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Unwritten history. [from the Richmond, Va., Dispatch, February 5, 1899.1

A Southern account of the burning of Chambersburg.

Northern stories Contradicted—a Virginia cavalryman tells the tale of the memorable Raid—it was bad enough, but not as bad as Pictured.

The burning of Chambersburg, Pa., July 30, 1864, by General John McCausland's Confederate cavalry was a unique incident of the civil war, as it was the first time the Confederates had applied the torch in retaliation for similar offences committed by the Federal army.

It created consternation and indignation throughout the entire North. They had forgotten that Colonel Montgomery, of the Federal army, committed such gross outrages on private citizens in South Carolina, on raids made into the State—acts so atrocious and unwarranted that he was summarily dismissed from the army; Kilpatrick and Sheridan were barn-burners and mill-burners by instinct, or orders; Jackson, Miss., was partially destroyed; one-third of Alexandria, Va., was burned, and Jacksonville, Fla., nearly all destroyed by fire from the torch of Federal soldiers, yet when we asked them to take a little of their medicine we became incendiaries and freebooters.

Chambersburg is in Franklin county, Pa., about fifty or sixty miles from the Potomac. It was a substantial, well-built, and beautifully [316] laid-out town of some 6,000 or 8,000 people. These people had for some time been without any military protection, but at the time we were there General Couch was encamped at Mercersburg, sixteen miles distant, with a battery and a force of men, and General Averill was encamped at Greencastle, ten miles distant, with 2,500 cavalry. Why did they permit us to burn Chambersburg? This is a question that has never been solved. They had three men to our one, as our force, all told, did not exceed 1,000 men.

A Northern explanation.

From a little pamphlet published a few months after the burning, written by Rev. B. S. Schenck, D. D., I quote this paragraph in explanation:

General Averill possibly might have saved Chambersburg, and I know General Couch exhausted himself to get Averill to fall back from Greencastle to this point. I do not say that General Averill is is to blame, for he was under orders from General Hunter, and not subject to General Couch. He had a large force of the enemy in his front, and until it is clearly proved to the contrary I must believe he did his whole duty. The enemy under McCausland, Bradley Johnson, and Gilmer, let it be recollected, had at least 3,000 cavalry, with artillery at command, 800 being in town, the rest within supporting distance. Johnson's command occupied the high eminence one mile west of the town with a battery. No better position could have been desired. They were flushed at the prospect of plunder and pillage; their horses were fresh and sleek; their men resolute and defiant. On the other hand, Averill and his men had been worn out and jaded by long and heavy marches in Western Virginin for a number of consecutive weeks. Their horses were run down, and many of them ready to die, so that 280 of them could not be taken any farther, but were left here to recruit. It is, therefore, only possible, scarcely probable, that, even if Averill's force of 2,500 men had been here, a successful resistance could have been made under these circumstances. But Averil and his men were not here until several hours after the work of destruction was accomplished, and the enemy, gloating over his vengeful deeds, was miles away on the Western turnpike towards McConnellsburg.’

I cannot explain why these troops did not intercept us, except upon the ground that we would whip them if they gave us a chance. Averill's men were good soldiers, and in the many encounters we had with them they proved a match for us, and the reasons stated in [317] the above paragraph may possibly explain why, but this pamphlet is so full of glaring falsehoods that upon general grounds I believe nothing in it. Chambersburg had been raided twice before McCausland went therein 1864—once by General ‘JebStuart in 1862, and in 1863 by a portion of General Lee's army, just prior to the battle at Gettysburg. The farmers of Franklin and Adams counties had been kept in a state of suspense and uneasiness by McCausland's cavalry, which had made several incursions into that section with remarkable results. For several weeks previous to the raid to Chambersburg, it had been reported that we had crossed the Potomac, and were steering up the Cumberland Valley, all which being untrue, the farmers afterwards treated these reports with indifference, apathy seized them, and when we did go we found everybody at home with stock, &c.

McCauslands regiments.

McCausland's command consisted of the 8th, 14th, 16th and 17th Virginia Cavalry, and Colonel Witcher's Battalion, to which had been added for this occasion the Marylanders of General Bradley T. Johnson. We left the vicinity of Martinsburg on Thursday night, and crossed the Potomac about noon on Friday, July 29th, at Cherry Run, about thirty miles from where we started. Harry Gilmer had asked the privilege of conducting the advance, which was granted, and when we arrived on the banks of the Potomac, the Marylanders were safely on the other side waiting for us. The river at this point was deep and wide, and it was a novel sight to see men scattered over the river with a firm grip on the horses' tails, slowly toiling to a small island in the middle of the stream, from which point it was fordable. Not a man or horse was lost in crossing, and two hours sufficed for the whole command to safely land and form. It was generally known where we were going, and when night came on we were twenty miles from the Potomac. It was a clear, starry night, and forty miles had to be made by daylight. Orders had been issued for the men to avoid boisterous talking or laughing, and so well were these instructions carried out that we passed through villages and towns with our 1,000 men and were not discovered by the sleepers. On the approach of dawn it was whispered around that we were in the vicinity of Chambersburg, and when it became broad daylight we were in line of battle on the high hills overlooking the doomed city.

