ECW welcomes guest authors Dan Masters and Scott Mingus
Fear had long since given way to nonchalance. Constant alarms that “The Rebels are coming” had wearied the residents of Franklin County, Pennsylvania, to the point that by mid-October 1862, most gave little credence to the once-concerning reports. In the county seat, Chambersburg, the major annoyance since early September was the seemingly constant movement of trainloads of Brig. Gen. John F. Reynolds’s newly-organized state militia regiments. They were headed from Harrisburg through the Cumberland Valley to the Maryland border in response to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s invasion. Now, in October, with Lee’s withdrawal into Virginia after the battle of Antietam, the noisy, bothersome trains were bringing the emergency men back to Harrisburg to be mustered out of the service.
Lee, realizing the strategic value of the Cumberland Valley Railroad, ordered Brig. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart to take most of his cavalry into Chambersburg to disrupt the railroad, destroy a nearby bridge, and gather “all information of the position, force and probable intention of the enemy.” Stuart was also to take any state or Federal officials as hostages to be used in the future to trade for Confederate political prisoners.
On October 10, Stuart and 1,800 troopers crossed the Potomac River into Maryland and headed north into the Keystone State. William S. Everett, the attorney for the Franklin County poorhouse, was among those residents who watched Stuart’s men arrive. Less than a week later, Everett sent his summary of the events to the Cleveland (Ohio) Morning Leader, which published it on the front page of the October 22 edition.
October 16, 1862
Editor Leader: Living as you do more than a hundred miles from the border, you are deprived of many an exciting scene that falls to the lot of your friends here. The sight of Rebel prisoners or deserters is nothing and their stories, however marvelous, scarcely attract the attention of the most casual observer. We have grown so callous to rumors that we pay no attention to what we hear unless it is read from a special correspondent or related by an observer. So much so were we that on Friday the 10th instant, we did not realize the danger of a raid by the Rebel cavalry until they entered our town with a flag of truce, demanding its surrender in 30 minutes. When this had taken place, many believed it was a trick played off by the young men to frighten nervous old ladies.
At 5 o’clock in the evening of that day, our town was seemingly undisturbed by anything when a messenger came dashing down Main Street announcing the fact that Rebel cavalry was only a few miles from town and that they were taking all the horses along the way, breaking open stores and destroying other property at a desperate rate. This would not have been believed had it not been for the respectable character of the messenger; but we even tried to console ourselves with the idea that he might be mistaken and that those persons behaving so mischievously were a set of ruffians, avenging some foul act of those whose property they were destroying. We knew of Union troops all along the Potomac, where the Rebels would have to cross to invade our valley, and this seemed to make the matter so unreasonable that half of our citizens did not realize the danger they were in. It rained hard all day so that none of our citizens were much away from town.
It being very cloudy and the days short, the Rebels had a fine opportunity of approaching our town and planting their guns on the hills around it. It was about 7 p.m. when they sent their flag of truce demanding its surrender. The bearer of the flag of truce inquired for the mayor of the town and was taken to the office of the provost marshal. A very short interview was held, the bearer of the flag of truce being unwilling to answer any questions whatever, except as to the number of their forces which he placed at 1,500 with a full battery of artillery. A committee of three was appointed to accompany him to the headquarters of their forces which was but a short distance from town. An interview was there had with Generals [J.E.B.] Stuart and [Wade] Hampton. They demanded the surrender of the town, stating that all they wished was the horses of our citizens which were fit for army purposes, such government property as they could find, clothing for their men, hats, caps, boots, and shoes, and if they were not injured in any way, that they would not enter our houses nor disturb any private property, that they would protect our families and respect the men.
The committee returned (for they saw the battery already planted and the Rebel force so distributed that resistance would be madness) and submitted the matter to a vote of the citizens. The vote at first was against surrendering, but it required a very short speech to convince them the folly of such a course. Another vote and the citizens reluctantly admitted to the humiliating ordeal. But a few moments elapsed ere the clattering of hooves satisfied everyone that the Rebel cavalry were taking possession of our town. They came in four abreast and occupied the main streets. They made no noisy demonstrations whatsoever. Occasionally one would speak loud enough to be heard by those standing on the pavements close by and say, “This is a beautiful town, I think we shall stay here. Where can I get my canteen filled with good whiskey?” Another would shout in a low voice “hurrah for Southern rights!” And some asked, “Did you ever hear of Stuart’s cavalry? This is it. It can’t be beat.” Such remarks were all that I heard made while they were passing through the streets.
After they had sent out their pickets, they sent guards through the alleys to steal horses. They broke open the stable doors so violently that the noise could be heard all around you. Here one would be coming with a well-known horse, and there another, and so on, until they had taken all the horses they could find. They sent them to the country a short distance from town and guarded them until morning. I had a conversation with several of them. They spoke freely, and allowed me the same privilege. I advocated the cause of the Union unconditionally and they took issue and argued in at least a very gentlemanly manner. They fear the effects of President Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation. They very candidly admitted that the measure was calculated to injure them more than any other measure proclaimed by our civil authorities. Create insubordination among our domestics, say they, and you at once take men from the army and in this respect weaken our forces.
