York Town Square

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Unsung farmhouse loud symbol of a shaping moment for York

Gen. John B. Gordon commanded a brigade of Confederate troops who marched across York County, Pa.’s heartland to the banks of the Susquehanna River in June 1863. He accepted the surrender of York in this farmhouse near Farmers in western York County. Background post: Some hugged rebels, others hated captors during York raid .

The previous post, Where did Gen. Gordon accept York’s surrender? touches on Gen. John B. Gordon’s overnight stay at Jacob Altland’s farmhouse in Farmers.
The farmhouse is intriguing because it was the location that housed a famous general, one of the Confederate Army’s top ranked military commanders by war’s end. But it’s an important, albeit unsung, symbol locally as the site where York’s surrender was consumated.
My introduction to “East of Gettysburg” explores the significance of the farmhouse as a symbol of York County’s Civil War story that is just being told and the importance of the surrender in shaping the way York County sees itself:

The farmhouse sits not high on a hill but low in a hollow.
Farmers built many 19th-century houses in York County that way short on view but close to water sources and shielded from the wind.
The 2 1/2-story house does not boast architectural features that would attract the attention of motorists moving today along a paved road that connects with its driveway.
But the house, home to Jacob S. Altland, emerged from obscurity for a moment seven score years ago for a short day that merits a long chapter in York County’s story. The farmhouse, aptly located in the village of Farmers, drew dust-covered rebel Gen. John B. Gordon, as he headed with 1,200 or more soldiers toward York.
A meeting at the farmhouse sparked a vitriolic debate in the days surrounding the Confederate Army’s campaign of 1863. That invasion ended with a bloody rebel assault on Gettysburg’s Cemetery Hill.
One summer night at Altland’s, a delegation from the undefended Borough of York handed the town’s key to Gen. Gordon.
The controversy started even before the five-man delegation left town to link up with the general from Georgia. And it’s a debate that occasionally spurts out to this day. It’s a disagreement that is far from resolved but nettling enough to block the view of the county’s many contributions to the American Civil War.
The controversy?
Should the town’s fathers have surrendered York to the rebels?
In 1863, Cassandra Small was the 34-year-old daughter of York businessman Philip Small. But the voice in her letters expressed the wonder and worry of a teenager.
Writing to cousin Lissie Latimer at the time of the surrender, she unwittingly framed the debate.
“Another one came to Uncle S. on Saturday and said, ‘Well, Sam, all the people around us say you and Philip saved the town so they are going to raise a monument to you as high as the Lutheran steeple,’ ” she wrote. “Then it is currently reported that we entertained many of the officers, and that Uncle S. had General Early and others there. Such dreadful stories!”
Many Republican-leaning townspeople at that time and some students of the Civil War today believe that the town’s fathers were too soft. Gen. Jubal Early, in command of the occupying rebel forces, would not have extracted as much from the town if he had met resistance instead of cooperation. The Confederates were under orders not to harm private property. Early was bluffing, and York’s fathers fell for it.
Further, without authority, a self-appointed group of men York’s Committee of Safety sent an admittedly sparse military guard packing. If the force had stayed, the Codorus Creek could have abetted a defense.
Simply put, if the town had shown any fight and not tracked down the rebels 10 miles out the Gettysburg Pike in Farmers to surrender, it could have preserved its honor. But the town was virtually unprotected, came the reply. Any opposition would have resulted in destruction or extensive damage to houses and businesses. Rebels were known to fire on towns that resisted. Consider the bombardment of Wrightsville by the same bunch just hours later.
And the brash and unpredictable Gen. Jubal Early, the division commander, burned Thaddeus Stevens’ ironworks in Franklin County before his men arrived on York County soil. That speaks to his regard for Robert E. Lee’s warning against destruction of Northern property, not that the people in York knew about that order. You don’t play poker with a surly general backed by 6,000 well-aimed rifles.
The town’s fathers had the hopeless task of defending an undefended town. A deal was necessary to ensure the protection of private property, women and children.
The city fathers simply made a common-sense business decision. Honor was not at stake. York had no real defending force. Under such circumstances, it’s better to live than die a hero.
The controversy would not go away.
Twenty-two years after the rebel visit, David Small’s obituary appeared in The Gazette, the newspaper he published. As chief burgess, he was a member of the delegation that met with Gordon. The obituary recognized the “displeasure” Small’s visit to Gordon caused but pointed out the occupation left nary a scar.
One hundred years after the invasion, disagreement simmered. A researcher looked for details in a York County library for a piece on the 100th anniversary of the invasion. A query about the surrender drew an angry denial from a librarian. The librarian argued that York did not surrender.
The researcher persisted, finding material on the event. After that, she received an icy reception any time she walked into the library.
