More than 11,000 Confederate soldiers invaded York County, Pennsylvania, during the Gettysburg Campaign. Few left written records of their time in the county; less than a hundred primary accounts are known to exist.
Among the visitors to York County was a young trooper in the 2nd Virginia Cavalry, Rufus H. Peck. Born in 1838 in Fincastle in Botetourt County, Virginia, he was the oldest of six children of WIlliam and Lumina Peck. In 1859, he enrolled in a local militia company known as the “Botetourt Dragoons.” Less than two years later, with the outbreak of the Civil War, his company rode away from their hometown on May 17, 1861, to protect the Old Dominion from the hated Yankees. He recalled, “We marched off gaily… following the flag presented to us by the Botetourt ladies and carried by Wm. McCue… We were cheered on our way by the waving of kerchiefs and throwing of bouquets as we passed on, following the blue ridge road… Our next stop was at Liberty, now called Bedford City. Here the kind people of the town took us into their homes and entertained and accommodated us for the night. We were welcomed into every home and invited to stop with them again if we should pass that way.”
Little did Peck and his jubilant comrades know that the war would last four years, and several of them would never come home.
By the summer campaign, Peck and the 2nd Virginia had seen more than their fair share of combat as part of Fitzhugh Lee’s brigade of the cavalry under Major General J.E.B. Stuart. Lee’s Brigade rode through Westminster, Maryland, and arrived in southern York County on June 30, 1863, where they participated in the Battle of Hanover before riding to Dover that evening. The next day, Peck rode northwesterly to Dillsburg before his regiment took part in Stuart’s brief fight at Carlisle on the night of July 1.
Here is Private Peck’s short account of his war-time visit to York County, Pennsylvania…
“When Gen. Hooker learned that Lee was going on toward Maryland, he took his men and tried to get in front of him, which he did. Eight packet boats had been sent up with provisions for Hooker’s army, and when they came into the locks not knowing we were there, we turned the wickets and let the water out and burned the boats. We had been marching four days without any provisions at all so we took what we could in our haversacks, before burning the boats. We took the mules, 24 in number, on with us. We helped the woman and children from the boats and took their furniture out as we didn’t want to destroy private property. It was hard to do then, with them all crying like they did, but such is war.
In a short distance from where we crossed the river, we came on a garrison of yankees at a place called West Minster and captured them all without the loss of a man We so completely surprised them that they surrendered without resistance. We went on to Hanover to capture a garrison there, but they learned of our coming and resisted us with right heavy loss to both sides. One of our young men, Walter Gilmore, was shot in the shoulder, as he was riding between Chas. Price and myself, as we were trying to get him to the rear, he was shot in the left eye, but we finally got to a house and asked the lady of the house to take care of him, while we went on and took the garrison. I never knew anything more of young Gilmore until the summer of 1911. I met him at New Port News at a reunion. He told me he was sent to a hospital in Baltimore by the Yankees and received the kindest of treatment and the best of medical aid and soon recovered.
We took our West Minster and Hanover prisoners on with us and our next stop was at Carlisle, Penn. All the provisions we had on this march, except what some of us got from the boats, was what we could beg from the citizens. Some of us nearly starved. Here we destroyed some of the public buildings in which food for the Yankees was stored. We threw hot shot a mile or so and wherever these hot bails would strike, they would set fire. Some of our men who were marching ahead of our Co. had set fire to Thad Stevens’ Iron Works in Penn. and as we passed and saw it burning I told the boys that was a bad move, that the Yankees would soon retaliate and do us more damage than we could do them, as so much of the fighting was done on southern ground. We did this shelling with hot shot at night and continued marching all night. We still marched all the next day, stopping occasionally for a little while to let our horses graze. About noon we heard cannonading about Gettysburg.”
Peck, Rufus H., Reminiscences of a Confederate soldier of Co. C, 2nd Va. Cavalry, (Fincastle, Virginia: np, 1913).
R. H. Peck survived the war and lived well into the 20th century. However, the thunderous roar of battle left him partially deaf; “I never yet heard out of my left ear as I did before.” He married his sweetheart Virginia after the war, farmed the land, and raised a family of two girls and a boy. He died in the 1920s and was buried in Fincastle.
[Editor’s note: Thaddeus Stevens’ ironworks was west of Gettysburg along the Chambersburg Pike near today’s Caledonia State Forest. The 17th Virginia Cavalry burned many of the buildings several days before the 2nd Virginia Cavalry entered Pennsylvania southwest of Hanover. As the route of the 2nd was nearly thirty miles east of the torched ironworks, Peck’s recollections are incorrect. He and his colleagues could not have seen Stevens’ smoldering ruins until after the Battle of Gettysburg during the retreat. He may also have mistaken Stevens’ ironworks for one of the complexes burned in Carlisle that night, perhaps the gas works?]