This weekend and next, thousands of visitors will pour into Chickamauga, Ga., for events marking the sesquicentennial of the Civil War's Battle of Chickamauga. And, just like 150 years ago, the Gordon-Lee Mansion will be at the center of the action.
The mansion will open for tours and a barbecue on the lawn is scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 21 - a nod to its history as the site of an 1889 barbecue for Civil War veterans that resulted in the establishment of the Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park.
This grande dame of antebellum homes has weathered a variety of uses over its 166 years - plantation home, Civil War field hospital, bed-and-breakfast inn, wedding venue - yet through all its interpretations, it has remained a signature landmark of North Georgia. It is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and the Civil War Trust Discovery Trail.
Year built: Begun in 1840, completed in 1847
Founding family: James Gordon and his two brothers came to
Crawfish Springs (now Chickamauga, Ga.) in 1836 from Gwinnett County. Gordon built the house as the centerpiece of 2,500-acre plantation across from the springs.
After James Gordon's death, James Lee purchased the house from Gordon's heirs. Lee was married to Elizabeth Gordon, for whom the nearby Elizabeth Lee Memorial Methodist Church is named. Lee sponsored a school for community children in his front yard. He later donated $250,000 and 15 acres for the building of a school, where Gordon Lee Memorial High School now stands.
Gordon Lee, Elizabeth and James' son, next owned the house. He married Olivia Barry of Newnan, Ga., one of the wealthiest women in the state in the late 1800s. She remodeled the house in 1900 to add the massive 25-foot columns, concrete cornice and brick wraparound porch that remain today. Descendants of the Gordon family lived in the house for 124 years before the last passed away in 1971.
Dr. Frank Green, a dentist, bought the mansion in 1974, restoring it to its previous grandeur and later opening it as a bed and breakfast. The city of Chickamauga purchased the house from Green in 2007. Green's son-in-law, Richard Barclift, is general manager of the property. Friends of the Gordon-Lee Mansion also support its upkeep.
Claim to fame: James Gordon and James Lee established Lee and Gordon's Mills. Gordon Lee, James Gordon's grandson, served the 7th District of Georgia in Congress for 20 years.
Civil War history: Prior to the Battle of Chickamauga, the house was seized as Union headquarters for Gen. William S. Rosecrans, who remained until two days into the battle. Then Confederate Gen. Joseph Wheeler captured the house, and it became a field hospital. The Union army left behind 29 physicians to treat the wounded, which historians have estimated numbered 3,000 when combined with Confederate wounded. The Confederate army remained at the mansion 10 days after the battle.
The Lee family lived in one of the slave cabins during the occupation.
Many soldiers wrote their last thoughts and dying wishes on the walls of the house, which the Lee women copied to try to send to the soldiers' families.
Local lore: Soldiers' letters and doctors' journals verify that the library of the mansion was where surgeries and amputations took place, and that amputated limbs were tossed out the library window into a pile sometimes rising "as high as the second-floor window." Barclift says it is more likely that a wagon was pulled beneath the window, arms and legs were tossed into the wagon bed and were hauled away when the wagon was full.
A legend that has survived 150 years is the story of an Ohio mother who traveled to Chickamauga after the Civil War in search of information about her son, who never came home. She knew he had fought at the Battle of Chickamauga. James Lee was sitting on the porch when she arrived at the mansion, heard her story and gave her permission to search the many outbuildings on his property. He explained that many times soldiers would write their names in blood or scratch their name or their unit name on the walls. Shortly after, he heard her scream. She had found her son's name written at the bottom of a door. The story goes that Lee had his sons cut off the bottom of that door, and he gave it to the mother to take back to Ohio.
History made there: In 1889, more than 14,000 Union and Confederate soldiers who had fought in the Battle of Chickamauga returned to the Gordon-Lee Mansion for a barbecue on the front lawn. It was at this event that the veterans decided to ask Congress to set aside land for what became Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park.
Design: The mansion is Greek Revival, with the Georgian floor plan popular at that time - a central hallway with two rooms on each side on each floor.
Interesting features: When Frank Green restored the mansion, he furnished it with period-appropriate pieces of an antebellum mansion. Showpieces include an 1840 walnut Empire bed in the downstairs bedroom, an 1840 metal tub used for bathing, a Victorian cheval mirror and a 1790 mahogany tester bed.
A two-tiered "petticoat table" sits in the downstairs hallway across from the bedroom's door. It is so-named because the oval mirror built into the lower level allowed women to make sure their slip wasn't showing when they left their room after dressing.
Little-known fact: The mansion's solid-brick walls are 14 inches thick on the first floor, 12 inches thick on the second.
Sources: Richard Barclift, city of Chickamauga, roadsidegeorgia.com, Historic Markers of Georgia