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Resident recalled Rebel invasion of York 75 years later

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

It was July 4, 1938, Independence Day in America. In Gettysburg, the 75th anniversary commemoration of the battle of Gettysburg was still in full swing. Some 30 miles to the east, aged York resident William Wiest sat down with his Sunday School class (and a reporter for the York Daily newspaper) and recounted the Confederate invasion of the region, including his memories of the fake Knights of the Golden Circle and the bogus golden tickets that promised protection from the invading Rebel soldiers.

Here is what Wiest shared.

“William H. Wiest, 1537 East Market street, the oldest living member of Zion Lutheran church, told the members of the Male Bible class of the Sunday school yesterday morning of his personal recollection of the invasion of the rebels in York seventy-five years ago. Mr. Wiest, now eighty-eight years of age, is an active employee in the house furnishing department of the Bon-ton Department store and has a keen memory, reads considerably and enjoys speaking about ‘the old days.’

“During the period of the Civil War, Mr. Wiest, then a youth in his teens, lived three doors west of the Market Street bridge on the south side of Market street, in a log, weather-boarded house which was built during the Revolutionary War period and which was his home for more than sixty-one years.

On Farm West of York

“Mr. Wiest said: ‘At the time of the Battle of Gettysburg, I was thirteen years old and was on a farm two and one-half miles west of York along the Gettysburg Turnpike (now one of the John E. Baker farms) with some of my ‘freineschapt.’

“When word was received of the approach of the rebels all the sons and son-in-laws were sent with the live-stock and supplies and grain across the bridge to Lancaster county and I can distinctly remember the beauty of the scene made by the cavalcade coming down the turnpike between those mountains.

Surrender to Rebels

“The Saturday before the ‘big battle,’ Mr. [David] Small, then the chief burgess of York, with three other men passed our place in a ‘Rockaway’ (a carriage of that day) carrying a pole and white canvass rigged up as a flag of truce, heading toward Gettysburg. Close to Abbottstown [at Farmers Post Office] they met the rebels and surrendered York to them with payment of a vast sum of money (paid by note since all money had been shipped to Philadelphia [door-to-door collection netted $28,610 to be given to the Rebel General Jubal Early] and by this money had to be paid later by imposing the Rebel Loan Tax on Yorkers.

“As the rebels approached York they were a pitiful sight–some almost bare-footed, some in uniform–all, haggered [sic] and worn and not expecting to get back to their homes. From a spring of fresh water which still runs at the farm, we gave them drinks and fed them meat and sweet bread.

“The rebels approached York on Sunday morning and a girl friend about my own age told me this incident in Zion Lutheran church: Dr. Lilly was conducting the regular 10 o’clock service and about the middle of his sermon a man entered the church, proceeded up the aisle to the chancel, entered the pulpit and whispered into Dr. Lilli’s ear, then left the church. Dr. Lilly dismissed the congregation with an announcement that he believed all ought to return to their homes as the rebels had entered the town by way of West Main street (earlier known as High street and now as Market street). I remember the change of flags (Union to Confederate) on the pole between the old market sheds in the square.

Knights of the Golden Circle

“Prior to the York invasion, a secret organization known as the Knights of the Golden Circle was organized locally by Dr. Wolf at New Salem (now York New Salem). All members paid [a] $1 fee which provided security against the confiscation of personal property or live stock. No meetings were held, there was no ritual, each member took an oath, mostly democrats belonged, Confederates were the organizers [actually, con men from New York and others] and they worked for from six to eight weeks scouring York and Adams counties for members–but membership meant nothing when the enemy arrived. There were also many ‘Copperheads’ [Confederate sympathizers] around York.

“Sunday night we saw the glow in the sky which told of the burning of the Wrightsville bridge and Monday we witnessed the retreat and the plundering of the ‘Bushwackers.’ After the battle, my father made me come to York and it was lack of permission that kept me from being one of the ‘drummer boys.’ A York unit organized in 1865 wanted me.

Wounded brought to York

“More than six thousand wounded soldiers were brought to York at the close of ‘Gettysburg activity’ and hospitalized on ‘The Commons’ and the second floor of the Odd Fellows Hall. During these days, I worked for Hiram Young, who conducted a book store where Wiest’s store now stands, and publisher of the ‘True Democrat’ newspaper. I delivered to the soldiers and was a pet of the men [in the U.S. Army General Hospital] and often ate at the mess house with them. Often I assisted the army surgeons and on one occasion held the ether sponge while a surgeon cut off a man’s leg with an ordinary hand saw.”

“Mr. Wiest stated only a few incidents as they concerned himself and York and Sunday morning, July 17, he expects to tell of a personal experience that he believes has not occurred in the life of any other living person. It was Mr. Wiest’s privilege to meet President Lincoln, his entire cabinet and all the generals and admirals of the Army of the Potomac.”