Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Out of the predawn mist thundered the enemy, their horses’ hooves pounding the town’s dusty streets apocalyptically. Al­though grimy, weary and starv­ing, the cavalrymen were formidable, battle-hardened veterans, ready to fight at a moment’s notice. They had come to this little town to execute an order – a command which, when carried out, would add another bitter meas­ure of salt to the festering wound opened by the Civil War. By the time they had com­pleted their work and ridden out, the prosperous town would be reduced to smoulder­ing ruins and rubble.

With minor variations, this drama was enacted many times during the war-in Vir­ginia’s Shenandoah Valley, Georgia’s coastal plain, South Carolina’s piedmont. But this time the stage was draped in different colors and the actors’ roles reversed. For this was no Southern village being invaded by Union troops bent on looting and destruc­tion “for military purposes.” This was a town in southern Pennsylvania, not far from a community called Gettys­burg, where, just a year ear­lier, a series of battles had been fought, turning the tide in the tragic conflict. The town was Chambersburg; the date, July 30, 1864.

What brought about this act of wholesale destruction? And why Chambersburg? Be­cause it served as the head­quarters for the Susquehanna Military District? Or, per­haps, did its prosperity rankle the embittered Confederates, who had seen their own homes, towns and farms pillaged by the North? Maybe Cham­bersburg was being revisited out of habit. Twice before – in October 1862 and during the summer of 1863 – the Frank­lin County seat had been in­vaded by Rebel troops.

The first visit was mild by comparison. On Gen. Robert E. Lee’s orders, his flamboyant cavalry chief, Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, and eighteen hundred men raided southern Pennsylvania in search of horses, food and supplies for the starving graybacks. They had two other objectives: rob the Chambersburg bank and torch the railroad bridge spanning the Conococheague Creek north of town, a vital transportation link to the west. However, their efforts were unsuccessful. The bank’s assets had been moved to a safer location once word of Stuart’s presence became known, and although the Confederates had ample opportunity to burn the railroad bridge, they found it to be made of iron! Typifying Southern chivalry, Stuart sought no retribution. Except for “liberating” a large number of much-needed horses, he appropriated very little from Chambersburg’s shops. In fact, he ordered his men to pay for everything they took, even though the pay­ment was usually in Confed­erate specie of dubious value. The only buildings and ar­ticles destroyed were bonafide military targets: machine shops, depots, arms and sun­dry supplies. Most public buildings and all private dwell­ings were spared.

Although obviously not a social call, aspects of the 1862 invasion offered an enter­taining comic opera flavor. When Colonel Butler and a squad detailed to “relieve” the bank of its funds arrived to find the coffers empty, they took the news philosophically. Not wanting to spoil their good humor, the bank cashier invited the foiled robbers to din­ner at his home.

After Stuart and his troops made their escape across the Potomac River, the towns­people breathed a collective sigh of relief, but their reprieve from the atrocities of war was to be short-lived. The following June, as a prelude to Gettysburg, a Confederate cavalry led by Gen. Albert Jenkins stormed the town. Their stay was brief and relatively uneventful, but they were fol­lowed soon by Lee’s Second Corps, under Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell, the first Rebel in­fantry to penetrate the Mason­-Dixon Line. This occupation was more taxing, although it, too, adhered to the accepted rules of warfare.

Jacob Hoke, a Chambersburg grocer, was among those affected. In his thorough – but surprisingly evenhanded – ­account of this occupation (and of the following year’s night­mare) he gives the Confed­erates the benefit of the doubt. Ewell’s men and the rest of Lee’s soldiers were subject to the latter’s strict orders: “While in the enemy’s country … no private property shall be in­jured or destroyed by any per­son belonging to or con­nected with the army.” On the whole, orders were obeyed, thanks to the efforts of Lee’s provost marshals. Nonethe­less, the town merchants were severely pressed by the army’s demands for food, cloth­ing and equipment. A few, including Hoke, readily acceded to their demands and were spared from plundering, while others who stubbornly re­fused were reduced to poverty.

