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CDV image of one of the buildings of the US Army General Hospital in York PA (CDV image by Charles E. Wallin, author's collection)

“Going on a Snake Hunt”

In a recent Cannonball blog post, I mentioned that David Small, the wartime chief burgess of York, Pennsylvania, in early October 1863 had tried to silence several soldiers on the streets of York. They were loudly cheering for the commonwealth’s Republican governor, Andrew Curtin. The governor was in a bitter election battle with Judge George Woodward, an avowed Peace Democrat (a group referred to as “copperheads” or “snakes in the grass” by many Republicans). The pro-Curtin soldiers grabbed Small by the beard and ears and began picking on him. Small, fearing for his safety, called for local constables to come and protect him. The national Republican press picked up the story and ran with it.

Why were the soldiers strolling the streets while supporting Curtin?

Here is another article that sheds some interesting light on the back story. This is taken from the October 6, 1863, Pittsburgh Daily Commercial, one of Pennsylvania’s leading Republican-oriented newspapers.

Detail from an A. Shoen lithograph of York PA in the mid-1800s.

“Going on a Snake Hunt

The convalescents in York, Pa., hospitals [the army hospital on Penn Common and the rented hospital space in the Odd Fellows Hall on N. George Street], to the number of several hundred, were on Wednesday granted a furlough for twenty days, in order to return to their respective homes throughout the State for the purpose of voting at the coming election. The men formed in procession at their quarters and marched to the depot with a band of music, carrying at their head a ‘banner with this strange device: Going on a snake hunt.’ Some copperhead votes will be killed on the 13th.”

The same paper mentions the strong support that the incumbent Curtin received from most Union soldiers. By then, after a series of victories in the Shenandoah Valley, in Georgia, and elsewhere, it was becoming clear the the momentum was now solidly in Yankees’ favor. Lincoln’s war policies were finally paying off. The members of the 155th Pennsylvania, a regiment from the Pittsburgh area, had taken a straw poll as to their preferred candidate for governor. Three hundred and twenty three of them, many of them veterans of the battle of Gettysburg, planned to cast their ballots for Curtin; only ten expressed support for Woodward. Most York County soldiers likewise supported Curtin, though the civilian populace back home voted overwhelmingly for Woodward.

Statewide, Curtin tallied 269,506 votes (51.5%) versus 254,171 for Woodward (48.5%). In York County, the governor only attracted 5,512 votes. The veteran Democratic judge, with the full support of David Small’s York Gazette (the county’s highest-circulation newspaper) drew 8,069 votes. Curtin remained in office until 1867. He lost a bid for his party’s nomination to the U. S. Senate to former Secretary of War, Simon Cameron. President Grant named the Bellefonte native as ambassador to Russia. Curtin later switched parties and was a U. S. congressman for six years as a Democrat.