Enemy Attackers Burn U.S. City
July 15, 2008
On November 7, 1863, Union General William W. AverellAca,!a,,cs brigade entered the town of Lewisburg, West Virginia. The tragedy of the later burning of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, began to unfold during the time that AverellAca,!a,,cs forces occupied the town. A local man, David Creigh, returned home to find a Union straggler in the act of plundering his house. Creigh, a Confederate sympathizer with several sons in the army, killed the thief and hired a man to hide the body in an abandoned well. Creigh safely resumed his former activities until June 1864, when Union troops under Averell and General George Crook were once again in the area. A local slave told them of the stragglerAca,!a,,cs killing. A short time later the body was recovered, and Creigh was arrested for murder. On June 10, he was found guilty, and on June 12, Averell ordered the execution carried out.
By then, CrookAca,!a,,cs and AverellAca,!a,,cs two divisions had joined forces with General David HunterAca,!a,,cs two divisions in the Shenandoah Valley. The combined column continued its march toward Lexington, captured the town on June 11, and burned the Virginia Military Institute and the home of VirginiaAca,!a,,cs former Governor John Letcher the following day. HunterAca,!a,,cs summary execution of a Confederate trooper, Private Matthew White of the 14th Virginia Cavalry Regiment, on June 13 further outraged Southern soldiers .
In mid-month, however, the tide turned against the Yankees. Lieutenant General Jubal Early, with heavy reinforcements from the Army of Northern Virginia, secured Lynchburg. Confronted with this danger, Hunter retreated all the way to the Ohio River. Early then swept northward down the Shenandoah Valley, crossed the Potomac, and actually threatened Washington, DC. Even after withdrawing west of the Blue Ridge Mountains in mid-month, Early remained dangerous. He beat Crook at Second Kernstown on July 24 and again cleared the Shenandoah country of Union troops. Such success opened opportunity to exact vengeance for what Hunter and Averell had inflicted.
On July 28, Confederate General John McCausland received orders from Early directing him to conduct a retaliatory raid with two cavalry brigades against the North. General Early had selected the small town of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, as the target for this retaliation. Among the demands included in his instructions was that $100,000 in gold or $500,000 in U. S. currency be paid by the citizens of Chambersburg in compensation for the damages inflicted at Lewisburg and Lexington.
In the pre-dawn hours of July 30, McCauslandAca,!a,,cs command was in the area of the Greenawalt family home, located on the turnpike west of Chambersburg. A council of war held at the house resulted in some subordinate Confederate officers protesting to McCausland against burning anything but public property. Angry with those officers, he threatened them with severe punishment if they refused to obey orders. Nevertheless, many did openly disobey, going so far as to give widespread publicity to their disobedience.
Later that morning, McCausland was told that the local citizens could not raise the money and that few individuals had responded to his summons. He told them he would wait six hours for their reply. If no ransom was paid, the town would be destroyed. After some time elapsed, many citizens came to him, but it became apparent from the indifferent attitude many exhibited that they did not intend to pay. No committees had been formed or attempts made to negotiate with him. McCausland changed his mind about the six-hour deadline Aca,!" nothing would be gained by waiting longer.
He directed Major Harry Gilmor to arrest 50 or more of the townAca,!a,,cs most prominent citizens. They were to be taken to Richmond and held as hostages until the money was paid. Some scouts returned with a captured Union soldier and reported a heavy force of Federal cavalry Aca,!" ironically, commanded by Averell himself - not more than four miles away. McCausland told Gilmor there was no more time to waste Aca,!" the town must be burned now. He showed Gilmor General EarlyAca,!a,,cs order and directed him to start the fires. When the smoke finally cleared, a total of 549 buildings were burned--278 residences and places of business, 98 barns and stables, and 173 out-buildings of various kinds--with an estimated value of $783,950. That evaluation did not include the extensive additional loss of personal property. It was estimated that twice that much money would not cover the losses of personal property
McCausland temporarily eluded Averell and escaped across the Potomac. That river provided a barrier but not a bulwark. As his raiders incautiously rested in the South Branch Valley around Moorefield, West Virginia, they were routed by Averell, August 7.
Thus raid and counter-raid, retaliation and counter-retaliation, victory and victim continued. The war went on, and it would grow still more severe in the Great Valley of the Appalachians as summer turned into autumn. Civilians as well as Soldiers had to bear the burden of war.