Surviving, Persevering, and Profiteering: The Story of Lydia Leister at Gettysburg

By: Jessica Roshon

“War on the Doorstep: Civilians of Gettysburg”

By late June of 1863, alarms warning of approaching Confederate forces were nothing new for the 2,400 residents of Gettysburg. Living just ten miles from the Mason-Dixon line, small-scale raids, kidnappings of freed-people, and rumors of an imminent clash between the two great armies had long plagued the borough and its surrounding community.  Nevertheless, none of these events could prepare Gettysburgians for the ferocious 3-day fight between 165,000 soldiers in early July of that year that would transform the lives and lands of Gettysburg’s civilians forever. However, these civilians’ experiences were not monolithic; while some were defined by tragedy and blight, others included remarkable episodes of perseverance, successful pragmatism, and creative profiteering.  This new blog series profiles the lives of diverse Gettysburgians who were forced to confront the war at their very doorsteps, each on their own terms, whose stories speak to the kaleidoscope of experiences of civilians struggling to survive, and thrive, along the Pennsylvania-Maryland border during the Civil War.

When the Civil War arrived on the literal doorstep of widow, Lydia Leister in July of 1863, it transformed her small plot of land into one of the most famous postage stamps on the Gettysburg battlefield, but also into a blighted homestead. Lydia was forced to flee her house during the battle to seek safety elsewhere, but it is the story of how Lydia chose to respond to the destruction she encountered upon returning to her homestead that sets her apart from so many.

            Lydia was born in Carroll County, Maryland and was of German descent. She married her husband, James Leister, also of Carroll County, sometime before 1830 and eventually they settled down on a farm built by James’s father in Silver Run, Maryland. Together, they had six children: James Leister, Jr., Eliza, Amos, Daniel, Hannah, and Matilda. In 1850, the couple moved to the Gettysburg area where they remained until James passed away on December 11, 1859. Fortunately, Lydia was able to sustain herself financially with money her father, John Study, left to her in his will. She ultimately bought a farm of nine acres for $900.00 on the Taneytown Road, in Cumberland Township, on March 30, 1861. The land was first owned by a man named Thomas Nolan, who had sold it to Henry Bishop, Jr. around 1840. Bishop then sold his ten acres of land, one and a half story log cabin, and several outbuildings to Lydia Leister. These buildings would famously become the site of General Gordon Meade’s headquarters in the years to come.

            On the afternoon of July 1, 1863, a man arrived on horseback and informed 54-year-old Lydia and her two children then present at the home, Hannah and Matilda, that they needed to evacuate, since fighting was drawing closer to the area. Although the other children are unaccounted for during the time of the battle, it is known that Amos Leister, born October 22, 1840, had enlisted in the Union Army and marched in the 165th PA from October 16, 1862 to July 28, 1862, then later reenlisted in 1865. James Leister, Jr. was also in the service of the Union Army. In any case, upon receiving the warning, Lydia packed a chip basket full of clothes and followed an officer on the Taneytown Road to George Spangler’s nearby farm, where other civilians had gathered to seek shelter. They remained there for a time until the area fell under artillery fire, so the small group of civilians proceeded to a new safe haven on the Baltimore Road where they remained for several days, waiting out the fighting. Once the battle concluded, Lydia and her family returned to their home to find the house and the surrounding farmland ravaged by shellfire.

A Photograph of the Headquarters of General Meade, Commander of the Union Army” by Alexander Gardner and Timothy O’Sullivan, July 1863. (Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) via Metropolitan New York Library Council and Empire State Digital Network)