At 10 p.m., the citizens were ordered to their homes and forbidden to walk the streets. They were told that it would not be safe for them to appear. This was the severest ordeal of all. Varied now the visions that passed before us. We thought of burning, plundering, arresting prominent men, and all conceivable wrongs. But fortunately for us, the men were tired and wanted rest. They took the pavements whilst we had our beds. I slept a little that night, scarcely enough to justify going to bed. They broke open one shoe store and took shoes and boots to the value of $400. They broke into a hat store, but the owner had removed his hats to the cellar and thus saved them. They did not take time to examine closely, but when they saw the empty shelves, they gave up the search.
The next morning, they examined the warehouses and depot buildings. They found several hundred overcoats and suits of army clothing, about 200 pairs of shoes, a hundred sabers, 200 pistols, and considerable ammunition. They destroyed a large quantity of leather, salt, flour, and bacon. In one of the warehouses was the ammunition captured by our men from Longstreet’s division. There were about 20 tons of it. After they had taken all the goods, they could carry with them, they gave notice to those living close by to leave, for they intended setting fire to all the warehouses and depot buildings. This created quite an excitement. We all knew of the large quantities of ammunition in one of them and much of it was shell. What to do was the question. Stand your ground might be best, and yet we feared the explosion of this vast quantity of ammunition. It was but a short time until the first explosion took place. It was terrific. Many of the shells exploded, and the pieces fell thick in some parts of town. A stable quite a distance from the scene of conflagration took fire. The citizens ran despite the exploding shells and endeavored to stop the fire. This occasioned great excitement and if the Rebels had remained there would doubtless have been blood spilt. But as soon as they had set fire to the warehouse and depot, they left town, taking the road leading to Gettysburg. Fortunately, no other buildings took fire. No person was hurt by the shells or Rebels.
In the country, they visited every stable and took every horse that was seemingly fit for any kind of service. Among them were recognized four men that formerly lived in this county, having large family connections. They were piloted around by these men, they knowing who had good horses. Some of them even inquired for certain men stating that they had good horses and they were determined to have them. Others had lists of names and seemed to go down the list in regular order. They took from this county at least 1,200 good horses. This is what goods they took and property they destroyed amounts at least to the sum of $300,000. This is no small loss and we are not sure that incursions of a similar character may not be repeated. We have many persons living among us of strong Southern sympathies and the Rebels knowing this can easily avail themselves of some unguarded moment and rush in upon us again. That the Rebels know all about us is beyond questions, and that they know who to visit their vengeance upon is equally certain. We escaped much better than we expected we would, but give the devil all he wants and he will be sure to let you alone.
If they had been met by force after they left our county, we would have given them a hospitable reception on their return. We had the road from Chambersburg to a point 12 miles from it well guarded by armed citizens. They would not have escaped had they been compelled to retreat this way. This organization of defense was continued until we heard of their escape across the river.
There are many incidents of rather an interesting character connected with this short visit of the Rebels that I might relate, but observing the length of my letter I shall avail myself of some future occasion to relate them. We hope, however, that the same may not be repeated, as such visits are attended with more expense than the pleasure and comfort derived from them justifies. I shall add, however, that this cavalry was composed of picked men and contained quite a number of ministers of the Gospel, lawyers, physicians, professors of various institutions, and eminent politicians. It was really an exhibition of the chivalry of the South and whilst they behaved in some respects like gentlemen, they displayed an accomplishment in horse stealing that rivals the most noted characters in either ancient or modern date.
Very respectfully I remain yours, etc.
Wm. S. Everett
P.S. Chambersburg contains 6,000 inhabitants. Several arrests have been made of citizens who showed their colors rather strongly during the raid and have expressed themselves rather boldly since. Many farmers and citizens sent their horses to the mountain, others locked them up in shops and thus saved them. Had this not been done, the Rebels would have taken twice as many as they did. The Rebel cavalry numbered 2,000 strong and six pieces of artillery. This is correct, for they were counted as they passed out of town.
Stuart’s October 1862 raid on the Cumberland Valley Railroad at Chambersburg alarmed much of south-central Pennsylvania and set the stage for the commonwealth’s reaction to Robert E. Lee’s invasion the following summer. As far as Wrightsville, more than 65 miles to the east, terrified residents scrambled to take their livestock across the Susquehanna River to safety. Plans were made to burn the three major bridges in the region (two at Harrisburg and the world’s longest covered bridge at Wrightsville). Stuart turned south before reaching Gettysburg and headed back to Virginia. In late June 1863, Brig. Gen. Albert G. Jenkins’s mounted infantry repeated Stuart’s foray into Chambersburg, again alarming the region with excited reports that “The Rebels are coming!” before returning across the Mason-Dixon Line. The citizens and politicians relaxed their guard, although again plans were in place to defend or destroy the vital bridges to protect Harrisburg should the enemy venture that far. However, unlike Stuart’s previous raid, this time, the Confederates returned in force, with tens of thousands of infantry and artillery in tow, setting the stage for what became the battle of Gettysburg.