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York’s Copperheads attempted to assassinate PA governor

Gov. Andrew Gregg Curtin (R-Pa.) Library of Congress
Gov. Andrew Gregg Curtin (R-Pa.) Library of Congress

On the might of August 9, 1866, the year after the Civil War, a group of hidden gunmen attacked a Northern Central Railway train near York. They threw rocks and fired several shots at the train, including at a passenger car containing Republican Governor Andrew G. Curtin, famed Civil War General John W. Geary (a competent division commander at the battle of Gettysburg in the Twelfth Corps of the Army of the Potomac), and family members including children.

At the time, General Geary, of Westmoreland County, was running for governor to replace the outgoing Curtin, whose term had expired. Geary’s opponent, Democrat Hiester Clymer, ran on a white supremacy platform and tried to equate Geary’s candidacy as pro-black. It was a controversial topic at the time in parts of Pennsylvania, including in York County. The pro-Democrat York Gazette thundered, “A vote for Geary is a vote for Negro despotism.” The pro-Republican York True Democrat, by contrast, admonished, “Do you wish to sustain the principles of liberty and freedom? Vote for Geary.”

Geary and Curtin arrived in York on a 32-car NCR train from Harrisburg for a political rally, said by a reporter to have been “one of the most enthusiastic assemblages ever held in that part of the State.” The immense crowd which traveled to York on the train included four complete bands, as well as the Keystone Drum Corps. They disembarked from the train and marched through the streets of what a Harrisburg reporter deemed as “Copperhead York.” Several angry onlookers muttered threats to attack “Lincoln’s hirelings,” and the local police struggled to keep order. More than 10,000 people from throughout the county gathered in Bumgardner’s Woods southeast of  downtown York (bordering today’s Penn State York campus) to hear several speakers in the lengthy Republican rally. Attorney Thomas E. Cochran provided a “splendid cake” for the reception, which featured tables arranged in a line 2,000-feet long. All the time, around the fringes of the assembly, a vocal group of Democrats kept up a verbal assault on the Republican delegation.

Here are two the contemporary newspaper accounts of the brief, but potentially deadly encounter that happened shortly after the train left York and steamed northward on its return trip to Harrisburg.

John Geary during the Civil War. Library of Congress.
John Geary during the Civil War. Library of Congress.

“The train was moving off when the soldiers in the open gondolas were attacked by a party secreted in a cornfield, whence came discharges from fire-arms, stones, and other missiles. Half a dozen soldiers were badly bruised about the head, and one was shot in the leg. Six shots were fired at the closed car  in which were Gov. Curtin, Gen. Geary and the ladies and children of the party. One ball entered and is still embedded in the wood of the car. Of course the ladies were much frightened, and their screams were heard by the boys [soldiers] on board, who caused the train to stop, and went back after the attacking party, who immediately fled in all directions. A special policeman appointed by the Democratic authorities of York is said to have fired several shots.”

Raftsmen’s Journal, Clearfield, Pa., August 15, 1866.

Detail of 1860 Shearer & Lake map of York County showing the NCR station house and the tracks leading into town. The ambush most likely occurred in a corn field along Loucks Road.
Detail of 1860 Shearer & Lake map of York County showing the NCR station house and the tracks leading into town. The ambush most likely occurred in a corn field along Loucks Mill Road.

The Harrisburg Telegraph of August 10 provided several more details on the ambush.

“As the train bearing the Cumberland and Dauphin county delegations was leaving York, those on it were assailed in the most fiendish manner. In a corn field, near the railroad, a hundred or two of the sneaking Copperheads had concealed themselves. As the train moved off, pistols were discharged at it, and a perfect shower of stones hailed upon it. The car occupied by Gen. Geary, Gov. Curtin and a number of ladies, was perforated with bullets. One of the open cars occupied by a large number of soldiers, was also shot at and assailed with stones. For a moment the scene was most fearful and exciting, and had the boys who left the train and pursued the ruffians in the field, taken any prisoners, there would have been more rebel blood spilled in York than when it was surrendered to [Confederate Major General Jubal] Early.

“Several persons were struck and severely injured by stones hurled at the train. A young man named Freeburn, son of the proprietor of the Second Ward House, in Harrisburg, was so severely wounded on one of his knees that he had to be carried home on a settee, after the arrival of the train at our depot. Another was severely injured on one of his shoulders, another’s head was cut open, and still another had an arm injured.”

The cowardly ambush notwithstanding, the train made it back to the state capital without further incident. The reporter added his comments about the warm welcome the party received upon its arrival back in Harrisburg that same night.

“The train containing our delegations arrived in this city about a quarter past nine o’clock, and their passage into town was announced by the playing of patriotic tunes by the bands and drum corps. A very large crowd of citizens, including hundreds of ladies, awaited the arrival of the train, and is worthy of special mention, that the twelve hundred men on the train returned in the most orderly manner. Not a man was intoxicated, yet all were enthusiastic in their accounts of the York meeting, which was included a grand demonstration in favor of the Union. A process was formed, headed by our drum corps, and marched through the streets, after which all retired quietly to their homes.”

None of the perpetrators who scattered in the cornfield north of York’s train station were apparently ever identified or apprehended. The incident is a good example of the bitterness which lingered throughout the Civil War in York between the Republican minority in the region and the Copperhead (pro-Southern) element. Back in 1860, as a trainload of pro-Lincoln “Wide-Awakes” had left York after a particularly vocal rally downtown, angry anti-Lincoln demonstrators had attacked them. Perhaps some of the very same ruffians were in the mob concealed in the cornfield?

John Geary went on to win the gubernatorial election on October 9, 1866, by a margin of 51.4% to 48.6% for Hiester Clymer (who easily carried York County). Geary served two terms as the 16th Governor of Pennsylvania, and died of a heart attack shortly after leaving office.


Pick up Civil War books as Christmas gifts, or for your own reading pleasure.

  • Saturday, November 28, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., Civil War and More Bookstore, 10 S. Market St, Mechanicsburg, (717) 766-1899
  • Saturday, December 5, 10 a.m. to noon, York Emporium, 343 W. Market St, York, (717) 846-2866
  • Saturday, December 19, with fellow Savas Beatie Civil War author Dr. Chris Mackowski (of the “Emerging Civil War” series), TG Books, 2107 Industrial Hwy, East York, (717) 843-2947

Feel free to call ahead and reserve copies if you so desire.

Scott MIngus' new book on the battle of Gettysburg will be available at all three book signings, as will most of his other Civil War books including his newest York County titles.
Scott Mingus’ new book on the battle of Gettysburg will be available at all three book signings, as will most of his other Civil War books including his newest York County titles.

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