York Fairgrounds during the Civil War
With this year’s York County Fair now in full swing, I have received some questions as to the fairgrounds’ role during the Civil War, as county fairgrounds often were used as temporary military encampments and training grounds. However, the land comprising today’s fairgrounds was farmland in the 1860s, with a few scattered houses lining Carlisle Street. John B. Gordon’s Confederate brigade did camp in the general vicinity on the evening of June 29, 1863, before heading up to Canal Road and heading west towards Heidlersburg.
Where were the York fairgrounds during the Civil War, and were they used as a temporary army base?
The mid-19th Century fairgrounds were along Queen Street at the southeastern edge of York. There in early 1861, the Agricultural Society allowed the volunteer army to establish Camp Scott, named for Commander-in-Chief Winfield Scott. Following the Baltimore Riot in mid-April, three large new regiments, totaling nearly 3,000 men among the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Pennsylvania, returned from Maryland to York and camped at the fairgrounds. They were later joined by the 12th and 13th Pennsylvania from Pittsburgh, and by May 1861, Camp Scott housed more than 6,000 men, including a battery of artillery. By mid-June, they were nearly all gone, having shipped out for the war. The fairgrounds’ agricultural building was pressed into service as a temporary army hospital as illnesses and injuries mounted. On Christmas Day 1861, the first battalion of the 6th New York Cavalry arrived in York and took quarters in the agricultural building.
Over the next year, thousands of new soldiers were recruited, organized, and trained at the improvised fairgrounds camp, (renamed as Camp Franklin for local Civil War general William B. Franklin). Among them were the men and boys of the 166th Pennsylvania, who mustered into the service on November 29, 1862, under Colonel Andrew J. Fulton of Stewartstown. On December 8, the new regiment moved to Washington for two days before heading out for field duty near Suffolk, Virginia. However, before they left, the 166th presented the camp’s commandant, Colonel William Brisbane of Luzerne County, with an elaborate officer’s dress sword as a token of their appreciation and esteem. That sword, enscribed “Presented to Col. Wm. Brisbane Commandant of Camp Franklin York, PA. by the officers and men of the 166th Regimt. P.M. as a token of their esteem Dec. 6th 1862,” has recently been offered for auction (appraised at $14-16,000) by an antique firearms dealer.
During the Gettysburg Campaign, a part of the force that had unsuccessfully defended Gettysburg on June 26 retreated to York and camped on the fairgrounds. The Adams County Cavalry and a detachment of the 26th Pennsylvania Militia regrouped and rested before retreating eastward to Wrightsville the next afternoon. For the next couple of days, the fairgrounds were occupied by Carrington’s Battery and parts of Col. I. E. Avery’s North Carolina brigade. Captain James Carrington entertained visitors from York, people who knew the popular officer before the war. After the Rebels departed and the buildings scrubbed to remove lice, Federal soldiers again took possession. The camp was disbanded late in the war, and the Agricultural Society restored the fairgrounds to their original purpose.
By the way, York’s Camp Franklin was one of several Union camps to share that name. One Camp Franklin (for Ben Franklin) was near Dubuque, Iowa, a second was on the Franklin County fairgrounds in Malone, New York, and still another (named for the same General Franklin as the York camp) was near Alexandria, Virginia.