Saturday, July 30, 1864: “Morning has Broken” over the ladies of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania


2nd Lieutenant
Aug 6, 2016

(Public Domain)

The sleepy inhabitants of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania are waking up to the sounds of artillery. Four blasts are heard, two striking in the town; two flying over the town. When they finally rouse themselves out of their comfortable beds and look out the window they see:

“A rebel party supposed to number perhaps four hundred costumed in the full feather of rag-tag-and-bobtail, and with face and manners suggestive of dark-lanterns, chains, and blood - accompanied by General McCausland and Major Harry Gilmore.” {2}

For the residents this is not the first time they have seen the appearance of the Confederate Army in their town. Confederate General Stuart had visited the town during his raid of October 10–12, 1862 and Rachel Bowman Cormany, a local resident staying with her in-laws while her husband is fighting for the Union Army, had written about their visit in July of 1863 as she witnessed the arrival and retreat of the Rebel army. Just a little over a year ago she wrote of their retreat on July 6, 1863:

“Just at dusk they went out the Greencastle road enroute to capture the wagon train which is trying to get over the river again. It is frightful how those poor wounded rebels are left to suffer. They are taken in large 4 horse wagons--wounds undressed--nothing to eat. Some are only about 4 miles from town & those that are here are as dirty and lousy as they well can be. The condition of those poor rebels all along from Gettysburg to as far as they have come yet is reported dreadful. I am told they just beg the people along the road to help them--many have died by the way.” {3}

But there is something different about today. Most residents don’t realize as they are climbing out of bed to begin this day; for many there will be no bed or house to retire in by evening.​


The Confederates entered Chambersburg in small parties. They came down Main Street, alleys and side streets. The residents had no idea how many were there. There was no sign of the Mayor so General McCausland gave his ransom demand (detailed above) to J.E. Douglas, Esq., and the bell at the Court House sounded for a town meeting to act upon their requests.

“Be it recorded to the everlasting credit of the citizens of Chambersburg, their voice was against the measure preferring to esteem the desolation, of their borough as a “present light affliction,” rather than to render the tribute of a finite to the thieving horde representing “the so-called Southern Confederacy.” {2}

The Fair Grounds was the home of six pieces of artillery and soon the civilians realized the Rebels were serious in their demands. The residents of Chambersburg knew General William Woods Averell was somewhere between Chambersburg and Greencastle (some ten to twelve miles away) and delayed responding to the Rebel demands in hopes help would arrive. It didn’t.

What the Chambersburg resident didn’t know? General Averell heard the guns when McCausland first fired on the town and when Averell and his troops headed toward the town, they ran into their scouts reporting they saw the Confederates heading away from Chambersburg. Averell feared they were advancing toward Baltimore and made a fateful decision in following a “small enemy patrol”. By 10:30 am, General McCausland had grown tired a waiting and ordered the town to be burned. The town of Chambersburg had no capability of paying the ransom; the request of $500,000 in Yankee currency is approximately $16 million in today's dollars {*}.​

Rachel Cormany describes what happens next


The Burning of Chambersburg
(LOC - No Known Copyright)

The town, as most town were filled with mostly old men, women and children. The majority of the men were off fighting the war. As described by a soldier’s wife:

“They gave no time for people to get any thing out. . . Each had to escape for life & took only what they could first grab. - Some saved considerable. - Others only the clothes on their backs & even some of those were taken off as they escaped from their burning dwellings.” {5}


(LOC - No Known Copyright)

Because the enemy had come in small groups, the burning seemed instantaneous and rapid. It took two barrels of oil and some straw to light up the courthouse. Fortunately the hostages that were being held in the building were able to escape before it became engulfed. It was estimated that nine-tenths of the people lost their entire wardrobes and many of the residents were attired in their nightclothes.

In a neighboring county, Eliza R. Stouffer retold the story given to her from a friend who was there;

“Many [victims] had only 10 to 15 minutes time given them to leave their houses, and they forbid many, to take anything out some saved a few clothes, others none at all, but what they had on their backs, some had their clothing & money packed up, and were not allowed to take them out, but some soldiers were more merciful, & helped the women to carry out things some appeared to be very much affected that they had come to this, one in particular I was told of, that shed tears & would not help to burn.

