Should York’s leaders have surrendered to the rebels? Pro and con
This good-natured mock surrender ceremony in 1988 served as a symbolic shift in York’s view of the town’s surrender to the Confederates 125 years earlier. When confronted with the demand by Confederate Gen. Jubal Early, played here by Richard Knapp of Red Lion, center, York Mayor William Althaus, left, declined. ‘We are no longer unprotected, having the finest police department in the country,’ Althaus said. A York County History Center-curated Civil War exhibit that covered the surrender followed in the early 1990s. Background posts: York finally coming to terms with its Civil War legacy and All Civil War posts from the start.
Should York’s leaders have carried the white flag upon the Confederate approach in the days before the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863?
That decision to surrender – to seek out the Confederates 10 miles from town – became controversial the moment it was made, and the debate continues to this day.
The following are excerpts from my article in the York Daily Record some years ago that address the question in pro/con format:
The surrender, coupled with grand events in York during the American Revolution and all-out community involvement in World War II often grouped under the York Plan, has influenced the way the city has viewed itself over the years.
The surrender decision has overshadowed the York area’s considerable Civil War accomplishments, and the city has marketed its history mainly around the events during the nine months in 1777-78 when the Continental Congress met here.
But things are changing. York-area Civil War events have risen in visibility since 1988, and particularly since 2000.
Leaders are embracing – and marketing – the city’s Civil War past on significant anniversary years.
This analysis frames the debate on the question of whether York’s town fathers should have surrendered the town.
Just the facts
As part of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Pennsylvania campaign in the summer of 1863, Gen. Jubal Early’s division threatened to overrun largely undefended York County.
York’s fathers sought out the invaders 10 miles to the west and surrendered the town. The Confederates entered York on June 28, 1863, and occupied it for two days, persistently prying goods and money from residents.
A brigade rode on to Wrightsville in an attempt to capture the Susquehanna River bridge, but Union forces torched the structure to stop the rebel advance.
On June 30, Lee recalled Early’s 6,600-man division, which countermarched to Gettysburg, where it sustained heavy casualties in fighting on Cemetery Hill.
Civil War-era political climate
York County residents showed a strong inclination for states rights’ presidential candidates – the Democratic Party – in the 1800s.
The majority view was that of the Peace Democrats (Copperheads), common for American border counties of this era. This position’s mantra was “The Union as it was, the Constitution as it is and the Negroes where they are.”
This position took a dim view of the war compared to the abolitionists of the North, and because the last enslaved person died in the county in the early 1840s, county residents felt that slavery was not an issue here.
In fact, residents were concerned that manumission would mean that freedmen flooding north across the Mason-Dixon Line would take scarce or, if not, would demand that county residents care for them.
County voters, thus, back Lincoln’s opposition in the elections of 1860 and 1864.
When the Confederates threatened invasion of the county in June 1863, county residents were lethargic in their preparations.
Many felt a kinship with the Confederates in politics, and some county residents, indeed, had family connections with the raiders. This political view might have elevated the surrender option in the minds of the town’s fathers.
Community reaction, 1863
· A.B. Farquhar, a young businessman who catalyzed the surrender, expressed surprise upon returning to town after observing the wounded after the Battle of Gettysburg: ” … I had no sooner passed into the town than I noticed people pointing at me and jeering, calling me rebel.”
· Letter writer Cassandra Small shows the mixed reaction her influential family received: “Only think, Lissie, some of the country people are so ignorant that they say, ‘Well, the Smalls made the war, and now they can pay for it.’ … Another one came to Uncle S. (Samuel Small) on Saturday and said, ” ‘Well, Sam, all the people around us say you and Philip (Small) saved the town so they are going to raise a monument to you as high as the Lutheran steeple.’
Anti-surrender comment from 1863
Attorney James Latimer wrote shortly after the invasion: “I do not believe such large requisitions would have been made had not the Boro’ Authorities behaved so sheepishly in regard to the surrender.”
Pro-surrender comment from 1864
Chief Burgess and Gazette owner David Small, a primary force behind the surrender, viewed his reelection in 1864 as a referendum on the decision: “(T)he people have shown by their votes their appreciation of the Authorities for the honor and safety of the people and their property, whilst these Abolition leaguers ran away deserting their homes, leaving them to the mercy of the enemy.”
Was resistance merited?
Yes. The 350 men defending York, using Codorus Creek as a barrier, could have put up at least a skirmish before retreating to Wrightsville. Resistance slowing an invading Army can spell good things in the big picture.
No. Any military pushback would have caused bombardment of the town. Resistance at Wrightsville, about 10 miles to the east, resulted in such a destructive bombardment.
Would the rebels have burned York?
No. Confederates were operating under an order from Lee not to destroy private property. In fact, when heading toward York, Early’s forces did not burn Gettysburg, New Oxford and other towns.