The following week wit­nessed a replay of that scare when Gen. James Longstreet’s men arrived. This time Hoke’s store was completely wiped out. The occupation was highlighted by the arrival of the legendary Lee with Longstreet. Lee promptly made his headquarters east of town on the road to Gettysburg and unlike other generals, who normally commandeered large homes for their head­quarters, he preferred to pitch a tent among his men. But the Gray Fox’s visit to the Key­stone State was to be brief. In less than two weeks he would be marching south, his ranks thinned considerably by the engagements at Little Round Top and the aptly named Cemetery Ridge. All­-told, the Gettysburg battles yielded over 51,000 blue and gray casualties, but they weren’t enough to bring about an end to the long, bloody war. They were enough, how­ever, to put Lee’s army on the defensive, where it would remain until the surrender at Appomattox Court House twenty-one months later. Never again would the North be subjected to an invasion of that magnitude.

But the North – and Cham­bersburg, in particular – did see the Rebels again. Only this time the stakes were differ­ent. In the year following the carnage at Gettysburg, the Union armies gradually chipped away at the eroding Confed­eracy. Following the loss of Vicksburg (and with it, the Mississippi lifeline) in July 1863, the South was literally sliced in two. The defeat at Vicksburg, combined with the war of attrition waged by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac, dealt the South crippling blows. Not quite ready to capitulate, the Rebels found themselves bereft of men, food, horses, every­thing, except perhaps daring and courage. Thus, they were reduced to desperate measures.

Among the most desper­ate was Gen. Jubal Early’s at­tempt to capture Washing- ton in early July 1864. It was a move calculated to relieve some of the pressure on Lee, who was then dueling with Grant during the Virginia Wild­ness Campaign. Finding the nation’s capital too well­-defended, Early withdrew to Martinsburg, West Virginia, with a sizable cache of plunder. Protecting his left flank was a brigade of mounted infantry, under Gen. John A. Mc­Causland. His troops, joined by Gen. Bradley T. John­son’s cavalry brigade, com­prised a force of twenty-nine hundred men. On Thursday, July 28, Early ordered Mc­Causland to take these troops to Chambersburg to demand either $100,000 in gold or $500,000 in currency from the citizens. If neither were paid, he was to bum the town.

McCausland, a twenty­-seven-year-old St. Louis na­tive, obeyed reluctantly; blind obedience was not his strong suit. Two years earlier, during the battle of Fort Donelson, he had risked a court martial by refusing his superior’s orders to surrender his men. Instead, he escaped across the Mississippi River to serve with dis­tinction in Tennessee and Virginia. He was promoted to brigadier general in May 1864, succeeding Albert Jenk­ins, the slain general who had occupied Chambersburg the previous June. Soon after­ward, the former Virginia Military Institute instructor joined Early’s command.

McCausland had his work cut out for him. With a ragged, outnumbered force, he was to counter the ac­tivities of Union Generals William T. Sherman and David Hunter in the Shenandoah Val­ley. Their scorched earth policy had reduced much of the fertile valley to wasteland. Hunter zealously carried this policy too far; he had dis­played a pyromaniac’s fetish for the flame, burning public and private dwellings seem­ingly for the sheer sport of it. He put to the torch all of V.M.I., his alma mater, as well as the residences of former Virginia Governor Letcher and Andrew Hunter, the uncle who had helped raise him!He would not even allow his relatives time to save their clothes from the inferno.

Heavily outnumbered and short of supplies, McCaus­land fought tenaciously against the Union cavalry and in the battle of Lynchburg, June 17, 1864, he saved the city and its large storehouse from Hunter’s troops. While Hunter withdrew west to West Vir­ginia, Early swept up the unpro­tected Shenandoah and threat­ened Washington.

Certainly, knowledge of Hunter’s depredations should have made McCausland’s job easier to carry out, but he wrote: “The job wasn’t easy to contemplate. In the first place, I had a mightly small force to invade the North. Averell and his big army could gobble me up in no time. And the kind of work assigned to me wasn’t the sort that appealed to me either.” As events unfolded, he had little to fear from the Union army. Although Maj. Gen. Darius N. Couch, the North’s district commander, was in Cham­bersburg, he had fewer than fifty men at his disposal. And Brig. Gen. William W. Averell, whose large force was responsible for protecting Pennsylvania’s southern bor­der, was nowhere to be found.

