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The Civil War in the Shenandoah Valley
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The Burning of Chambersburg

Chambersburg is the Franklin County seat of government. Benjamin Chambers settled in the region in the 1730s, built a sawmill and a gristmill and laid out the town in 1764. Chambersburg was John Brown,s base of operations prior to his raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859. Brown posed as a prospector while collecting arms; his headquarters was on E. King Street, which intersects U.S. 11 near the heart of downtown. Following the 1862 Battle of Antietam, Chambersburg served as a supply and hospital center for the Union Army. More than 65,000 Confederate soldiers led by CSA Gen. Robert E. Lee camped in Chambersburg in June 1863, just before Gettysburg. in July 1864 after CSA Gen. John McCausland demanded $100,000 in gold or $500,000 in U.S. greenbacks from the town as repayment for USA Gen. David HunterÆs Shenandoah Valley destruction. The Confederates made their demand at dawn ù at 9 AM, despite objections from some Southern troops, the town was torched. On July 30, 1864, Confederate cavalry, under the command of General John McCausland, brought the horrors of war to the North by burning the town of Chambersburg. Under orders from Jubal Early, McCausland demanded the town pay a ransom of $500,000, in currency, or $100,000 in specie. The raid was a responce to General "Black Dave" Hunter's destruction of the Virginia Military Institute in June, 1864.

The townspeople didn't believe the threat, and chose not to raise the money. The Confederates made their demand at dawn, at 9 AM, despite objections from some Southern troops, the town was torched. More than 500 buildings, about two-thirds of the town, were destroyed by fire.

The following article is from the Confederate Veteran, Vol. XI, No. 10 Nashville, Tenn., October, 1903.


No destruction of property by the Confederate armies during the War between the States has been condemned by the people of the North in such unmeasured terms as the burning of Chambersburg, Pa., in 1864 by order of Gen. Early. While bitterly denouncing this as a wanton destruction of property, they applaud Sherman for permitting and encouraging his troops to commit daily the most unprovoked acts of incendiarism and theft upon the helpless citizens along his line of march from Dalton to Atlanta; and after the fall of the latter, with no army in his front to intercept his "famous"---infamous---march to the sea, the acts perpetrated upon the defenseless women and children, to say nothing of incendiarism, were as fiendish and brutal as ever marked the conquests of the Goths and Vandals in the days of barbarism. It may condone American soldiery to note that two-thirds of Sherman's army was made up of mercenary hirelings, foreigners whose brutal instincts made them fit tools to go beyond the merciless orders of their leader. They had no interest in the welfare of Americans. These Northern partisans, while applauding Sherman, also sang the praises of Sheridan, who had made the proud (?) boast in this day of civilized warfare that his ruthless marauders had with fire and sword so desolated the beautiful Valley of the Shenandoah, inhabited at that time only by homeless and helpless women and children, that a "crow would starve to death flying over it unless he carried his rations with him." And yet Sheridan's army was, as a whole, composed of less objectionable material than Sherman's. It is reported that quite a number of his subordinates resigned or were deprived of their commissions rather than execute the brutal orders issued them, but he found in one Hunter a creature not only willing but eager to carry out his orders. The following is a copy of a letter written Hunter by Mrs. Edmund I. Lee, one of his victims, which clearly expresses the estimate placed upon him by the unfortunate citizens of Virginia at that time:
"SHEPHERDSTOWN, VA., July 20, 1864.

" Gen. Hunter : Yesterday your underling, Capt. Martindale, of the First New York Veteran Cavalry, executed your infamous order and burned my house. You have had the satisfaction ere this of receiving from him the information that your orders were fulfilled to the letter, the dwelling and every outbuilding, seven in number, with their contents, being burned. I, therefore, a helpless woman, whom you have cruelly wronged, address you, a major general of the United States army, and demand why this was done? What was my offense?

