August 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 5
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.”
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.
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.
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.