The Burning Of Chambersburg

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Colonel William E. Peters stared at his commanding officer incredulously. Had he heard the order correctly? On whose authority was it given? he asked. Peters, thirty-five years old and a veteran of three years of fighting, had proved his bravery often enough; he had two wounds to show for it. But there were limits beyond which, even in war, he would not—or could not—go.

The general showed Peters the written order signed by his own superior. The colonel read it quickly. His response was unhesitating, calm, and resolute. No, he told the general, he would not obey. He would sooner break his sword and throw it away than make war on defenseless women and children.

July 30, 1864, was a breezeless, sultry day in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, a fair-sized town made up mostly, during these war years, of women, children, and old men. Lying about twenty miles north of the Mason-Dixon line and never more than a night ‘s ride from the Confederate lines as the war raged up and down the Shenandoah Valley, Chambersburg had been raided, occupied, liberated, and reoccupied since the war had begun in April, 1861. Horses, wagons, and grain had been appropriated frequently and freely; warehouses holding government stores had been destroyed; merchants had had to spend a good deal of time and money shipping their goods to Philadelphia for safekeeping whenever occupation seemed imminent, then shipping them back again when the danger had passed; the town’s womenfolk had nursed hundreds of wounded soldiers—both Confederate and Union—following the battles of Antietam and Gettysburg; and, of course, most of the eligible young men had been taken into the Union Army.

Nevertheless, Chambersburg’s involvement in the war had been superficial thus far. Hardship, yes, but not much more. The Confederate occupations had inflicted no casualties among the townspeople, and the town itself remained relatively intact. Indeed, with some rare exceptions, the soldiers’ behavior on these previous occasions had been almost courtly; supplies had been requisitioned apologetically; the burning of government stores had been blamed on military necessity; the rebel soldiers had paid for the hats, socks, and gloves they had chosen in local shops, and their officers had been entertained in the homes of prominent citizens. Confederate General Robert E. Lee himself, while camped just outside the town in Messersmith’s woods on his way to Gettysburg the previous summer, had issued a general order reminding his troops that although they were in enemy country, “we make war only upon armed men” and “we cannot take vengeance for the wrongs our people have suffered without lowering ourselves in the eyes of all.” Lee’s order prohibited “unnecessary or wanton injury to private property” and promised arrest and summary punishment to all offenders.

But that was a year ago, a brighter day when, prior to the Battle of Gettysburg, the Confederates had marched into town triumphant, conquerors in enemy country, well able to afford magnanimity toward the conquered. Now, in the summer of 1864, that time of self-confidence and high spirits seemed dim and distant. Its resources, men, and morale almost exhausted, the Confederacy itself was only, months from final defeat. In addition Lee, following his defeat at Gettysburg, had been soundly thrashed in the southern press for not leaving the country he had invaded in ruins; an informant had advised a Chambersburg resident: ”… if ever the Confederates come again they will plunder and destroy; and my advice to you is, if ever you hear of their coming get everything out of their way that you can. ”

What was to happen in Chambersburg on the next to last day of July was the culmination of a series of escalating acts of retaliation for previous atrocities. Some months before, Major General David Hunter of the Union Army, operating in Virginia, had been harassed by bushwhackers and guerrillas who plundered wagon trains and assassinated Union soldiers. Once, in Charles Town, West Virginia, six of his soldiers had been found strapped to a fence, their throats cut from ear to ear. Defenseless against the marauders, who posed as farmers and tradesmen by day and conducted their deadly forays by night, General Hunter distributed through the Valley of Virginia a circular in May, 1864, threatening retribution: ”… for every train fired upon, or soldier of the Union wounded or assassinated by bushwhackers in any neighborhood within the reach of my command, the houses and other property of every secession sympathizer residing within a circuit of five miles from the place of the outrage, shall be destroyed by fire. …” As good as his word, by July, 1864, Hunter had burned, with particular savagery, the homes of several prominent Virginians and the Virginia Military Institute. As the guerrilla tactics of the Confederates had invited Hunter’s retaliation with an increase in ferocity, Hunter’s own escalation evoked a similar response.

Tough, tobacco-chewing Lieutenant General Jubal Anderson Early of the Confederate Army was not one to shrink from such a task. He himself had pursued Hunter through the Valley of Virginia and had witnessed “evidence of the destruction wantonly committed by [Hunter’s] troops under his orders.” Camped near Martinsburg, West Virginia, following his attack on Washington itself in mid-July, Early heard details of Hunter’s most recent outrages in Virginia. He decided, Early said, that “it was time to try and stop this mode of warfare by some act of retaliation.”