Historic Newspaper Index
VOL I, No. 1
Hagerstown, Maryland - Wednesday, March 22, 2023
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Saturday, July 30th 1864
Written expressly for the Herald and Torch Light by George B. Ayres


Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, burned by rebel cavalry July 30th 1864. Drawn by T. M. Fowler. ; Library of Congress, G3824.C4A3 1894 .F62


We purpose to record the fate of Chambersburg, the calamity which has resulted in the almost total annihilation of one of Pennsylvania’s fairest border towns will be a fit theme for the able powers of the historian.- It is proper, however indifferent be the narrative, that the facts and incidents connected with this unprecedented act, be garnered whilst fresh and vivid-even before the ascending smoke from smouldering ruins ceases to tell of the vandalism of McCausland, Johnson, and their chivalrous followers. In the performance of this melancholy duty, we blush at these evidences of barbarism befitting the times of Nero and of Attila, rather than the vaunted years of civilization, progress and humanity of the nineteenth century.


It was generally known during the last week of July, that another rebel incursion was imminent. The inhabitants along the Southern border of Pennsylvania had already experienced visitations by the raiders, Stewart, and Hampton, in 1862: and by the whole army of General Lee in 1863-4. Comparative familiarity with the presence of the grey-back Southerners, and an expectation of immunity from those fearful dangers which had been long-threatened but never realized, dissipated uneasiness, and the people of Chambersburg awaited the approach as they had done three times before. To be sure merchants and manufacturers secreted or sent away such articles as might “give aid and comfort to the rebellion.” And certain of the citizens not, disposed to the prospective accommodation of Libby, Belle Isle or Castle Thunder, made their exodus to more congenial latitudes.

At first whispered reports of skirmishing in the Shenandoah Valley fell upon the eager ear or composed a meager dispatch. Then actual fighting, and the retreat of the government forces under General Averill to safer quarters North of the Potomac.


On Friday, July 29th, the rebel forces crossed the river simultaneously at Williamsport, Cherry Run and McCoy’s Ferry, without serious molestation. The horde which passed over the last named fording comprised two brigades under the joint command of Generals McCausland and Johnson who had recently enacted the roles of brigands rather than brigadiers during the previous raid at Hagerstown and Frederick city, Md. Their united command probably numbered twenty-five hundred, and were the very “flower of chivalry” as the sequel will show.

They took the road leading to Mercersburg, where they were confronted by a company of cavalry under Lieut. H. T. McLean, 6th Regulars. About 6 o’clock, P.M., the superior forces of the rebels compelled him to retire before their advance, although with much steadiness and resolution, toward Chambersburg.


Daylight on Saturday, the 30th, found them on the Western outskirts of Chambersburg,- Here McLean’s command was meagerly reinforced by Capt. McGowan’s, company of infantry and a section of the 1st New York artillery.

Our forces, stationed on the Fair Grounds hill, maintained their position bravely, and manoevered so skillfully as to keep the rebels at bay for over two hours; deceiving the rebels into the belief that our number was tenfold what it was. Perceiving, however, the flanking movements which the enemy was enable to perform on account of superior force, Lieut. McLean judiciously withdrew.

McCausland heralded his advent to the inhabitants of Chambersburg by throwing four shells at random. Two struck in the town, without harm, and two went over it. By this time the sleeping inhabitants were aroused, and the sudden and warlike appearance of the rebels produced no little consternation. How little these people imagined that they had arisen from their comfortable beds for the last time, or that the prayers which arose by the family altars on that morning were the final benediction within the home-temples.


A rebel party supposed to number perhaps four hundred- costumed in the full feather of rag-tag-and-bobtail, and with face and manners suggestive of dark-lanterns, chains, and blood-accompanied by General McCausland and Major Harry Gilmore (who didn’t capture Gen. Franklin) entered the borough. Brigadier Johnson took up his headquarters at “The Point” house near the toll-gate, whilst the remainder of the rebel force encamped along the turnpike. They had six pieces of artillery some of which were planted on the Fair Grounds to cover operations about to commence within the doomed town.

The rebels did not enter in one solid column, but by numerous small parties that had acted as skirmishers, and who came in through the alleys and by-streets. The place was thus in complete possession of the rebels, and the will of Jeff Davis was the supreme law, ere the good people of Chambersburg could realize the disagreeableness of the situation.


