Having played host to two previous Confederate excursions in 1862 and 1863, Chambersburg was very familiar with the Army of Northern Virginia. While the first two encounters drained the town of valuable commodities (livestock, food, and supplies), it was left untouched. However the last visit of Confederate forces would permanently alter the physical and mental landscape of Chambersburg, leaving it in ashes and searching for explanations. Chambersburg remains a rare example of Confederate aggression in the North, the only town to be destroyed, in contrast to the multitudes of occupied and besieged cities in the South.
The first reactions of Chambersburg residents to the rumors of a rebel invasion demonstrate the mentality and viewpoint of Northerners. Early's raid caused many to flee northward, more to move their possessions than to seek safety. These people were temporarily moving out for a week, not fleeing refugees. Their earlier experiences with the Confederates had been benign, Lee's Invasion was very restrained and caused relatively minimal damage. The biggest concern Franklin County residents had was not to be "robbed" again.
Leading to the Invasion The immediate causes of destruction of Chambersburg lay in the Shenandoah Valley. The destruction of Lexington by Union forces forced the Confederacy to respond in a daring northern raid, both to relieve pressure from Richmond and Lynchburg, but also to respond and retaliate to Union aggression.
The Acts and Incidents of the Burning In a few short hours, Chambersburg was burned amidst a frenzy of alcohol, terror, and thievery.
Image Archive This collection of images truly describes the waste and devastation Chambersburg was left in after the raid. The stark black and white images paint a sad picture of a ruined city, to be relived uncountable times in the modern age of war.
In May 1864, Major General David Hunter was promoted to take command of the Shenandoah Valley after Major General Franz Sigel failed to secure the breadbasket of Virginia for General Ulysses S. Grant. Hunter was perhaps a poor choice to quell the guerrilla activity in the region as he had already gained an infamous reputation for his hatred of Southerners. In 1862, he boldly freed slaves in Mississippi and Louisiana, which enraged the unconsulted Union leadership. A member of an old Virginian family, Hunter appeared to have a vendetta against his traitorous state and hell-bent on punishing the Valley for supporting the Confederacy.
Hunter quickly began a destructive campaign in the Shenandoah Valley to hold people personally responsible for guerrilla attacks on his troops. In late May, Hunter issued a letter warning southern sympathizers that they would be held personally responsible for any guerrilla attacks. In June, Hunter ordered the burning of the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia as punishment for student involvement in a previous battle. He followed through on his earlier threat by burning six homes of prominent Southerner sympathizers Edmond Jennings Lee, Alexander R. Botelar, and Andrew Hunter, a relative. It was time for the wheat harvest in the region, and his army was striking at the core of the old commonwealth.
In response to Hunter's action, Lieutenant General Jubal Early of the Army of Northern Virginia was ordered to lead a Confederate response. Hunter was rapidly approaching Lynchburg, a vital supply depot, after quickly taking Staunton, an almost mythical Southern town that was thought to be invulnerable to Union forces. Lee and Davis were worried that Hunter would take Lynchburg and then turn west and attack Richmond. Only a daring raid into the North would relieve pressure on Richmond and the gamble might prove very successful.
In early July, rumors and reports flooded into Pennsylvania of an imminent Rebel invasion into Maryland and Pennsylvania as troop movement along the border increased. Rachel Cormany recorded in her diary, on July 19, 1864, the great immense panic Chambersburg residents were in. Many were sent farther north to avoid the rebel invasion. Others celebrated Independence Day along the road on their way out of danger. The Valley Spirit described it as a mass exodus of farmers with their stock, "one continuous stream of horses, mules, cattle, and negroes moving in the direction of the Susquehanna." Store keepers shipped their goods by train to Philadelphia for safe keeping.
