CARLISLE, Pa. — They came through Carlisle in a mad dash to escape the latest scourge from south of the border.
Hundreds of refugees driving thousands of head of livestock were heading east on local roads bound for Harrisburg and safety beyond the Susquehanna River.
It was Saturday, July 30, 1864, and much of Chambersburg was in ashes after Confederate cavalrymen under orders from Gen. John McCausland set fire to the town.
The first sign of the exodus came early in the morning when Union Maj. Gen. Darius Couch and his staff arrived in Carlisle accompanied by many Chambersburg residents.
The news they carried confirmed the worst reports Carlisle had received by telegraph, according to The American Volunteer, a local newspaper. “The excitement and alarm became intense.”
Local merchants doubled their efforts to pack and ship valuables just as they had 13 months before in late June 1863 when the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia stormed the Cumberland Valley in a failed attempt to seize Harrisburg.
The Volunteer reported how several hundred stragglers from the Union Army arrived in Carlisle the afternoon of July 30, but were soon picked by the garrison at Carlisle Barracks and escorted onto post. There they were formed into companies and ordered back to their regiments.
That same day, hundreds of black men, women and children streamed into Carlisle on wagons, buggies, horseback and bare feet. “Many of them were almost naked and nearly starving,” The Volunteer reported on Aug. 4. “How these poor wretches were provided for, few appeared to know or care. The rampant Abolitionists paid no attention to them…”
On Sunday, July 31, the courthouse bell rang and Carlisle residents gathered on the Square to discuss ways of providing assistance to the burned-out residents of Chambersburg.
Committees were formed and within hours residents had collected $500 to $600 along with large supplies of beef, ham, flour, bread, cheese, eggs and vegetables. They carried the supplies to the old market house and loaded the goods on to a railroad car for transport south.
The newspaper reported how business in Carlisle was at a standstill for days after the burning. “Our people feel uneasy and entertain fears that the Rebels may yet pounce upon and serve us as they did the people of Chambersburg,” the story read. “At this writing all is quiet and it is hoped that our enemies have been forced beyond the limits of the state.”
Ann Hull is director of the Franklin County Historical Society in present-day Chambersburg. She described the town prior to the 1864 burning as a bustling commercial center with an abundance of cottage industries. “If you had a skill, you could do well for yourself and your family,” Hull said. “You could have a comfortable life.”
That changed early on the morning of July 30 when several hundred Confederate raiders rode into the town square and stopped in front of the Franklin County courthouse, Hull said. They had taken several prominent residents as hostages.
There, McCausland read a proclamation written by Confederate Gen. Jubal Early ordering the Chambersburg residents to turn over $500,000 in cash or $100,000 in gold in a matter of hours, Hull said. The prominent residents made it clear the town didn’t have that kind of money.
“The citizens didn’t think they would actually burn the town,” Hull said. “They thought it was just talk. They were really surprised. So many people were caught unawares. They lost everything. They did not have time to get any of their possessions.”
First-hand accounts of what happened next mentioned how Confederate soldiers barged into private homes and ordered the occupants to leave, Hull said. They then set fire to the contents.
Local newspapers were not at all shy about mixing commentary with facts in describing scenes of outrage perpetrated on Chambersburg citizens.
The American Volunteer had dispatched a reporter to accompany Chambersburg residents back to their burned-out town. with pencil and paper, the Carlisle-based journalist took down notes on what he observed and learned from talking to residents. As was typical of the day, the Aug. 4 story had no byline.
“Nearly every valuable building, both public and private, was reduced to ashes,” the reporter wrote. “All the county buildings, the banks, hotels, printing offices, churches, the female seminary, law offices, fared the same common fate. Indeed, the very heart of Chambersburg is gone and the town, it may be said, is wiped out.
“Parties of soldiers, having sacked several drug and chemical stores, had manufactured turpentine balls which they threw in all directions, thus creating as many different flames in different localities of the town…,” the reporter wrote. Helped along by a stiff breeze, the many fires combined into one “terrible and devouring conflagration.”
Rival newspaper The Carlisle Herald also dispatched a journalist to Chambersburg who arrived there on Sunday, July 31. He reported that fully one-half of the area of the town had burned down and that four-fifths of its property value had been destroyed.
“To appreciate the vandalism of its destroyers, one must hear from the lips of its homeless and beggared citizens how coolly and systematically they performed their fiendish work,” The Herald reporter wrote. “The entreaties of helpless women and children, for time to save only their clothing were disregarded, and they were cursed for even asking for delay…
“Robberies were committed on every hand,” the Herald story went on. “Citizens were seized and threatened with instant death if they refused to part with money and valuables and even women escaping from their burning homes with a few articles for clothing hastily snatched from the flames were forced to give them up.”
Confederate generals McCausland and Early would later write the burning of Chambersburg was in retribution for Union soldiers under Maj. Gen. David Hunter burning several private homes in the Shenendoah Valley of Virginia, Hull said. A total of 537 buildings were destroyed by fire during the raid on Chambersburg including 266 homes and businesses and 271 barns, stables, outhouses and outbuildings.
Many of the residents scattered into the countryside or fled to nearby towns where they had relatives, Hull said. “Some of them came back and some of them didn’t” Others like her ancestors moved to Chambersburg to help rebuild the town and bring about its rebirth.
As a northern town burned by Confederate forces, Chambersburg became a overnight spectacle for curiosity-seekers wishing to catch a glimpse of the ruins, Hull said. “It must have been a zoo here. They came from miles around.”
The Herald published a follow-up article on Aug. 12 encouraging Carlisle area residents to continue the duty of “ministering to the wants of the destitute people of Chambersburg.
“There are many hundreds of people there today who are actually dependant on the contributions of the neighboring towns for their daily bread,” The Herald reported. “Let stores of bread, meat, vegetables and every article of food be at once collected and forwarded to Chambersburg. Let us not cease our efforts to relieve the suffering until we know certainly that they are all as well provided for as we are ourselves.”