"My husband was absent, an exile. He has never been a politician, or in any way engaged in the struggle now going on, his age preventing. This fact David Strother, your chief of staff, could have told you. The house was built by my father, a revolutionary soldier, who served the whole seven years for your independence. There was I born; there the sacred dead repose; it was my house and my home; and there your niece, who lived among us all this horrid war, up to the present moment, met with all kindness and hospitality at my hands.

"Was it for this that you turned me, my young daughter, and little son out upon the world without a shelter? Or was is because my husband is the grandson of the revolutionary patriot and Rebel, Richard Henry Lee, and the near kinsman of the noblest of Christian warriors, the greatest of generals, Robert E. Lee? Heaven's blessings be upon his head forever! You and your government have failed to conquer, subdue, or match him; and disappointed rage and malice find vent upon the helpless and inoffensive.

"Hyena like, you have torn my heart to pieces; for all hallowed memories clustered around that homestead; and, demon-like, you have done it without even the pretext of revenge, for I never saw or harmed you. Your office is not to lead (like a brave man and soldier) your men to fight in the ranks of war, but your work has been to separate yourself from all danger, and, with your incendiary band, steal unawares upon helpless women and children, to insult and to destroy. Two fair homes did you yesterday ruthlessly lay in ashes, giving not a moment's warning to the startled inmates of your wicked purpose; turning mothers and children out of doors, your very name execrated by your own men for the cruel work you gave them to do. In the case of Mr. A. R. Boteler, both father and mother were far away. Any heart but that of Capt. Martindale (and yours) would have been touched by that little circle, comprising a widowed daughter, just risen from her bed of illness, her three little fatherless babes, the eldest not five years old, and her sick sister. I repeat, any man would have been touched at that sight but Capt. Martindale. One might as well hope to find mercy and feeling in the heart of a wolf, bent on its prey of young lambs, as to search for such qualities in his bosom. You have chosen well your man for such deeds; doubtless you will promote him.

"A colonel of the Federal army has stated that you deprived forty of your officers of their commands because they refused to carry out your malignant mischief. All honor to their names for this, at least; they are men; they have human hearts and blush for such a commander.

"I ask who that does not wish infamy and disgrace attached to him forever would serve under you? Your name will stand on history's page as the hunter of weak women and innocent children; the hunter to destroy defenseless villages and refined and beautiful homes, to torture afresh the agonized hearts of suffering widows; the hunter of Africa's poor sons and daughters, to lure them into ruin and death of soul and body; the hunter with the relentless heart of a wild beast, the face of a fiend, and the form of a man. O Earth, behold the monster!

"Can I say, 'God forgive you?' No prayer can be offered for you. Were it possible for human lips to raise your name heavenward, angels would thrust the foul thing back again and demons claim their own. The curses of thousands, the scorn of the manly and upright, and the hatred of the true and honorable will follow you and yours through all time, and brand your name, Infamy! Infamy! "Again, I demand, why have you burned my house? Answer, as you must answer before the Searcher of all hearts. Why have you added this cruel, wicked deed to your many crimes?"

The burning of Chambersburg was not an act of wanton destruction of property by marauding soldiers under irresponsible officers, but it was an act of retaliation for property destroyed by Gen. Hunter, and was so stated by Gen. Early when he issued the order. One of the houses above referred to as having been burned by Hunter had been taken by him for his headquarters. Only two ladies occupied the house, and he had promised them his protection, but immediately after his departure an officer and some soldiers returned with a written order from Hunter to burn and destroy everything about the premises.

A few days later, as Gen. Hunter was passing another Virginia mansion, a lady asked him why he had destroyed the magnificent home of Col. Anderson. He replied that Virginia women were worse traitors than their husbands, and he would burn the houses over their heads in order to make them personally and immediately experience some punishment for their treason; and, on another occasion, he said to a Virginia lady that he would humble the Virginia women before he left the State. Many other acts could be mentioned of actual destruction, threats, and wanton violence on the part of Hunter, all of which make up public sentiment that prevailed at that time in Virginia, and which required steps on the part of the military authorities to prevent their recurrence in the future, as well as to stop the useless destruction then going on; but these are sufficient to explain the reason why the city of Chainbersburg, in Pennsylvania, was burned.

