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The burning of Chambersburg. From Pennsylvania-German, July, 1909.

note.—This article, published in the Baltimore American, March 28, 1909, and written by Lieut. Fielder C. Slingluff, who was a member of the First Maryland Cavalry, C. S. A., and is now a prominent lawyer, citizen, clubman and churchman of Baltimore, Md., was sent for publication by Captain Frederick M. Colston, of the same place. The letter, beside the following: ‘As an act of simple justice and for historical accuracy, I ask you to publish this, as an addenda to the Rev. Dr. Seibert's account of the burning of Chambersburg,’ contained a clipping from the Baltimore Sun of April 26, 1909, as follows:

Sheridan, like Sherman, indulged his proclivities for pillage and destruction only after the last vestige of Confederate military organization had vanished from his front, and it was on a people incapable of armed resistance that vengeance was wreaked. Some idea of the pitiless and wanton devastation wrought in the valley may be gathered from the report of a committee appointed just after the close of the hostilities by the county court of Rockingham to estimate the havoc inflicted on the property of noncombatants under Sheridan's orders in that county alone:

Dwellings burned, 36; barns burned, 450; mills burned, 31; fences destroyed (miles), 100; bushels of wheat destroyed, 100,000; bushels of corn destroyed, 50,000; tons of hay destroyed, 6,233; cattle carried off, 1,750 head; horses and hogs carried off, 3,350 head; factories burned, 3; furnace burned, I. In addition, there was an immense amount of farming utensils of every description destroyed, many of them of great value, such as reapers and threshing machines, also household and kitchen furniture, and money, bonds, plate, etc., pillaged.

We are glad to print this article written 25 years ago, supplementary to Dr. Seibert's vivid description written 50 years ago. The two papers give us opposite aspects of the same events and have for this reason unusual historical value.


Mr. Slingluffs letter.

An interesting contribution to the literature of the Civil War is an account of the burning of Chambersburg written by Mr. Fielder C. Slingluff, of the law firm of Slingluff & Slingluff, Baltimore. He was present at the destruction of the town as a member of the First Maryland Cavalry, and his account is, accordingly, from the standpoint of a Confederate soldier. For 25 years Mr. Slingluff's narrative has been tucked away in archives, which gives it added historic interest.

The account of the event is in the form of a letter to Mr. Ephraim Hiteshew, of Chambersburg, Pa., who prevailed upon Mr. Slingluff to write it in connection with some reminiscences compiled by Mr. Hoke, of Chambersburg. The letter telling of the destruction which Mr. Singluff has permitted to be published, is as follows:

Baltimore, August 1, 1884.
Epraim Hiteshew, Esq., Chambersburg, Pa.:
My Dear Sir: I have received the papers sent me by you containing Mr. Hoke's reminiscences of the burning of Chambersburg, and have carefully read them. At your request I will give you my recollection of the events which immediately preceded and followed that occurrence.

I write from the standpoint of the private soldier, having had no knowledge of the reasons which dictated official orders at the time, nor had my associates. We simply obeyed orders.

I do not pretend to give dates, distances, names of places, of persons or localities with precision. Twenty years is a long span in a man's life, and as I passed through many stirring events during the war this one did not make as great an impression upon me as it did upon those who immediately suffered from it.

I believe, though, that that 20 years has so curbed and tempered the excitement of early manhood and mollified the passions and resentments of war that I can write calmly and without bias on the subject. At least such will be my endeavor. At the same time I shall not hesitate to speak frankly and freely from my standpoint. To do less would render valueless, for the purpose of impartial history, anything which I might say.


The first Maryland cavalry.

