- Historic Sites
The Burning Of Chambersburg
August 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 5
Colonel Peters was directed to move his men to the courthouse, arm them with torches, and fire the town. Peters, according to one Confederate military historian, was a man of “imperturbable courage. He couldn’t be shaken. Earthquakes, tornadoes,electric storms couldn’t move him. He would have stopped and asked, ‘What next?’ if the earth were opening beneath him and the mountains falling on him.” He had joined the Confederate Army as a private on the day after the Virginia Convention had voted for secession and had risen to the rank of colonel. But all the ugliness he had seen over the past three years had not deprived him of civilized reaction, and he was about to show that all his courage had not been exhausted in cavalry charges.
He went to McCausland, as the general recounted the episode, and “asked me if it was being done by my orders. I showed him the order of General Early, which he refused to obey, declaring 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. ” Upon hearing this, McCausland ordered Peters to collect his regiment and withdraw from the town, which he did. The general then had him put under arrest for insubordination.
There were other Confederates who, while not declaring outright their intent to disobey, helped civilians to escape. Some of the men obeyed only reluctantly. Most of the Confederates, however—hungry, weary, far from home, ill-equipped, badly armed, mounted on worn-out horses, and having drunk liberally from the contents of looted liquor stores—carried out their orders with abandon and, they believed, complete justification. “That it was right I never questioned, nor do I now, ” one participant wrote years later. “The responsibility rests on Gen’l Hunter.”
A warehouse was the first to go, followed by the courthouse and town hall. General McCausland rode with an aide through the streets, pointing to the flames and smoke, notifying the residents that his threat had not been an idle one. The main part of the town was enveloped in flames within ten minutes.
The Confederates formed into squads and fanned out from the center of town. For two hours they rushed from house to house, burst open the doors with planks and axes, rifled every room for jewelry, silverware, and money, hacked up the furniture for kindling, and put torches to bedding and bureaus or lit balls of cotton saturated with kerosene. Some people were given time to collect a few belongings before their houses were fired; others were not. Describing the scene, a Confederate captain said: “It was impossible at first to convince the people, the females particularly that their fair city would [be] burnt; even when the torch was applied, they seemed dazed. Terror was depicted in every face, women, refined ladies and girls running through the streets wild with fright seeking some place of safety.” Then he added soberly: “I hadn’t bargained for this, but such it was.”
One old woman was told by a Confederate squad to run, that her house was on fire. Her reply that she had not been able to walk for three years was met with curses, and one of the soldiers poured powder under her chair, saying he would teach her to walk. Neighbors later rescued her.
A squad of Confederates demanded their breakfast of the local schoolmaster. “Did you ever teach niggers?” asked a cavalryman.
“Yes, sir,” the schoolmaster replied.
“Damn him, fire his house,” came the quick command.
The widow of a Union soldier begged for mercy. In response soldiers set fire to her house and robbed her of her money.
Not all the Confederates behaved so savagely. Reminded by a woman that she had fed him during a raid in 1862 and nursed him after the Battle of Gettysburg, one soldier shrank from firing the woman’s house. A Confederate surgeon wept when he saw the flames rise and spent the morning helping victims escape. Another Confederate surgeon gave his horse to a woman to carry what belongings she could out of town. When asked who his commanding officer was, he answered, “Madam, I am ashamed to say that General McCausland is my commander!” A Confederate captain put his men to work extinguishing fires in one section of town. Another officer unbuckled his sword in disgust and left it in a Chambersburg house, where it was discovered later in the ruins.
Reactions among the townspeople varied, too. Most simply fled as fast as they could with as many belongings as they could carry to the cemetery and fields around the town, where they sat and stared unbelieving at the smoke issuing from their former homes. Others were defiant; one old woman gave a soldier such a thrashing with a broom that he hastily retreated from her house. In return for promises of amnesty a few people paid small ransoms; in some cases the promises were kept, in some cases the houses were burned anyway.