Last May I drove country roads in four states in one day: Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. By early afternoon, I reached Chambersburg, Pennsylvania – one of my destinations. Parking my vehicle, I headed for the center of town and the local library.
Walking through the downtown district, I quickly realized that the Civil War history of the town stared me down: the lack of pre-Civil War era buildings. I love old historic towns and have been fortunate to walk with historians who’ve educated me on ways to guess/know the approximate age of buildings in the Middle Atlantic region. While the brick buildings in Chambersburg are beautiful, they are also a reminder of the destruction that occurred here at the end of July 1864.
On July 30, Confederates under General John McCausland arrived in town, sent by General Jubal Early. McCausland insisted on a ransom for the town and gave the residents a choice – $500,000 in United States currency or $100,000 in gold. The local bank had sent away its reserves and did not have those amounts on hand, but that didn’t matter to the Confederates.
Fires started, and about 500 structures of this county seat were destroyed, leaving approximately 2,000 people homeless. Homes of Republican politicians or abolitionists were particularly targeted, even if they were out of the path of conflagration.
Some Confederates protested the burning, others felt sorry for the civilians and helped them move their possessions as the flames got out of hand. When Colonel William Peters refused to follow McCausland’s orders, he was placed under arrest.
Some of the key buildings that survived the fire were the Masonic Temple and the Old Franklin County Jack. Confederate guarded the Masonic Temple and refused to let his comrades burn that building.
“Remember Chambersburg!” became a battle cry for some Union units in 1864. This burning incident marked the only time a Northern town was decisively destroyed during the Civil War. It also offered a justification for the harsher war approach and more civilian involvement during the coming months of 1864, particularly as the Union invaded the Shenandoah Valley for a final time.
I did not have time to fully explore Chambersburg, but if you are in town for just a quick visit be sure to see Memorial Square.
Here, you’ll see Old Franklin Country Jail (one of the survivor buildings) and post-Civil War buildings, including an impressive church.
In the center of the square, stands the Memorial Fountain which was dedicated in 1878. In front of the fountain stands a statue of a Civil War soldier; the ladies of Chambersburg started fundraising in 1868 to erect a memorial to the memory of Union soldiers. The fountain and memorial stand on the site of the 1861 “Liberty Pole” which stood 120 feet tall and flew a huge United States flag.
The Chambersburg Heritage Center on the square houses exhibits and Civil War artifacts.
For more details about what do see around or near the the square, check out this tour brochure!
Certainly, there’s lots of history to explore in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, but if you only have an hour, head for the square and start there! You’ll be surrounded by history at every step and reminded of the burning by the post-1864 structures and architecture.