General Gordon’s two speeches in downtown York
The Lafayette Club is an institution in downtown York. The private club boasts some of the best food in the region for special events. The clubhouse is across the street from the Yorktowne Hotel on East Market Street.
Background post: Fellow blogger Jim McClure’s entry on his interesting York Town Square blog.
During the Civil War, the impressive brick building was the home of wealthy businessman Philip Albright Small, whose food distribution firm P.A. & S. Small lasted well into the 20th century. He and his family were scions of York’s high society, and his 34-year-old daughter Cassandra Morris Small wrote three very revealing letters to her cousin that nicely chronicle the divisive emotions in York as the Confederate army occupied the town.
A portion of York’s citizens were strong Southern sympathizers, a widespread group (mostly Democratic in politics) often termed “Copperheads” in the national and local press. No so with P. A. Small and his clan – they were decidedly pro-Union in their sentiments, although they were more moderate than some of their hardcore neighbors in their disdain for the Confederates.
On Sunday morning, June 28, 1863, as a brigade of Georgia infantry was marching eastward through York’s three principal parallel streets toward Wrightsville, Small’s wife and daughters, along with some other women, were standing on the porch of their house (the porch was removed years ago) watching the procession.
As Brigadier General John Brown Gordon rode by, he paused to address the ladies.
General Gordon is known to have paused at least twice in downtown York to address the curious throngs who were observing the military parade. He stopped for a moment somewhere near the town square (Market and George streets) and intoned, “Ladies and gentlemen of York: It is doubtless a painful sight to you to see a hostile army in your midst. I beg you to remember, however, that you have been accustoming our eyes to such sights for several years past. I wish to assure you, however, that General Lee and the Confederate soldiers have entered your state in no spirit of retaliation. We are here simply to fight the armies which are invading our soil and destroying our houses. The men who are before you in dusty gray uniforms, barefooted many of them and ragged, are gentlemen and the sons of gentlemen. They are actuated by no mean spirit, but by the loftiest conception of duty that ever moved men in any war – that of self-defense.
I beg to assure you that no private property will be disturbed, and if one woman in this city is insulted by one of these soldiers, I promise you the head of such a man. They have just read in the Philadelphia Inquirer of this morning of the destruction, by order of Federal commanders, of the town of Buford, South Carolina, and of Darien, Georgia. Some of these men were citizens of Darien, and naturally feel some indignation at the destruction of their homes, but as I have already stated, there is in their hearts no spirit of retaliation, and they fight only the men with arms in their hands.”
Within a block from the square, Gordon noted the bevy of young ladies standing on the porch of the brick home shown above. It was, of course, the Small women. Never one to miss a chance to talk, the attorney and skilled orator halted and turned to address the ladies.
Here is his account from his reminiscences.
“Halting on the main street, where the sidewalks were densely packed, I rode a few rods in advance of my troops, in order to speak to the people from my horse. As I checked him and turned my full dust-begrimed face upon a bevy of young ladies very near me, a cry of alarm came from their midst; but after a few words of assurance from me, quiet and apparent confidence were restored.
I assured these ladies that the troops behind me, though ill-clad and travel-stained, were good men and brave; that beneath their rough exteriors were hearts as loyal to women as ever beat in the breasts of honorable men; that their own experience and the experience of their mothers, wives, and sisters at home had taught them how painful must be the sight of a hostile army in their town; that under the orders of the Confederate commander-in-chief both private property and non-combatants were safe; that the spirit of vengeance and of rapine had no place in the bosoms of these dust-covered but knightly men; and I closed by pledging to York the head of any soldier under my command who destroyed private property, disturbed the repose of a single home, or insulted a woman.”
Nearby was the home of young Republican attorney James W. Latimer, a firebrand patriot who had recently visited Governor Andrew Curtin to determine the latest war news. Latimer had a strong opinion about the propriety of women conversing with an enemy general. He expressed his concerns in a letter to his brother Bartow. He was pleased that most of the ladies of York had the sense to stay home, including those of his own household. He had shuttered the parlor windows, and his family stayed hidden. However, Latimer thought that the conduct of the people that crowded the streets to gawk at the Confederates was disgraceful. “Even Philip Small, who should have known better, allowed his family to stand on his porch to gaze at them.”
The Confederate occupation of York certainly elicited strong emotions and created divisions in the town’s social circles that would last for many years. Cassandra Small and her family shunned their pro-Southern neighbors and former friends. She noted that some females “who call themselves ladies” had visited and entertained the North Carolina troops billeted at the hospital. The women soon regretted this action, as they became outcasts in York society. “No one will visit them any more, they must form a party among themselves–a distinct line is drawn.”
York’s high society had been fractured.