The 8th regiment was dismounted and started into town, followed by a small detachment of mounted cavalry, on streets and alleys [318] converging at what was called the ‘Diamond,’ about the centre of the town. A battery of four small pieces occupied an eminence, which occasionally threw shells over the city, which, I suppose, was done to intimidate rather than harm.

Tribute or sacrifice.

When the men had arrived at the objective point, the citizens and City Council were summoned before General McCausland, and Adjutant-General Fitzhugh read them the order of General Early, levying a tribute of $100,000 in gold or $500,000 in United States currency, for the burning of property by the Federal army in Virginia. This little pamphlet I mentioned above, written by Rev. Dr. Schenck, has this to say on this point:

Captain Fitzhugh exhibited to J. W. Douglas, Esq., an attorney of this place, a written order, with the name of Jubal Early to it, directing that Chambersburg should be burned in retaliation for the burning of six houses in Virginia by Hunter. The burning of Chambersburg was then ordered by one of the corps commanders of General Lee's army, instead of a guerilla chief, thus placing the responsibility squarely upon the shoulders of General Lee. We have, in support of this, the statement of Rev. Mr. Edwards, Episcopal clergyman of Hagerstown, who was taken as a hostage after Chambersburg had been destroyed. He was brought to General Early's headquarters at Williamsport, and there paroled to effect his exchange. General Early there informed him that he had directed Chambersburg to be burned in retaliation for the destruction of property in Virginia by Grant, Meade and Hunter, and that the account was now square.’

They seemed to think we were jesting and bluffing. They asked for time to consider, which was understood by our men to gain time so that Averil and Couch could reach there. An hour was granted, at the expiration of which they (the citizens and Council) announced that that amount of money was not in the town, and they would not pay it if they could. A detail was at once made and ordered to fire the town, and in one hour the business portion of the beautiful city was blackened, smoking ruins. The main part of the town was enveloped in flames in ten minutes. No notice was given, except that if the terms of the order were not complied with, destruction would be the result. This little book or pamphlet, which I have quoted from before, says: [319]

‘No time was given to remove women or children, the sick nor the dead, but the work of destruction was at once commenced. They divided into squads and fired every other house, and often every house, if there was any prospect of plunder. They would beat in the door with iron bars or heavy planks, smash up furniture with an axe, throw oil or fluid upon it, and ply the match. They almost invariably entered every room of each house, rifled the drawers of the bureau, appropriate money, jewelry, watches and any other valuables, and would often present pistols to the heads of inmates and demand money or their lives. Few houses escaped rifling—nearly all were plundered of everything that could be carried away. Many families had the utmost difficulty to get out themselves in time. Several invalids had to be carried out as the red flames licked their couches.’

Saw no atrocities.

Now, I was there, and I never saw anything of the kind, and I am inclined to think the author of this book was drawing a decidedly ‘lung bow.’ He may not be as expert and varied at it as General Eagan in picturing General Miles, but approaches him gently. I had my eyes and ears open in the two hours the army was there, and I saw nothing and heard nothing of the atrocities said to have been committed. No doubt wrongs and atrocities were committed by some, but no such thing as deliberate, wanton burning was ever practiced by the Confederate army. The burning of Chambersburg was purely a war measure, as much so as the freeing of the slaves. Of course we all regretted that it was necessary to burn this city to teach our enemies a lesson, and every human heart must have sympathized with those who were so unfortunate as to be located there. It was a measure I have never justified.

The conflagration at its height was one of surpassing grandeur and terror, and had the day not been a calm one, many would have been licked up by the flames in the streets. Tall, black columns of smoke rose up to the very skies; around it were wrapped long streams of flames, writhing and twisting themselves into a thousand fantastic shapes. Here and there gigantic whirlwinds would lift clothing and light substances into the air, and intermingled with the weird scene could be heard the shrieks of women and children. Cows, dogs and cats were consumed in their attempt to escape. It was a picture that may be misrepresented, but cannot be heightened, and must remain forever indelibly impressed upon the mind of those who witnessed it.

There were 369 buildings consumed, and many of them valuable. [320] The courthouse was estimated to be worth $80,000; Colonel A. K. McClure's residence, $20,000; the German Reform printing establishment, $15,000; a banking-house, $20,000. In all, eleven squares were totally destroyed. In these houses there were all the household effects of these unfortunate citizens, which included fifty-nine pianos. The total loss in everything was estimated to be over a million of dollars. I have seen gentlemen from Chambersburg recently, who tell me that the burned squares have been replaced with handsome new buildings, much superior to those we destroyed. In the centre of the public square has been erected a monument commemorating the burning of the city by the ‘Rebels’ in 1864.

Colonel McClure captured them.

I may incidentally mention that we had orders to arrest and bring Colonel A. K. McClure of the Philadelphia Times, who at that time lived in Chambersburg, within our lines, but his hospitality completely captured those commissioned to do so, and he was never informed of the order.