On July 8, the Governor of Pennsylvania issued a proclamation for twelve thousand volunteers to serve for 100-day Home Defense units. As these units were formed, they were transferred by the War Department to serve near Washington, D.C. and Maryland. The Military Department of Susquehanna was headquartered in Chambersburg. In charge was Maj. Gen. Couch, a distinguished and respected officer. He bitterly complained and protested the transfers of the Home Defense troops as well as the siphoning of his own small force. With the movement of military forces from Pennsylvania southward to Washington and Maryland, Chambersburg was left virtually defenseless and extremely vulnerable to Confederate invasion.
In mid July, Gen. Early began his famous counter-offense and quickly reached the outskirts of the Federal Capital. Early did not press on into the capital because he feared being overpowered by the defending units. Instead Early's force penetrated into Maryland, beginning a series of ransoms.
On July 6, McCausland was ordered to ransom Hagerstown for $200,000, but misread the amount and instead collected $20,000. Early then levied ransom on Middletown ($5,000) and Frederick ($200,000). Each time the towns paid the burdensome amounts. However, none of these ransoms were accompanied with a provision to burn the town if it did not pay. One likely reason was that Maryland had many southern sympathizers and was a resource for the Confederacy.
On July 28, a messenger arrived in McCausland's camp, carrying orders from Early to take his brigade up to Chambersburg. McCausland recalled that he was to "capture the city and deliver to the proper authorities a proclamation which General Early had issued, calling upon them to furnish me with $100,000 in gold or $500,000 in greenbacks, and in case the money was not forthcoming I was instructed to burn the city and return to Virginia." According to J. Moore, the next day McCausland took the "8th, 14th, 16th and 17th Virginia Cavalry, and Colonel Witcher's Battalion, to which had been added for this occasion the Marylanders of General Bradley T. Johnson up towards the Potomac River." They captured the Union troops guarding the fords at McCoy's Ferry and by 2 pm, the whole detachment had crossed over into Maryland territory. A few hours latter the invaders were resting in Mercersburg, Pa on their way to Chambersburg, twenty miles away.
By this time many Chambersburg residents had returned to their homes. The earlier excitement and anxiety now turned into apathy as many were confident that the rebels would not dare invade Pennsylvania. Many were also assured that the Union had adequate defenses set up to block any intrusion. However on the same day that McCausland was ordered to ransom Chambersburg, the Federal Army order the six regiments under Gen. Couch to be transferred from Chambersburg to Hagerstown, Md. This crucial move left Gen Averell's army as the only significant fighting force in the area. The confidence Chambersburg residents had in their safety proved to be false, and the door was left open for McCausland and his troops.
The Events and Incidents of the Burning
What exactly transpired on the streets of Chambersburg on July 30th may never truly be known. Each participant and observer of the burning recounted the episode slightly differently. Surely some of the accounts simply vary due to confusion, but in each, an agenda can be seen. From the victims to the victors, each person recasts the busy morning in the most convenient and comfortable manner to make the enemy look worse while defending one's actions. A careful comparison and analysis of various accounts will yield the most balanced and comprehensive version of the burning.
McCausland and his Confederate troops pushed through Maryland and Pennsylvania territory through the clear night of July 29th. The men were exhausted from the continuous marching and riding and having not slept for two days. They made a rest stop in Mercersburg to feed their horses and regroup the cavalry shortly after sunset. Their advance had been slowed down by a small regiment of Federal cavalry under Gen. McLean. The regiment had successfully slowed down the Confederates long enough for the last trains, filled with supplies and equipment, to leave Chambersburg. All of the town's bankers also evacuated the town, taking with them the Chambersburg cash reserves. While many local residents resigned themselves to the belief that the Rebels wouldn't actually make it to Pennsylvania, the bankers demonstrated this fiscal mindedness by not taking any chances.
At 3 am, the first Confederate invaders reached the outskirts of Chambersburg. The small force under Gen. Couch quickly withdrew from the city, not willing to provide the Confederates with an excuse to destroy the city. A battery of artillery consisting of four cannons was positioned on the hilltops above the town. The cannons announced the arrival of the Confederates to the sleeping residents at 5 am with a round of shots over the town. As the sun rose over the Pennsylvania hills, the 8th regiment dismounted and lead the march into town. Soon, over eight hundred rebels occupied the streets.