Mr. Hoke's articles are as temperate as possible from one whose house was burned by an enemy, and as, he thinks, without justification. It is true he calls us ‘villains’ occasionally, and says we seemed accustomed to the business from the expert way in which we proceeded to the task. I will not quarrel with him for this, but I think it proper to take a look at these villains to see who they were then and what they are now. I was a young man not yet arrived at maturity. I had just left college when I joined the Confederate army. When I marched for Chambersburg, I belonged to the First Maryland Cavalry. This regiment was composed of the very first young men of our State. If they were not guided by the strongest instincts of principle in going into the Southern army and staying there they are certainly a very peculiar set of young men, for there was anything but pleasure in our lives.

We were generally hungry, slept often, winter and summer, in the open air on the ground, got no pay that we could buy anything with, were scantily clad and were apt to be killed, sooner or later in battle. I believe the unbiased man must say this was patriotism, although he can, if he wishes, reconcile his conscience by calling it ‘misguided patriotism.’ And you may be surprised to know that these young ‘villains’ have generally developed into good citizens and successful men. Go where you will through our State, and you will find them respected and at the head of the communities in which they live. In business I can name you a dozen of the leading houses in this city whose members were with Johnson and McCausland, when your city was burned. The bar throughout the State is full of them; and they are, in many cases, among the leaders of their circuits. They are doctors in good standing in their profession; and many of the most thrifty farmers in this State, whose fine farms attest devotion to duty and to home, especially in such counties as Howard and Montgomery, were also present on that occasion.

In addition to our regiment there were five or six others in the brigade, most of them from Southwest Virginia and the Valley of Virginia. The men who composed these regiments [155] were the substantial citizens of their respective counties, and would compare favorably with the like number of men selected from any agricultural community in our country.

A Retaliatory measure.

Now you would like to know if the men whom I have described justified the burning of your town, in their individual capacity, irrespective of the orders from headquarters, under which they acted. I must say to you frankly that they did, and I never heard one dissenting voice. And why did we justify so harsh a measure? Simply because we had long come to the conclusion that it was time for us to burn something in the enemy's country. In the campaign of the preceding year, when our whole army had passed through your richest section of country, where the peaceful homes and fruitful fields only made the contrast with what he had left the more significant, many a man whose home was in ruins chafed under the orders from General Lee, which forbade him to touch them, but the orders were obeyed, and we left the homes and fields as we found them, the ordinary wear and tear of an army of occupation alone excepted. We had so often before our eyes the reverse of this wherever your army swept through Virginia, that we were thoroughly convinced of the justice of a stern retaliation.

It is no pleasure to me to have to recall the scenes of those days, nor do I do so in any spirit of vindictiveness, but I simply tell the truth in justification of an act which Mr. Hoke claims was without justification. We had followed Kilpatrick (I think it was), in his raid through Madison, Greene and other counties, and had seen the cattle shot or hamstrung in the barnyards, the agricultural implements burned, the feather beds and clothing of the women and children cut in shreds in mere wantonness, farmhouse after farmhouse stripped of every particle of provisions, private carriages cut and broken up, and women in tears lamenting all this. I do not put down here anything that I did not see myself. We had seen a thousand ruined homes in Clark, Jefferson and Frederick counties—barns and houses burned and private property destroyed—but we had no knowledge that this was done by ‘official orders.’ At last when the [156] official order came openly from General Hunter, and the burning and done thereunder, and when our orders of retalliation came they met with the approbation, as I have said, of every man who crossed the Potomac to execute them.

Of course we had nothing personal against your pretty little town. It just so happened that it was the nearest and most accessible place of importance for us to get to. It was the unfortunate victim of circumstances. Had it been further off and some other town nearer that other town would have gone and Chambersburg have been saved.

The people of Chambersburg.

And now having given you the feelings and motives which actuated us, permit me to give my views of how your people felt about the affair. I must be frank enough to say that I think the reason the tribute demanded of you was not paid was because you people had no idea that the rebels would carry out their threat to burn; nor was this confidence shaken until the smoke and flames began to ascend. I know that this is directly in the teeth of Mr. Hoke's tribute to the patriotism of his fellow-townsmen, that sooner than pay money to the rebels they saw their homes laid in ashes; but he is himself a little illogical, for he gives greater condemnation to a cruel enemy for burning out a helpless people after they had shown to them that the banks had removed their deposits, and it was impossible for them to get the money demanded. Had your people believed that the town was actually in danger I think they could have raised enough money to have avoided the catastrophe.

