Part of the USA Today Network

The surrender: did York really have a choice?

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

For more than 150 years, residents and writers have debated whether the civic leaders of York, Pennsylvania, should have surrendered their town to a Confederate general during the Gettysburg Campaign.

On Saturday, June 27, 1863, Chief Burgess David Small, two councilmen, a Union colonel on medical leave, and a young businessman with strong ties to the South rode out to Farmers Post Office to negotiate with Brigadier General John B. Gordon, whose Georgia infantry was poised to march on York the following day. They asked for protection for the women and children, as well as for the town. In exchange, the Rebels asked that there be no resistance from state militia known to be in the area, and they demanded large quantities of food, supplies, clothing, and shoes.

The businessman, A. B. Farquhar, had earlier in the day met with General Gordon at Abbottstown to initiate discussions. He returned to York and informed the council that an immense force of Rebels was approaching, and the terms by which York could be assured of a peaceful occupation. He then took Small and the others back out to speak with Gordon more formally.

Farquhar and Small almost immediately met with questioning as to the wisdom of the decision. Republican papers, no friend of the Democrat chief burgess, quickly ridiculed him for riding out to find the Rebels and surrendering meekly. Other towns had also surrendered peacefully to the enemy, but in no other known case, did the mayor deliberately seek out the oncoming column. Farquhar, although a supporter of President Lincoln, received suspicion of being a Confederate sympathizer. He had been educated at the same private Quaker school in Alexandria, Virginia, as had Robert E. Lee, and Farquhar was friends with members of the Lee family.

Others believed that Farquhar’s impetuous action, one that mirrored a similar trek in 1862 to seek out W. H. F. “Rooney” Lee (Robert E. Lee’s son) as the Rebels invaded Maryland, played a role in saving York from the torch. Gordon’s commander, Major General Jubal Early, had been quick with the torch on several occasions during the march into Pennsylvania and fears arose that he planned to destroy a town to teach the Yankees a lesson. A year later, he would do so when he ordered his cavalry to burn Chambersburg.

A newly transcribed letter adds a contemporary voice to the argument.

And, it’s not friendly to Farquhar or the hasty decision to surrender York.

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)

The Spangler family was well known in York during the 19th century. Baltzer Spangler had been among the earliest settlers, and his descendants and other clansmen abounded in the region, as did other families with the same surname. A letter in the Pennsylvania State Archives in Harrisburg is presumably from Susan Spangler, written on July 3, 1863, to her sister Margaret, the wife of politician and businessman Stokes L. Roberts.

She described the recent events in York County, mentioning that mail service had only just resumed following the burning of the bridge linking York to Lancaster and Philadelphia. She talked about the lack of significant defensive force, other than 50 members of the First Troop, Philadelphia City Cavalry, in York. The patients at the U. S. Army Hospital (on Penn Common) had been sent to Columbia, and only the City Troop remained until the Rebels began their approach, when they, too, departed for the river. Susan mentions friends and neighbors who had fled town, and also named several local women who were Southern sympathizers and had shamed themselves, in her opinion. The loyal women of York had cut them off socially.

Here is an excerpt with her sharp opinion of Farquhar and his companions:

“I think as the Gov. did not send forces here it was the best thing we could do to surrender quietly. The only disgrace was the committee of five who were sent out to surrender the town, was that it was rather premature. They might have waited until they got nearer the town & not have gone out a few miles to meet them. That was done at the interference of Faquire [Farquhar] who has since been taken by our men as a spy. He visited the rebels and then brought us inflammatory accounts of their strength, together with terms of capitulation. As our influential citizens had faith in him at the time, they trusted him & accordingly sent out the committee. There are many who now suspect him of being a spy.”

In his autobiography, The First Million The Hardest, Farquhar defended his actions.

“When I returned from that great battle, thankful, as we all were, that the Confederates had been turned back, and expecting to share that joy, I had no sooner passed into the town than I noticed people pointing at me and jeering, calling me rebel. At first I could not make out what it was all about. Then I learned that after the news of Lee’s defeat had reached town the pinchbeck patriots had crawled out of their holes and decided that our Committee, instead of saving the town, had sold it to the Confederates and that I, as the man who had opened the negotiations, was something near to being a traitor! I shall never forget those days, being pointed out as “the man who had sold York” to the Rebels, instead of one of those who had saved it. The accusation was ridiculous and unjust, but my indignation knew no bounds. I knew that I had helped save the city from possible ruin, not sold it. I determined to put the case before one who I knew would be just—the President.

Farquhar soon visited Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, who reassured him that he had made the right decision.

Lincoln’s opinion notwithstanding, the ramifications of Farquhar’s impetuous actions on that long-ago Saturday echo to this day.

Did he make the right call?

What do you think?

Mark your calendar!

3rd Annual An Evening to Unravel York History, Weird York County; sponsored by the York Daily Record. December 6, 2017. 7 to 9:30 PM. DreamWrights Center for the Performing Arts, Route 74/Carlisle Street, York PA. Tickets are on sale now, and they are only $10. Book signing precedes and follows the event. All proceeds from the sale of Scott Mingus’s Underground Railroad book go back to the York County History Center for preservation. Other books will be available from the various speakers.


I will post other excerpts from the sisters’ correspondence in future Cannonball blog posts. They add new information to the known narrative of the Confederate occupation of York and the interactions of the townspeople with the Rebels and with each other.

To learn more about the Civil War in York County, visit the bookstore of the York County Heritage Trust at 250 E. Market Street in York. They stock many interesting books from such authors as Jim McClure, Georg Sheets, June Lloyd, Scott Butcher, Ron Hershner, myself, and several others that concern York in the 19th century.

Books make the perfect Christmas gift for the history enthusiast on your shopping list!