Citizens were rounded up by the troops and the Courthouse bell was rung to call people to the center of town, the "Diamond". Adjunct-General Fitzhugh presented the few citizens in the Courthouse square with a written order from Gen. Early demanding $500,000 in US currency, or $100,000 in gold. The stunned residents responded by saying that "it was impossible to raise that amount." By this time McCausland had ridden down into the town and was personally handling the operation. According to Rev. Schenck, after no money was raised, he ordered Thomas B.Kennedy, William McLellan, J. McDowell Sharpe, and others to be arrested in attempt to force payment.
Clearly an impasse had been reached. The residents could pay but appeared to not even take the ransom seriously. J. Moore, a Virginia Cavalry, thought the residents "seemed to think we were jesting and bluffing." At this point McCausland gave them a deadline to pay the money. The duration of this break varies greatly. Rev. Schenck states it was only 20 minutes, McCausland states it was "six hours." Since the first troops didn't arrive into town until 7 am and all of the troops had left by noon, it was likely around 2 hours.
At the expiration of the deadline, McCausland ordered brigades to fire the town. For one hour, the squad set buildings, homes, and businesses on fire. Franklin county accounts tend to exaggerate the exact method in which this was done. Schenck describes the firing as a violent operation breaking down doors, taking personal possessions, and threatening residents with guns. Confederate accounts concede that there was some atrocious behavior and that some troops may have gotten out of control; however, on the whole, it seemed to them a controlled affair. These Confederates also disclaim accounts of mass drinking and intoxication by the soldiers. This was still a military operation in enemy territory, and it seems unlikely that the whole rebel force would be allowed by their commanders to drink themselves into a drunken stupor.
Not all of the Confederate troops followed their orders to burn the consciencious objector was Colonel W. E. Peters ,who was a regiment commander under General Johnson. He refused to obey the order and threatened to break his sword before burning the town. Many of the Northern accounts include this noble southern gentleman to demonstrate the inhumanity of the burning. Peters was arrested, but the next day returned to his command.
The burning was concentrated in the middle of the town, around the Diamond. All of the large buildings were destroyed, including the court house. Many of the destroyed buildings were along Main Street. One burned home was notably removed from the center. A mile away, local recognized A. K. McClure resided in Norland. McClure had apparently angered Confederate General Jenkin for comments in The Franklin Repository. A detachment was sent to burn it down. This was pure retaliation on a very personal level. The firing squad actually was confused and went to the Eysters, who lived down the street from McClure. Mr. Eyster politely noted that his was not Norland and the squad moved on.
If some were singled out for retaliation, others were singled out for protection. The night before the burning, an order was sent from Early to McCausland not to burn down Rev. Kennedy's home. Other ministers in town were not so fortunate to have a benefactor such as Early. Father McCullom was robbed of his watch while sitting on his porch. The watch was a replacement for another one that was taken in the previous raid.
Massive petty theft most likely occurred, based on the sheer number and strength of details. There are numerous accounts in Rev. Schenck's book about Confederate soldiers going into houses or robbing people on the street at gunpoint. People were robbed of their clothes, shoes, watches, and money. Mrs. McClure had here fine silver plates and pitchers taken while her home was being burned. A few widows were able to save their homes and possessions by paying soldiers $25 for protection.
As the huge columns of smoke and fire enveloped the town, the Confederates finally pulled back. While there were horrific stories of disabled people being locked in burning homes, or women forced to bring back possessions into their burning homes, no Chambersburg resident was killed during the incident. The only person to be killed was a straggling Confederate who was caught by a group of angry of residents with stolen property after the rest of the troops had left.
The Confederates left the town at midday and a few hours later Averell's army made it into to town. By that time, McCausland had led his troops in Hancock, Maryland, and had levied yet another ransom.
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