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York doctor created controversy during Confederate occupation

Dr. Charles Martin Nes was a member of one of the more prominent families of 19th century York, Pennsylvania. He was well respected and well connected in the social circles of the day. His father Henry Nes (1799 – 1850) had also been a physician in York, and a three-term U.S. Congressman who died in York while in office. Henry had been an Independent Democrat before switching allegiance to the Whig Party.
Dr. Charles Nes’s position and standing in the York community took a hit during the 1863 Gettysburg Campaign when his actions created strong debate among his neighbors and peers, who branded him in their eyes as a “Copperhead” in his political sentiments. Perhaps he was acting out of genuine concern for his fellow man, or perhaps he truly supported Southern ideals and sentiments, but his care and concern for the Confederate soldiers of Major General Jubal A. Early‘s division when they occupied York from June 28 – June 30 stirred up controversy.

Here is his story…

Detail from the 1860 Shearer & Lake Map of York County, Pa.

Dr. Charles Nes’s burial plot is not far from N. George Street, the route that Major General Early, a veteran infantry brigade from North Carolina, and a battery of Virginia artillery used to reach downtown York on Sunday, June 28, 1863.

Charles M. Nes was born in York, Pennsylvania on June 26, 1827 to Dr. Henry Nes and Elizabeth Weiser Nes. He was the oldest of five children, two boys and three girls. He received a good education in the local schools, supplemented by instruction from his Princeton-educated father. When he was a teenager, his father was elected in 1842 to his first term in Congress. Young Nes then studied medicine, received his degree and medical license, and established a practice in his native York in the late 1840s.

Dr. Nes’s practice flourished, and he quickly became well known on his own right. He married Caroline E. King, a member of another leading and long-time York family. They would have several children (including a son named Henry for the late physician turned politician) and enjoy a good life. U.S. census records indicate that they had a couple of servants to help around the house and cook their meals.
Some of the luster came off their star just two days after Dr. Nes’s 35th birthday. As long columns of grimy and dust-covered Confederate infantrymen marched into downtown York, Dr. Nes and his family apparently warmly greeted them, an act recorded in a contemporary letter written by a young Republican attorney James W. Latimer to his brother Bart.

“The whole town, men, women, & children were in Main St. when the Rebs came in. People turned out en mass to receive them. There was no expression of sympathy as they marched thro’ town except in a very few instances. Handkerchiefs were waved from the Tremont House and Washington House, and from old Pete Ahls and Dr. Nes’s.”

Latimer, disgusted by his fellow Yorkers’ attitudes and actions, slammed several of them in his letter. He wasn’t finished with Dr. Nes…
“Old Barry had Gen. Early to dine with him on Sunday & Dr. Nes it is said had some of them in his house nearly all the time. It was his sister waved her handkerchief as they came in town.”

We don’t know which sister (Arabella, Margaret, or Ada) greeted Early’s passing Rebels as they marched by the family’s house. However, the Nes family’s friendliness toward the invaders created resentment and made them the subject of rumors (note Latimer’s word choice, “it is said”).

Young James Latimer took one more barb, separating the alleged Copperheads from the rest of York’s society, “The Rebs were not rec’d at any private house except Barry and Nes’s… I thought the conduct of the people in crowding out to see them was disgraceful.”
Another York resident, Cassandra Morris Small (a daughter of one of York’s wealthiest businessmen) also reacted with disgust about the Confederate sympathizers within her circle of friends and neighbors, presumably including the Nes family.

“There will now be a dividing line drawn here. Some ladies received them with waving handkerchiefs and red streamers, and some stopped them and got their buttons — they will never be recognized again.”

The Confederate occupation of York fractured the town’s society and created resentment, mistrust, and social boundaries that carried over well past the war.

Following the Battle of Gettysburg, thousands of wounded soldiers were taken by train to York to be treated at the town’s U.S. Army Hospital at Penn Common. However, the camp’s commandant and chief surgeon, Dr. Henry Palmer of the famed “Iron Brigade,” refused to treat any wounded Rebels, flatly stating he would resign if forced to do so. The stricken Southerners were instead taken to the Odd Fellows Hall on S. George Street, where “local doctors” ministered to them. Presumably Dr. Nes and his sister(s) and wife were among the York citizens whose compassion for the injured men outweighed their need for acceptance among their peer group.

Charles and Caroline stayed in York after the war, despite the shunning from some of their neighbors and former friends. In 1872 rumors spread that Nes was planning to sell his East Market Street brick two-story home and move to Baltimore, Maryland. (The York True Democrat, February 20, 1872). However, he apparently kept his primary residence in York as he shows up in the U.S. census listings through 1880. In 1873 President Ulysses S. Grant named Dr. Nes as one of the country’s honorary commissioners to the Vienna Exposition in Austria.

Nes expanded his business interests beyond the medical field and was became a patented inventor and the owner of the Nes Silicon Steel Company. (He had at least nine patents granted). He was also a prominent stockholder in the York Iron Furnace Company, and in 1870 formed an ill-fated partnership with Henry Kraber in the Cedar Point Furnace Company in Baltimore. The partnership dissolved and the men ended up in court in 1882 (The York Legal Record, September 28, 1882).

Dr. Nes died on June 11, 1896, four years after Caroline’s death. They are buried in York’s Prospect Hill Cemetery (ironically his father Henry is buried in Washington D.C.’s Prospect Hill Cemetery).

Like many other old-line York families, the Nes clan eventually scattered throughout the Mid-Atlantic region. One of them, Charles M. Nes, Jr., became a prominent Baltimore architect and the president of the American Institute of Architects.