at least two of whom were living with their mother on the farm at the time of the battle.
On July 1, 1863, a mounted Union officer told Lydia and young Hannah and Matilda to leave the farm for safety’s sake. They complied, eventually finding shelter on the Baltimore Pike.
The Leister Farm’s location made it ideal for communications. Federals occupied the house and outbuildings, and established a signal station on the grounds. Troops, messengers and staff crisscrossed the fields as the battle progressed. On July 2 and 3, Meade used the little house as his headquarters, and by the afternoon of the 3rd it was also serving as an aid station. Gettysburg resident Daniel Skelly, who visited the farmhouse on July 6, reported: “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 Leister and her children returned to their home, a scene of devastation greeted them. In 1865 she described her situation 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 pieces 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.
Reflecting on Lydia Leister’s un – fortunate plight, Trowbridge commented: “This poor wo man’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.”
Leister eventually managed to repair her house, even building on a two-story addition. She also expanded the farm, purchasing additional acreage from neighbor Peter Frey. She sold the bedroom table that General Meade had used during his stay to Edmund Cleveland of Elisabeth, N.J. (the table subsequently made its way back to the Gettysburg National Military Park’s collection), and also sold for fertilizer 750 pounds of bone from the dead horses (although it took more than 18 months for the meat to rot off the bones).
The widow lived on the farm until 1888, when poor health forced her to move into town. At that time the Gettysburg Battlefield Preservation Association purchased the farm from her for $3,000.
The original farmhouse was continuously occupied by tenant farmers into the 1920s. In 1933 the property was taken over by the National Park Service, at which time it ceased to operate as a tenant farm. The buildings were subsequently used for storage. In 1961 the foundation was extensively excavated and reinforced, and the house was fully restored in 1966.
Over the years Leister filed claims against the War Department totaling just over $1,311 for damages done to her property during the 1863 battle. Her claims were reported closed by U.S. Treasury settlements for $77 on March 31, 1879.
After she sold her farm to the GBPA, Leister had the two-story addition she built removed to a lot that she had purchased in the town. She lived in that dwelling, which today is known as the Gettystown Inn, near the Dobbin House on Steinwehr Avenue, until her death at age 84 on December 29, 1893. Lydia Leister is buried in Gettysburg’s Evergreen Cemetery.
Originally published in the June 2010 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.