June 27, 1863: Yorkers head out of town to escape the oncoming Rebels
1852 image of the old train station in downtown York, Pennsylvania. From fellow York Daily Record blogger Jim McClure’s York Town Square blog.
Saturday, June 27, 1863, was one of the most momentous days in the history of York, Pennsylvania. Confederate troops were encamped in several locations in the western part of the county, specifically at Spring Forge, Farmers, and Big Mount. Cavalry raiders had looted Hanover and stolen horses and whiskey from scores of farmers in southwestern York County before sacking the Hanover Junction rail yard. Union militia guarding the vital railroad bridges at York Haven in northeastern York County spotted distant Confederate scouts, a signal that the vital railroad bridges were certain to attract further attention on the morrow.
More enemy troops were just across the northern border in Cumberland County and would arrive in York County on Sunday, concurrent with the eastward sweep through the heart of the county and on to the banks of the Susquehanna River in multiple locations.
All throughout the day, a throng of refugees passed through York en route to Wrightsville and passage across the mile-and-a-quarter long toll bridge to presumed safety in Lancaster County and points farther east.
In downtown York in the late afternoon, the scene at the N.C.R.’s rail station was compelling and, at times, chaotic, as crowds clamored to board what would be the last train out of town before the Rebels came.
One quick-thinking Philadelphia reporter climbed up on a nearby rail car to get a better view as the train steamed into York after making a hasty escape from Hanover Junction, where it had been chased by pistol-firing Rebels.
Here is his long-forgotten account of that chaotic late Saturday afternoon as the troops of Major Granville O. Haller sought to maintain order and decorum.
The old adage was in play: “Women and children first!”
Here is the reporter’s story, adapted from the planned second edition of Flames Beyond Gettysburg: The Gordon Expedition, June 1863 which will include scores of new accounts and stories I have discovered since the book was written in 2003.
While the town’s officials deliberated in Small’s counting room, engineer George Small’s Northern Central train steamed into York’s depot shortly before 3:30 PM. A reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer climbed onto the roof of a railcar sitting on a siding and hastily scribbled his notes on the “strange appearance” of the vicinity of the rail yard. “The streets leading to it from the town are full of women and children, hastening to obtain seats in the LAST train which will leave York until affairs are more quiet. This train is a medley of passenger, freight, cattle, and dirt cars and, in order to accommodate the ladies, soldiers have been stationed with muskets at the doors of the passenger cars, with instructions to allow no man to enter. The number of infants is astonishing, as [is] the number of colored persons.”
The correspondent added, “The latter conduct themselves with propriety, but the former are evidently angry at being torn from their homes, and join their infantile chorus to the shrill screams of the locomotives, the earnest words of railroad employees, and the commands of military officers who are loading the military and hospital stores on the cars. It is not long before a few wounded men are also carried along, and close behind them, with steps that totter, is an old colored woman, who[se] age is, apparently, so great that might have been the original one who fondled George Washington [as a baby].
The cars fill up rapidly and more climb upon the open trucks and into recesses intended only for freight. There is no undue haste, but an evident anxiety to leave the place as quickly as convenient, and in a manner as decorous as possible. A despatch received by the agent of Adams’ Express Company, telling him to quit, does not lessen the bustle. The military forces, who are guarding the bridges near the town on the railroad, show no desire to follow their baggage and stores.”
In addition, hundreds of residents had come to the depot to bid their friends good-bye.
The massed throng was soon sprinkled with a cloud of dust…
Source: The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 30, 1863.
The crowded train of refugees and soldiers did not depart until nearly 6 PM, when Major Haller loaded his remaining troops into some additional railcars that had been hooked to the end of the motley assemblage. The chaotic situation was punctuated by a few gunshots fired at long distance by a patrol of the 17th Virginia Cavalry who had ridden onto the heights near the depot (possibly Prospect Hill along N. George Street in North York).