The Widow and Her Farm

In comparison to other farm houses in rural Adams County in 1863, the home of Lydia Leister was non-descript. The wood frame and clapboarded house was very compact and humble, situated on a small, 9-acre farm that included a log barn, orchard, adequate pasture for her cow and a horse, wheat and oat fields. Near the house was a substantial garden planted with beans, turnips, cucumbers, potatoes, onions and other varieties of vegetables. A spring in the southern pasture offered some of the best drinking water in the county and for a person living the quiet life, its central location on the Taneytown Road near Cemetery Hill and not far from town made for a pleasant if not picturesque life for Leister and her two young children, Hannah, age 8, and Matilda, age 5.

Leister House- Meade's HQ

The Leister Farm House at Gettysburg National Military Park.

Widowed in 1859, Lydia purchased the farm in March 1861 and moved in soon after. The industrious woman went to work and improved the farm with stout fences around the garden and pasture and put in additional wheat and oats, which could be used for barter with grocers in Gettysburg. Her older sons and daughters lived in different places around the county and provided little support to their mother whose self-sufficiency was more than admirable. Despite the hardships and worry over one of her sons in military service, the future looked bright and she could have had no inkling of what was to come when a uniformed Federal officer rode into her front yard just before dusk on July 1, 1863.

The officer was abrupt, telling the widow that she must vacate her home. The armies were getting close and a battle near her farm imminent. For the safety of her and the children, they must go and with haste. The officer seemed determined to get Leister out so she quickly packed a basket with clothing for the children. Starting out the door, she remembered a can of lard she wanted to save and raced back into the house where she placed the can under a cobbler’s bench in the kitchen. There was no time for anything else, and taking her small bundle and two girls by the hand, started southward on the Taneytown Road, already filled with columns of Union infantry spattered with mud and straining under the loads of knapsacks, canteens and weapons as they plodded north. Looking back, the last sight of her land was that same column tramping into her pasture and oat field, lounging against the trunks of her fruit trees.

There was family in Maryland but they were too far away. Where was she to go? Wagons of ordnance now filled the road, pushing her and her two children off to the side. Fortunately, another staff officer saw the widow and rode to her rescue. Placing the youngest child onto his saddle and taking the basket from Lydia, the officer escorted the family to the George Spangler farm, far enough away to provide the widow and her children with a haven from the coming battle. As events turned out, the haven Lydia sought was short lived. The Spangler farm became a massive field hospital for the Eleventh Army Corps and wounded, mangled soldiers filled the barn, outbuildings and house. Union batteries with supporting wagons were massed in the fields around the buildings and those who remained at the farm were in constant danger from mounted couriers racing by, horses pulling cannon and caissons into park, and the flow of ambulances into the farm.

Without warning, artillery shells shrieked over the farm, some smashing into tree and men alike. This was no place for the widow and two young children, so another staff officer escorted the frightened family to the Baltimore Pike where he bade them goodbye with the final warning to head south as fast as possible, away from Gettysburg. Through the mercy of a farm family, the widow and her frightened children were taken in and for the next several days watched as lines of troops, Confederate prisoners, ambulances and wagons flowed up and down the Pike.

After several days of anxiously waiting, Lydia decided to journey home to see what was left of her farm, hoping that her crops, fruit trees, house and barn, and that can of lard had survived. One can only imagine the disappointment and shock that met her gaze as she walked up the Taneytown Road, past devastated farms and freshly dug graves by the roadside to behold her own farm, or what was left of it. Fences were gone- torn down for men and material to pass. The vegetable plants in her garden were trampled. The cow and horse were gone, along with tack and farm implements. The wheat, oats and pasture were trampled and nothing could be done to salvage them. “I owed a little on my land yit,” Lydia recalled in 1865, “and I didn’t get nothing from it. The fences were all tore down… and the rails burnt up. There was seventeen dead horses on my land. They burnt five of ‘em around my best peach tree and killed it; so I han’t no peaches. They broke down all my young apple trees for me. The dead horses spoiled my spring, so I had to have (a) well dug.”

Her house had suffered the worst damage: “One shell came into the house and knocked a bedstead all to pieces for me. The porch was all knocked down. I had seven pieces of meat yit, and all of them was took. All I had when I got back was jest a little bit of flour.” Surprisingly, the can of lard she had hidden survived though not without being tainted by wood pegs from the cobbler’s bench, spilled into the can by the shell that passed through the house. She later saved the lard by heating it and straining out the items that had fallen into the fat.

Leister Farm 1863

The Leister House, photographed by Alexander Gardner on or about July 6, 1863, and how the place looked when the Widow Leister returned a day or so later.  (Library of Congress)

The Widow Leister was a resourceful woman and immediately went to work, repairing her fences and buildings. It would be another two to three years before her new fruit trees would bear apples and peaches and her farm fields would once again produce the wheat she coveted to feed her family and use for trade and barter. Her vegetable garden once again thrived. It wasn’t until long after when she heard how her home had been used by General George Gordon Meade as his headquarters during the battle and that in her humble kitchen had taken place the all-important Council of War on July 2, when the critical decision whether the Army of the Potomac was going to change its battle strategy or, as General Henry Slocum put it, “Stay and fight it out!” was made. Her simple home had witnessed not that momentous event, but also the constant debates, discussions and passing of order after order by Meade and countless Union officers who came and went during those three warm summer days in 1863. It had served as the nerve center for the Army of the Potomac and though nearly ruined beyond repair, had survived to become one of the iconic buildings on the Gettysburg landscape. Did this really matter to Lydia Leister? Probably not. Never compensated for her losses, the widow rebuilt, replanted and recovered her farm, flourishing over the ensuing years with an addition to her house and acquisition of an additional 9 acres.

Leister Farm House

Meade’s Headquarters- the Lydia Leister House & barn today (National Park Service)

Age and infirmity finally caught up with Lydia and in 1888, she sold her farm to the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association for $3,000.00. She died at her daughter’s home in Gettysburg on December 29, 1893, her grave marked by a simple stone in Evergreen Cemetery barely a quarter mile away from the land she once owned. Repaired and rehabilitated over the years, the small white house stands near the Taneytown Road where the park tells and retells the story of its use as “Meade’s Headquarters.” But we just cannot resist mentioning in those programs, the brave widow who lost everything only to come back and rebuild her life in that same house on that same land, as much a symbol of the strength of the American spirit as was the stubborn will and determination exhibited by the Union generals who gathered in her kitchen on that fateful evening in July 1863.

-John Heiser
Gettysburg National Military Park


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9 Responses to The Widow and Her Farm

  1. John Nyeste says:

    Nice write-up, John. Am I correct in assuming there isn’t a known photo of Lydia Leister since one wasn’t included in the article? If so, I find that curious since she was so closely tied to the history of the battle and I would have thought she (along with her house) would have been a person of interest in the post battle years.

  2. Matthew Byrne says:

    This is a terrific article. Learning about the citizens of Gettysburg and the impact the battle had upon them puts a human face on the struggle. Thank you very much.

  3. What an awesome story!

  4. Randall Mahon says:

    Thank you for this great story – very informative!

  5. Dr. Kurt Eberly says:

    I have been coming to Gettysburg for forty years and I have never been inside the Leister
    house. Is it ever open to the public?

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