In the summer of 1863, Franklin County PA was the advance and the retreat of the Battle of Gettysburg. Confederate General Robert E. Lee and more than 65,000 men camped in and around Chambersburg. Until the Battle of Gettysburg, the tide of Civil War ebbed and flowed between the North and South. But, with the losses of the Battle of Gettysburg, the chances of Southern victory, it is often seen as the turning point of the American Civil War. But, the Civil War connection does not begin and end here. Chambersburg, PA saw far more destruction in the summer of 1864.
General “Tiger” John McCausland, under orders from General Jubal Early, ransomed Chambersburg for $500,000 in U.S. currency or a $100,000 in gold on July 30, 1864. Unable to raise the money, the town was fired. Confederates ordered the burning as retribution for Union destruction by Union General David Hunter in Virginia.
As the call “remember Chambersburg” echoed throughout the North, the Franklin Repository of August 24, 1864 reported that half of the town’s people were homeless and many more penniless and helpless. Nearly 600 citizens filed claims asking the federal government to repay them for the damage.
Learn more about the Burning of Chambersburg here.
In 1864, Chambersburg’s population was about 5,500. It was a town settled by hard-working Scots-Irish and German immigrants. As is true today, Chambersburg was well-located and, therefore, a transportation hub. Goods and people moved on the roads to Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh. The Cumberland Valley Railroad was well-established in the community. The town offered large hotels and taverns to lodge travelers, general stores along its main streets, someone to repair wagons and shoe horses. Chambersburg had barbers, seamstresses, hatmakers, tool-makers, and carriage builders. Industry was located along the Conococheague Creek and included paper mills and metal fabricators. It was a thriving community, which grew steadily from its founding in the mid-1730s.
The bombardment of Fort Sumter propelled the country to a state of war. Men of Chambersburg and Franklin County enlisted to support Abraham Lincoln’s call for troops, and by 1861 Chambersburg became a military town where Union troops trained. Both supplies and troops were loaded onto the cars of the Cumberland Valley Railroad, and war hovered around the doorsteps of Franklin County communities.
In 1862, Chambersburg had its first Confederate raid when General J.E.B. Stuart took horses, food, and other supplies, burning the railroad shops and cutting the telegraph wires on a hasty foray across the Mason Dixon Line and into Franklin County. In the summer of 1863, Chambersburg experienced a more intense and lasting incursion as Robert E. Lee headquartered in Chambersburg and set up camp with 75,000 Confederate soldiers in and around the county seat before moving east towards Gettysburg to engage the Union troops.
Each time Confederates entered Chambersburg, the stakes increased, but on July 30, 1864, no one envisioned such a vast and definitive impact the coming hours would have in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.