The house of Mary Thompson, also known as Lee’s Headquarters, is on the north side of Chambersburg Road (US 30) on Seminary Ridge on the west side of Gettysburg. (39°50’05.7″N 77°14’41.8″W; map)
The stone house was built in the 1833 by Michael Clarkson. Joshua and Mary Thompson became tenants along with their eight children. Joshua, however, was a drunk who left Gettysburg and died sometime in the 1840s. In 1846 Clarkson ran into financial difficulties and his good friend, future Republican Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, purchased the house at a Sheriff’s auction in trust for Mary Thompson. They would be co-owners until Stevens’ death in 1868.
Today the house has been restored by the Civil War Trust to its appearance at the time of the Battle of Gettysburg. Several interpretive markers tell the story of the house, the land, the people and their history.
At the time of the Battle of Gettysburg Mary was 70 years old. Her children were all grown and had moved out, but her son, James Henry Thompson, lived across the road. His house is also still standing today.
The area around the widow Thompson’s house was one of the bloodiest places on the battlefield on July 1. Supported by Stone’s Pennsylvania brigade, half of Battery B, 4th United States Artillery deployed on the west side of the property where the battery’s monument is today, pouring canister into Scales’ North Carolina Brigade. Every field officer in Scales’ Brigade but one was killed or wounded and the 13th North Carolina Infantry Regiment was reduced from 180 to 30 men. Hundreds of men from the 143rd Pennsylvania were captured in the railroad cut while trying to escape to Cemetery Hill as the Union defensive lines collapsed.
In spite of the danger, Mary Thompson stayed on at the house. When the Union survivors retreated and the fighting moved on into the city her house became a hospital for the men of both sides. Mary and her neighbors cared for the wounded.
The house was an obvious candidate for Robert E. Lee’s headquarters. It was very visible, right on the main road coming into Gettysburg from the west, down which the rest of Lee’s army would arrive after July 1. It was at the top of a ridge with an excellent view in all directions. (see the Fighting and Photographs wayside marker) And it was at the center of the Confederate lines. Although Lee spent much of his time in the saddle at Gettysburg, he is known to have taken a meal and slept in the house on July 1. Even when Lee was not personally present, the house was the communications center where messengers brought news of the battle to Lee’s staff and took away orders.
After the battle Mary was left with little more than the empty stone house, her linens used for bandages, her carpets buried with the dead, and her fences gone for firewood. Mary left Gettysburg for a time after the battle, but returned and lived in the house until her death in 1873.
The house went through some hard times. In 1896 a fire burned the interior, although the stone shell was unharmed. In 1907 its tenant was arrested for keeping a bawdy house.
In 1913 Chambersburg Road became part of the Lincoln Highway, bringing tourist traffic. In 1921 the house became the General Lee’s Headquarters Museum. A campground and tourist cabins were added. As time went on the museum became the center of a thriving complex that would eventually include a popular restaurant and motel with swimming pool.