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Rebel deserters rounded up in York

York County Heritage Trust sanctioned Civil War tour guide Scott L. Mingus, Sr. leads a group on a walking tour of “York in the Gettysburg Campaign” as part of the Downtown York Walking Tours series for Downtown, Inc. on a rainy Saturday, September 2. This site, the U.S. Army General Hospital on Penn Common, was the campsite for a regiment of North Carolina infantry during the Gettysburg Campaign. A few of them stayed behind as deserters. Photo courtesy of Downtown, Inc.

Major General Early’s veteran division marched away from York early on the morning of June 30 in the direction of Heidlersburg via Weigelstown and Davidsburg. Little did they know they would be back in Gettysburg the next day, this time facing the Eleventh Corps of the Army of the Potomac.

York resident Cassandra Small reflected the relief felt by the citizenry in a brief letter to her cousin Lissie Latimer. She closed hastily:

“Pappa has just told me that he is sending some letters and will forward this one. A great many stragglers and deserters are still here. We hear nothing of the outside world. I hope you can read this. I have written it very hurriedly.”

Indeed “a great many stragglers and deserters” still roamed York County. Some were drunk, some fatigued, some suffering from bloody feet or heat exhaustion, and others merely looking for an excuse to miss the upcoming battle.

Those Rebels staying being in York included Thomas J. Forrest of the Cedar Fork Rifles, a company in the 6th North Carolina. The native of Isle of Wight County, Virginia, and his comrades had camped in downtown York, likely in either the army hospital or the buildings on the fairgrounds.

At the time of his enrollment in the 6th North Carolina in early 1861, Forrest was a 27-year-old farmer in Wake County, N.C. A little more than two years later, he apparently had seen enough of the war.

His service records merely indicate, “Deserted to the enemy near York, PA., June 30, 1863. Confined at Fort Delaware, DE., where he took the Oath of Allegiance and joined the U.S. Army. Assigned to Captain George W. Ahl’s Independent Battery, Delaware Heavy Artillery.”

Forrest and his new comrades became known as “galvanized Yankees,” a term widely used for Confederate POWs who freely switched to the Union blue.