Upon the righteous authority of Lieut. Gen. Jubal Early, his minion, Brig. McCausland produced military authority (!) for demanding as a ransom for the salvation of the town, the extravagant sum of one hundred thousand dollars in gold, or five hundred thousand dollars in greenbacks! The absurdity of a demand like this, at a time when the banks and merchants had forwarded their funds to more secure locations, (all of which McCausland knew full well), must have been the case.) is so plain and unblushing, that no one believes else than that the sum asked for was designed to be only a contemptible pretext for, and a disgusting introduction to the most wicked act of the present war.


It was understood that the patriotic citizens had determined not to contribute one farthing to the maintainance of the accursed rebellion, though the wealth of Croesus was at their disposal and their earthly all locked up in the fate of Chambersburg. In proof of the hollowness of this pecuniary demand as a safeguard to the town, we mention the fact that the guerilla chief, Gilmore, declared to a citizen that “this raid is made to burn the town, in retaliation for what Hunter did in the Valley of Virginia.”


The chief Burgess, John Stewart, Esq., was ordered up, but did not appear. Gilmore, happening upon a crowd of citizens, ordered their arrest as hostages for the payment of the ransom demanded. They were Messrs. T. B. Kennedy, Doctor Richard, W. H. McDowell, Wm. McLellan, T. McDowell Sharpe, W. S. Everett, W. C. Seibert, and Levi Houser.


Meanwhile, however, McCausland ordered the firing of the buildings to commence, without particular specification; this was about eight o’clock.

Who now shall depict the diabolical character of the scenes which ensued upon the issue of this brutal order? We would feign pause in our recital, and blush to think that the originators and perpetrators of this fearful task were once our peaceful fellow citizens-living under the benign influences of good government-professing attachment to a Union, one and inseparable,-now transformed into demoniac natures-the very children of the devil-lost to all respect for the ties o affection or consanguinity-all bent upon the establishment of a Slavearchy at the price of freedom, justice and religion. To what base uses have they come at last?


Shall we endeavor to harrow up the souls of our readers by attempting to portray (if indeed the most graphic word-painting could do so) the agony and distress which reigned supreme during this carnival of riot and destruction?-Driven from their thresholds by the damnable audacity and heartless conduct of these plundering scoundrels, mothers and daughters rushed frantically through the streets which, in half an hour, had become avenues of fire. Fathers and son made what feeble resistance unarmed men could make before armed fiends to save by prayer, persuasion or force, the homes which nature and love bade them protect. But alas? Alas? How unavailing was their efforts.


Unfortunately, the pillaging Confederates found liquor enough to add phrenzy to design and determination, and the ravage of the torch seemed to be in harmony with the operations of the alcoholic influences upon their inner man. The war whoop of the savage never exceeded the yell of the rebel. Taunting vociferations “Where’s Gen. Hunter?” “Remember Fredericksburg,” “We’ll show you what War is!” “This is Old Virginny for you.” “How are you Kilpatrick?” et cetera, were the suggestive words that accompanied the mad music of crackling flames and crashing walls. Hither and thither, in the wildest excitement rushed parents and children, you men and maidens, the aged and infirm, all reduced to a common terror,-leaving their happy homes a prey to the devouring element-and fleeing for their lives to the by-streets and open fields and groves in the suburbs. Nothing was saved from the relentless element; no time was given to rescue clothing, furniture or valuables; no place was exempt even had this been done.- There was no aisle of safety amid this sea of fire, for the houses were set aflame from every direction. North, South, East, West, from every quarter the hissing and serpent-tongued element was coiling around the homes that at daybreak were quiet and beautiful.


The public buildings in the center square seemed but to lift on high the crown of the fire king, and as the Court House dome became engulphed, and the statue of Franklin which surmounted it became encircled, imagination assisted the spectacle which made him now fearlessly face the fire as he did the lightning. Oh! Patriot and Philosopher! Can it be, that these fiends who have toppled and burned thy effigy ever loved thee and that country and those laws in whose vindication thou wert made immortal?


But to facts connected with this portion of the sad history.