Gen. John McCausland, tinder whose immediate orders the city was burned, gives the following account of it:
"On July 28 1 received an order from Gen. Early to cross the Potomac with my brigade and one under Gen. Bradley T. Johnson and proceed to the city of Chambersburg. My orders were to capture the city and deliver to the proper authorities a proclamation which Gen. Early had issued calling upon them to furnish me with $100,000 in gold or $500,000 in greenbacks, and in case the money was not forthcoming I was instructed to burn the city and return to Virginia. The proclamation also stated that this course had been adopted in retaliation for the destruction of property in Virginia by orders of Gen. Hunter, and specified that the homes of Andrew Hunter, A. R. Boteler, E. J. Lee, Gov. Letcher, J. T. Anderson, the Virginia Military Institute, and others in Virginia had been burned by orders of D. Hunter, a Federal commander, and that this money demanded from Chambersburg was to be paid to the parties specified as compensation for their loss of property. It appears that Gen. Early adopted this policy after proper reflection; that his orders were distinct and final, and that what was done on this occasion by my command was not the result of inconsiderate action or want of proper authority, as was alleged by many parties at the North, both at the time and since the close of the war.

"On the 29th of July the two cavalry brigades that were to make the dash into Pennsylvania, by turning the right of Hunter's army, were assembled at Hammond's Hill, in Berkeley County, W. Va. During the night the Federal pickets on the opposite side of the river were captured, and our troops crossed just at daylight on the morning of the 30th and moved out on the National road. At Clear Spring we left the National road and turned into the Mercersburg road to the north. We reached Mercersburg about dark, and stopped to feed our horses and give the stragglers time to catch up. After this stop the march was continued all night, notwithstanding the opposition made at every available point by a regiment of Federal cavalry. We reached Chambersburg at daylight on the 31st. The approach to the town was defended only by one piece of artillery and some irregular troops, who were soon driven off, and the advance of our force took possession of the town. The main part of our two brigades was formed on the high ground overlooking the town.

"I at once went into the city with my staff and requested some of the citizens to inform the city authorities that I wanted to see them. I also sent my staff through the town to locate the proper officials and inform them that I had a proclamation for their consideration. Not one could be found. I then directed the proclamation to be read to as many citizens as were near me, and asked them to hunt up their town officers, informing them that I would wait until they could either find the proper authorities, or, by consultation among themselves, determine what they would do. Finally, I informed them that I would wait six hours, and if they would then comply with the requirements their town would be safe; but if not, it would be destroyed in accordance with my orders from Gen. Early.

"After a few hours' delay, many citizens came to see me. Some were willing to pay the money; others were not. I urged them to comply, giving them such reason as occurred to me at the time, and told them plainly what they might expect in the event of their failure to pay the money demanded. I showed to my own officers, and to the citizens who came to see me, my written authority and orders of Gen. Early, and before a single house was burned both the citizens and the Confederate officers fully understood why it was done and by whose orders.

"After waiting until the expiration of the six hours, and finding that the proclamation would not be complied with, the destruction was begun by firing the most central blocks first, and after the inhabitants had been removed from them. Thus the town was destroyed, and the citizens driven to the hills and fields adjacent thereto. No lives were lost among the citizens, and only one soldier was killed, he being killed after the troops had left the place. About noon the troops were re-formed on the high ground overlooking the town, where most of them had been posted in the early morning, and the return to the Potomac was begun. We reached the river the next day at or near Hancock, Md. "Gen. Early, in his 'Memoir,' page 57, says: 'A written demand was sent to the municipal authorities, and they were informed what would be the result of a failure or refusal to comply with it.'

"In this expedition our troops passed through more than one hundred miles of hostile territory, executed all orders that were issued with promptness and regularity, and never have I heard of any complaint of acts unauthorized by their superior officers, of competent authority to order it, and, moreover, that it was an act of retaliation perfectly justified by the circumstances, and was at all times in keeping with the rules governing civilized warfare."

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