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Gettysburg 150: What lessons did York learn from this big anniversary?


Confederate Gen. John B. Gordon stayed at the Jacob Altland house at Farmers, along the York-Gettysburg Pike, the night before he and his division entered York. In this farmhouse, he met a delegation from York and accepted the town’s surrender. The private dwelling stands today, unmarked as a historical site.  One might conclude: Who wants to mark a site where a surrender took place? It is shown here as it looked in 1963. Also of interest: Should York’s leaders have surrendered to the rebels?

Gettysburg 150 is now in the books.

Two more years of Civil War 150 lie ahead, but York/Adams’ high-water moment, the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, is history.

The York area deserves high marks for recognizing, observing and teaching about Gettysburg 150, with books, exhibits and re-enactments in abundance.

York’s city government initially was mum on the anniversary, then rallied in the 11th hour with a proclamation by Mayor Kim Bracey commemorating the city’s role in the Civil War and American history.

All this comes in comparison to only scant mention of York’s Civil War role in 1963, the last big anniversary year.

Writing about local Gettysburg 150 activities in June, I raised the question about what lessons the York area would glean from the 150th.

Arguably, more community discourse about the Civil War and York County’s role in it was heard in 2013 than at any time since late-June 1863. That’s when the Confederates crossed the county — and then countermarched three days later to fight in Gettysburg.

That’s progress because, until recently, the Civil War has ranked low on the York area’s agenda since, well, June 1863 was when York’s fathers surrendered the undefended borough to the invading Confederates.

Decades passed in the 20th century in which the Civil War was largely overlooked as the then-city took up observance of the adoption of the Articles of Confederation, a key moment in the American Revolution, as well as mighty defense industry efforts in World War II.

But amid this productive discourse in Gettysburg 150, a retreat concerning an important hinge moment blurred discussion on the Civil War. In 2013, some questioned whether York actually surrendered to the Confederates.

York’s Committee of Safety called it a surrender in 1863. Confederate Gen. John B. Gordon, on the receiving end of the surrender, considered it such. Mayor Bracey called it a “peaceful surrender” in her 150th anniversary resolution, echoing Committee of Safety language. A state-sponsored marker in York’s Continental Square, where the Confederates took down the American flag, says, yep, York surrendered.

Since 1988, local historians, city officials and community leaders have started to own the fact that York surrendered to the Confederates. So, downtown exhibits and historical markers and the like have used that word with accuracy in the past 25 years.

To gain redemption, theologians say, you must first see your sin. Up to this year, our confessions were becoming more heartfelt.

Our discussion about York County’s long-standing racism problem — the same racism that undergirded the Southern cause in the Civil War — has been deepening with the insight that politically we were soft in our opposition to the Confederacy and tepid in our support for the Union cause.

Our politics diluted our defense when the Confederates marched up to our western border in 1863. Our compromising political attitude against the Union and the abolition of slavery meant that we were more inclined to surrender to the Confederates.

Which is exactly what we did. Our politics meant we simply didn’t have it in us to fight.

But in 2013, a line of thinking emerged claiming York didn’t surrender.

Jeffrey C. Bortner’s “When the Rebels Occupied York, Pennsylvania,” posthumously published in 2013, provides an example of this discourse.

“Within days after the Rebels departed from York and persisting over the years, there have been those who contend that York had surrendered,” he wrote. “By such people the negotiations with the General (John B. Gordon), and the night before the entry into the town, are construed almost as a submissive abandonment of any defensive effort. Such a view of the situation has no basis in fact.”

The author viewed the man who catalyzed the surrender, A.B. Farquhar, and other community leaders who rode to meet the Confederates in Farmers, as brave and daring. “With all the foregoing factors influencing the people in York, they chose to be governed by the wisdom that discretion is the better part of valor,” he concluded.

Really? If A.B. Farquhar had been brave, he would have donned a Union uniform instead of paying a substitute to fight for him.

Brash might be a better word. You can argue that Farquhar forced the Committee of Safety into an awkward position by riding solo to meet the approaching Confederates earlier that day. There, he cut a preliminary deal that might have played York’s hand.

Chief Burgess David Small was among those who met with the Confederates.

If he had valor, he wouldn’t have opposed Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 and 1864 elections as a political official or owner of the most important newspaper in the county, The York Gazette (a predecessor of the York Daily Record). The position of Small and other such Lincoln opponents in both elections would have substantially kept the institution of slavery in place in the South.

How should we view all this?

The borough, indeed, was undefended — the badly outnumbered military was in Wrightsville preparing to defend the Susquehanna River bridge — so fighting was not necessarily an option. Having said this, evidence exists that the Committee of Safety wanted the military to leave York so as not to entice bombardment. So if York was undefended, borough leaders had a forceful hand in it. And other towns — when Gordon’s men entered Gettysburg before moving on to York — offered resistance and were not mauled.

But the town’s fathers could have simply stood in York’s square and encountered Confederates, rather than riding 10 miles west to search out the men in gray with a message of surrender. In the minds of many York countians today, “search out” equates to “bought out.”

In undefended Hanover the day before, the town’s leaders did just that. They stood in their town’s square to receive a column of Confederates. Since that day, the topic of surrender has never been a debate in Hanover.

“There was no organized resistance to the advancing Confederates,” a 1915 Hanover history states, “and there was no formal surrender of the town by the borough authorities.”

So what lesson can York learn from this big anniversary?

Authenticity is important, and we should strive to have our county’s historical narrative based on truth and guard against the introduction of myth. We shouldn’t try to spin or revise what really happened in our past or reinvent the reputations of those on the wrong side of what is right.

We should own the fact that we were politically soft in our support of Abraham Lincoln’s war efforts. We compromised in not standing against slavery — what President U.S. Grant called a stain on a democracy.

Let’s learn from our history and vow that we’ll never again compromise in our opposition to causes or movements undergirded by racism.

Also of interest:

The surrender and other great York County controversies.

In search of proof that the York Fair is America’s first

York County can never forget this unknown Civil War soldier. But it has.

Check out these stories and photos covering black history in York County