Early in the morning on Saturday, July 30, Chambers­burg lay virtually defense­less, as McCausland placed two thousand of his men on a hill near the western boundary of the town. After brushing aside the gallant, but token, resistance of Couch’s men, he fired several artillery shells (none of which did any damage) and sent the balance of his force, numbering nine hundred men, into town. After tolling the Franklin County courthouse bell, a Major Gillmore rounded up several leading citizens and brought them to McCaus­land’ s chief of staff, Captain Fitzhugh. Fitzhugh read them Early’s ransom demands which specifically stated that the act was ” .. . in retaliation for acts of destruction com­mitted by General Hunter in the Valley of Virginia.”

Because most of the town’s gold and other valuables had been removed for safekeep­ing, by then a familiar ritual, nowhere near the amount demanded was to be found. Besides, many of the citizens wouldn’t have paid it even if they could. There also existed the general feeling that the Rebels were merely bluffing.

While McCausland and the local dignitaries entered negotiations, bands of Confed­erate soldiers began plunder­ing Chambersburg. Businesses were broken into and looted, saloons rifled, and pedes­trians robbed of their valuables – even their boots. Although McCausland claimed he gave the town six hours to raise the money, Hake’s and other reliable accounts insisted that his men started the fires immediately.

The events that followed would haunt the memories of horror-stricken residents for decades. Houses were opened, and furniture was broken, piled upon heaps in rooms and fired. Some of the soldiers, visibly intoxicated, seemed to delight in the destruction. Again and again, the terrorists would approach a house and order its occupants to leave at once, not even allowing them time to collect their valu­ables. Those who did manage to retrieve a few keepsakes were relieved of them by the soldiers as they escaped the flames. Often, those who could not leave their homes were left to die, but com­passionate friends and neigh­bors promptly saved the invalids.

Although Jacob Hoke’s ac­count of the disaster is thorough enough, an anony­mous eyewitness provided a more graphic, perhaps more rancorous, report. The raid­ers ” … almost invariably en­tered every room of each house, rifled the drawers of every bureau, appropriated money .. . and often would present pistols to the heads of inmates, men and women, and demand money or their lives.” A few homeowners paid substantial sums to ran­som their dwellings – only to have them ignited anyway. Apparently, no one was immune from the torch, not even Mrs. J.F. Shryock who, with a dying, orphaned baby in her arms, begged that her home be spared. Once her house was ablaze, she confronted one of the arsonists with the baby: “1s this revenge sweet?’ A tender chord was touched, and without speaking, he burst into tears.”

Nor did the Rebels defer to clergymen. Father McCul­loen, pastor of the town’s Catholic church, was robbed of his watch while sitting on his front porch. The anony­mous reporter concluded, “Thus, the work of desolation continued for two hours; more than half of the town on fire at once; and the wild glare of the flames, the shrieks of the women and children, and often louder than all the terrible blasphemy of the rebels, conspired to present such a scene of horror as has never been witnessed by the present generation.”

Both the unknown eye­witness and Hoke recorded in­stances where the Rebels also behaved gallantly, even though they risked being charged with disobedience. One, a Captain Baxter, not only refused to participate in the arson, but helped many residents remove clothing and other items from their dwell­ings. With his men, Captain Watts saved all the buildings on Second Street south of Queen Street, while another company of cavalrymen preserved nearly all of the southeastern part of the town.

The townspeoples’ hatred of the invaders was as intense as the flames that en­gulfed their homes, indeed their lives’ work. That it would find a violent outlet was inevit­able. Major Bowen, one of the raiders, strayed too far from his comrades and was cap­tured and wounded by several citizens. He took refuge in a cellar of one of the burning houses and was soon con­sumed by the flames – while his captors looked on impassively.

