In early September 1862, thousands of residents of the border counties of south-central Pennsylvania packed up their valuables, gathered their horses and livestock, and trekked north or east toward the Susquehanna River crossings. Many of the travelers passed through downtown York (above) eastward toward Wrightsville. Traffic jams in places stretched for more than a mile, with wagons, carts, carriages, buggies, and all sorts of conveyances. The owners of the toll bridges and ferries made a tidy windfall profit as the sudden onslaught of refugees lined up in the queue for their turn to enter Lancaster County or Harrisburg.
Within a few days, the refugees lined up again for the return trip, fishing into pockets and purses for the required tolls. It had been an expensive journey. And, all for naught, at least this time.
The reason for this mass exodus?
Rumors of a major Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania. Fears that the Rebels might steal horses and livestock, and loot the properties. Some worried about being injured or even killed, while others suggested the Rebels might burn their farms and towns.
Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, fresh off victories at Second Manassas and Ox Hill (Chantilly) had suddenly marched north, crossed the Potomac River into Maryland, and appeared to be heading for Pennsylvania. The Union Army of the Potomac, moving with unusual celerity, managed to stop the Rebels at the Battle of Antietam near Sharpsburg, Maryland.
Other than a cavalry raid the following month by J.EB. Stuart, no significant bodies of Rebels appeared on Pennsylvania roads. The terrified populace slowly settled down, and life returned to normalcy.
But, the memories of the hasty exit lingered, and in late June 1863, some folks decided to stay put when more rumors came of a fresh invasion. This time, the sky really was falling.
When news came to Washington, D.C. in early September 1862 that Robert E. Lee was taking his army toward the Potomac River, with an apparent aim of invading Pennsylvania, President Abraham Lincoln called for 300,000 volunteers to enlist in military units to resist the invasion. Initially, the though was that these men would serve for nine months. In Pennsylvania, Republican Governor Andrew Curtin raised enough men (14,000) to fill sixteen full regiments of infantry, which the army designated as the 122nd through the 138th Pennsylvania. In addition, efforts began to raise additional men just to serve in the state militia for the duration of the emergency. The latter was in accordance with state law under the Militia Act of 1858.
According to Prowell’s History of York County, on the evening of September 6 York borough officials called a meeting at the courthouse on Market Street to organize militia companies in response to Curtin’s proclamation. Elderly attorney John Evans presided at the meeting, assisted by vice-presidents Judge Robert J. Fisher and businessman Philip A. Small. George W. Ruby and Michael Schall served as secretaries for the meeting. After some discussion, the attendees decided to send a special committee, composed of David Small, William H. Welsh, Horace Bonham, A. J. Frey, E. G. Smyser, and Joseph Smyser, to travel up to Harrisburg to secure arms and equipment.
The committee members took the train from York to Harrisburg and met with state officials. On the night of September 8, they reported their results to those local York leaders who had again assembled at the courthouse. Unfortunately, the state would not furnish any arms unless able-bodied men in the boroughs and townships had already organized themselves into military companies and were drilling and learning martial discipline. Otherwise, no weapons.
York, however was prepared. Borough and county officials had been hard at work raising the required militia companies. The local newspapers had printed the following announcement:
To Repel Invasion! The citizens of the several townships are required to assemble at suitable places within their limits and organize military companies under the act of 1858 to aid each other in repelling invasion of their county. Such organizations to consist of the enrollment of forty men, rank and file, and the election of a captain, and first and second lieutenants to enable the companies to procure arms. By order of the public meeting.
At the September 8 meeting, the deputy marshal reported that 1,908 men had enrolled so far from York, of which 698 were now in the Home Guards. The rest were already on active duty in the army, but counted toward the tally. It was noted that from beginning of the war until September, the county’s requisition was four thousand men, and nearly half had already entered the army. It was a strong turnout, especially for a county which had not necessarily endorsed President Lincoln’s policies nor had voted for him in the 1860 election.
Moreover, within the borough, response to the call for militia had been praiseworthy.
Each of the borough’s wards had already raised troops. In the First Ward, Capt. William H. Albright had organized a company of 65 men. In the Second Ward, Capt. George A. Heckert commanded a company of 75 men. The Third Ward had responded with 57 men with Dr. Jacob Hay as the newly elected captain.
The Fourth Ward outdid them all, raising two full companies of Home Guards. Captain John Hays led 75 men and Capt. D. W. Barnitz commanded an additional 70 men.
The Fifth Ward, representing the area of York west of Codorus Creek, also had raised 75 men, under prominent businessman Jacob Wiest. And, Capt. John Gibson led an independent company of citizens raised from all five boroughs.
Dr. Charles M. Nes, son of a former U.S. congressman, organized a cavalry company with its headquarters in downtown York. Efforts continued in the countryside, and Conewago Township reported a company of 45 men, with T. Quickel as captain, J. B. Bear as first lieutenant, and John Hollebush as second lieutenant.
The report would be sent to Harrisburg, and arms and equipment would be formally requested.
It appeared that war was indeed coming to York County.