Why this confidence of security? It grew out of the position taken by your people during the war; that we were rebels, soon to be conquered; and that whatever cruelties were inflicted upon the homes of these rebels were in the nature of penalties for rebellious conduct; and that such like acts would never dare to be attempted against loyal men. It was further strengthened by the fact that when the whole Rebel Army was in your State, no atrocities were committed. I saw this confidence, almost amounting to contempt, on our march to your town itself, when the negotiations, preliminary to the fire, were in progress. [157] I happened with a comrade or two, to get behind the command on the march to the town, and, in passing through a village of some size (I think it was Mercersburg), the knots of men on the corners poked fun at our appearance, and jeered us, and, never seemed to consider that the men upon whom they expended their fun had pistols and sabres in their belts and might use them. The strange part of the matter to us was to see ablebodied young men out of service—a sight never seen in the South during the war. In Chambersburg itself, it seemed impossible to convince your people that we were in earnest. They treated it as a joke, or thought it was a mere threat to get the money, and showed their sense of security and increduliy in every act.

Three classes of burners.

When the two brigades of Confederate cavalry marched to your town the order came to certain regiments and portion of regiments to enter and burn it. Our regiment, as a whole, according to the best of my recollection, was not sent in, but there were several detachments from it on different kinds of duty sent there, and I was with one of them. It was afterward a source of congratulation to our men that they had not been detailed for the purpose, for although they regarded it as a proper measure of retaliation, they did not seek the unpleasant task. The men who actually applied the torch may be classed in three divisions: First, those whose own homes had been ravaged or destroyed, or whose relations had suffered in that way. These men were anxious for the work to begin, and the spirit of revenge which actuated them made them apparently merciless. There were many such in the brigade. Second, the far larger portion who simply obeyed orders, as soldiers, and who saved what they could, and to whose humanity and liberal construction of the orders given them no doubt you must be thankful for the portion of the city that was saved. Thirdly, the men to be found in all armies who looked upon the occasion as an opportunity to plunder, and who rejoiced in wanton destruction. This last element was, I am glad to say, small, but I have no doubt to those who unfortunately came in contact with them they were but types of the whole command.


Applying the torch.

As I had never seen the town before, and did not know the names of your streets, I can give you no detailed account of the burning. After it began it was quickly done. Men plead to have their homes saved; but the women acted in a much calmer manner, after they understood the thing was inevitable; and, in some cases, excited our admiration by their courage and defiance. I saw a number of houses fired, but I saw no abuse of the citizens. Through the scenes of terror which your people passed, I have read Mr. Hoke's annals in vain to find mention of an unarmed citizen injured, or a woman insulted. Some of the men became inflamed with liquor, but I believe they were few. The most usual method of burning was to break the furniture into splinters; pile in the middle of the floor and then fire it. This was done in the beginning, but as the fire became general, it was not necessary, as one house set fire to the other. Most of the houses were vacant when fired, the occupants having fled.

When the command was given to retire, it was quickly done. One little incident which happened after we left the town will illustrate all I have said about the feeling which actuated many of our soldiers. I think it was two or three miles from the town (it may have been more or less), some of us halted for a few minutes to get a drink and perhaps something to eat. A brick farmhouse, with a porch, was located on the road, with a pump to the side of it. Not far off was what we called a Pennsylvania ‘Dutch barn,’ larger than the house. It was full of the recently gathered harvest, and bore all the evidence of a plentiful yield to a good farmer. I hitched my horse to the lightning rod on the side of the—barn next to the house, and was just returning to get him when some one cried ‘fire.’ In an instant the barn was in flames. I had hardly time to unhitch my horse. Some of our party demanded in angry tones of two troopers who came from the barn and mounted their horses, what they meant by such uncalled for vandalism. The reply was, ‘Why, d—— it, they burnt our barn,’ and on they rode.

