Part of the USA Today Network

Early’s Raid – Retrospective

A 1911 newspaper offered a lengthy account of the occupation of York by parts of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. York would be the largest town in the North to be occupied by the Confederates.
M. L. Van Barman was just a kid in 1863 when Jubal Early and his powerful division of battle-tested veteran soldiers occupied York following a decision by civic officials to peacefully cooperate with the oncoming Confederates rather than try to resist. It was a decision that was not immediately challenged openly, but one that sparked considerable second-guessing and questioning in the following decades. Chief Burgess David Small would be at the center of this firestorm of controversy. Young businessman A. B. Farquhar would have an audience with Abraham Lincoln in which the president would teasingly introduce Farquhar to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton as the chap who surrendered York.
In 1911, as we conclude Van Barman’s narrative of Early’s Raid, he offers his retrospective and opinion on the actions of town leaders 48 years before. Many of the leading participants, both Pennsylvanian and Confederate, were by now dead, but the arguments continued as to whether or not York made the right call in “surrendering.”

“The committee which has been heretofore mentioned was untiring in its efforts for the security of the borough. Special mention is deserving on the part of our worthy townsman, A. B. Farquhar, who was a great factor in our preservation efforts at the time. After the Confederates had left, for a short while the committe was greatly censured for the compromise with the Confederates. In later years, however, the wisdom of this course was greatly shown, and the descendants of many of those who were benefitted by the course are reaping today the fruits of their wisdom.
The population of York at that time was 8,695. Quite a contrast to the city at the present time [1911] in position as well as from a commercial standpoint.”
With those words, M. L. Van Barman brought his remarks to a close. As a youing boy, he had witnessed Jubal Early’s invasion, and, as he grew up, he heard many of the debates as to the wisdom of the town officials’ actions in directly negotiating with an enemy general in wartime rather than resist. It was a debate that sparked bitterness and controversy; one that has not truly been resolved by historians even today. On one hand, some argue that there was armed resistance at Gettysburg only two days earlier, and the town did not willingly comply with Early’s demands, and most certainly did not send out its leaders through the streets to solicit money from the residents to pay a ransom. Early did not burn the town, and simply marched off in the morning, sending wagons off with plunder that his men looted, but were not handed.
The counterargument is that Early did not have the time to enforce his demands at Gettysburg, as the town was too small (less than a third of York’s population) and insignificant to make a material difference, and he focused on the larger prize. The only reason he spared the town was it was not worth burning and he did not have the time to reinforce his demands through the torch. York should have not have resisted, and the committee did the right thing, for Early would surely have begun firing the town had it too resisted, especially as word arrived that Darien, Georgia, had been burned by Col James Montgomery’s Federal troops (including the soon-to-be celebrated 54th Massachussetts). A year later, troops under Early’s overall command did indeed burn down Chambersburg.
So, the argument raged for several years following Early’s Raid. What do you think? Would Early have torched York given the time? Should the Yankee militia have put up another fight? Did the Committee of Safety act wisely, as M. L. Van Barman came to believe?