Just after Abraham Lincoln won the presidential election of 1860, South Carolina seceded from the Union. By Lincoln’s inauguration on March 4, 1861, a total of seven states had left the Union. In his inaugural address, President Lincoln declared these secessions legally void and vowed to maintain possession of federal facilities for the United States of America. Just over five weeks later, on April 12, 1861, Confederate troops tested Lincoln’s words when they commenced the shelling of Fort Sumter. The fort was surrendered to Confederate troops on April 13, 1861. Word of the shelling of Fort Sumter reached Chambersburg by telegraph, and Franklin County would never be the same.
Andrew Curtin, Pennsylvania Governor throughout the war, visited Chambersburg a number of times during the Civil War. Another connection to the Pennsylvania Governor: Mary Ritner, the widow of Abram Ritner and proprietor of the boarding house where John Brown stayed in Chambersburg, was the daughter-in-law of abolitionist and anti-Masonic Governor Joseph Ritner.
General Samuel Wiley Crawford, a native of Franklin County, commanded a battery at the bombardment of Fort Sumter and was the surgeon on duty. Crawford was born near Fayetteville, about six miles east of Chambersburg, off Route 30, and was Franklin County’s highest ranking officer in the Civil War. Wounded at the Battle of Antietam in September 1862, he recuperated in time to play a role in the Battle of Gettysburg where his command the Pennsylvania Reserve Division and assisted in driving Confederates from Little Round Top on July 2, 1863.
A few days after the surrender of Fort Sumter to Confederate troops, president Abraham Lincoln met with Pennsylvania Senator Simon Cameron, General Winfield Scott, and Colonel Alexander K. McClure, a Chambersburg lawyer and newspaper editor, who was a key leader in the Pennsylvania Republican party. Lincoln requested their aid in securing 75,000 troops to defend the Union. By the end of April, Chambersburg was readying for a Maryland attack. Maryland, a border state, was a slave state yet did not secede from the Union. Fortunately, the attack did not materialize, but troops amassed in the Franklin County seat. By May 1, about 3,000 Union soldiers were camped in and around Chambersburg. By June 1, the number increased to 8,000. Within another week, the army encampment at Chambersburg swelled to 20,000. Chambersburg became a military staging ground.
SEPTEMBER 17, 1862
Thirty-seven miles south of Chambersburg, Union and Confederate forces clashed at the Battle of Antietam, near Sharpsburg, the first battle on Union territory. About 400 of the wounded were transported by Cumberland Valley Railroad cars to Chambersburg for care in makeshift hospitals.
OCTOBER 10-12, 1862
Confederate Commander Robert E. Lee ordered General J.E.B. Stuart to destroy the railroad bridge in Scotland, near Chambersburg. Because it was iron, it was damaged but not destroyed. Stuart and his troops seized horses, food, ammunition, and hostages in Mercersburg and continued onto Chambersburg taking more horses, cutting the telegraph wires, and burning the railroad shops. Troops camped in Fayetteville, moved through Cashtown, into Emmittsburg, and onto Virginia, successfully evading Union troops.
JUNE 15-17, 1863
Confederate troops, led by General Albert Jenkins, entered Chambersburg about 11 PM. Jenkins commanded the advance unit of Lee’s 65,000 men. Jenkins’ men went throughout the county, seeking supplies and looking for escaped slaves. Believing that a sizeable number of Union troops were heading to Chambersburg, Jenkins retreated to Greencastle. A false alarm, it was county residents heading to Chambersburg to see Johnny Reb.
JUNE 22, 1863
About 8,000 Confederate troops crossed the Mason-Dixon Line and camped at Greencastle. A small detachment of Union troops rode onto the farm of Archibald Fleming, just north of Greencastle. Two men, Sergeant Milton Cafferty and Corporal William Rihl rode into the front yard of the farmhouse. Concealed Confederate troops fired on the men, killing Rihl. Today, a monument stands at the site, noting Rihl as the first Union soldier killed on Pennsylvania soil and north of the Mason Dixon Line during the Civil War.
JUNE 23–30, 1863
As Confederate troops converged on Franklin County, horse and cattle raids were ordered in Mercersburg and nearby McConnellsburg. Troops, under the command of Jubal Early, marched into Waynesboro, through Quincy and Mont Alto, and to the Caledonia area where they spent the night. On the morning of June 24, Rebel infantrymen, led by Robert Rodes marched down the main street of Chambersburg with their band playing The Bonnie Blue Flag. General Richard Ewell arrived by carriage, established headquarters in Franklin Hall, and displayed the Confederate flag from the cupola of the Franklin County courthouse.
On June 25, Ewell met Jubal Early and instructed him to move toward York and burn the railroad bridge at Wrightsville, PA. Before leaving Franklin County on June 26, Jubal Early stopped at the Caledonia Ironworks for some “unordered activity.” Owned by outspoken Confederate-opponent, Thaddeus Stevens, the ironworks and its complex of buildings were set ablaze by Early and his troops as they headed out of the county.
The same day, General A.P. Hill rode into the center of Chambersburg where he was soon joined by Confederate Commander Robert E. Lee. The two men engaged in a brief, hushed conversation and departed for their respective camps—Hill in Fayetteville and Lee in Messersmith’s Woods. Until Lee’s departure on June 30, he camped east of central Chambersburg in this site of community picnics and festivities. Over the next few days, thousands of Confederate troops poured into Chambersburg. In all, about 60,000 troops camped around Chambersburg.
Lee’s initial orders directed troops toward the state capital, but reconnaissance received on June 28 changed Lee’s plans. To protect his communication and supply lines to Virginia, Lee realized he must move east to intercept Union troops and recalled troops heading toward Harrisburg.
The Great Fire of 1864 – The Burning of Chambersburg
As the likelihood of a Confederate victory waned, the harsh impacts of war in the south destroyed mills, crops, barns, and warehouses. On July 28, 1864, General Jubal Early issued the order to General John McCausland to ransom Chambersburg for $100,000 in gold or $500,000 in Yankee currency as retaliation for Northern devastation of the Shenandoah Valley. As Confederate troops closed in on the Mason Dixon Line and its northern target of Chambersburg, General Darius Couch, who commanded the Headquarters of the Department of the Susquehanna at Chambersburg, worked to evacuate military supplies from the town. A small unit of Union soldiers secreted themselves in the hills along St. Thomas, surprising the McCausland column of Confederates and holding them back a few more hours to allow Couch to liquidate the army headquarters.
By daybreak, Confederate soldiers had positioned cannons atop the hill west of Chambersburg. About 5:30 AM, they fired on the sleeping town, rode into town, and rang the courthouse bell to gather residents to hear the ransom demand. According to an account by Chambersburg shopkeeper Jacob Hoke, “The money demanded was not, and could not be paid, for the reason that there was nothing like the amount demanded remaining in the town. Besides the citizens did not feel like contributing aid in the overthrow of their government.”
Once it was clear to Confederate troops that the ransom would not be paid, they wasted no time in setting the fires. By day’s end, over 550 structures had burned, 2000 people were homeless, and more than $750,000 in property was lost.
Hoke described the column of smoke created by the town’s burning as a crown of sackcloth, asserting, “It was heaven’s shield mercifully drawn over the scene to shelter from the blazing sun the homeless and unsheltered ones that had fled to the fields and cemeteries around the town, where they in silence and sadness sat and looked upon the destruction of their homes and the accumulation of a lifetime.”