They took him & handcuffed him.” {5}

There was the heroic story told of David Brand and his sister Louisa. As the Confederates began setting fires in their town, he managed to take the flag that had been flying on the town square. When the rebels came to burn down the Brand home, sister Louisa stepped up wrapped in the flag, waving a pistol and daring the soldiers to set fire to her home. Fortunately for her - the soldiers backed down.​


(LOC - No Known Copyright)

It was also reported that the Confederates eventually found the town’s liquor and managed to indulge. In their alcoholic state:

“The war whoop of the savage never exceeded the yell of the rebel. Taunting vociferations ‘Where’s Gen. Hunter?’ ‘Remember Fredericksburg,’’This is Old Virginny for you’. ‘How are you Kilpatrick?’ . . . were the suggestive words that accompanied the mad music of crackling flames and crashing walls” {2}
The chaos managed to send the residents​

“Hither and thither, in the wildest excitement rushed parents and children, young men and maidens, the aged and infirm, all reduced to a common terror,-leaving their happy homes a prey to the devouring element-and fleeing for their lives to the by-streets and open fields and groves in the suburbs. Nothing was saved from the relentless element; no time was given to rescue clothing, furniture or valuables; no place was exempt even had this been done.- There was no aisle of safety amid this sea of fire, for the houses were set aflame from every direction. North, South, East, West, from every quarter the hissing and serpent-tongued element was coiling around the homes that at daybreak were quiet and beautiful.” {2}


Rachel Cormany had written in her diary on July 26, 1864​

“All has been quiet for a few weeks about the rebels coming - last evening the excitement broke out again & all night farmers were going North with horses, etc. A thousand rumors are afloat. If the rebels intend coming I wish they would hurry so the fuss would be over once”

On August 6, she writes


The Burned out Courthouse
(LOC Photo)

“In most of the cases where the buildings were left money was paid. They were here too but we talked them out of it. We told them were windows & that saved us here. About 3000 were made homeless in less than three hours. This whole week has been one of great excitement.

We live in constant dread. I never spent such days as these few last I never spent - I feel as if I could not stay in this country longer.
[Rachel Bowman was born in Canada] I feel quite sick of the dread & excitement.” {7}


By the time the Confederates left 550 buildings were destroyed, including 278 homes and businesses (the remaining structures were barns and outbuildings). More than 2,000 people were left homeless and real estate damages totaled over $783,000.14.

In a letter home one Virginia soldier wrote

“City fired about noon. Saddest spectacle I ever witnessed to see the women and children. This inaugurates a terrible system of retaliation, devastation and rapine.” [he later wrote] “I presume for the present the raid is over and if God will forgive me for this I shall try and keep out of all future raids under the same officers. ‘Tis the first and I hope it will be the last time I shall have to blush for CS soldiers’.” {5}

and then there was this reaction from a Confederate prisoner of war in an Ohio prison when he heard the news of the burning at Chambersburg:

“Never was there before as arrant a nation of hypocrites and cowards as these North men—crying out against vandalism while they are themselves the chief vandals of the age, and boldest always when they have to wage war against unarmed citizens and defenseless women and children.” {5}
This would not be the last time the armies target “women and children”. In less than four months, Union General Sherman would cut a path of destruction across Georgia in hopes of bringing an end to the war. More hearts would break; more women would suffer; more anger would build before it would all come to its conclusion. Interestingly on June 27, 1863, General Sherman wrote his wife while he awaited the final victory at Vicksburg.​


General Sherman’s March to the Sea
(Public Domain)

In the next installment the ladies of Georgia try to
thwart the Union Army as they blaze their path to the sea.

* * * * *

4. Trials and Triumphs: The Women of the American Civil War by Marilyn Mayer Culpepper
6. Link - Louisa Brand
7. “The Cormany Diaries” by James C. Mohr