The story of the Burning of Chambersburg
On July 30, 1864, residents of Chambersburg ran from their burning homes, many of them literally running for their lives with only the clothes on their back. A newspaper account said, “The aged and the decrepit, helpless women and children alike with the young and strong, were ruthlessly expelled from their homes, with barely clothing enough to screen their persons.”
Chambersburg was burned by Brig. Gen. John McCausland on the orders of Jubal Early, in retaliation for burnings in Virginia. That dark day gave Chambersburg the distinction of being the only town north of the Mason-Dixon Line to be burned by Confederate soldiers during the Civil War.
According to a newspaper account at the time, about 400 Rebel troops rode into town at about 6 a.m. and demanded a ransom. Other Confederate soldiers remained on the outskirts of town. McCausland ordered residents to pay $500,000 in currency or $100,000 in gold to save the town. Some townspeople did not believe the town would be burned. The Confederates, however, knew that Union troops were advancing from the south and that they had no time for bargaining. The order to burn the town was issued shortly before 11 a.m., over the objections of some Confederate soldiers.
American Heritage magazine, in an account of the burning, reported that a Confederate captain said: “It was impossible at first to convince the people, the females particularly that their fair city would (be) burnt; even when the torch was applied, they seemed dazed. Terror was depicted in every face, women, refined ladies and girls running through the streets wild with fright seeking some place of safety.”
Most fled as fast as they could with as many belongings as they could carry to the cemetery and fields around the town, where they sat and stared in shock – or cried – as they viewed the smoke bellowing from their homes. Others were defiant: One elderly woman gave a soldier a thrashing with a broom. Another woman extinguished the fire in her home three times before a Confederate soldier put a pistol to her head and held it there while the fire spread to the point where the home could not be saved.
In return for promises of amnesty, a few people paid small ransoms; in some cases the promises were kept, in some cases the houses were burned anyway. However, more than two-thirds of the buildings were torched.
The Confederates left Chambersburg by 1 p.m. The devastation they left behind was immense. More than 2,000 people were left homeless as the core of the town was leveled. Gone were about 275 homes and businesses and an equal number of barns and stables, an estimated $3 million in losses.
People from outside the town rallied to help Chambersburg’s 5,000 residents, much like they do after the natural disasters of today. They offered food and shelter — and their prayers. The Cumberland Valley Railroad offered free rail service to Chambersburg residents so that they could get to the homes of relatives and friends who lived elsewhere. Despite the overwhelming destruction, the town returned to normalcy quicker than many expected. By 1866, the courthouse, homes and businesses were rebuilt, with three story buildings replacing the smaller buildings that existed before the war.
Brick by brick, the town rose again to be stronger and more beautiful, with a fountain dedicated in the center of town on July 20, 1878, to commemorate the county residents who fought in the Civil War. A two-hour parade marked the occasion, and an estimated 15,000 people attended the dedication. The picturesque fountain still stands today, and it is one of the enduring images of Chambersburg. A festival each July, called ChambersFest, celebrates the rebirth of the town and the spirit of its people.
The Chambersburg Heritage Center at 100 Lincoln Way East sells a book on the burning of Chambersburg, written by Ted Alexander, History and Tour Guide of, “The Burning of Chambersburg and McCausland’s Raid”
. Also, available at the Heritage Center, a DVD, “The Burning of Chambersburg,” that tells the dramatic story of that dark day, through the eyes of Alexander McClure, the local newspaper editor who was an early supporter of Abraham Lincoln. PBS filmed the story on the 125th anniversary of the burning in 1989, and the production today is an insightful look back in time – to the day that changed Chambersburg forever.