But I am making this letter longer than necessary, and must hurry on.


Motive of the retreat.

One word about what happened after our retreat. Mr. Hoke seems to think that the fear of Averill was uppermost in our minds. This is a mistake. Whatever may have been the motives that actuated the commanding officers the men did not fear him at all. They had perfect confidence that they could whip him whenever he thought proper to give us the opportunity, and any soldier will tell you that a feeling like that means victory. At one little town we stopped to feed our horses and rest. His columns were in sight, but no attack was made. As we passed through Hancock, his advance fired into our rear guard, and made a little dash at us. I saw in this little fight Harry Gilmor, who was the last man to leave the town, struck, and severely stung by a spent ball, which made him whistle with pain. We also heard on the retreat that some of our men had been left in Chambersburg drunk, and had been thrown in the flames by the citizens and burned to death. This was camp gossip with us, but I never heard it verified.

We crossed the Potomac with some little opposition from an iron-clad car in our front on the track of the B. & O. R. R., which was struck by a ball, fired by the Baltimore Light Artillery and immediately left. We also had quite a severe little fight in the Blue Ridge Mountains, near Cold Spring, on the advance, in which several from our regiment were killed and wounded, and in which a body of your cavalry showed great spirit and determination; but aside from this we had no fighting at all. I dislike again to destroy a thrilling episode in Mr. Hoke's very cleverly written annals; but the truth compels me to do so. He says when Averill came up to us in the Moorefield Valley, and captured and scattered our command, that they charged us with the cry of ‘Remember Chambersburg,’ and cut us down without mercy. The fact is, we were down when he charged us. I will give you the plain, prosaic facts, of which I was the unfortunate witness and victim.

Attacked by Averill.

After we recrossed the Potomac we marched to the Moorefield Valley to rest and recuperate, after a severe campaign. [160] There is no lovelier spot in all Virginia than this little mountain-locked valley; and, as it had escaped the desolation of war, it was the very spot for rest. Our regiment was camped nearest the river, and the company to which I belonged was nearest the river of all. My messmate and myself had crossed the fence from the field in which the regiment was camped to make our bed in a soft green fence corner, so that I believe we were the nearest of the whole brigade to the enemy. We had been camped quietly a day or two when, in the middle of the night, the order came to ‘saddle up.’ We soon were ready for a reported advance of the enemy, but after waiting an hour or two with no further orders, the men gradually got under their blankets and went to sleep. Just at the break of day I felt a rude shock, which I supposed came from the careless tread of a comrade, and I made an angry remonstrance. This was followed by a kick which I thought came from a horse. I, furious, threw the blanket from over my head and found a couple of Averill's men, with cocked pistols at my head, one of whom said: ‘Get up, you——Chambersburg burning——!’ I got up at once and at this moment, had Mr. Hoke been there, he would have been delighted, for I mildly intimated that I had nothing to do with the burning of Chambersburg and considered it altogether wicked and unjustifiable.

As soon as I collected my thoughts I took in the situation at a glance. I saw the blue-black column of Averill winding down the road and breaking off into the fields where our men slept. I saw them, to my utter humiliation and disgust, dashing in among the men and waking them up from their sleep. Some of our command who had heard the rush of the charge succeeding in mounting their horses and escaping. With such, some shots were exchanged, but the greater part of our regiment was caught asleep and captured without firing a shot. A complete answer to the statement adopted by Mr. Hoke is that not one of my regiment (to the best of my recollection), was killed or wounded, and, as I have already stated, they were nearest to the enemy and received the first shock of the charge. Farther on down the road, where the shouts of combat had aroused the other [161] portion of the brigade, and they had time to rally to some extent, there was fighting, and some of our men were killed, and I saw some of Averill's wounded brought to the rear, but our rout was complete and irretrievable and the rallies, as I afterward heard, were without vigor on our part.

