Part of the USA Today Network

Impetuous York youth threatened to kill Rebel General Gordon

Brig. Gen. John B. Gordon (Library of Congress)
Brig. Gen. John B. Gordon (Library of Congress)

On Sunday, June 28, 1863, Brigadier General John Brown Gordon led his Georgia infantry brigade into downtown York as a regimental band played lively tunes. The 31st Georgia, fronted by William Henry “Tip” Harrison and the color guard, led the way as the provost regiment. One of General Gordon’s first acts was to take down the massive hand-sewn flag that fluttered over the town from the top of a 110-foot-high wooden flag pole between the two market sheds.

Stories vary widely as to the exact circumstances of the flag’s removal and ultimate fate (Jim McClure covers these various reports in his fine book, East of Gettysburg), but what is certain is that Gordon, or one of his officers, indeed hauled down the colors and the Rebels took it with them when they left town on the 30th.

One emotional York lad, anguished over the site of enemy soldiers callously seizing the national emblem, could not contain his anger.

Adam Spangler wanted to shoot General Gordon.

Cooler heads prevailed before the youth could assassinate the mounted Rebel officer.

Here is the story, from the July 4, 1876, York True Democrat, as reprinted in the February 20, 1941, York Gazette and Daily.

This Lewis Miller sketch shows Brig. Gen. John Gordon's Confederates lowering the massive US flag in the town square of York PA on Sunday, June 28, 1863, during the Gettysburg Campaign. (YCHC)
This Lewis Miller sketch shows Brig. Gen. John Gordon’s Confederates lowering the massive US flag in the town square of York PA on Sunday, June 28, 1863, during the Gettysburg Campaign. (YCHC)

It was the Fourth of July, 1876, the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In downtown York, a new flag was to be raised over Centre Square in celebration. Adam Spangler recounted the story of the lost flag of 1863 to Hiram Young, the publisher of the True Democrat.

“There had been a dispute about hauling down the flag,” says Adam Spangler, “but I had determined that it should be taken to a place of safety, and had taken my knife to cut the halyards, as the head of the rebel column came past the Tremont–now the National House; when the Chief Burgess [David Small] interfered, and ordered me to be placed in the watch-house. His order was not obeyed, but I was prevented from saving the flag and in another moment I had the mortification of seeing rebel hands haul down the old stars, and General Gordon hanging it over the horn of his saddle and trailing it in the mud, behind him.

“I was almost insane with indignation, and at once run to my home and loaded a gun intending as General Gordon passed to blow his brains out, but was stopped by my father, who said that were I to do so the Rebels would burn down the town, and massacre the people. Thus the flag was lost, and the Rebel general was spared to become a senator, and carry his treason into the capitol.”

Now, as the centennial celebration neared in Centre Square (the site of the old courthouse where Continental Congress had drafted the Articles of Confederation during the American Revolution), an older Spangler remained defiant, hot-headed, and fiercely loyal to Old Glory. He again threatened to shoot anyone who dared to desecrate the colors.

“We are about to raise a new flag;” he warned, “it will float over the spot hallowed by the assembling of our national Congress. May it never be disgraced by the hand of a domestic traitor, or foreign foe; still may it float, the glory of a free nation, unstained by wrong to our fellow man, and, if at any time any man shall haul down that flag to its disgrace, ‘shoot him on the spot.'”

It’s a good thing that ex-general Gordon was not in town that day to tempt Adam Spangler’s itchy trigger finger.