After their famous raid on Washington, the Confederate Army of the Valley pulled back into the Shenandoah Valley. After routing Union General George Crook’s Army of West Virginia at Kernstown on July 24th, Crook made his way toward Bunker Hill, encamping along the Potomac River the next night. On July 26th, General Crook was ordered by General David Hunter to guard the mountain passes of South Mountain via Pleasant Valley. By July 28th, Crook was ordered to Halltown. General Jubal Early has pursued the Federals to Martinsburg while the Confederate cavalry made it to the Potomac River.
On July 28th, 1864, Confederate General John McCausland received a dispatch from General Jubal Early. Once General McCausland opened it and the read the first few sentiences, he nearly fell from his saddle. General McCausland was ordered to lead a raid into Pennsylvania and ransom the town of Chambersburg. If the town didn’t pay or meet the demands, then McCausland was ordered to burn the town. General Early had grown tired of seeing charred southern homes and the property destruction that Union General David Hunter had caused. General Early had decided it was time for the people of the North to get a taste of the type of warfare that was being forced upon the Southern families of the Shenandoah Valley.
Confederate General Bradley T. Johnson was also ordered to take part in this raid. General McCausland’s total force was roughly around 2,800 mounted men including two batteries of artillery. This force was to enter Chambersburg and demand a ransom of $500,000 in Union greenbacks or $100,000 in gold.
On July 29th, the cavalry brigades of Generals McCausland and Johnson forded the Potomac River at McCoy’s Ford. The crossing would take two hours to complete. The Marylander’s under the command of Major Harry Gilmore was the first to ford the Potomac River. They were ordered to take possession of the western river bank and the heights. Once there, the 1st Maryland Cavalry dismounted two companies to act as sharpshooters, while other portions were to picket the National Road. Skirmishing erupted near Clear Spring with 300 Union soldiers who were pushed back toward Hagerstown.
Once the area was secured, the Confederate force made their way to Mercersburg, where they arrived at 5:00 pm that evening. After resting and attending to their mounts, the Confederate force mounted up and left Mercersburg at 9:00 pm that night. Johnson’s brigade led the way to Chambersburg. The Marylander’s were ordered to the rear while the column moved on.
As the Confederates neared Chambersburg, they were fired upon by Union artillery which, in turn, was completely routed. Within minutes, the Baltimore Light Artillery, along with Jackson’s Kanawha Artillery deployed on the hill just west of the town. Chambersburg resident Rachel Cormany recalled that between 3:00 am and 4:00 am on July 30th, the Confederates shelled the town. According to the Confederates, this was an “attention getter” for the town.
By 5:00 am in the morning, the Confederate columns had made their way into Chambersburg. General Johnson ordered the Marylander’s to the front, as the 36th Virginia Cavalry led the way into town, followed by the 21st Virginia Cavalry. The 1st and 2nd Maryland Cavalry Battalions were ordered to support the 21st Virginia Cavalry. The 36th Virginia Cavalry dismounted and began occupying the town, which was not heavily defended. The Virginian’s were armed with long arms, and because of this, the townsmen did not dare show opposition. The 8th Virginia Cavalry was also thrown forward and entered Chambersburg with about five hundred men.
Soon McCausland arrived in Chambersburg, where he and several Confederate officers ate breakfast at the FranklinHotel. All of the town officials and fifty of the most prominent citizens were ordered to gather so that the demands of ransom could be read. The citizens tried to plea with the Confederates stating that they did not have that kind of money. The citizens heard rumors that a Federal force under the command of General William Averell was in nearby Greencastle and had hoped that he would come to their rescue in time. It was never confirmed, but apparently Averell was in a drunken state at the time of the invasion. While the townspeople debated the ransom, other units were posted on the hill overlooking the town, or were raiding nearby farms for cattle and fresh horses.
By 10:00 am, the demands were not met. It was never determined whether the citizens tried to wait for Averell’s force to come to their aide, or if they just tried to call the Confederate’s bluff, but by 10:30 amChambersburg was in flames. Major Gilmore reported that the citizens had laughed at the Marylanders who said they were going to torch the town, and that is when the orders were issued to burn it to ashes. Due to the lack of willingness from the citizens, and knowing that a Federal force would soon intersect his location, General McCausland ordered Colonel William Peters of the 21st Virginia Cavalry to set fire to the town.
