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A Memoir of the Last Year of the War for Independence in the Confederate States of America/Expedition into Maryland and Pennsylvania-Burning of Chambersburg

< A Memoir of the Last Year of the War for Independence in the Confederate States of America



On the 29th we moved to Martinsburg, the cavalry going to the Potomac. The 27th and 28th were employed in destroying the railroad, it having been repaired since we passed over it at the beginning of the month. While at Martinsburg, it was ascertained, beyond all doubt, that Hunter had been again indulging in his favourite mode of warfare, and that, after his return to the Valley, while we were near Washington, among other outrages, the private residences of Mr. Andrew Hunter, a member of the Virginia Senate, Mr. Alexander R. Boteler, an ex-member of the Confederate Congress, as well as of the United States Congress, and Edmund I. Lee, a distant relative of General Lee, all in Jefferson County, with their contents, had been burned by his orders, only time enough being given for the ladies to get out of the houses. A number of towns in the South, as well as private country houses, had been burned by the Federal troops, and the accounts had been heralded forth in some of the Northern papers in terms of exultation, and gloated over by their readers, while they were received with apathy by others. I now came to the conclusion that we had stood this mode of warfare long enough, and that it was time to open the eyes of the people of the North to its enormity, by an example in the way of retaliation. I did not select the cases mentioned, as having more merit or greater claims for retaliation than others, but because they had occurred within the limits of the country covered by my command, and were brought more immediately to my attention. [1]

The town of Chambersburg in Pennsylvania was selected as the one on which retaliation should be made, and McCausland was ordered to proceed with his brigade and that of Johnson and a battery of artillery to that place, and demand of the municipal authorities the sum of 100,000 in gold, or $500,000 in United States currency, as a compensation for the destruction of the houses named and their contents; and, in default of payment, to lay the town in ashes, in retaliation for the burning of those houses and others in Virginia, as well as for the towns which had been burned in other Southern mates. A written demand to that effect was sent to the municipal authorities, and they were informed what would be the result of a failure or refusal to comply with it. I desired to give the people of Chambersburg an opportunity of saving their town, by making compensation for part of the injury done, and hoped that the payment of such a sum would have the desired effect, and open the eyes of the people of other towns at the North, to the necessity of urging upon their government the adoption of a different policy. McCausland was also directed to proceed from Chambersburg towards Cumberland in Maryland, and levy contributions in money upon that and other towns able to bear them, and if possible destroy the machinery at the coal pits near Cumberland, and the machine shops, depots, and bridges on the Baltimore and Ohio railroad as far as practicable.

On the 29th, McCausland crossed the Potomac near Clear Spring, above Williamsport, and I moved with Rodes' and Ramseur's divisions and Vanghan's cavalry to the latter place, while Imboden demonstrated with his and Jackson's cavalry towards Harper's Ferry, in order to withdraw attention from McCausland. Breckenridge remained at Martinsburg and continued the destruction of the railroad. Vaughan drove a force of cavalry from Williamsport, and went into Hagerstown, where he capered and destroyed a train of cars loaded with supplies. One of Rodes' brigades was crossed over at Williamsport and subsequently withdrawn. On the 30th, McCausland being well under way, 1 moved back to Martinsburg, and on the 31st the whole infantry force was moved to Bunker Hill, where we remained on the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd of August.

On the 4th, in order to enable McCausland to retire from Pennsylvania and Maryland, and to keep Hunter, who had been reinforced by the 6th and 19th Corps, and had been oscillating between Harper's Ferry and Monocacy Junction, in a state of uncertainty, I again moved to the Potomac with the infantry and Vaughan's and Jackson's cavalry, while Imboden demonstrated towards Harper's Ferry. On the 5th Bodes' and Ramseur's divisions crossed at Williamsport and took position near St. James' College, and Vaughan's cavalry went into Hagerstown. Breckenridge, with his command, and Jackson's cavalry, crossed at Shepherdstown, and took position at Sharpsburg. This position is in full view from Maryland Heights, and a cavalry force was sent out by the enemy to reconnoitre, which, after skirmishing with Jackson's cavalry, was driven off by the sharpshooters of Gordon's division. On the 6th, the whole force recrossed the Potomac at Williamsport, and moved towards Martinsburg; and on the 7th we returned to Bunker Hill.[2]

On the 30th of July McCausland reached Charnbersburg, and made the demand as directed, reading to such of the authorities as presented themselves the paper sent by me. The demand was not complied with, the people stating that they were not afraid of having their town burned, and that a Federal force was approaching. The policy pursued by our army on former occasions had been so lenient, that they did not suppose the threat was in earnest this time, and they hoped for speedy relief. McCausland, however, proceeded to carry out his orders, and the greater part of the town was laid in ashes.[3] He then moved in the direction of Cumberland, but, on approaching that town, he found it defended by a force under Kelly too strong for him to attack, and he withdrew towards Hampshire County in Virginia, and crossed the Potomac near the mouth of the South Branch, capturing the garrison at that place and partially destroying the railroad bridge. He then invested the post on the railroad at New Creek, but finding it too strongly fortified to take by assault, he moved to Moorefield in Hardy County, near which place he halted to rest and recruit his men and horses, as the command was now considered safe from pursuit. Averill, however, had been pursuing from Chambersburg with a body of cavalry, and Johnson's brigade was surprised in camp, before day, on the morning of the 7th of August, and routed by Averil's force. This resulted also in the rout of McCausland's brigade, and the loss of the artillery (4 pieces) and about 300 prisoners from the whole command. The balance of the command made its way to Mount Jackson in great disorder, and much weakened. This affair had a very damaging effect upon my cavalry for the rest of the campaign.[4]

