Chapterette (25) – July 30, 1864 – The Burning of Chambersburg
In retaliation for Gen. Hunter’s burnings, Confederate Gen. Jubal Early orders the same on the town of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania – but on an “industrial” scale, citing the burned homes in Jefferson County as a key motivation:
In an interview with a Richmond newspaper after the war Early was reported to have said:
The act was done in retaliation for outrages committed by General David Hunter in the Valley of Virginia. I thought it was time to try and stop this mode of warfare by some act of retaliation, and I accordingly sent a cavalry force to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, to demand of the authorities of that town compensation for the houses of Messrs. Hunter, Lee and Boteler, upon pain of having their town reduced to ashes on failure to pay the compensation demanded. The three houses burned were worth fully $100,000 in gold and I demanded that, or what I regarded as equivalent in greenbacks. No attempt was made to comply with my demand and my order to burn the town was executed.
This was in strict accordance with the laws of war and was a just retaliation. I gave the order on my own responsibility, but General Lee never in any manner indicated disapproval of my act, and his many letters to me expressive of confidence and friendship forbade the idea that he disapproved of my conduct on that occasion. It afforded me no pleasure to subject non-combatants to the rigors of war, but I felt that I had a duty to perform to the people for whose homes I was fighting and I endeavored to perform it, however disagreeable it might be. – (1).
Eyewitnesses describe the burning of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania:
After the order to burn the town was given by the rebel commander, squads of four and six under command of proper officers, were detailed for the purpose, and within fifteen minutes the town was on fire in a hundred places, the flames spreading in every direction with fearful rapidity.
Confederate Gen. McCausland allowed his men to scatter in squads over the town, . . . Their first move was for the taverns in the town and here they drank to excess, and then visited private residences, and demanded of the occupants certain sums of money, threatening to lay their dwellings in ashes. Some of these citizens saved their residences by complying with their terms, others gave them to understand that they would suffer death rather than give them money. A guard of half a dozen men had been detailed by the rebel General to visit the residence of Col. Alexander K. McClure, situated about a mile and a half out of town. . . .They visited the splendid residence, ordered Mrs. McClure – who was very sick at the time- out of the house, stole everything that was of value, and burned the house. They next proceeded to the barn which was well filled with wheat and this structure shared the same fate. They were not aware that Mr. McClure had several other buildings and barns in the immediate neighborhood, or they would surely have been destroyed. Mrs. McClure, although sick, was obliged to walk nearly eleven miles. The Colonel had left the place before the rebels entered and had gone to Harrisburg. . . There were many aged persons whose sole support was derived from the rents of houses now in ashes. What these persons and the poorer classes are to do we know not. God help them! – (2).
Another account said: When orders were given to fire the Court House, a strong breeze was blowing which communicated the flames to the adjoining buildings; while their soldiers, who having sacked several drug and chemical stores, made turpentine balls and were throwing them in all direction, setting fire to various places in the city
These detachments, armed with axes and crow-bars, broke into every building as they progressed, and nothing escaped the torch. No notice whatever was given to the citizens until their doors were assailed, and women and children driven into the street, without being allowed time to save any article whatever.
The scene at this time was fearful and heart-rending beyond description, The streets were filled frantic women and children wild with fright, not knowing where to fly for safety, yet urged on by the lashing, roaring flames which enveloped both sides of the streets behind.
Wrote another reporter: The roar of the flames – the screams of women and children – and the pitiful appeals of old helpless women, was an indescribable scene of horror. Two hundred and sixty-five of the most valuable and elegant buildings and private buildings were destroyed.
Men were rushing madly hither and thither, incapable of resistance, and only anxious for the safety of their families, while the shrieks and wailings of women and children filled the air, drowning even the dull roar of the raging fire.
The whole work of destruction was accomplished in a very short period. The burning of the town commenced at nine o’clock; at eleven o’clock the rebels had left and at two o’clock the best part of Chambersburg was in ashes. – (4).
Reverend Joseph Clark wrote in The Presbyterian, August 6, 1864:
Between 300 and 400 dwellings were burned, leaving at least 2, 500 persons without a home or a hearth. In value, three-fourths of the town were destroyed. The scene of desolation must be seen to be appreciated. Crumbling walls, stacks of chimneys and smoking embers, are all that remain of once elegant and happy homes. As to the scene itself, it beggars description. My own residence being on the outskirts, and feeling it the call of duty to be with my family, I could only look on from without. The day was sultry and calm, not a breath stirring, and each column of smoke rose black, straight and single, first one, and then another, and another, and another, until the columns blended and commingled; and then one vast and lurid column of smoke and flame rose perpendicular to the sky, and spread out into a vast crown, like a cloud of sackcloth hanging over the doomed city; whilst the roar and the surging, the crackling and the crash of falling timbers and walls broke upon the still air with a fearful dissonance, and the screams and sounds of agony of burning animals, hogs and cows and horses, made the welkin horrid with the sounds of woe. It was a scene to be witnessed and heard once in a life-time.” – (5).
None of the churches were burned with the exception of the Associate Reformed Church, on Second street.
The most lamentable feature of the affair is that all of the parties burned out have not saved not a single article, not even a change of clothing, children not having been allowed by the incendiaries to secure even a covering for their heads before being ejected into the streets. A very large proportion of the sufferers have lost their all, and much suffering must be the consequence, unless immediate aid is rendered them.
The number of homeless is not less than one thousand seven hundred or one thousand eight hundred persons, and nearly all are entirely destitute. In many cases citizens, after being driven from their burning homes, were relieved of their watches and pocket-books by the rebel soldiers.
The work of destruction was very speedy. The whole was done within about four hours. The value of the property destroyed is estimated at about a million and a half of dollars.
It is but just to say that many of the subordinate rebel officers were much opposed to McCausland’s order for the burning of the town, and earnestly but unsuccessfully remonstrated against it.
There were many honorable exceptions to this brutality and they spoke of this savage deed in appropriate language. They admitted that the Yanks have never been guilty of such wholesale destruction of private property. One of the declared that it would damn the Confederacy forever. – (6).
Slowly the men of Averell rode up the ruined street.
And warm were the cobble stones beneath their tir’d horses’ feet;
High o’er their heads and banners, upward in eddying whirls,
Above the blacken’d buildings the smothering smoke-cloud curls.
‘To their right and left lay ruins, the marks of rebel rage,
‘Twas a scene of desolation, a blot on history’s page.
Homeless were maid and mother, and houseless were son and sire.
No sheltering roof to shield them, surrounded all by fire;
And most harmonious music to those so helpless made
Were the sounds of Union trappings, the clatter of the blade.
Loudly they greeted the troopers with joyful shout and cheer,
But silently sat the soldiers, amid the scene so drear;
Warm were the stones beneath their steeds, and warm their welcome, too,
And warm with a thirst for vengeance each soldier’s heart then grew.