Before Colonel Peters could even say no, McCausland rode away. Colonel Peters turned to General Johnson and protested the order. General Johnson relieved Colonel Peters and told him to leave the town and report to where his reserves were located. Later on Colonel Peters was placed under arrest for disobeying the order, but as the day went on he was ordered to return to his command. General Johnson himself passed the responsibility to Major Harry Gilmore. Gilmore ordered the 2nd Maryland Cavalry and a few squadrons of the 1st Maryland Cavalry to torch and set fire to the town. Lieutenant Colonel Ambrose Dunn of the 37th Virginia Cavalry was ordered to blow up the courthouse and set fire to the surrounding buildings. Within five minutes of the order, an explosion was heard and flames soon covered the courthouse. Dunn had gathered two barrels of kerosene, placed them under the stairway, and set the barrels on fire.
This is where the story of the burning of Chambersburg has a twist. According to reports from citizens of Chambersburg, and the Confederate high command, every criminal act except for murder was conducted by the Confederate cavalrymen. Rachel Cormany stated that there was no time to collect things from inside of their houses before they were burned. Several citizens managed to escape with only the clothes on their backs. Some homes were left standing only if money was paid to the soldier who held the torch. Rachel said that about three hundred citizens were made homeless within three hours.
On the flip side, there are several Confederate accounts that tell how the Confederate soldiers willingly assisted citizens in removing their belongings from their homes before they were set on fire. Jackson’s Kanawha Artillery noted that some of their men even helped to evacuate personal belongings and assisted several of the families. Several years later, after reading Jacob Hoke’s book on the burning of Chambersburg, one soldier of the First Maryland lashed out in an article stating that Mr. Hoke embellished the facts.
However, 2nd Lieutenant William Bean, of the Baltimore Light Artillery tried to resign from the Confederate army a few days after the burning of Chambersburg. He was placed under arrest, and even sent to the stockade at Staunton, Virginia for “Mutinous insubordinate conduct.” Bean refused to be associated with the Confederate army after those acts were committed. He did not want to be dishonored for indirectly lending to robbery and burning homes of innocent women and children. Bean was ordered by the Confederate government to return to his unit.
Several units of McCausland’s command sat on the hill west of town, and watched the flames engulf Chambersburg. After the town was torched, General McCausland ordered his force to McConnelsburg, Pennsylvania. In response to General McCausland burning Chambersburg, as well as numerous raiding parties reported along the Mason & Dixon Line, General Hunter was ordered to send troops to the eastern side of SouthMountain, and occupy the SouthMountain passes. General William W. Averell, commanding Crook’s Second Cavalry Division, investigated the situation. Every road leading from Chambersburg to the east including Greencastle, Waynesboro, and Emmitsburg were occupied by Union troops.
By July 31st, McCausland was at Hancock, Maryland. General Averell was closing in. General George Crook was ordered to proceed from Halltown, West Virginia to Wolfsville, Maryland to block Emmitsburg Gap during the Union pursuit of McCausland. On August 1st, from atop of High Rock, Union signalist saw smoke in the distance and reported that Chambersburg had been burned. McCausland was at Folck’s Mill, where he skirmished with Federal soldiers under General Benjamin Kelly. General Alfred Duffie’s First Cavalry Division, who was with General Crook at Wolfsville, Maryland, was ordered to proceed to Smithsburg and try to link up with General Averell, who was near Hancock, Maryland. By August 2nd McCausland forded the Potomac River.
July 30th, 1864, would be a day to remember. General McCausland, carrying out orders from General Jubal Early, had destroyed over 500 buildings and structures in Chambersburg, encompassing over eleven blocks. The damages were estimated to be over 1.2 million dollars.
Confederate Order of Battle:
14th Virginia Cavalry
16th Virginia Cavalry
17th Virginia Cavalry
22nd Virginia Cavalry
Jackson’s Co. Virginia Horse Artillery
1st Maryland Cavalry Battalion
2nd Maryland Cavalry Battalion
8th Virginia Cavalry
21st Virginia Cavalry
25th Virginia Cavalry
36th Battalion Virginia Cavalry
37th Battalion Virginia Cavalry
Baltimore (2nd Md.) Light Horse Artillery