‘They Seemed to Be Demons from the Infernal Pit’ – Chambersburg in Ashes

July 31, 1864 (Sunday)

“It appears from General Averell’s reports that while General Hunter was collecting his forces at Harper’s Ferry to attack the enemy on the south side the rebel army crossed on the morning of the 29th near Williamsport, and moved, by Hagerstown, into Pennsylvania. Their cavalry captured and partly destroyed Chambersburg yesterday.” – Henry Halleck to General Ulysses S. Grant, July 31, 1864

General View, Chambersburg, Franklin Co., Pa., destroyed by the rebels under McCausland, July 30th, 1864.

General View, Chambersburg, Franklin Co., Pa., destroyed by the rebels under McCausland, July 30th, 1864.

“The 30th of July, 1864, was bright and warm. A few rebel shells screamed over our heads early in the morning to warn us of the approaching foe. Near 6 o’clock, A. M., I was was standing, with many others, on the veranda of the McNulty house watching the cavalry file into the square, of which they took entire possession, and commenced feeding their horses oats and corn on the edge of the pavements. Whilst thus engaged looking, I heard my name called, and just below me on the street an officer rode out of line and desired me by name to come down. When I reached the pavement the officer hail already dismounted, and approaching he said: ‘I am Captain Fitzhugh, formerly of General Jenkin’s staff. We met last year and then your Burgess directed me to you to inform your people of some things we wished done. I now ask you to be our bearer on this occasion.’

“I told him I recollected him and asked him what he wished done. He then said we have come here to demand the payment of one hundred thousand dollars in gold, or in lieu thereof, five hundred thousand dollars in greenbacks, and if this requisition is not complied with, then to burn your town. I asked him by what authority he asked such a sum of money and threatened to lay in ashes the homes of our defenseless families if the demand was not complied with.” – J.W. Douglas, Chambersburg.

Bank of Chambersburg & Franklin House, Chambersburg, Franklin Co., Pa., destroyed by the rebels under McCausland, July 30th, 1864

Bank of Chambersburg & Franklin House, Chambersburg, Franklin Co., Pa., destroyed by the rebels under McCausland, July 30th, 1864

Captain Fitzhugh produced an order, and handed it to Douglas. To the best of Douglas’ recollections it read:

Headquarters Of The Army Of North Virginia. To General J. McCausland :—You are hereby ordered to proceed with such forces as will be detailed, and as rapidly as possible, to the town of Chambersburg, Penna., and demand of the authorities the sum of one hundred thousand dollars in gold, or in lieu thereof the sum of five hundred thousand dollars in greenbacks, and in case this demand is not complied with, then in retaliation for the burning of seven properties of peaceful inhabitants of the Valley of Virginia, by order of the Federal Gen. Hunter, you will proceed to burn the town of Chambersburg and rapidly return to this point.

Signed: J. A. Early,
General Commanding.

Mr. Douglas continued his story:

“‘Now,’ said Capt. Fitzhugh, after the reading was finished, ‘you see we are in a hurry. I want you to go immediately and see your people and tell them of this demand and see that the money is forthcoming, for I assure you that this order will be rigidly enforced.”

“I said this was monstrous, there were no Union soldiers here. “Oh, yes,” he said, “they have been firing on us for some hours.” I replied only a squad of twenty with two little pieces; they left long ago. He said there is a large force of young men in this valley, to which I did not reply. “Now go,” he said, “and report to me as soon as possible.”

Chambersburg, 1864

Chambersburg, 1864

“I then went up Market street and told everyone I met of the rebel demand. They generally laughed at first, and when I spoke earnestly about the terrible alternative, they said they were trying to scare us and went into their houses. I then went up Main street in the same manner and with the same result. I then went to the hotel to see Capt. F. They told me he was over in the book store buying stationary. Going to Shryock’s book store, then kept where Hatnick’s cigar store is now located, I met the Captain and told him most of our capitalists were out of town ; all the bank funds removed, as we knew of their advance last night, and that he couldn’t squeeze blood out of a turnip.

“Whilst we were speaking, another officer approached us, and Capt. F. turning to him said, ‘General McCausland, this is the gentleman I requested to notify the people of Chambersburg of our errand.’ I repeated to him what I had already said to Capt. Fitzhugh. He took me by the arm, and leading me out into the Diamond, said, ‘are you sure you have seen your public men? I should be very sorry to carry out the retributive part of the command of my superior officer.'”

