Report from the Headquarters: A Reflection on the Lee’s Headquarters Public Forum

By Elizabeth Smith ’17

On October 6, approximately seventy people gathered at the Gettysburg Visitor’s Center to attend a public forum discussing the future of the site commonly referred to as Lee’s Headquarters. The property is located on Buford Avenue near the Lutheran Seminary and the Seminary Ridge Museum. On July 1, 1863, the area was the site of several artillery pieces, part of the Union retreat route through the town, and on July 2nd and 3rd, it would serve as Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s headquarters. After the battle, the site would serve as one of the first automotive tourist spots for the millions of visitors who traveled to view the first day’s battlefield. Small cottages, motels, and eventually the Quality Inn would emerge to cater to the mass of tourists.

Photograph by J. Stephen Conn, via flickr.com.
Photograph by J. Stephen Conn, via Flickr.

The forum began with information relating to the work and reports that have already been completed regarding the Lee’s Headquarters site. These reports detailed what, if any, adverse effects the demolition of the buildings currently on the site—specifically the old Quality Inn motel—would have on the environment and future archeology. The tentative answer is that the removal of the motel would have no such effects. Representatives from the Civil War Trust, the organization that purchased the land, spoke about their goals for the Lee’s Headquarters’ site. Their mission is to either demolish or remove the buildings on the site to another location in order to restore the view of the first day’s battlefield, replant the orchard that use to be on the site, put in period-accurate fences, and create a simple battlefield trail that will tell the story of the battle, the headquarters, and the tourist industry that thrived in the years following the battle.

After these initial comments, the floor opened up to questions from the audience. One woman commented on how the debate reminded her of the old cyclorama building and how it is now gone. The restoration, she said, would add to the experience of Gettysburg’s approximately two million visitors. Others agreed with this comment, many eager to see the view returned to its 1863 conditions. Another woman called the battlefield the “shining star of the town,” while another expressed concern that the forum remember that the battlefield is what draws visitors to Gettysburg and that restoring the Lee’s Headquarters view would only benefit the town and the tourists.

Despite the predominantly positive comments, concerns were raised. The largest concerns were the loss of post-Civil War history that could possibly occur, the concern over the two possible graveyards on the property, and the fear of the loss of tax revenue for the town. For the latter, the Lee’s Headquarters land brings in approximately $13,000 a year in taxes which, one member pointed out, would be balanced by potential increases in tourism. For the graveyards, the Civil War Trust responded that they are already planning archeological searches for the cemeteries and that they need to be identified before going any further.

The greatest concern, however, was for the post-Civil War history that might be lost. The story of the battlefield cannot be separated from the story of tourism, one woman commented, and you can’t freeze time to 1863. The Lee’s Headquarters site was an important space in Gettysburg history, especially for tourism, and some feared that the site’s unique history might be lost through either the demolition of the buildings or by the focusing exclusively on the battle rather than the aftermath. The Civil War Trust representative assured the people gathered that the history of tourism would not be lost and that signs would be placed to tell both the history of the battle and the history of the post-Civil War tourist destination.

The forum brought up many topics that are important not only for Lee’s Headquarters, but for historic sites in general. Here at Gettysburg, we are privileged to have a battlefield where you can step onto the field and, for the most part, see what the soldiers saw. As time passes and the restoration process begins, the Lee’s Headquarters site will help visitors to better visualize the important but often forgotten impact of July 1, 1863. With a view of both the town and the Confederate line, visitors and locals alike will be able to better understand the history of Gettysburg as a battlefield, as a tourist destination, and as a town today.

For more information on the Lee’s Headquarters project, please visit the Civil War Trust website. 

3 thoughts on “Report from the Headquarters: A Reflection on the Lee’s Headquarters Public Forum”

  1. Understand your thinking but you almost never see a “national” flag at any battleground picture from the era. Battle flags are/were the most prevalent and were carried with, into and out of battle unless captured as many were at Gettysburg.
    That said, I don’t remember seeing any flag flying at the building in any pictures I’ve seen.

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