One of the now forgotten heroes of the Civil War was York, Pennsylvania, businessman Arthur Briggs Farquhar, largely unknown to the modern audience, but in the late 1800s was one of the most powerful men in the United States whose farm instrument and steam engine business lasted for more than 100 years. As a labor leader, he is credited as pioneering the concept of the forty-hour work week and overtime compensation rules. As a young man During the Gettysburg Campaign in June-July 1863, he twice rode into Confederate lines and negotiated with Brigadier General John B. Gordon, a prewar attorney from Georgia, about the terms under which the Rebels would occupy York. Sparing the women and children from harm was a key objective of his missions, the second of which he accompanied York’s chief burgess and other civic leaders.
It was Saturday, June 27, 1863, an overcast and relatively dry day, considering all of the rain the previous week in York County, Pennsylvania. Twenty-four-year-old A. B. Farquhar rose early that day, concerned that the oncoming Rebel forces of Major General Jubal A. Early might destroy the town of York and burn down his burgeoning steel plow and farm implement business. Maryland-born and Virginia-educated, his chivalric nature also played into this thinking, and he wanted to spare the local women and children from any possible harm. After listening to several civic leaders’ rather long-winded discussions in the counting room of businessman P. A. Small’s hardware store, he had heard enough talk. It was time for action. It was time to talk directly with the enemy.
Farquhar proposed to ride west toward Gettysburg, find the Rebel leader, and discuss his intentions. After more discussion, he left the meeting, hopped into his carriage, and rode to seek the invaders. He found them taking a rest break near Abbottstown (along today’s U.S. Route 30 at the border of Adams and York counties). Amazingly he encountered an officer he knew from school and asked him to arrange a meeting with the commanding general, who turned out to be John Gordon of Georgia.
The York businessman-turned-negotiator and the Georgia attorney-turned-Rebel general sat down and began to discuss the matter of the occupation of York. Farquhar incorrectly thought he had the upper hand, but Gordon soon ended those thoughts when he produced a detailed map with all of York;s key farms and businesses marked. One of them was Farquhar’s. Gordon then named the terms by which the town would be spared – the Union defenders must withdraw, no resistance made, the town ransomed for food and money (lots of money! $100,000 in 1863 dollars), and other requirements.
And, Gordon added, failure to comply with the terms would be fatal – he would seek out Farquhar and hang him.
The businessman whizzed through the enemy lines, dodged some bullets as he in his haste and nervousness he had forgotten to obtain a signed pass or a password, and headed east to York. Upon his arrival, he met with the town fathers and informed them of his results, which of course were not favorable except for the fact the town would be spared. The authorities asked the militia defending the town to withdraw to Wrightsville, and then sent a delegation, including Farquhar back to see General Gordon (Farquhar had acted on his own, without any official standing). The committee was empowered to act on behalf of the entire town council.
This time Farquhar found the Rebels much closer to York, as they had marched to Farmers Post Office, a village only a few miles from the town. After more discussion, the town leaders agreed to Gordon’s points and headed back to York to inform the awaiting citizenry that the Rebels would occupy the town on Sunday morning.
For A. B. Farquhar, the town’s compliance meant that indeed the women and children (and his factory, of course) would be spared any harm. It also meant he would not stretch from a hangman’s noose.
Farquhar was present when Gordon’s troops entered town the following day. Following the Battle of Gettysburg, he volunteered in the field hospitals and tended the wounded. He met with a mixed reaction when he returned to York, with several townspeople mockingly calling him a Rebel and a traitor. Shortly after Gettysburg, he visited Abraham Lincoln in Washington. Squeezing Farquhar’s hand, the president introduced him to his Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton. Lincoln teased, “Stanton, I have captured the young chap who sold York, Pennsylvania to the Rebels. What are we going to do with him?”
Indeed, it was a question that his detractors in York long debated, However, it did not haunt Farquhar or impede his career, as he became one of the region’s wealthiest and most influential citizens. He lived to a ripe old age well in the 20th century when ironically he died from injuries received when an automobile hit him as he was crossing a street.
Here is an old bio written by Samuel Crowther, one of Farquhar’s many admirers and the co-author of one of his books:
ARTHUR BRIGGS FARQUHAR, (1838-1925). Arthur Briggs Farquhar was born at Sandy Spring, Montgomery County, Maryland, September 28, 1838, the son of William Henry and Margaret Briggs Farquhar. He was educated at Hallowell’s School for Boys, Alexandria, Virginia and received an LL.D. honorary degree from Kenyon College in 1902. In 1860 he married Elizabeth, daughter of Edward Jessop of Baltimore. He managed his father’s farm for one year and then removed to York, Pennsylvania to learn the machinist’s trade, in 1856. From 1889 he was President of the A.B. Farquhar Co., Ltd., conducting the Pennsylvania Agricultural Works. He was also the owner or the York Gazette. He had large property interests and was a multimillionaire. He was President of the York Hospital, York Municipal League and York Oratorio Society. He was state commissioner from Pennsylvania (and appointed commissioner to Europe) for the World’s Columbian Exposition, 1892-93. He was elected President of the National Association of Executive Commissioners. In 1897 he was appointed as delegate from Pennsylvania to the Coast Defense Convention at Tampa, Florida. He was the Pennsylvania delegate to the First National Conservation Congress at Seattle, Washington in 1909. He served as a director of the National Conservation Association and as President of the Pennsylvania Chapter. He was a vice president and director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He served as Chairman of the Planning and Tree Commissions for York, Pennsylvania. He also served as President of the State Housing and Planning Association. In 1916 he served as a member of the American Industrial Commission to France and was appointed as a member of the Pennsylvania Defense Organization in 1917. He was an Episcopalian and resided in York, Pennsylvania. He died March 5, 1925.