There was nothing that Mr. Douglas or any of the citizens of Chambersburg could do. When they once more explained to General McCausland that the banks had not enough money, he replied: “Very well, I’ll take you gentlemen to Richmond and burn your damned town.”

Court House, Chambersburg, Franklin Co., Pa., destroyed by the rebels under McCausland, July 30th, 1864

Court House, Chambersburg, Franklin Co., Pa., destroyed by the rebels under McCausland, July 30th, 1864

And so, General McCausland sent a few of his officers around the town with a list of personalities to place under arrest.

“While these negotiations were going on, the rebels were breaking into stores and shops, plundering them of their contents. Hotels and restaurants were also visited, and liquor was drank and many became intoxicated. The robbery of the citizens along the street was commenced, and hats, caps, boots, watches, and everything of value which they could find were taken. Shortly after this conference with the citizens terminated, the work of burning was commenced, when those under arrest were discharged from custody.

“By this time the members of my family— myself and three others— females, had gathered together a few articles of clothing and other valued articles—my wife carrying in her hand her deceased father’s photograph which she had snatched from its place on the wall, and ran down stairs. The officer followed us to the door and entreated one of the ladies to mount his horse and escape from the awful place, for by this time flames were bursting out everywhere. He declared that he did not want his horse any longer in the rebel service. At the door I found the officer already alluded to, who had rode up and hitched his horse sometime before,crying bitterly. He seemed to be dazed and confused at the awful scene. Pointing here and there at the leaning, crackling flames, as they burst forth from buildings all around us, he cried out, ‘See! See!! Oh my God! My God!! Has it come to this that we must be made a band of thieves and robbers by a man like McCausland?’

Ruins of Chambersburg from the Diamond, looking east.

Ruins of Chambersburg from the Diamond, looking east.

As we passed out Ease Market street that morning, here and there on both sides, houses were on fire, and the street was filled with the drunken and infuriated soldiers. They seemed to be as demons from the infernal pit. All along that street the occupants of the houses were endeavoring to carry articles to places of safety. The people were running wildly through the street, carrying clothing and other articles. Others were dragging sewing machines and articles of furniture. Children were screaming after their parents, and parents were frantic after their children. The feeble efforts of the aged and infirm to carry with them some valued article from their burning homes, were deeply distressing. The roaring and crackling of the flames, the falling walls, the blinding smoke, the intense heat intensified by the scorching sun, all united to form a picture of the terrible which no pen can describe nor painter portray. It was such a sight as no one would desire to witness but once in a lifetime.” – Jacob Hoke, Chambersburg

A few hours after the Rebels left, Col. William Averell’s Federal cavalry entered the burned out town, leaving quickly in pursuit of McCausland’s troopers.

“When I left Chambersburg I requested General Couch to notify General Kelley of the threatened movement of the enemy upon Cumberland and at McConnellsburg. On the morning of the 31st I notified General Kelley that I was driving the enemy in the direction of Hancock, and I had reason to hope when I attacked him at Hancock that between General Kelley’s forces and my own he would be captured. Nothing but an iron-clad car and a company of National Guards appeared, which were driven away by the enemy’s artillery.” – Col. Averell, August 3, 1864

McCausland’s command joined that of General Bradley Johnson’s. In his report, Johnson told of their brief stay in Hancock, Maryland:

“Reached Hancock about 1 p. m. and stopped to feed, while Brigadier-General McCausland demanded of the town authorities a ransom of $30,000 and 5,00(1 cooked rations. At the request of the authorities, who were known to me to be Southern men. I explained to him that the whole population of the town was only 700 and without moneyed resources, which made that amount absolutely impossible to be collected. At the same time I advised them to get every dollar they could raise and pay it. This, I believe, they proceeded to do, but the enemy coming on us before anything was completed, I was unable to receive the money, as lie had directed me to do when he moved off his command on the approach of the enemy. The latter gave us but little trouble and was easily checked.”

Ultimately, the Rebels were able to make their way back across the Potomac to rejoin Jubal Early’s force in the Shenandoah Valley. Chambersburg was the only Northern town burned by the Confederates during the War.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 37, Part 1, p354-355; Part 2, p527-528; Historical Reminiscences of the War: Or, Incidents which Transpired in and around Chambersburg During the War of the Rebellion by Jacob Hoke. []
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‘They Seemed to Be Demons from the Infernal Pit’ – Chambersburg in Ashes by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International