York did not do much with that celebration anyway. The county’s attention focused on major centennial celebrations in Wrightsville and Hanover, people flushed with honoring the memories of heroic townsfolk and major fighting inside their town borders.
As this controversy seethed in the background, York has been reveling in its illustrious Revolutionary War past.
The Continental Congress limped into York in late September 1777 and left with a bounce in its step nine months later. During its stay, it adopted the Articles of Confederation, ratified treaties with France and celebrated welcome news that the British had surrendered 6,000 soldiers at Saratoga, N.Y.
The adoption of the Articles and surrender at Saratoga catalyzed an alliance with France. An encouraged Congress left York on June 27 and re turned to Philadelphia. The times that tried men’s souls had changed to the best of times, and York has celebrated this turnaround ever since.
Eighty-five years later on June 28 the Confederates stepped into town, thousands of them. These were the worst of times.
At any minute, Mary C. Fisher said, Early could have given the signal to “unleash the dogs of war in our midst, and give our homes a prey to the invader.”
The problem with controversy is that it often masks accomplishment.
To be sure, York placed itself in a position to attract wrath. As the generations-old saying goes, York County farmers spoke German with a Southern accent.
With strong business and family connections to the South, York’s leadership could not muster political support for the Civil War, a bitter conflict that would ultimately end the insidious institution of slavery.
And residents were forewarned an unfettered rebel invasion could flaw their legacy.
“His invasion will destroy your property, will degrade you and your country,” Union Gen. William B. Franklin, a native son, wrote in The Gazette before the occupation, “and if allowed to proceed without strenuous resistance, will make you objects of contempt and scorn to your country, and the remainder of the civilized world.”
That said and it’s a lot the people in Wrightsville endured a rebel bombardment and a fire that threatened to burn their town. The people of Hanover were caught in the deadly crossfire of blue and gray horsemen. No one has questioned the fortitude of the people in those boroughs, towns that are located in York County.
The county produced, by one count, more than 6,200 soldiers. And while no final tally is available, the number of native sons who died from wounds and disease undoubtedly numbered in the hundreds.
York served as a transportation hub, playing host, often at personal cost, to tens of thousands of soldiers from elsewhere moving to and from battle.
Many county residents did not even take a moment to savor the Yankee victory at Gettysburg. They were too busy gathering food and supplies for the care of the wounded at the battlefield, a short 30 miles away.
York County residents were accustomed to mobilizing in such relief. During the course of the war, volunteers helped nurse more than 14,000 wounded and diseased soldiers back to health at the U.S. military hospital in town.
The four-day rebel visit to the county drained money, food, supplies and horseflesh, critical at harvest time.
These stories of York rising to its feet, rather than buckling to its knees, must be told, too.
In the past 15 years, York has increasingly recognized its Civil War past. An exhibit at a downtown visitors center now tells of the occupation. A permanent room opening at the York County Heritage Trust’s Historical Society Museum culminates the Civil War comeback.
Perhaps this birth of local Civil War interest stems from growing national interest in the war or an increasing professionalism in the York County historical community.
Gerald Austin Robison concluded his 1964 master’s thesis on the occupation with a sage observation.
“York had to suffer under the verbal barrage of outsiders, who constantly remind her citizens that it was the largest northern town to be occupied without resistance,” he wrote. “How does a town defend itself from such attacks? It does not; it can only hope to live it down through the pas sage of time and future accomplishments.”
Time, indeed, has passed. We’re at the 140th anniversary of the occupation and counting. Meanwhile, York County’s heroics in World War II demonstrated strength under fire. The York Plan pooled industrial resources to fill large defense contracts. Five hundred and seventy county residents paid the ultimate price, dying for their country.
York’s connections to the Revolutionary War in the 18th century and its support of World War II in the 20th have squeezed out a debatable surrender in the 19th century.
Today, people even occasionally joke about events from those days in 1863.
In doing so, they join Cassandra Small, who even after the devastation of the rebel visit could laugh with Lissie.
“Aunt Bella said the other evening, she thought it a pity someone shouldn’t make an account of all of these funny things, that they would make an interesting book. We can begin to laugh now at it all; a week ago it was certainly too serious.”
The realization is growing today in York County that to explore the past to relish its successes, recognize its failings and occasionally smile about its idiosyncrasies can be rewarding for its future.
York County’s history bears many untold stories. The full story of the Confederate occupation is among its least known and understood.
If these stories are told and retold, forgotten people and landmarks of its past including a quiet house resting unnoticed in a hollow near Farmers will finally gain the honor and recognition due to them.