Original Document
Original Document
Jacob Hoke, on the burning of Chamberburg, PA, in 1864.

At an early hour in the morning- Saturday, July 30th [1864]- General McCausland placed about two thousand of his command in line upon a hill near the western suburb of the town, and about one mile from its center. Six pieces of artillery were also placed in position, and three shells were fired into the place without any notice to the citizens. The remaining nine hundred of the force were sent into the town, and the Court House bell was rung as a sign for the citizens to assemble to hear his requisition. No response being made, a guard under Major Harry Gilmore, of Baltimore, was sent around, who captured some six or eight of our leading men and conducted them to front of the Court House. Captain Fitzhugh, McCausland's chief of staff then read to them General Early's requisition, demanding the immediate payment of one hundred thousand dollars in gold, or five hundred thousand dollars in United States currency, and in default of payment ordering the destruction of the town. This order stated that this requisition and threat, burning were in retaliation for acts of destruction committed by Gen. Hunter in the Valley of Virginia, and specially naming some half dozen dwellings which he had burned. The money demanded was not, and could not be paid, for the reason that there was nothing like the amount demanded remaining in the town. Besides the citizens did not feel like contributing aid in the overthrow of their government. While these negotiations going on the work of plunder had already been commenced. Stores, and other places of business were broken into and robbed of what their contents yet remained unremoved or unsecreted. In some cases were opened and liquor obtained and some of the soldiers became intoxicated. Citizens, too, along the streets were relieved of hats, caps, shoes, watches, etc.

As soon as General McCausland saw that the money demanded would not be furnished he gave the order to commence the work of destruction. Detachments were sent to different parts of the town. Houses were opened, furniture was broken and piled upon heaps in rooms and fired. In some cases fire was kindled in closets, bureaus, and other depositories of, clothing. Many of the Confederate soldiers entered into this work with evident delight, and to the entreaties and tears of the aged, the infirm, of women and children, they turned a deaf ear. Others, to their credit be it said, entirely disapproved of the work, and only entered upon it because compelled to do so. In some instances, in response to the cries and entreaties of the inmates of houses entered, the unwilling soldiers would say: "I must obey my orders and fire your house; you can do what you please when I leave." In some cases, after fire had been kindled, others would come in extinguishing it. Some sections of the town were entirely saved because the officers sent there refused to execute their barbarous orders, and in a few cases officers and soldiers worked with citizens at the fire engine to extinguish the flames. Cases were numerous in which valuable articles were taken from those who were dragging them from their burning homes, or through streets and alleys, up upon the horses by their riders and safely deposited upon the outskirts of the town. Others again were robbed of valuable articles which they were trying to carry away. The writer, while running with his family through flame and smoke, was pursued and stopped by a Confederate cavalryman and ordered to hand over a satchel, When assured that it contained neither money nor valuables, but a few pieces of clothing, the man desisted and rode away. No sooner did this one leave us than another rode up and entreated one of the ladies of our company to mount his horse and ride away, declaring that he would never use him again in the Confederate service.

. . .The work of destruction was commenced about eight o'clock in the morning, and by eleven o'clock the enemy had all gone, but so thorough had been their work that the major part of Chambersburg-its chief wealth and business, its capital and elegance-were laid in ruins. Ten squares of buildings were burned and two thousand human beings were made homeless, and many of them penniless. From this disaster the majority never recovered, but lived the remainder of their days in poverty. Reduced from affluence to poverty, many were dependent upon the charily of the few whose homes escaped the invader's torch, as well as upon the provision made by the military authorities to meet their immediate wants.

When the fire had subsided and the enemy had gone, the people who had taken refuge in the cemeteries and fields around the town, returned to view the remains of their ruined homes. Sad indeed were their feelings when they stood by the scene of desolation, recognizing here and there among the ruins sonic articles which reminded them of the past, as broken and warped stoves, cooking utensils, etc. But when night came on, and a place of shelter had to be sought, then only did they realize their sad condition. Such buildings as had escaped the common destruction were opened and were crowded to their utmost capacity. Some made their way on foot to the country, or to neighboring towns, and some removed to distant places, never again to reside in Chambersburg. Chambersburg was founded A. D. 1764, and was burned A. D. 1864.

The following is the aggregate of all buildings burned: Residences and places of business, 266; barns and stables, 98; out-buildings of various kinds, 173; total buildings burned, 537. Two commissions, composed of competent and disinterested persons, appointed by the governor of the State, and authorized by ads of the legislature, came to the town and adjudicated the losses of the citizens by the fire, The claims adjudicated by these commissions were carefully scrutinized. Each claimant was examined separately and under oath, evidence besides his own being required. The claims thus adjudicated were as follows: Real estate, $713,294.34; personal property, $915,137-24: total, $1,628,431.58. Immediately after the fire the legislature of the State was convened in special session, and after visiting the town and ascertaining the destitution of the people, the sum of one hundred thousand dollars was appropriated to meet the immediate wants of the needy. This sum was divided, not pro-rata to the amount of losses sustained, but according to the necessities of each. Subsequently an appropriation of five hundred thousand dollars, followed a year or two later by another of three hundred thousand, was made. These appropriations were divided pro-rata, and, as will be seen from the figures given, paid about one half the losses by the fire. Certificates were given for the remainder, certifying to the amount, but not binding the State to pay it until the United States indemnifies the State.

Three causes have been assigned for the destruction of Chambersburg. One of these is that it was in revenge for the innocent hospitality the town gave to John Brown and his misguided followers when planning their mad raid upon Harper's Ferry. A second is, that it was in retaliation for alleged acts of burning and destruction committed by Federal troops in the South, and specially in the Shenandoah Valley, by orders of General Hunter during the raid referred to in the opening of this article. A third opinion regards it as a barbarous, wanton, and unjustifiable act.

Credit: Jacob Hoke, from "The Burning of Chamberburg," The Great Invasion of 1863, (Dayton, OH: W. J. Shuey, 1887), 582-88.
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