Daring York youth snatched button from Jubal Early’s uniform coat
Confederate Major General Jubal Anderson Early, shown above in this image from the National Archives, was known as an irascible, easily irritated man who could easily fly off the handle at the slightest provocation. His prickly temper and profanity-laced tirades were legendary in the Army of Northern Virginia, to the point where Robert E. Lee deemed Early as “my bad old man.” Yet, Early enjoyed a solid reputation as a hard-hitting general who did not shy away from combat.
As Early led more than 6,600 Confederate infantry, cavalry, and artillery through eastern Adams County into York County on June 27-28, 1863, during the Gettysburg campaign, he was at the peak of his success. His veteran troops had performed very well two weeks ago at the Second Battle of Winchester, smashing multiple Union lines and seizing a key set of fortifications that hastened the end of Major General Robert H. Milroy’s ill-fated Federal division as a viable fighting force.
Early was not one with whom to trifle. Not at all.
And, yet, a daring youth in downtown York, Pennsylvania, decided he wanted a souvenir from the famed Virginian. Martin L. Van Baman knew exactly what he wanted — a button from the general’s uniform coat.
The trick was not to get caught.
General Early arrived in York on Sunday, June 28, 1863, about midday, riding down N. George Street from Emigsville. He met briefly with his chief subordinate, Brigadier General John B. Gordon, at the captured U. S. Army Hospital on Penn Common and directed him to seize the covered bridge at Wrightsville in preparation for a possible movement into Lancaster County. After Gordon departed, Early set about his business, including levying York for $100,000 in cash as well as massive amounts of supplies for his road-weary men. He smoked a York County cigar (definitely not as good as Virginia tobacco, he claimed with a tinge of condescension) and negotiated with Judge Robert Fisher for the keys to the county courthouse (above, author’s collection), where he established his headquarters in the sheriff’s office.
At some point, Martin Van Baman slipped close enough to the crusty general to put his plan to snatch a button into action.
Here is his story, as related many years later on July 4, 1908, by a reporter for the York Daily.
“M. L. Van Baman, member of select council, has an interesting collection of souvenirs of Civil War times and the article in this collection that is most prized is a button from the coat of General Early, the Confederate commander who entered York with troops on Sunday, June 28, forty-five years ago.
“‘I prize the button,’ says Mr. Van Baman, ‘because I got it myself. No, it was not presented to me by the Confederate commander. You see it was this way. I was a youth at the time and was anxious to get souvenirs of the Confederate invasion. General Early was in a crowd when I slipped up behind him and snipped a button off his coat. It required some nerve and some dexterity, but I got the button.”
More than 100 years later, it is unknown if Van Baman’s descendants still own the old button from the vitriolic, but unsuspecting, Jubal Early. What is known that Martin risked the wrath of the general to snatch a memento that he would cherish for years.
To read much more on Jubal Early, Martin L. Van Baman, and the Confederate invasion of York, pick up a copy of author Scott Mingus’s popular book, Flames Beyond Gettysburg: The Confederate Expedition to the Susquehanna River, June 1863, available from local bookstores, the museum gift shop at the York County History Center, or the gift shop of Steam into History in New Freedom.