            During the battle, the Leister farm had sat slightly to the rear of the Union line, somewhat sheltered behind a gentle slope and along a major Union thoroughfare, making it an ideal location to set up the base of communications which eventually became General George Meade’s headquarters after the first day’s battle. The house and barn also served as a temporary field hospital. On the other hand, its strategic position also made it the recipient of massive amounts of artillery fire. One shell fell straight through the whitewashed main house, demolishing the front porch and blowing a bedstead to smithereens. Both during and after the fighting, soldiers scavenged much of the house’s siding for grave markers and firewood. All the fence rails on the property collapsed and burned. Additionally, the barn and outbuildings also suffered severe damage. Lydia’s crops and yard also fell victim to scavenging soldiers and artillery shells alike: Frantic horses had trampled all her wheat, soldiers had impressed most of her meat and flour, shot and shell had destroyed her peach and apple trees, and the rotting corpses of fallen horses contaminated her spring. Despite these seemingly insurmountable losses, her age, and her widowhood, Lydia Leister ultimately managed to take them in stride and was able not only to recoup her losses, but ironically make a profit off of the battle’s destruction as well.

In the weeks following the battle, Lydia replaced the siding on the barn and house and had the well re-dug. In order to acquire some of the money necessary to finance these repairs, she began selling the bones of dead horses on her property after the meat rotted off them one year later. Although the remains of horses were used for a variety of products, the main usage for bones was to harvest a substance called collagen and use it to make an adhesive. This process must have been extremely appalling and gruesome work for Lydia and her daughters; however their willingness to defy traditional 19th-century gender norms provides an illustrative example of how war-time necessity could, in many instances, stretch and shift the boundaries between masculine and feminine spheres. By 1868, Lydia’s work had clearly paid off, as she expanded her property with the acquisition of nine additional acres on the northern side of the original property from Peter Frey for $900.00. She also put on a two-story addition to the east gable of the house and expanded the barn in 1874. She remained on the farm until 1888, when her failing health caused her to move in with her daughter, Hannah, in the borough of Gettysburg itself. In May of that same year, the Gettysburg Battlefield Preservation Association purchased the Leister farm for $3000.00, eventually turning the property over to the National Park Service in 1933. Even though six decades had passed since the battle, Lydia still strove to transform the legacy of the destruction and bloodshed wrought on her farmstead into lucrative outcomes. Lydia herself passed away on December 29, 1893 on her 84th birthday.

The Leister Farm as photographed by Alexander Gardner on July 6, 1863. (Library of Congress)

Lydia Leister’s story highlights her industriousness, determination, and remarkable ability to turn the war’s destructive forces into engines for personal opportunity. She did not receive any assistance from the government to repair her property, so she earned every penny by herself. Lydia even engaged in a subtle form of war profiteering, with the sale both of the horse bones and of her now famous property, in order to attain this money and achieve long-term financial stability in the wake of the battle. Despite the necessity of these actions, German stereotypes common throughout the 19th century tainted, if not obscured the full significance behind the nature and meaning of Lydia’s profiteering. One particular encounter between an early tourist of the battlefield and Lydia plainly showcases such impressions: “This poor woman’s entire interest in the great battle was, I found, centered in her own losses,” the man disgustedly remarked. “That the country lost or gained she did not know nor care, never having once thought of that side of the question.” The man also made a point to comment on Lydia’s very plain, “Dutch”-like appearance and thick accent, implying that Lydia’s German heritage was largely to blame for her selfish, harsh demeanor and seeming politically ignorance. However, Lydia’s struggles highlight how the harsh realities of war at the doorstep, by necessity, often re-focused civilians’ gaze squarely on the pragmatism of family survival, whereas civilians out of harm’s way, politicians, and even those soldiers on the front lines often placed discussions of the politics of war, martial order, camaraderie, and the political outcomes of military campaigns at the fore. As a result, individuals such as this tourist were inclined to misunderstand, mischaracterize, or misinterpret Lydia’s post-battle endeavors and concerns as unseemly, selfish, ignorant, or even backward. Truth be told, Lydia Leister was none of these, as it was her grit, determination, and creative opportunism in the face of incredible hardship that allowed her and her family to look to the future with great optimism.

3 thoughts on “Surviving, Persevering, and Profiteering: The Story of Lydia Leister at Gettysburg”

  1. I have done a bit of research on Lydia Leister. This article is an EXCELLENT summary of what Infound. It also goes way beyond what I was able to find and adds color and detail to an already interesting story.
    Thank you for sharing your research.

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