The first building fired was a warehouse owned by the railroad company, and used by the quartermasters department. The rebels were so generally distributed throughout the town when the burning was ordered that the conflagration seemed instantaneous and general. It is not to be supposed that every house was specially fired, but enough in each block to ensure the destruction of all. The last home burned was that of Mr. J. D. Grier, on West Queen street, which was consumed during the afternoon. Two barrels of oil and some straw were used to fire the Court House, which was done while the hostages afore mentioned were under guard there. In the confusion of the moment the guard walked off and the honorable body of hostages adjourned without ceremony. Ex-Col. Stambaugh was also arrested, but when it was ascertained that during his military career in the Southwest he had exhibited considerable magnanimity toward one Col. Battles, belonging to an Alabama regiment, and who had became his prisoner, Col. S. was released.


We are informed that, in the absence of the Mayor, Gen. McCausland presented his demand to J. W. Douglas, Esq., after which the Court House bell was rung (and this was the death-tone of that old bell which had so often before given alarm of the rebel approach.) for a town meeting to consider the propriety of compliance. Be it recorded to the everlasting credit of the citizens of Chambersburg, their voice was against the measure-prefering to esteem the desolation, of their borough as a “present light affliction,” rather than to render the tribute of a finite to the thieving horde representing “the so-called Southern Confederacy.”


Powder, benzene, paper and various combustibles were used to ignite the houses. Furniture was broken into fragments and filled up in corners and closets; bedding, curtains and carpets accelerated the spreading flames. In a few instances trunks and clothing were thrown out from doors and windows only to be burned in the yards or on the pavements. A few trunks escaped the general ruin, but in the main no clothing was rescued worthy of mention. The entire wardrobes of nine-tenths of the people is upon their persons; and of these the women and children are mostly attired in the robes dechambre and “common calicoes” in which they appeared at early breakfast.


The great amount of inconvenience and distress, and the uncomfortable delay in replacing these articles, occasioned by this sudden and wholesale loss is not, however to be compared with the irreparable sacrifice of those articles of use, comfort and virtue which the gold of Ophir would fail to replace. The most elegant furniture, upholstery, libraries, et cetera, can be to a certain extent restored. Businesshouses as fine and commodious; residences as convenient, handsome, and comfortable; hotels and halls as stately and magnificent as those of yore, can all be rebuilt. But who shall tell of the innumerable and invaluable articles connected with nearly every household, that, once gone, are gone forever. The old ancestral portraits, the furniture and silver belonging to other generations in the past; the heir-looms and treasured relics of devoted parents; and the thousand mementoes of friends loved and lost. The family bibles and the old arm chairs, and all the precious things sacred within the charmed circle of home-these are what money cannot buy or time replace. As months and years grow apace, and new things assume the place of the old, thousand of hearts will still yearn for the “auld lang syne” of former homes; and forever cherish the memory of what has passed away like the baseless fabric of a dream.

“For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn, Or busy housewife ply her evening care, Or children run to lisp their sire’s return, And climb his knee the envied kiss to share.”
Ruins of the Franklin County Court House
Ruins of the Franklin County Court House, Chambersburg, Pa., destroyed by Confederate troops in 1864, Library of Congress-LC-USZ62-74151
The Rebels under Stuart leaving Chambersburg
The Rebels under Stuart leaving Chambersburg; Libray of Congress - LC-USZ62-7022