As soon as the comrade with whom I was sleeping (a cousin of mine, now in business in this city), and myself had given tip our arms the usual and almost invariable compliments passed on such occasions took place. ‘I want them boots,’ said trooper No. I, I had just gotten them in Hancock a day or so before and, as they were regular cavalry boots and worth, with us at least, $150 to $200 in Confederate money, it nearly broke my heart to part with them. But the occasion was pressing and they were soon exchanged for a very sorry looking pair. My hat, which was also a recent Maryland acquisition, with a martial black plume, was appropriated by trooper No. 2. The object with which he replaced it was a much greater insult to my dignity than the loss of my boots. My pockets were carefully investigated, but that part of the raid was a complete failure. I was not at all surprised at their attentions, for, as I have said above, the custom was a general one and I had myself paid the same compliments to my guests when the situation was reversed.

Explanation of the rout.

And how was it that the burners of Chambersburg were thus ignominiously routed, scattered and captured by a foe whom I have said they despised. The answer is a simple one. It was through the carelessness of our commanding officer, and was inexcusable. It happened in this way, and I am again in position to give the exact facts. When we camped in the little valley, a detail was called on for picket duty. That duty fell to the lot of Lieut. Samuel G. Bonn, of my company. No truer man or more charming gentleman ever wore a saber in our cavalry than he. After the war he settled in Macon, Ga., became a prosperous merchant, and died some years ago. He went out on picket post with about 10 men, some two or three miles from our camp. This was the only guard between Averill [162] and our sleeping men, it must be remembered, that when this little band went on the outpost they were worn out with the fatigue of the nearly incessant marching for the four or five previous days and nights. So wearied were the men that after that first night's duty, Lieutenant Bonn sent word to camp and begged to be relieved, stating that his men were absolutely unfit for duty. I take it for granted this message was sent to headquarters, but whether it was or no it was an unjustifiable piece of cruelty to keep those wearied men on duty. His appeal was unheeded. He told men, after the surprise was over, that the men on the outpost actually went to sleep upon their horses and that, in addition to all this, no provisions was made for their rations.

While in this condition, just before the dawn of day, they heard the welcome sound of what they supposed was the relief picket coming from our camp, and soon they welcomed 20 or 30 troopers in gray in their midst. Their rejoicing was short-lived, for, as their supposed friends surrounded them, they quickly drew their revolvers and in an instant our men were prisoners. To run down the outpost of two men was the work of a moment and then there was nothing between Averill and the men who burned Chambersburg but a few moments of darkness and a couple of miles of dusty road. These men in gray were what in those days were known as ‘Jesse Scouts.’ They were familiar with this country—knew the little mountain roads and had clothed themselves in the Confederate gray—and had managed to slip in between our main body and the picket post and then played the part of the ‘relief.’

As we were captured we were gathered together in a circle and soon poor Bonn, with his pickets, was brought in looking unhappy and dejected. He felt keenly the responsibility of his position, but after his story was told no one ever attached any blame to him. About 500 of our brigade were captured and taken to Camp Chase, Ohio, where for eight long, miserable, weary months we bewailed the day that Chambersburg was founded, builded and burned. One more little episode in which I am happy to say I agree with Mr. Hoke's statement and I am [163] done. When we arrived at Hancock, tribute was also laid on that little town, and it was soon rumored in our regiment that in default thereof McCausland had determined to burn it. The spirit of indignation aroused by this report was intense and had the threat been carried out there would have been a fight right then and there without the participation of the boys in blue.

And now, with thanks for your patience, I can only say in conclusion what I have said in the beginning, that this is not intended as anything but what an individual Confederate saw, and that it has been written in the same spirit in which you asked for it and that is the spirit of kindness and good will. I am, very truly yours,

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