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Mary Tyler Moore’s surprising Civil War connections

Written By | Jan 26, 2017

WASHINGTON, January 26, 2017 – The late, great TV star Mary Tyler Moore—who passed away Wednesday, January 25, 2017—was an iconic fixture on the small screen in the 1960s and 1970s, and also appeared on Broadway and in films, including the well-regarded “Ordinary People” (1980), which won her an Oscar nomination as best actress that year.

But aside from her sparkling career as a Hollywood star, Mary Tyler Moore had an intense yet little-known connection with American Civil War history as it occurred in northern Virginia and West Virginia some 150 years ago. This is likely what led to her surprise 1995 acquisition of the Conrad Shindler House on German Street in historic Shepherdstown, West Virginia.

Battle of Antietam, as portrayed by B. McLellan, 1888. (Image via Library of Congress, U.S. government, public domain)

Small but beautifully preserved, colonial Shepherdstown looks today very much like a mini-Georgetown, D.C. Somewhat like its more famous big city cousin, it also spreads out on the banks of the Potomac River, roughly 90 minutes upstream of the nation’s capital. Today, the town is perhaps best known as the home of Shepherd University and its renowned summer theater event, the Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF).

The Shindler House, built in 1795 by coppersmith Conrad Shindler in what was then part of Virginia, remained under his ownership for much of the 19th century. During the bloody battle of Antietam—which occurred just across the Potomac in rural Maryland—the house served as a small hospital for wounded Confederate soldiers at the time of that epic battle.

Prior to the Civil War in 1852, Shindler had died and the house was passed on to his widow, Elizabeth. At her death in 1869, the house was deeded to her heirs who sold it to “Trustees of the Reformed Church of Shepherdstown.” The organization used it for a parsonage for many years and was later reportedly leased it out to tenants.

When the organization decided to put the house up for sale in 1995, a surprise potential purchaser appeared: Mary Tyler Moore. It’s not clear how she learned of the building’s availability. But the Brooklyn-born Moore was deeply familiar with Civil War history. That conflict was closely interwoven with her family history, whose origins stretched back to colonial Virginia.

Moore’s father, George, also had an intense, lifelong interest in that conflict, and Mary learned she was the great-great-great-granddaughter of the building’s original owner, Conrad Shindler. This, plus her own interest in historic preservation likely led her back to the Shepherdstown house.

Her intent was not to live in the Shindler house, however. Instead, she arranged to donate the building to Shepherd University by providing the school with the funds to purchase it. At the time, the school was looking for a permanent home for its new and expanding Center for the Study of the Civil War.

The Center moved into the Shindler House in 1996. At Mary Tyler Moore’s request, both the house and the institute were renamed The George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War in honor of Moore’s father.

Stonewall Jackson HQ museum in Winchester, Virginia. (Image via Wikipedia entry on the museum, photo public domain)

Today, in addition to housing Shepherd University’s Civil War collection, the Center currently holds classes as well as weekend and summer seminars on the Civil War in the building. The Center is also in the process of developing educational software offering interactive course work on West Virginia’s unique role in the Civil War, a program that is to be offered free to West Virginia high schools.

Moore also donated funds to help preserve the Winchester, Virginia house once owned by her paternal great-grandfather, Lieutenant Colonel Lewis Tilghman Moore. The Colonel himself donated the use of his house to Confederate General Stonewall Jackson for use as his headquarters during the Civil War. Today, with an assist from the Colonel’s generous descendent, Mary Tyler Moore, this restored building houses the Stonewall Jackson Headquarters Museum.

Terry Ponick

Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Senior Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17