- Historic Sites
The Burning Of Chambersburg
August 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 5
He ordered Brigadier General John McCausland, with his own cavalry brigade plus that of Brigadier General Bradley T. Johnson and a battery of artillery, to march on Chambersburg, to demand $100,000 in gold or $500,000 in greenbacks as compensation for three specific houses that Hunter’s Union troops had burned. “In default of the payment of this money,” Early’s written order declared, the town “is directed to be laid in ashes in retaliation for the burning of said houses, and other houses of citizens of Virginia by Federal authorities. ” Early had no particular grudge against Chambersburg; the town was selected, he later wrote, “because it was the only one of any consequence accessible to my troops, and for no other reason .”
Marching day and night, snatching what little sleep they could on horseback, General McCausland and his two cavalry brigades reached the outskirts of Chambersburg about three o’clock on the morning of Saturday, July 30. Colonel William Peters and his 21st Virginia Cavalry were among the advance forces. Resistance had been slight—a small force of Federal cavalry at Clear Spring had been driven off, another small force at Mercersburg also routed. At the fringe of Chambersburg a small unit of Union soldiers with one piece of artillery held the Confederates in check for about two hours. When daybreak disclosed the relative sizes of the two forces—twenty-six hundred Confederates to a hundred Union troops—the Northerners retreated through the town, “being careful,” a Union officer reported later, “not to fire a shot within its limits in order that there should be no excuse for firing buildings or committing any barbarities upon the people.”
The main part of the two Confederate brigades formed a battle line on hills commanding the town. The artillery was brought up, and three shells were fired into the town, inflicting neither casualties nor damage. When the shots were not answered, small squads of skirmishers immediately but cautiously advanced on foot through the alleys and streets of Chambersburg.
The streets clear, Colonel Peters was ordered to follow with his 21st Virginia Cavalry. Still unaware of the purpose of the raid, Peters obeyed quickly and efficiently. More cavalry detachments followed. By 6 A.M. Chambersburg had been occupied once again by the enemy, some five hundred of them, including the commanding general, John McCausland. The rest of the Confederate force remained camped outside the town.
Accounts of what happened next differ considerably in their details, because, no doubt, of the confusion, the noise, and the perspectives of the various people involved. McCausland’s account is as reliable as any for the general outline of events: 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 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 [pay the ransom of SlOO,000 in gold or !500,000 in greenbacks], their town would be safe; but if not, it would be destroyed, in accordance with my orders from General Early.
McCausland’s account omits any description of the behavior of his troops, behavior that Chambersburg residents later testified was barbarous from the moment the Confederates entered the town. According to witnesses, plunder began immediately at Mr. Paxton’s shoe and hat store, followed by looting at liquor stores and in private homes. Residents were stopped on the streets at pistol point and divested of watches, purses, and clothing.
Nevertheless, the ransom was not paid. Some townspeople were willing to pay it; others were not. Some laughed at the demand, incredulous that the Southerners, whom they had known previously as the politest of enemies, would actually carry out their threat to burn the town. Some believed Federal forces were near and would protect them at the last moment—a faith that proved unfounded. Others protested that there was not that much money in the town, for upon learning of the Confederate approach the previous day, the bankers had discreetly fled, taking the money with them. Still others simply defied the invaders, saying they would not pay five cents even if they had it.
How long McCausland gave the townspeople before he ordered the town burned is a matter of dispute. The general claimed he waited the promised six hours; other reports set the firing time at two to four hours; one witness claimed the smoke was rising even while the general was negotiating with Chambersburg officials. In any case, the ransom was not forthcoming, and McCausland ordered his men to burn the town.