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Sorting fact from legend – Robert E. Lee’s visit to Dover PA

Robert E. Lee (Library of Congress)
Robert E. Lee (Library of Congress)

Robert E. Lee walked the streets of Dover.

The Pickets area along the Conewago Creek was named for Confederate General George Pickett, whose troops watered their horses there.

John Brown Gordon held a prayer circle with the Andrew Menges family near Spring Grove after a delicious meal.

Over the years, as a chronicler of local Civil War history in York County, Pennsylvania, I have occasionally had well-meaning people eagerly tell me handed-down stories of family members entertaining famous Confederates. Some of these accounts, such as the spurious Gordon dinner, are actually in writing in old family tales in the collection of the York County History Center (Gordon did not go to Spring Grove/Forge; he was at Farmers to the northwest. A subordinate officer likely indeed did eat with the family while out foraging; that grew into John Gordon himself over the years).

Sometimes, local newspapers picked up these stories and printed them as historical fact, adding to the legend (and confusion).

Here’s one example from Dover. Did famed Confederate General Robert E. Lee actually visit the village during the Gettysburg Campaign?

Dover square (Greater Dover Historical Society)
Dover square (Greater Dover Historical Society)

The following obituary appeared in the March 25, 1913, edition of the York Daily. This was almost exactly 50 years after the Confederate invasion of York County during the Gettysburg Campaign. Apparently, the newspaper editor failed to fact check the article before putting it into print.

“Edward Leibenknecht, who died last evening, had been a resident of Dover for a period of nearly fifty years, coming here when there were but a few houses. He had been a resident of this vicinity his life time, being born on a farm just south of town. When he moved to Dover, he entered into the shoe business, selling and repairing shoes, in which business he continued until his recent sickness. He took an active part in local affairs during his younger days, and served in the borough council and was the borough’s tax collector during a period of two terms.”

OK, all well and good. Nothing here out of the ordinary. Perhaps the editor only read this far and figured this submission was a mundane obituary with nothing out of the ordinary.

However, the rest of the article is slightly off-kilter.

“During the Civil War on June 27, 1864, when General Lee and General Early invaded this place, Mr. Leibenknecht was employed in the Hoffman’s machine works, located where Daron’s store now is. A horse belonging to Dr. John Ahl, a local physician at that time, was captured by the invaders. Dr Ahl reported the loss to Generals Lee and Early, and when the two officers called at the physician’s office, Mr. Leibenknecht was summoned by General Lee to take care of his horse. The horse was returned to Dr. Ahl on the evening of June 27. When the Confederates were approaching town many of the citizens fled to the fields. Mr. Leibenknecht often related the story that he never ran faster than he did on that night, to get to his home, when he was just able to gain entrance through a window before the soldiers came up. The Rev. A. G. Fastnacht, Lutheran pastor, will officiate at the funeral Wednesday.”

As Sgt. Joe Friday used to say on the classic 1960s TV series Dragnet, “Just the facts, ma’am.”

So, here are the discrepancies.

Jubal Early never entered Dover. His long column of Confederates marched northeasterly on Canal Road from Big Mount on Sunday, June 28, 1863 (not June 27, 1864, as the article incorrectly states) and turned east onto Davidsburg Road. When the Rebels reached the Carlisle Road (today’s PA 74), they turned right/south and marched down toward Church Road, heading east to Emigsville, where they would again turn south and take George Street into York. As far as known, General Early never set foot in Dover. A historical marker in front of Walgreen’s recalls Early’s movements in sending ahead cavalry to burn the railroad bridges at York Haven.

Robert E. Lee never even entered York County during the entire campaign. From June 26-30, the very same time that Early approached and then occupied York, Lee had his headquarters tent in George R. Messersmith’s Woods just east of Chambersburg. He headed east toward Gettysburg on July 1 for a battle he did not plan. At no time did Lee make it past Gettysburg to Dover.

The likely facts behind the story — On June 30, 1863, Confederate Generals J.E.B. Stuart, Fitzhugh Lee, and Wade Hampton occupied Dover, and Hampton had his headquarters at Dr. John Ahl’s office where he oversaw the parole on July 1 of more than 1o0 Union prisoners of war taken earlier in the campaign. I surmise that in Mr. Leibenknecht’s faulty memory, Wade Hampton became Jubal Early, and Fitzhugh Lee became his uncle, Robert E. Lee. The story is grounded in fact, but the facts became clouded over the years.

And, the tale still circulates that Robert E. Lee himself strolled the streets of Dover. A handful of times I have refuted that when it comes up in conversation. Still, it makes for a great chance for me to share my extensive research into the oft-legendary Confederate invasion of York County.

To read more on J.E.B Stuart, Fitzhugh Lee, and Wade Hampton III while in Dover, pick up a copy of my book Confederate Calamity: J.E.B. Stuart’s Ride Through York County, Pa., available at selected area bookstores and from

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