Historical Markers
Burning of Chambersburg Historical Marker
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Burning of Chambersburg

Hershey/Gettysburg/Dutch Country Region


Marker Location:
US 30 and west end of Chambersburg [SE corner of the square at Route 30 and Route 11.]

Dedication Date:
December 5, 1947

Behind the Marker

Photograph of the city of Chambersburg after the burning.
Chambersburg, PA, after Conferedate raiders set the town on fire, August 1864....
When Chambersburg residents learned on the morning of July 30, 1864 that yet another Confederate cavalry raid was approaching their city, most people were not overly concerned. Rebels had occupied the city in October 1862 and again in June 1863, soon before the Battle of Gettysburg. On both occasions Southern troops had behaved reasonably well, although they had burned military supplies and railroad equipment during markerJeb Stuart's raid of 1862.
Photograph of Brig. Gen. John McCausland.
Confederate officer, Brig. General John McCausland

But this time would be different. Eighteen sixty-four was an election year, and Union armies, after making steady progress in Virginia and Georgia, seemed to be stalemated by the Confederates. President Lincoln feared, with good reason, that he would not be re-elected if his generals failed to provide military victories. In addition, in the Shenandoah Valley, Jubal Early's troops had recently defeated Union General David Hunter's forces, and then managed to approach the forts defending Washington D.C. before falling back in the face of Union reinforcements.

Earlier that summer, General Hunter had permitted his troops to loot and burn private property in the Valley. To retaliate, General Early came to the conclusion that "it was time to open the eyes of the people of the North to this enormity, by example in the way of retaliation." Early decided that Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, would be the object of his retribution. First though, he would give its residents the chance to hand over $100,000 in gold or $500,000 in currency to compensate people in the Valley for the loss of their homes.

The Confederate raid would be led by General John McCausland, and consist of his own brigade and that of Bradley Johnson; perhaps 2,800 men and 4 cannons in all. McCausland assembled his force in the panhandle of West Virginia, and then crossed the Potomac at McCoy's Ford on the morning of July 29. A detached company of the 6th United States Cavalry, patrolling the Mason-Dixon Line, quickly located McCausland's column and fell back slowly, setting up ambushes and delaying the northward advance of the enemy. By three o'clock that afternoon, the Yankee Regulars had been driven out of Mercersburg, but their delaying tactics had given warning that the Rebels were coming.
Portrait of Confederate batteries overlooking Chambersburg.
Southern Revenge, by Dale Gallon, 1989.

In 1864, Chambersburg was the headquarters of markerMajor General Darius N. Couch, commanding officer of the Department of the Susquehanna, the military department responsible for Pennsylvania's defense. But Couch had few troops since most of his units had gone to Washington to reinforce the garrison there. Warned that a Rebel cavalry column was headed his way, Couch evacuated his headquarters, sending his guards and supplies north by rail.

In the meantime, McCausland's troops, after resting briefly in Mercersburg, moved out by midnight towards Chambersburg. Delayed by the lone company of Federal horsemen, the Rebels moved through St. Thomas at about two a.m. on the 30th. Union troops again delayed the enemy advance from their position atop the hill just west of this marker, but by dawn had retreated.
Panoramic view of the Chambersburg Ruins.
Panoramic view of the Chambersburg Ruins, August 1864.

Around 5:30 a.m., the Confederate artillery fired perhaps six rounds over the city. Leading his cavalry into the town square, McCausland and his chief officers sat down to breakfast at the Franklin House. There the general ordered the arrest of leading citizens, including attorney J. W. Douglas, who was provided a copy of General Early's order, and sent to tell the townspeople that the Rebels would burn the town if they did not provide the required ransom. "I then went up Market Street and told everyone I met of the rebel demand." Douglas later recalled. "They generally laughed at first, and when I spoke earnestly about the terrible alternative, they said they were trying to scare us and went into their houses. I then went up Main Street in the same manner and with the same result."

Other detainees had told McCausland that bank funds had already been removed and sent north for safekeeping. When Douglas informed McCausland that he could find no money, the general had the courthouse bell rung to call citizens to the square, and then ordered his troops to burn Chambersburg.
Panoramic view of Chambersburg.
Panoramic view of Chambersburg.

Rampaging through the town, Confederate soldiers broke into houses and evicted residents, smashed furniture, heaped the pieces into piles, and then set them on fire. By eight a. m. the city was in flames. As the city burned, renegade soldiers robbed citizens, looted stores, and drank whatever liquor they could find. Some demanded ransom money to spare a home, then torched it anyway after the ransom was paid.

Not all Confederates participated in the sacking of Chambersburg. The Masonic Temple was spared when an officer who was also a Mason posted guards to prevent its burning. When the colonel of the 21st Virginia Cavalry refused to obey the burning order, he was arrested and his entire unit sent out of town.

Other Confederates tried to help frantic citizens retrieve household goods before their homes were burned. In the end, perhaps 550 buildings went up in flames. In spite of the widespread arson and looting, the Rebels killed only one civilian, an elderly African American. Angry citizens killed at least five Confederates by the time the raiders had withdrawn.

Later that morning Union cavalry led by General William W. Averell rode through the burning town in pursuit of the Confederates. Trooper C. A. Newcomer of Cole's Maryland Cavalry would later recall the scene:

Those of us, who were in the advance, went through the burning town, bending forward upon our horses' necks, as fast as our faithful steeds would carry us. We had no knowledge of the great destruction and devastation that we should witness, and when we had once started it was necessary to continue through the burning streets. Houses on fire on both sides, it was no time to turn back, and to stop was to be burned up; our poor horses were mad with fright. Each and every one of us felt relieved when we got to the outer edge of the town. The atmosphere was stifling, with the smoke that settled over the earth like a pall. The citizens were gathered in groups; strong men with bowed heads, women wringing their hands and the little children clinging to their mothers' dresses and crying. Desolation on all sides! It was a sad picture, long to be remembered.

Confederate officer, Brig. Gen. John McCausland, post-war image.
Confederate Brig. General John McCausland, circa 1915.

Outdistancing Averell's pursuit, McCausland's force attacked the Union garrison at Cumberland, Maryland, before re-crossing the Potomac. Reinforced with fresh troops and horses, Averell finally caught up with McCausland at Moorefield, West Virginia, where his troops on August 7th inflicted a crushing defeat on the Chambersburg raiders.

The Confederate raid on Chambersburg had no impact on the military outcome of the war, nor had Early expected it to. But graphic photographs of the ruined city circulated widely across the North and led to calls for retaliation against the South.

In a series of battles in September and October, General Philip Sheridan's Union army crushed Early's outnumbered forces in the Valley, then effectively destroyed the agricultural life of the Valley's residents by extensive burning of barns and crops. In early September, General William T. Sherman captured the city of Atlanta and then burned it to the ground. These two victories helped insure Lincoln's victory in the November election and that the war would not end until the Confederacy was defeated.

McCausland's raid would be the last time that Confederates entered Pennsylvania during the Civil War. Jubal Early never regretted his decision to burn Chambersburg. And the Pennsylvanians who lived through it never forgot the raid. When McCausland died in 1927 at age ninety, some obituaries in Northern newspapers still referred to him as the "Hun of Chambersburg."
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