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Gettysburg 150: ‘Letters from Home’ offers inside out look at Civil War homefront

Civil War 150
Southeastern York County, Pa., native Ron Hershner has released ‘Letters from Home,’ an inside out look at the homefront in the Civil War. The book, published by the York County Heritage Trust, explains and expands on 23 letters written from southeastern York County correspondents to Union cavalryman John Harvey Anderson. (None of his return letters have survived.) Also of interest: Cross Roads church’s story links up with U.S. religious history

York County needs more books that look incisively at the way people thought and the beliefs they held in its many moments of note since its founding in 1749.

Ron Hershner’s “Letters from Home” deftly does just that in one important era.

It drills deeply into a significant moment – the Civil War. And it focused on one section – southeastern York County.

And it looks extensively into one group – the family, friends and acquaintances of John Harvey Anderson.

So, you can imagine the richness mined from such a deep dive.

Here are some of my takeaway ideas and themes informed by “Letters,” presented in Q & A format:

1. Who was John Harvey Anderson?

Answer: A farmer who became a soldier – a cavalryman – for the Union Army and fought in many campaigns. He returned to his native southeastern York County after the war and life went on. He is known to us today because of 23 letters written from home to this fighting man from 1863 to 1865. They tell about life and the often stormy political scene in his home county in these war years.

2. In the Civil War era, what was a Copperhead?

Answer: A Northerner who sympathized with the South. Such citizens might or might not have accepted slavery but they emphasized the Union and protested the disunion caused by the war. York County had many such Peace Democrats.

3. Was York County unified behind Lincoln?

Answer: Many southern York County farmers opposed Lincoln and his policies. In fact, a majority of York countians voted against Lincoln in both the 1860 and 1864 elections.

4. When Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, how did York County receive this news.

Answer: Most York countians mourned, but it was not unanimous. In one house near the Springfield/North Codorus line, people cheered. In Stewartstown, one man proclaimed that it should have happened long ago. When Lincoln’s funeral train steamed through York County, crowds lined the tracks to mourn the tragedy.

5. Why is it that little remains about the Copperheads today?

Answer: Scholar Jennifer Weber gives this assessment: With the convincing reelection of Lincoln in 1864, the defeat of the Confederacy, the support for the assassinated Lincoln and the victorious Union soldiers, the Copperheads were resoundingly defeated and their ideas passed from American discourse.

Back blurb

The summary on the back of “Letters” gives more background about Hershner’s work:

With the Civil War raging in 1863, nineteen-year-old farm boy John Harvey Anderson left the quiet cornfields of southern York County and rose to the defense of his country and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. By the end of the war, this cavalryman was fighting his way through the Carolinas, riding with one of the most battle-hardened and respected units in the Army of the Cumberland.

“Letters from Home” offers a rare personal insight into the Civil War homefront through twenty-three letters written to Harvey Anderson from 1863 to 1865. “It is a story of a family coping with the distance that divided them from each other,” author Ron Hershner writes. “And it is a view into the ardently held and fiercely advocated opinions about the war that divided the southern York County community.” Harvey Anderson’s boyhood home serves as a wartime microcosm of what transpired in countless northern communities.

To order
“Letters” is available at the York County Heritage Trust, 250 E. Market St., York, or online: YCHT.

*For disclosure, I headed the publications committee at the York County Heritage Trust that published ‘Letters from Home’ and helped edit the book.