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Lewis Miller sketch of the 31st Georgia as it marched into York (YCHC)

Republican newspapers pilloried York’s chief burgess for surrendering town

The facts of the surrender of York, Pa., are well known. Their impact is still being debated a century and a half later.

The vanguard of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was steadily marching east from Gettysburg toward York on Saturday, June 27, 1863, during the Gettysburg Campaign. York’s leaders met in the counting room of the P.A.&S. Small hardware store on the town square. Impatient at the lack of a plan, young Quaker-educated businessman A. B. Farquhar, without authorization or authority, rode west to Abbottstown to negotiate the surrender of York. He met with oncoming Rebel General John B. Gordon of Georgia. Upon Farquhar’s return to York, civic officials designated a small team, led by Democratic Chief Burgess David Small, to ride out to the enemy and formally negotiate for the safety of the town and its residents. They found Gordon at the Altland farm along the turnpike to Gettysburg. There, they surrendered York, which became the largest community in the North to fall to the Confederates during the entire war. The Rebels subsequently ransomed the borough for $100,000 in cash, as well as tens of thousands of dollars in foodstuffs and supplies.

To some onlookers, mostly Democrats, David Small and his committee were heroes. They saved the town from harsher treatment and, potentially, avoided the rumored possibility of the torch being applied. They took presumptive action and showed concern for the town, while other leaders fled with their horses and families for safer environs.

To others, mostly Republicans, David Small was a coward who needlessly panicked and had the audacity to seek out an enemy general in a time of warfare to surrender the town he had sworn to lead and protect. Within days, many of the leading Republican newspapers across the Union picked up the story and added their own opinions, casting a quite vitriolic and negative light on the citizens of York and their elected chief burgess. Here is a small sampling of that commentary from long ago.

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)


One of the first critical editorials to appear came on Monday, June 29, 1863, just two days following David Small’s meeting with General Gordon. It appeared in the Evening Star, a pro-Lincoln paper in Washington, DC. The editor harangued, “It is said that the borough of York, Pennsylvania, was surrendered to the rebels by the Chief Burgess, David Small, against the wishes of the citizens, who were disposed to resist. Small was elected as a democrat, and is known as a copperhead of the most venomous kind. He was Postmaster of York under Buchanan’s administration.” The paper had long been highly critical of President Buchanan and his supporters.

Similar opinions abounded in other Northern pro-Republican papers. The editor of the powerful Chicago Tribune on July 4 issued the longest such article, quoting other papers about the incident and then adding his own blistering attack. It was perhaps the most disrespectful, questioning the very manhood of York’s male citizenry. “The respect the rebels have for the peace sneaks is finely illustrated in the capture of York, Pa. Copperheadism was found of little practical account in consiliating ‘our Southern brethren.’ York is intensely Copperhead… If the Copperheads of York had turned out with squirrel-rifles, and fought the rebels at every step; shot at them from behind every tree, stone fence and crag, and made a many, decent defense of their property and homes, their ‘Southern brethren’ would have held them in far higher respect, and plundered them less severely. The rebels have supreme contempt for Northern peace sneaks–no matter if they call themselves Democrats and malign President Lincoln and laud Fernando Wood.”  Blogger’s note: Wood was a profoundly anti-Lincoln former mayor of New York City who was a sharp thorn in the president’s side as a opposition congressman from 1863 until the end of the war.

Similar comments appeared in several other papers, far outweighing the pro-Small comments. In Union-occupied Nashville, Tennessee, the Daily Union thundered, “The little city of York, Pa., is one of the most bitter and bigoted copperhead communities in the North. Its citizens denounced Lincoln as a tyrant, and lauded [Confederate President] Jeff Davis and Gen. Lee from one week’s end to the other. That town of less than seven thousand inhabitants has had levied upon it the sum of one hundred and fifty thousand dollars, one hundred and fifty barrels of flour, one hundred and forty thousand pounds of beef, and fifty bags of flour–in all about a hundred and sixty-five thousand dollars. We suppose the ‘Sun of York’ had turned ‘this glorious summer’ into a ‘winter of discontent,’ at the pillaging of Lee’s ‘misguided Southern brethren.’ A peace and anti-administration meeting would take well just now in York.”

The snide anti-Small, anti-copperhead comments continued for years after the war. For example, the Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette of April 23, 1868, punned, “David Small has recently been elected Burgomaster of York, Pa. This small man is the same who walked seven miles one day to surrender that borough to Lee, during the invasion of the State in 1863.” To the day he died, David Small had to endure similar remarks, both in person and in print.

And, now, the 21st century, the wisdom of his hasty decision, forced by the impetuous action of a private citizen acting on his own interests, remains in question.

What do you think?

2 comments on “Republican newspapers pilloried York’s chief burgess for surrendering town

  1. The Republican press far and wide ran with this story. The fact that the Copperheads could not wait until the Confederates arrived, and that they walked eight miles into a rural area was a cause of humor for the Republicans. We must remember that the public disillusionment with the war had caused the election of various Copperheads in many cities in South Central PA. The Lincoln Administration was quite worried about the retention of the Curtain administration in the Fall of 1863.

    1. So very true. In fact, York County voted against Curtin in each of his two elections. This county was interesting politically. The closer to the river or the closer to Harrisburg, the more Republican. The closer to Maryland or to Adams County, the more Democrat. I cover this in detail in a PowerPoint talk I give every now and then on local politics in the Civil War.

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