Pro/Con: Should York’s leaders have surrendered to the rebels?
This good-natured mock surrender ceremony in 1988 served as a symbolic point of change in York’s official 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. 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 abandoned ship upon the Confederate approach in the days before the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863?
That decision to surrender 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, 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, particularly the past five years.
Now city leaders are embracing – and marketing – the city’s Civil War past, evidenced by annual “Patriot Day” celebrations.
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 overran 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, constantly trying to pry 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.
Lee recalled the 6,000-man division, which countermarched to Gettysburg – where it sustained heavy casualties in fighting on Cemetery Hill.
Community reaction, 1863
· A.B. Farquhar, a young businessman who catalyzed the surrender, expressed surprise upon returning to town after observing the wounded in 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/Gazette owner David Small, a primary force behind the surrender, viewed his re-election 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 deadly and destructive bombardment.
Would the rebels have burned York?
No. Confederates were operating under an order from commanding Gen. Lee not to destroy private property.
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, closely held by the Confederates.
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 and Carlisle, for example, put out white flags in the early stages of the rebel invasion.
We just don’t remember these acts because of subsequent fighting in those towns.
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 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 non-elected group of business and town leaders, grabbed control of local decision-making. David Small, the chief burgess, was a part of the committee but the elected city council was 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 send the military, commanded by regular Army Maj. Granville Haller, on the march toward Wrightsville.
The town was simply indefensible – a makeshift military squad of 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.
Prudence or unprincipled pragmatism?
When threatened in a military theater, it is honorable to fight. 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.
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 Confederates.
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.”
My perspective: A third way
Using 20-20 hindsight, passive resistance, rather than an active mission to surrender 10 miles up the pike, would have saved York and its reputation.
When rebel raiders entered Hanover the day before the occupation of York, town officials firmly stood in the center of the undefended town to take whatever the invaders would deliver.
After a short time, the horsemen rode on, with little damage levied. This passive stance of non-cooperation would have saved York’s honor and not have cost lives and property.
A different approach
The surrender debate is healthy, as is any study of historical decisions that have lasting impact.
But the decades-long community sensitivity about the surrender has – and is currently – obscuring many of York County’s Civil War milestones. These include visits by fighting men who became historical figures: Generals Jeb Stuart, Jubal Early, John B. Gordon, George Armstrong Custer, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and William B. Franklin are some examples.
But more importantly, York County’s Civil War story is one of sacrifice. For example:
· The Battle of Hanover, a clash between 7,500 horsemen, impeded Confederate Gen. Stuart from providing Lee with useful information before the Battle of Gettysburg. Stuart exited Hanover and rode through the heart of York County – New Salem, Dover and Dillsburg. Battle casualties in Hanover totaled more than 300.
· The rebels would reach no point farther to the east than the banks of the Susquehanna River at Wrightsville. The Yankee burning of the mile-long covered bridge linking Columbia and Wrightsville stopped the Confederate advance and almost resulted in the destruction of a large part of Wrightsville. Rebel soldiers-turned-firemen helped fight the blaze.
· About 6,200 York County men served in the Union Army, hundreds undoubtedly lost their lives in battle or from disease.
· A massive Civil War hospital on Penn Park was the destination point for 14,000 soldiers in blue. Hospital staff also treated rebel soldiers.
· Nurses and other medical workers from York traveled to Gettysburg to provide wagonloads of medical supplies and food for the wounded.
· Tens of thousands of raw recruits bivouacked and trained at the old York Fairgrounds, southeast corner of East King and South Queen streets. Local residents provided food and shelter for hundreds of these recruits as well as patients at the military hospital.
· Rebel soldiers confirmed their reputation as deft horse thieves, stealing thousands of farm horses at a critical harvest time. The men in gray exacted additional damage by letting their horses graze in cultivated fields and stealing fence rails and other useful items around farms.
· Jubal Early’s extortion tactics netted thousands of dollars in shoes, hats, food and $28,600 in cash from the pockets of York’s townspeople.
· Abraham Lincoln passed through Hanover Junction on his way to Gettysburg where he delivered his famous address. His funeral train passed through the county, stopping in York, on its national tour.
Summary comment York Daily Record/Sunday News editorial, 2005:
“But we should celebrate the sacrifices of thousands of county soldiers, the efforts by farmers to feed men in blue on their way to battle and the long hours spent by women of York County in caring for the wounded.
“These long-suffering local efforts went at least a short way to end national division and free an oppressed people.
“For this, we should celebrate, next year and beyond.”