  1. I had often seen delicate ladies, who had been plundered, insulted and rendered desolate by the acts of our most atrocious enemies, and while they did not call for it, yet in the anguished expressions of their features while narrating their misfortunes, there was a mute appeal to every manly sentiment of my bosom for retribution which I could no longer withstand. On my passage through the lower Valley into Maryland, a lady had said to me, with tears in her eyes, "Our lot is a hard one and we see no peace; but there are a few green spots in our lives, and they are, when the Confederate soldiers come along and we can do something for them." May God defend and bless those noble women of the Valley, who so often ministered to the wounded, sick and dying Confederate soldiers, and gave their last morsel of bread to the hungry! They bore with heroic courage the privations, sufferings, persecutions and dangers, to which the war which was constantly waged in their midst exposed them, and upon no portion of the Southern people did the disasters which finally befell our army and country, fall with more crushing effect than upon them.
  2. While at Sharpsburg on this occasion, I rode over the ground on which the battle of Sharpsburg, or Antietam as it is called by the enemy, was fought, and I was surprised to see how few traces remained of that great battle. In the woods at the famous Dunkard or Tanker Church, where, from personal observation at the battle, I expected to find the trees terribly broken and shattered, a stranger would find difficulty in identifying the marks of the bullets and shells.

    I will take occasion here to say that the public, North or South, has never known how small was the force with which General Lee fought that battle. McClellan's estimate is very wide of the mark. From personal observation and conversation with other officers engaged, including Gen. Lee himself, I am satisfied that the latter was not able to carry 30,000 men into action. The exhaustion of our men in the battles around Richmond, the subsequent battles near Manassas, and on the march to Maryland, when they were for days without anything to eat except green corn, was so great that the straggling was frightful before we crossed the Potomac. As an instance of our weakness, and a reminiscence worthy of being recorded, which was brought very forcibly to my mind while riding over the ground, I will state the following facts: In the early part of the day, all of Gen. Jackson's troops on the field except my brigade (A. P. Hill had not then arrived from Harper's Ferry) were driven from the field in great disorder, and Hood had taken their place with his division. My brigade, which was on the extreme left supporting some artillery with which Stuart was operating, and had not been engaged, was sent for by General Jackson and posted in the left of the woods at the Dunkard Church. Hood was also forced back, and then the enemy advanced to this woods—Sumner's Corps, which was fresh, advancing on our left flank. My brigade, then numbering about 1000 men for duty, with two or three hundred men of Jackson's own division, who had been rallied by Colonels Grigsby and Stafford, and when there was an interval of at least one halt a mile between us and any other part of our line, held Sumner's corps in check for some time, until Green's division of Mansfield's Corps penetrated into the interval in the woods between us and the rest of our line, when I was compelled to move by the flank and attack it. That division was driven out of the woods by my brigade, while Grigsby and Stafford skirmished with Sumner's advancing force, when we turned on it, and, with the aid of three brigades to wit:—Anderson's, Semmes', and Barksdale's—which had just arrived to our assistance, drove it from the woods in great confusion and with heavy loss. So great was the disparity in the forces at this point that the wounded officers who were captured were greatly mortified, and commenced making excuses by stating that the troops in their front were raw troops, who stampeded and produced confusion in their ranks. McClellan, in his report, says that Sumner's corps and Green's division encountered, in this woods, "overwhelming numbers behind breastworks," and he assigns the heavy losses and consequent demoralization in Sumner's Corps as one of the reasons for not renewing the fight on the 18th. We had no breastworks nor anything like them in the woods on the 17th, and, on our part, it was a stand-up fight there altogether. The slight breastworks subsequently seen by McClellan were made on the 18th, when we were expecting a renewal of the battle.

  3. For this act I, alone, am responsible, as the officers engaged in it were simply my orders, and had no discretion left thorn. Notwithstanding the lapse of time which has occurred, and the result of the war, I am perfectly satisfied with my conduct on this occasion, and see no reason to regret it.
  4. Grant says, in reference to this expedition under McCausland: "They were met and defeated by General Kelly; and, with diminished numbers, escaped into the mountains of West Virginia;" and he makes no allusion whatever to Averill's affair. There was no defeat by Kelly, but there was one by Averill, as I have stated. This shows how loose Grant is to his facts. So far as we were concerned, the defeat by Averill was worse than it could have been by Kelly.