Eyewitness 1864: Confederate forces set Chambersburg ablaze

Residents of Chambersburg had seen it happen twice before.

In 1862 and again in 1863, rebel troops briefly occupied their town, burned railroad buildings and warehouses and commandeered military supplies, including horses. The secessionist forces then quickly withdrew, leaving most private property untouched.

Things were different when Confederates commanded by Gen. John McCausland captured the town on July 30, 1864. Community leaders were given an ultimatum: quickly come up with $100,000 in gold or $500,000 in U.S. currency, known as “greenbacks,” or see Chambersburg burn. Those numbers are equal to about $1.5 million and $7.5 million in modern money.

When the ransom wasn’t paid promptly, McCausland ordered the town put to the torch. Chambersburg, the county seat of Franklin County, is about 160 miles east of Pittsburgh.

Three days later, on Aug. 2, The Daily Pittsburgh Gazette published “a graphic and interesting description of the sacking of the town.” The newspaper’s eyewitnesses were four Chambersburg residents who “lost everything they possessed, except what few articles of clothing they happened to have on when the pillagers appeared.”

The Gazette speculated that the Confederates never believed that townspeople could raise that much money.

“The rebels evidently did not expect to have their [ransom] demand complied with ... and the work of arson and plunder began immediately,” the story said. “In order to economize labor, and at the same time, make as sure work as possible, they fired every other dwelling. In private homes they generally lit up articles of furniture, piled them in the middle of the floor and ignited them.

“In a few minutes the beautiful, prosperous and peaceful town of Chambersburg was wrapped in flames,” the story said. Most of the soldiers “turned a deaf ear to all entreaties” and some “gloried” in the destruction, “singing songs and shouting and dancing with demonic glee.”

Not all the rebels were willing to follow their commander’s orders, the eyewitnesses said. “They began to squabble among themselves, some refusing to apply the torch,” the story said. Other Confederates located and even began to work the pump on a Chambersburg fire engine, “trying to stay the flames” by spraying them with water.

“Two rebel raiders were observed by one of our informants sitting on the sidewalk, weeping over the misery and distress which they beheld on every side.”

While most of the town was destroyed, some residents managed to make their own side deals with the Confederates. “The son of the late Judge Kennedy paid $280 to an officer, conditioned for the safety of his own farm house and that of the old homestead of his father,” the story said. “Both these buildings were saved.”

A former state senator named George W. Brewer was told that if he agreed to give $500 to the raiders, his property would be spared. “He refused to pay and his house was destroyed,” according to the newspaper.

The newspaper report said that between 250 and 300 houses were burned along with most downtown businesses, the county courthouse, town hall, a bank, six hotels, two private schools and two churches.

The primary motivation behind the attack on Chambersburg was revenge, according to the Gazette. Earlier in 1864, Union Gen. David Hunter had burned both military targets and civilian homes and businesses in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

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