From the time we left the Potomac until we began to retreat from the burning city, not a gun was fired by our men, except the few shells thrown over the town during its occupancy by us. Several of our men straggled and were killed by citizens or soldiers of the Federal army, who probably were at home. * *

About noon we abandoned Chambersburg and turned our faces toward the Potomac. Just on the outskirts of the city I saw a large bank barn, filled with hay or some very combustible material, on fire, probably the work of some of our soldiers. It was an unwarranted piece of deviltry, as our officers did everything they could to prevent ruch things. The orders of our chief had been obeyed—to bring $100,000 in gold back with us, or burn the town. The latter having been effectually done, fire should have stopped there.

We crossed a small mountain that evening west of Chambersburg, and were not on tire road we came. By noon next day we were at Hancock, Md. A terrific thunder storm was prevailing, and we did not go into the town. We recrossed the Potomac that night at Old Town, following the North Branch, and went into camp about two miles below Moorefield, in Hardy county. The Yankees under Averill had been close after us, and occasionally small brushes would take place between our rear guard and their advance, our object being only to check them until the brigade could get further on.

The many days of weary and exhaustive marching had nearly worn out the men and horses—no sleep or stop for three nights— [321] and the horses were unsaddled and turned out to graze—not dreaming of molestation by the Yankees. But in this we were deceived. They had kept close up to us, and towards morning they captured our outposts by disguising themselves as Confederates and stating they were sent to relieve them.

This left the road open and clear to our camp. Just as daylight began to show itself over the mountain the sleeping camp was aroused by volley after volley in quick succession, and the whistle of thousands of bullets greeted the ear. Averill's 2,500 cavalry were in our camp. As soon as our men understood what was the matter a general fight commenced, the horses stampeded, and a scene of confusion took place not easily described. The Federals had as their warcry, ‘Remember Chambersburg!’

It was a prevalent story in camp that Averill's men were instructed to take no prisoners. We lost 100 men by capture and a large number killed—how many I don't know. I was sleeping near the battery, and had an opportunity to see the awful destruction it did when Averill attempted to force the ford. In five minutes the water was blue with floating corpses.

Lieutenant Alfred Mackey, of Rockbridge, was killed instantly; a brave and good man, who refused to surrender, and was shot through, the ball entering under his armpit. I was more fortunate than many; I rode a horse that could not be turned out to graze, as it was difficult to catch him. I had picketed him, and about five minutes before the attack he woke me up by stepping over me, a habit he had. Noticing that he had consumed all the grass in reach, I thought I would move him where he could get more. While doing this I heard the first shot, and then a number in quick succession. I understood the situation at once. In two minutes men and horses were running in every direction.

After the Yankees had covered about half of the camp, I saw some men running toward Moorefield—a general stampede. With nothing but a halter on my horse and no saddle, I turned in the same direction, and away I went at 2.40 speed, a number of Yankees close behind me, shooting all the time. My route lay up through a cornfield, the high corn at times hiding me from my pursuers. I thought my fate was sealed when I had gone about a half mile and saw a high Jefferson fence directly across my path. But my dear old friend, who had carried me out of many difficulties, seemed to gather new strength, an inspiration born of despair, as he got closer to the obstruction, and when at it, to my surprise and relief, he leaped over 21 [322] like a deer, never touching a rail or slacking his gait, and sped on with the swiftness of the wind until Moorefield was reached.

I glanced back to see what had become of my pursuers, but they never got over the fence. In a few minutes, on the southern side of the town, a number of our command had collected, determined to hold the Yankees in check; but they never came in any force farther than our camp. I lost my saddle and bridle, and a small ham of meat that I had kept as a reserve when nothing else could be had.

This completes the story of the burning of Chambersburg, and is written entirely from personal recollection. Others may have seen it differently, but I have given the truth as I saw it. Nothing, so far as I know, has been written by a Confederate on the subject, and yet it was one of the most daring and reckless undertakings of the war.

Want no New grave-keepers.

What can I say of these daring riders, and, in general, of the Confederate soldier? He stands alone! Scorning a pension, too proud to beg, too honorable to steal and perjure himself by swearing that his poverty came from being in the army! What a contrast to those who opposed him—963,000 of them living as government paupers, and $200,000,000 wrung out of the South to help pay these mendicants. And yet the Confederate is more loyal to the United States Government than these cormorants at the public crib. No doubt there are many deserving pensioners, who ought to be recognized by the government in the shape of an annuity, who actually received wounds and had their health undermined by the war. The Confederate says, cheerfully, pay him.

This is a time of ‘gush,’ but you will never get a Confederate who stood on the ‘fiery fringe of battle’ to say that he wants a pension. We are able and willing to work and make a living, and if we are not, the State and local authorities will see that we do not starve. As for our graves and cemeteries being attended to by others than ourselves, we demur. We have kept them green for forty years, why not forty years longer? They need no care, except such as can be rendered by our fair daughters. The memory of the dead will always be precious to us, for was there ever such an army that had such dauntless courage, such unwavering fidelity, and made so many heroic sacrifices?

J. Scott Moore, 14th Va. Cavalry, C. S. A. Lexington, Va.

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