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Burning of Chambersburg in Civil War: ‘It’s hard to imagine the destruction’


Gen. Jubal Early’s Confederates burned Chambersburg, Pa., 150 years ago this week. ‘It’s hard to imagine the destruction that followed the burning of Chambersburg by Confederate troops on July 30, 1864. The fire destroyed 550 structures, left 2,000 people homeless and resulted in more than $750,000 in lost property,’ the Public Opinion in Chambersburg wrote in: The Burning of Chambersburg: 150 years later. A year earlier, Early’s men occupied York, Pa., about 50 miles to the East.  The burned out Franklin County courthouse is shown above. The courthouse today, below. Also of interest: Pro/Con: Should York’s leaders have surrendered to the Confederates?

The Confederate move on Washington, D.C., in July 1864, brought great concern to York County and other south central border counties in Pennsylvania.

Refugees started moving through the county to safety east of the Susquehanna River.

This was the third straight summer the threat of a Confederate invasion had caused such movement.

This was the third straight summer the threat of a Confederate invasion had caused such movement.

Actually, it was more than a threat.


Check out more before and after photographs of the burning of Chambersburg, courtesy of the Public Opinion. For a comprehensive story about the burning and more photos check out: Window into History.

For the third straight summer, the Confederates actually crossed the Mason-Dixon Line.

In late July, Gen. John McCausland’s men, acting under Jubal Early’s orders, moved on Chambersburg. They ransomed the town in retaliation for a recent scorched earth raid in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia by Union Gen. David Hunter.

Chambersburg’s fathers refused, and the town was laid to ashes.

We pick up the narrative from my ‘East of Gettysburg’:

A pageant observing the Burning of Chambersburg was part of observances of the 150th anniversary. Weekend events attracted 10,000 people to the town. Photos courtesy Public Opinion

“Rumors of the most recent Confederate thrust northward had been floating for days, but an early Saturday morning telegram confirmed the occupation of Chambersburg.

“This began a day of escalating concerns in York. Later that day, a dispatch told of the burning of Chambersburg. Then hundreds of refugees reached York County.

“York merchants packed again. Some did not have much to box. They had not yet fetched their valuables since Jubal Early had moved on Washington.

“On Sunday morning, the good news reached York. The Confederates had evacuated Chambersburg and were moving away from them.

“By Monday, life was returning to normal.

“At the present writing … a calm has succeeded the storm,” The Gazette reported, “and the farmers are again returning with their horses and other effects.”


So bad news in one devastated town becomes good news in another.

Since then, some York countians have pointed to Chambersburg’s fate as an example of what could have happened to York if it had not surrendered.

But they often get their summers confused.

The McCausland raid on Chambersburg came more than the year later when the war was changed and acts associated with total war then were in play. Both sides were retaliating with acts against civilians and private property at this stage of the war.

The Confederates never returned North after the Chambersburg raid. By the next summer, 1865, the Rebels had returned to their farms.

The Civil War was over.


But the Confederate presence in Pennsylvania 150 years ago continues to spawn questions:

In Chambersburg in 1864, the town’s fathers did not surrender to the ransom demand, and the Confederates burned their town.

This year, 10,000 people turned out for remembrances around the town’s burning. The community today sees this as a difficult moment, but an occasion for pride and remembrance.

So which was the right decision? Mitigate possible loss of property by surrendering a town and risking honor (York) or risk damage by refusing to surrender and maintain honor (Chambersburg)?

The latter position has proven to be the right one. York city has trouble remembering those days before Gettysburg. York is known as the largest Northern city to surrender to the invaders. Chambersburg drew 10,000 to town to commemorate the moment. The devastation in Chambersburg helped rally Union troops , who used the cry:  ‘Remember Chambersburg.’

One more question: How can York learn from its Civil War experiences to inform its decisions today — and in the future?

And video from Burning of Chambersburg pageant.

Edited, 8/31/14