The limits of the burnt district (in the absence of a diagram) may be described as follows:
  • On Main Street-both sides, from Washington street to King street; and the beautiful residences of Wm. G. Reed and Benjamin Chambers. In this street the residences occupied by Rev. S. R. Fisher, and Messrs. Geo. Lehner, Augustus Reineman and Henry Fieldman were saved only by the most superhuman efforts against flames and rebels.
  • On Market street-beginning at the Franklin Railroad, (excepting the Misses Denny’s residence) both sides, to Franklin street. Beyond this was also destroyed the houses of Messrs. Shaffer, Brant, Stout, Bratton, Woods, King, Stouffer, Bankert, Butler, Coles, Ekert, Peisel, and the old Farmer’s Hotel. The house of widow Smith was saved by effort, and S. Radebaugh’s on account of containing a sick woman who could not be removed.
  • The law offices of Messrs. Cook and Sharpe in this street, opposite the Court-House, although environed with fire, were saved-perhaps mainly on account of being one-storied buildings.
  • On Franklin street-there were destroyed Lisher’s smith and wagon shop, the houses of Evans and Cole, and a number of stables.
  • On Queen street-both sides, between Second street and the creek, including the Bethel church, except the house of Mr. Brand, occupied by the Post Quarter master.
  • On Second street-between Market and Queen, both sides, except the residences of Messers. Seibert, McLanahan, Wunderlich, Reesner, the Masonic Temple, and Methodist.
  • Along the Connococheague-everything between King and Queen streets (except the dwelling of Messrs. Klippert and Mellinger,) Eyester’s large flour and chopping mills; Lambert’s paper mill and straw barracks, Washabaugh’s and Ludwig’s extensive breweries, Stouffer’s wagon shop; a tannery, and the well-known establishment for the manufacturing of axes and other cutlery.
  • On West King street-the residence of Upton Washabaugh, and houses belonging to Mr. Chambers and others.
  • Also the Chambersburg Academy and all its apparatus; Kintline’s wagon maker shop, and Peiffer and Foltz’s carriage shop.

The magnificent suburban residence of Col. A. K. McClure, together with a large and well finished barn, were objects of special attention. The rebels who were delegated to do the burning inquired among the neighbors until the desired premises were found. The Colonel was absent, and the buildings fired.- The mansion was one of the finest and best arranged in Franklin county, and the barn new and filled with the present crop. Col. M’s, prominence as a citizen, editor, and politician rendered his property an “object of interest” to rebel eyes.


Within the burnt district were located the principal and important buildings of the borough. The Court House, Franklin Hall, Chambersburg Bank, Post Office; Repository Valley Spirit, and German Reformed Messenger printing offices; Inland Telegraph Office, Savings Bank, Rosedale Female Seminary, Hope Engine House, and Associate Reformed Church. A singular fact too, all the hotels were amid these unfortunate confines. McNulty’s Franklin Hotel; Trostle’s White Swan; Montgomery’s Eagle Hotel; Taylor’s Indian Queen; Fisher’s Union Hotel; Brown’s Eastern Inn; Seller’s Washington House; and Riley’s Hotel, all shared the fame fate.


The books and records of the county offices; the accounts and papers of the Bank, the Railroad company, and others, had been previously removed to Harrisburg. Also the greater portion of the merchants’ goods-leaving the stores comparatively empty. The business portion of the citizens had not yet recovered from the excitement produced by McCausland’s late capture of Hagerstown; and consequently had not yet ordered back all the goods sent away at that time.


Quite a chapter might be written of thrilling incidents and affecting scenes as they occurred between the burners and the inmates of the doomed houses. How that one heroic citizen, with a simple but stout club, drove out some half dozen rebels, battering them to such an extent as to spill precious Southern blood in his entry. That another purchased the exemption of his house with a few drinks of good brandy. But for disinclination to parade the heroism of the women, or to mention names, we might recite conduct not unworthy of the mothers of the Revolutionary era-in detailing instances where the irresistible power of woman, in the dark hour of trial, arose victorious over the tide of desolation which rolled athwart the sacred temple of their affections. Nearly every family could relate instances to this effect; and we doubt not that the history of that sad day could be beautifully relieved of its gloom had we the disposition or time to enumerate the examples of manliness and female heroism already reported.


The Town Hall and Market House were saved on account of proximity to the Methodist church and parsonage-from which it would appear that the rebels had a small amount left of the “compunctious visitings of nature.”

The residence of Col. Boyd, the noted cavalry officer, on Federal Hill near town, was visited; but saved on account of the Colonel’s having prevented the destruction of certain property in the Valley of Virginia.


The handsome flag-pole in the center square, over 200 feet high, remains in all its stately beauty. The rebels commenced to cut it down, but did not continue the work.


It is asserted that some of the rebels were heartily ashamed of the barbarous and contemptible task which their General compelled them to perform. A few even wept at the distress of the women and children; and one office declared to a citizen that the Union army had never done anything like this; and that if the iniquity here perpetrated was visited upon them tenfold in the future, they would get only what they deserved!


About 10 o’clock in the morning, the order was given to cease firing the houses; and after this a number of the rebels actually assisted citizens to extinguish the flames about their house. Some gave a hand at the engine and one officer even took the hose pipe in his hands. In some cases, however, the indignant citizens spurned their proffered help. The rebel soldiers for the most part laid the responsibility of destruction entirely upon their commanding general.


