Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Union Veterans Recall the Burning of Chambersburg

Because the war unfolded almost entirely on southern soil, nearly all incidences of the destruction of civilian property took place in the Confederacy. Former Confederates possessed a wealth of evidence from which to recount stories of looting, destruction, and the general abuse of civilians. But they did not hold a monopoly on stories of "uncivilized" warfare.

The burning of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania on July 30, 1864 reminded loyal citizens of the United States that Confederate civilians were perhaps not the only victims of war they so often claimed to be. When citizens of Chambersburg could not, or would not, pay a hefty ransom demanded by Confederate general Jubal A. Early, the cantankerous Rebel ordered the town fired. Union veterans described the violent scene. Confederates kicked in doors, stole private property, and threatened the townspeople with weapons. Many claimed that Rebels executed their orders with glee, destroying the town while in a drunken state of rage. In June 1905, one GAR veteran described the aftermath of the Rebel invasion.

He [his commander] got there the next morning in time to see the results of that cowardly and uncalled for burning of the homes of women and children. He saw, as did all who where there, the horrors of that terrible scene. Oh, it was something to be remembered as long as life lasts. That little town, beautiful, as you know, was laid in ashes; the people there without homes wandering in the streets, the dead unburied, the sick lying on the sidewalk. It reminded me then and does now as I look upon it, like a terrible dream.

This incident certainly incensed Union soldiers. Later in the nineteenth century, veterans would note the Rebel atrocities as the spark that ignited the final push against Confederate forces in the Valley. “The boys in blue,” suggested one Union veteran in 1881, “frenzied by the sight of homeless, weeping women and children, again charged upon the foe, never allowing them to stop for a moment.”

In the hands of former Federal soldiers, the Chambersburg story grew in intensity by the twentieth century. While no where near as angering as the Andersonville and other prison stories, Chambersburg nevertheless numbered among the many “rebel atrocities,” “increasing acts of barbarity,” and “deliberate acts of vandalism” perpetrated by their former foe. Veterans acknowledged that during the war the incident caused a “considerable civilian panic” and “attracted the anxious attention of the whole country.” Most remained aggravated by the “destruction…caused by a public enemy,” and recalled the acts of “insolence, theft, and violence” alongside the Union battle cry: “Remember Chambersburg!”

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