In York County, the Confederates loosely followed orders, burning only military and government property in York. A rebel brigade actually helped save Wrightsville from widespread devastation after the covered river bridge, ignited by Union troops, spread to private residences and businesses in that river town.
York’s town fathers did not know about this order.
Further, York County’s point of reference about the rebel intentions came from two sources: the reputation of rash, unpredictable division commander Jubal Early and accurate reports from refugees from Franklin and Adams counties fleeing ahead of the rebels. York residents learned that Early had torched abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens’ ironworks about 50 miles to the west.
How did other towns fare?
In the early stages of the invasion, Hanover did not surrender when invaded by Col. Elijah V. White’s Comanches, a rebel mounted battalion.
And Wrightsville did not give up even in the face of bombardment.
Other towns surrendered. Gettysburg, for example, put out a white flag in the early stages of the rebel invasion.
We just don’t remember these acts because of subsequent fighting there.
Did weak knees strengthen rebel resolve?
A strong position at the time of the occupation was that if the town had offered a stubborn face, Jubal Early would not have levied such a heavy requisition when he reached the town.
Throughout his stay, Early threatened to burn buildings and town treasures, if his heavy requisition, which included a demand for $100,000, was not met.
In fact, he was in the middle of such a demand when a messenger hustled up with orders for him to countermarch. A battle was brewing to the west: the Battle of Gettysburg.
The defenseless town could do little but surrender, particularly after budding industrialist A.B. Farquhar cut a preliminary deal with the rebels before an official, bipartisan delegation could be assigned.
At that point, the preferred option was to approach the Confederates and seek the best terms possible, as far from town as possible where the Confederates could not view the town’s sparse defenses.
Were the town’s fathers out of line?
The Committee of Safety, a nonelected group of business and town leaders, grabbed control of local decision-making. David Small, the chief burgess, was a part of the committee, but other elected borough leaders were not involved in deliberations on the surrender, taking place in the P.A. & S. Small store.
Simply put, during a time of war, self-appointed civilians had no authority to point the military, commanded by regular Army Maj. Granville Haller, away from York toward Wrightsville.
The town was simply indefensible – a makeshift military squad of maybe 350 could do little against a seasoned Confederate infantry division.
Any opposition would have put property and people at risk, so locally invested civilians had every right to take action.
Was the surrender prudence or unprincipled pragmatism?
When threatened in a military theater, it is honorable to fight or resist. Consider the Alamo, World War II’s Battle of the Bulge, the lone protester in China’s Tiananmen Square as examples of bravery in the face of great odds. And consider when Jeb Stuart’s gray-clad cavalrymen came calling on Carlisle on the night of July 1 after riding through York County. Eric Wittenberg and J. David Petruzzi wrote in “Plenty of Blame to Go Around” that when the Confederates demanded that the Union defenders surrender, Gen. William “Baldy” Smith replied: “Shell away and be damned.” Jeb Stuart shelled away, with little damage. (See Hanover example below). Honor is everything, and the Committee of Safety should have known that a surrender would always darken the town’s reputation. York is now in the history books as the largest Northern town to surrender to the Confederates, with the headline that it actually sought out the Confederates to cut a deal.
This situation deserved prudence. The lives of women, children and the aged were at risk, not to mention valuable private property.
Examples of bravery that work on the battlefield do not necessarily apply when the safety of helpless civilians is at risk.
Did York surrender in the first place?
The minutes of the Committee of Safety clearly state this position: “Resolved that finding our borough to be defenseless, the Committee of Safety request the Chief Burgess to surrender the town peaceably … .”
The Confederates never asked for a surrender; they merely took possession of the town.
And when the rebels entered the town, they found a large American flag flying boldly at its center.
York’s ill-advised decision cost the town its honor.
York sustained no loss of life and little property damage.
Present-day comment against surrender:
Mark Snell, York native and history professor at Shepherd College, commented in The York Dispatch in 2002: “Jubal Early was bluffing and they fell for it. He would not have set fire to this town.”
Present-day comment for surrender:
David Bupp, head of county bar association in 1988: “York did what York does best – York treated the Civil War as a commercial enterprise. York did not want the city burned so the city’s business leaders asked, ‘What can we do to avoid that?’ and came up with this transaction … .
“The founding fathers had the good sense to surrender.”
A different perspective: A third way
Passive resistance, rather than an active mission to surrender 10 miles up the pike, would have saved York and its reputation.
When Elijah White’s Confederates first came to Hanover, some of its leaders – others had fled – stood in its square passively or aggressively or maybe a little of both.
In his “Flames Beyond Gettysburg,” Scott Mingus told of one bold Hanoverian, who stated: “We will all soon join the Union Army.”
The summary of that encounter: No delegation met this cavalry unit on its way into town, and damage to Hanover was minimal. York’s fathers did something that set the borough apart from other towns facing invaded: They traveled to meet the Confederates, entered Confederate lines as they camped, seeking the surrender.
– Jim McClure, Scott Mingus