In summing up the material loss sustained we find different estimates made. There were perhaps between 250 and 300 buildings destroyed. The burnt property in a line would extend about twenty-five squares. For the reason that the burning involved the principal public buildings and largest business emporiums, the pecuniary loss is supposed to be not less than two millions of dollars. Three-fourths of the taxes of Chambersburg was paid by this part of the town.


Nothing is more worthy of special note than the fact that the rebels neither visited nor destroyed a single building connected with the operations of the Cumberland Valley Railroad company. This road having suffered so much already by rebel hands does not, of course, object to the oversight or perhaps intentional omission. Our friend Colonel Lull, the Superintendent, has profited by experience, and invariably remove his valuable machinery which being gone, “twould be a poor satisfaction for rebel vengeances to work on empty shells. It is also averred that the marauders had not time to burn the shops.


The general impression is, indeed, that McCausland’s fiends ceased their labors ere their task was entirely accomplished. They left town hurriedly about twelve o’clock, on account (as some assert) of a cry “the Yankees are coming.”


And this brings us to a consideration of the responsibility of this fearful and atrocious incursion. It rests undeniably with the military authorities-and more immediately between Generals Couch and Averill. Although it is not within our province or purpose to assume to decide the matter-and we hope it will become the subject of immediate official investigation-we may say that, in public opinion, great blame is attached to the course pursed by Gen. Couch. At no time, during an invasion of this valley, has Gen. Couch been seen or heard from within thirty miles of “the front”-his invariable retreat to Harrisburg has become proverbial. Poor Chambersburg has had to bear the sin, (in rebel estimation) of being a military post, subject to all the ills of war on that account; but when the hour of trial comes, she has received no protection from that same military. Not to refer to the absurdity of the government, in maintaining,:

“All the pomp and circumstance of glorious war”
during the sweet hours of Peace, and then when grim-usaged War sounds his stern alarms to have “Head Quarters” suddenly turn up at Harrisburg-we do assert that better orders and a bolder front might have saved Chambersburg!


Not less than fifteen hundred soldiers-as stragglers and guard to a wagon train-passed through Chambersburg on Friday. These men were no so “demoralized” as to prevent their skedaddling thirty miles further to Carlisle, where they were stopped! Now, had this been done at Chambersburg, as it should have been, (for of what use was a guard to a train North of Chambersburg?) these would have been united with the heroic commands of McLean, McGowan, and the section of a N. Y. Battery. Such a force would then have induced the citizens to join them in self-defence.

Beside all this, Gen. Averill’s command was between Greencastle and Chambersburg. We have it from one of Averill’s officers that they saw the burning distinctly. If then Gen. Couch had been on the spot, might he not have held the enemy at bay-with the force we have designated-until he could have sent for Averill, and driven or defeated the rebels entirely?

Instead of this, Couch depended on telegraphic operations (at the safe distance of fifty miles) for whatever order he may have given;-there was a feeble defense-Averill did not come-and the fatal result is given in the foregoing chapter.


On the other hand, General Averill is censured as the derelict party; and it is asserted did not comply with positive orders to go in and defend Chambersburg. Certain it is, that he marched his force off toward Fayetteville-with the smoke and flame of burning Chambersburg before his eyes, and much to the surprise o his own soldiers-and came into Chambersburg over the Baltimore turnpike about 3 o’clock, P. M., over three hours after the rebels left! He did not “drive out” the pirates (according to despatches) any more than he followed “in vigorous pursuit.” True, a military investigation will be no consolation to the hundreds of homeless and penniless sufferers who have been thrown out upon the charity of a cold world; nevertheless let it had, and let history chronicle the name of the delinquent.


We visited C. on the morning after the conflagration-but what language can express our own feelings or portray the scenes we witnessed there! Amid the silence of those ruins, and meeting scarcely a familiar face among the strangers who had already flocked hither to gratify curiosity, we felt

“Like one who treads alone Some banquet hall deserted.”
Monumented chimneys and staggering walls seemed to tell the doleful story-how there had been enacted only yesterday, such offences as needed but the stain of murder to render them companion pictures to the horrors of Wyoming.