- Historic Sites
The Burning Of Chambersburg
August 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 5
And, of course, there were those who simply added another few lines to the story of retribution. A Confederate officer, isolated from his comrades by his love for plunder, was captured by a mob of angry townspeople. Fired at and wounded, he tried to hide in the cellar of a burning house. He begged for his life, but he was shot down without mercy.
Miraculously, casualties were few during the burning of Chambersburg. Flames licked the couches of invalids, but somehow all were rescued. Children ran through the streets frightened and directionless, but in the end were reunited with their families. Damage to the town itself amounted to four hundred buildings burned, 274 of them homes, at an estimated value of about $1,500,000.
The Confederates left Chambersburg by 1 P.M. A Union officer’s dispatch described their departure as “going north, taking McCausland with them drunk.” Within a few hours Union troops marched through the town in pursuit, and a battle followed on August 7 at Moorefield, Virginia, during which the Confederates were badly beaten by Union soldiers shouting “Remember Chambersburg! ” and “Surrender, you house-burning villains!”
Colonel Peters was never brought to trial for his insubordination. Under pressure of the Union troops’ pursuit, he was released from arrest and at Moorefield went into battle again at the head of his regiment. General McCausland being absent, his second in command, General Bradley T. Johnson, ordered Peters to hold off the Union cavalry while he, Johnson, went to get support. But the Union cavalry could not be held off, and the force of the attack “carried off the Twenty-first Virginia like chaff before the whirlwind.” Peters was shot through the chest; dispatches following the battle described him as “mortally wounded.”
Following the battle at Moorefield, General Johnson described the demoralization of his men in his report: It is due to myself and the cause I serve to remark on the outrageous conduct of the troops on this expedition. … Every crime in the catalogue of infamy has been committed. … At Chambersburg, while the town was in flames, a quartermaster, aided and directed by a field officer, exacted ransom of individuals for their houses, holding the torch in terror over the house until it was paid … the grand spectacle of a national retaliation was reduced to a miserable huckstering for greenbacks. After the order was given to burn the town of Chambersburg and before, drunken soldiers paraded the streets in every possible disguise and paraphernalia, pillaging and plundering and drunk. As the natural consequence, lawlessness in Pennsylvania and Maryland reproduced itself in Virginia. … Had there been less plunder there would have been more fighting at Moorefield. …
Whether or not General Early approved of his troops’ behavior during this expedition, he never regretted his order to burn Chambersburg. In his memoirs Early wrote: This was in strict accordance with the laws of war and was a just retaliation. I gave the order on my own responsibility. … It afforded me no pleasure to subject non-combatants to the rigors of war, but I felt that I had a duty to perform to the people for whose homes I was fighting and I endeavored to perform it, however disagreeable it might be.
As for Colonel Peters, despite his wound he survived, and after the war he returned to his peacetime profession as a teacher of Latin. He joined the University of Virginia faculty, and a school hall is named in his honor. Shortly before he retired in 1902, Peters’wife wrote: The event I am proudest of in the long and useful life of my husband is that of his courageous refusal to make war on helpless women and children. … Too well he knew that obedience to the cruel edict of war against Chambersburg … would mean but a repetition of the dreadful scenes of looting, rapine and desolation that had followed the burning of Southern towns by the northern soldiery. Hence, as a Virginian, soldier and gentleman, he preferred the imminent personal risk of a violation of the command of his superior officer, to being made individually responsible for a fate so direful overtaking the defenceless inhabitants of the doomed city.