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Historic preservation is good for the environment

Ned Jilton • Dec 11, 2019 at 7:30 PM

Would it surprise you to know that the Mary Thompson house, which served as Robert E. Lee’s headquarters during the Battle of Gettysburg, is not part of the Gettysburg National Battlefield Park?

After the battle was over and Lee had gone, Mary continued to live in the house until her death in 1873. But after that, no one sought to purchase and preserve the historic building.

When the time came, neither the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association, the War Department or the National Park Service purchased the building, even though the house had been Lee’s headquarters, stood in the middle of the action during the battle and was surrounded by the newly formed Gettysburg National Battlefield Park in 1895.

In 1896, the inside of the building was damaged by fire and in 1907 the tenant of the house, Emma Feister, was arrested for running a brothel there. In the 1920s the house became a Civil War museum and eventually became part of a hotel and restaurant complex using General Lee’s Headquarters as its name. The upstairs of the house was offered as a luxury suite.

Slowly, the importance of the house was being lost. People touring the battlefield would pass by the general’s headquarters without realizing it.

Things changed in 2014 when the Civil War Trust, a division of the American Battlefield Trust, launched a $5.5 million national fundraising campaign and acquired the building. In 2015 the Trust begin restoring the house to its historic 1863 appearance. Seven interpretive signs were added as well as a walking trail connecting the site to the park. Sometime in the future the property will be donated to the National Park Service.

Once the property was purchased, the Trust begin restoration with asbestos abatement and demolition of seven motel buildings, a restaurant and a gift shop. In addition, more than an acre of asphalt was removed as well as all modern electric poles, sewer drains and motel signage.

Then the Trust turned to restoring the Lee’s headquarters building. They replaced the roof with period cedar shake shingles, restored the interior of the house to showcase its historic fabric and features, installed a new HVAC system and re-pointed the stone foundation. The Trust even recreated a historically accurate porch and dog house.

In a move that is as environmentally friendly as well as important to historic preservation, the Trust also restored the area around the house to its 1863 condition.

As part of the “Journey Through Hallowed Ground’s Living Legacy Project,” which aims to plant a tree for each of the 620,000 plus soldiers killed during the war, the Trust planted 24 apple trees to restore an orchard that originally stood on the property as well as seven hardwood trees. In addition the Trust established a period vegetable garden and replanted the property in both fescue grass and a meadow mix of wild flowers and native grasses.

This environmental restoration to original, historic, conditions is something the Trust does regularly.

In Franklin, Tennessee, the Trust teamed with the Battle of Franklin Trust to purchase a key section of the November 1864 battlefield. Located to the right of where the 19th Tennessee Infantry from our area fought, it was over this ground that Gen. Patrick Cleburne’s men charged the Union line.

This ground had been built over with a strip mall, a Domino’s Pizza, another restaurant building as well as several small houses. But the two organizations working together were able purchase the land to move the Domino’s and demolish the strip mall and other buildings.

The site has been restored to its 1864 configuration with tree-lined fields and grass where the buildings once stood and markers have been put in place explaining what happened on this location during one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War.

Now the American Battlefield Trust is in the process of doing its first land remediation on a Revolutionary War battlefield. A group of abandon buildings on the location of the May 1780 Battle of Waxhaws in South Carolina has been purchased and will be demolished and the grounds returned to their historic condition.

I guess you could say that preserving our past not only saves our heritage but our environment as well.