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[266]

Refused to burn it. [from the Richmond, Va., Dispatch, April 27, 1902.]


Colonel William E. Peters Disobeyed orders at Chambersburg, Pa. Brave but tender officer.

A Confederate declined to make war on helpless women and Children—Was arrested but subsequently released.


Colonel William E. Peters, on the 19th of June, will retire from the chair of Latin in the University of Virginia, after forty-six years of continuous service, leaving a record of which his friends and all former students, as well as the admirers of that great school, are very proud.

This official severance results from his resignation tendered three years ago. His successor, Professor Thomas Fitzhugh, will take up the work of the school of Latin with the beginning of the ensuing session.

The career of the retiring Professor is one of distinguished honor. He was born in Bedford county, August 18, 1829, and was educated at Emory and Henry College and at the University of Virginia. In 1852 he was elected Professor of Latin and Greek in Emory and Henry. The work in this institution, from 1856 to 1858, was suspended to allow him to spend these years at the University of Berlin.


Splendid war record.

He resumed his work at Emory and Henry on his return to America, and continued it until the outbreak of the war between the States, when he volunteered for service as a private on the Confederate side, April 17, 1861. He was successively first leutenant, captain, lieutenant-colonel of infantry, and colonel of the Twenty-first Virginia Cavalry. He was wounded three times.

In 1866 he was elected Professor of Latin in the University of Virginia and entered upon his duties in 1867. His service has been continuous. His admirers and friends propose to signalize the date of his retirement by some tribute of respect to be bestowed on the 18th of next June, during the commencement exercises. Just what [267] form this tribute will take and the details in connection with it, are facts as yet not fully determined.


Refused to burn Chambersburg.

Perhaps the event in the Colonel's life which his friends will remember with most pleasure is his courageous refusal to make war on helpless women and children at Chambersburg, Pa. When his commanding general ordered him to apply the torch to that town, he promptly and firmly declined to obey the order. He realized that obedience to this edict of war against the town, deserted as it was by all except women and children, would mean a repetition of the awful scenes of looting, rapine, and desolation that had followed the burning of southern towns by northern soldiery.

The Virginia soldier and gentleman preferred the imminent personal risk of violating the orders of his superior officer to responsibility for devoting the defenseless inhabitants of Chambersburg to so direful a fate.


Facts about the incident.

An authentic statement of this incident is obtainable here. In July, 1864, two brigades of Confederate cavalry, commanded by Generals McCausland and Bradley T. Johnson, the former the senior Brigadier-General commanding, reached Chambersburg, Pa. The Twenty-first Virginia Cavalry, commanded by Colonel William E. Peters, was in the advance when Chambersburg was reached. He was ordered to occupy the city with his regiment, which was done. He received a verbal order from General McCausland to distribute his men and to burn the town, and was informed that combustible material would be found in the courthouse.

General McCausland then rode off before a reply was given him. A short time after receiving the order from General McCausland, Colonel Peters sought an interview with General Johnson and inquired of the latter if he had correctly understood General McCausland, that he, Colonel Peters, with his men, was expected to burn the city.


Would Sooner break his sword.

General Johnson replied that Colonel Peters had correctly understood the order. Colonel Peters then remarked to General Johnson that he would not obey the order—that he would break his sword, and throw it away, before he would obey it, as there were only defenseless women and children in Chambersburg. [268]

He was then directed by General Johnson to collect his men and withdraw them from the city. This was done. Colonel Peters assembled his regiment one and a half miles from Chambersburg.

While there he received a written communication from General McCausland inquiring whether he had understood the order given by the latter, and if so, why it had not been obeyed.

Colonel Peters replied in writing that he had understood the order, but had resolved not to obey it, and had so stated to General Johnson.


Placed under arrest.

Colonel Peters was at once put under arrest for disobedience, or rather defiance, of the orders of Brigadier-General Johnson, but the arrest was broken the same day, and he was returned to the command of his regiment while covering the retreat of the command when pressed by two brigades of Federal Cavalry.

It is proper to state that in this affair General McCausland was acting under orders received from General Early.

White, in his History of General Robert E. Lee, alluded to the foregoing incident, and is also recited in John William Jones' History of the United States.

During the retreat from the invasion of Pennsylvania referred to McCausland's command reached Moorefield, in Hardy county, and encamped there on the 6th of August.


Man of iron resolution.

The Confederate Military History says:

The lines were made, the camps pitched, and the pickets posted according to the orders of Brigadier-General McCausland, the commanding officer of the expedition, Brigadier-General Johnson obeying his orders. Next morning before day Averill surprised Johnson's picket on the Romney road, captured the reserve, then rode over the camps of the two Maryland Battalions. Johnson just escaped capture, and endeavored to rally his brigade. But the surprise was too nerve shattering.

The Twenty-first Virginia, Colonel William E. Peters commanding, was the only regiment that could be held in hand. Peters was a man of iron resolution and imperturbable courage. He could not be shaken; earthquakes, tornadoes, electiric storms could not move him. He would have stopped and asked: “What next,” if the earth were opening beneath him and the mountains falling on him. [269]

Johnson set him to hold Averill, while he brought the rest of the brigade to his support. But the Federal rush, the elan of success, was too strong.

The Twenty-first Virginia Confederate Cavalry, mustering at the time only 350 men present for duty, held the brigade of Federal Cavalry in check for thirty minutes, and yielded only after several assaults upon its lines.

foot note—‘It carried off the Twenty-first Virginia Cavalry like chaff before the whirlwind, leaving Peters shot through the body, mortally wounded, if any wound can be mortal. But human will triumphs over human anatomy and surgical possibilities, and Peters survives to this day as indomitable in his Latin professorship (at the University of Virginia) as he was that drear morning at Moorefield.’ Confederate Military History, Volume II, page 130.

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