Several other Rebels were killed that morning, either by townspeople or by troops from Averell’s command, who finally arrived, but too late to stop the destruction, Only one Chambersburg resident died in the raid, a free Black named Daniel Parker, who perished from burns received when his home was fired. In a sense, he was somewhat fortunate because many other Blacks – former slaves and freemen alike – were captured by the Confederates and taken back South as “contra­bands.”

By eleven o’clock, McCaus­land’s troops departed Chambersburg, leaving behind ten square blocks of rubble and more than two thousand homeless residents, among them Jacob Hoke who had lost everything. The total dam­age was estimated at more than $1,600,000. Within several months, the state legislature reimbursed the town for about half of the amount.

Then and now, two puzzling questions concerning the raid remain: Why was the town burned? Who was ultimately responsible? The second question is somewhat easier to answer. Many Chambersburg residents – and historians, for that matter – have blamed Gen. John A. McCausland, reasoning that he alone was present when the torches were lit. Both McCausland and Hoke assert that Gen. Jubal Early was responsible, based on Early’s own account: “I determined to demand compen­sation therefor from some town in Pennsylvania, and in the event of failure to comply with my demand to retaliate by burning the said town. The town of Chambersburg was selected because it was the only one of any consequence accessible to my troops, and for no other reason.” Despite this dear admission, some still believed the burning was a random, wanton act of de­struction, while others claimed the town was fired in retri­bution for having sheltered John Brown and his band prior to their abortive raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859. Not a few thought Early should not bear the burden alone be­cause he was subordinate to Gen. Robert E. Lee, whom they felt was ultimately respon­sible.

It may even be argued, with some justification, that the North’s General Averell was partly to blame. He and his men were encamped at Greencastle – only eleven miles south of Chambersburg – on the night before the raid. Early the next morning General Couch sent Averell three separate dis­patches, each ordering him to move immediately to Cham­bersburg to intercept McCaus­land. Upon arrival at Aver­ell’s headquarters, however, the couriers could not locate the general. Several hours later, they found him asleep by a fence, presumably drunk. When informed of the ur­gency of his orders, Averell al­legedly replied, “Tell Couch I will be there in the morning.” Of course, by then it was
too late.

Regardless of why Cham­bersburg was burned and who was to blame, the act was a stellar example of what can happen when armies violate the laws of civilized warfare. Once these fragile laws are broken, there are no bounds to men’s conduct. As Hoke put it, “It need not seem strange, then, that the first oppor­tunity the Confederates had of retaliating upon their ene­mies, they improved. They could scarely have been ex­pected to do otherwise.”

The Civil War had its Gettys­burg, Antietam and Vicks­burg. Its famous battles and campaigns are recited, almost nonchalantly, by school students while its sensational military exploits and ma­neuvers are constantly scru­tinized by scholars and armchair historians. But the Civil War had Chambersburg, too, the little Franklin County seat which typified the despera­tion, the cruelties and the heart­ache of a country tom asunder. Chambersburg, rebuilt over the years by residents and merchants, was but one atrocity of the great Civil War which has, thanks to the passing of time, healed.


For Further Reading

Bowman, John S., ed. The Civil War Almanac. New York: World Almanac Publications, 1983.

Davis, William C., ed. The Image of War: 1861-1865. Vol. 5, The South Besieged. New York: Doubleday and Company, 1983.

Henderson, Catherine. “The Man Who Never Knew Defeat.” Civil War Times Illustrated. Vol. 23 (June 1984), 36-45.

Hoke, Jacob. The Great Invasion of 1863. New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1959.

Jones, Virgil Carrington. Gray Ghosts and Rebel Raiders. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1956.

Longacre, Edward G. Mounted Raids of the Civil War. New York: A.S. Barnes and Com­pany, 1975.

Moore, Frank A., ed. The Rebel­lion Record: A Diary of American Events. New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1968.


William M. Vatavuk, a public health service commissioned officer, is a senior chemical engineer with the United States Environ­mental Protection Agency (EPA) at Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. He is a native of Hermitage, Mercer County, and a graduate of Youngstown (Ohio) State University. An avid “Civil War buff,” he has contributed to Blue and Gray, The Southern Partisan and Civil War Times Illustrated, as well as various magazines and newspapers.