Reports circulated in York County the first week of September 1862 that General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was moving northward toward the Potomac River. It appeared certain that they would invade south-central Pennsylvania within a few days.
The alarming news caused great excitement throughout the counties along the Maryland border, and soon great crowds of refugees were on the roads to Chambersburg, Gettysburg, Littlestown, and Hanover. Many would head east on what is today U.S. Route 30 through York, hoping to reach safety across the Susquehanna River in Lancaster County. Many residents of York County and the borough of York soon joined the exodus, taking their horses, personal property, and valuables across the long toll bridge between Wrightsville and Columbia.
Talk of the impending invasion dominated the newspapers, as well as in conversations in the marketplaces and other businesses and in parlors and front porches through the region.
Would the Rebels come?
On Sunday afternoon, September 7, 300 sick and wounded soldiers arrived in York via the railroad. They had been evacuated from the U.S. Army Hospital in Frederick, Maryland, as the Rebels approached that town. They had marched or ridden in conveyances from Frederick to Gettysburg, where they boarded the cars of the Gettysburg Railroad. At Hanover Junction, they had headed north to York on the Northern Central Railway. About 125 of the patients were quartered in the York County Hospital, 100 in the International Order of Odd Fellows’ Hall on S. George Street, and the rest in the U.S. Army Hospital on Penn Common.
When confirmation came that Lee’s army indeed had crossed the Potomac and now was marching toward Frederick, Maryland, the excitement among the Pennsylvania populace only increased. In Hanover, the local railroad (the Hanover Branch RR), concerned about possible mischief or sabotage, ordered all of its employees to take the Oath of Allegiance to the Federal government, the unusual step of a long-time employer not fully trusting their own workers. A few days earlier, recruiters raised a company of 100 local residents and area farmers, which enrolled in the army as Company C, 130th Pennsylvania. They were headed to the front lines.
The Hanover Spectator of September 12 reported that, “The anxiety for war news in this borough during the past week has been without a parallel. Crowds of people collected in the streets and in the workshops. The invasion of Maryland was on every tongue. The meagre accounts of the newspapers only sharpened the appetites for more news. On Sunday the excitement reached its culmination. What before were nothing more than vague rumors assumed a condition of stern reality. A crisis was upon us. From early dawn, refugees from Frederick and Carroll Counties, Maryland, came pouring into town, some on horseback, others in carriages and wagons, each and all declaring that the enemy had crossed the Potomac and that ‘Stonewall’ Jackson was in Frederick. Upon every fresh arrival, crowds collected around the carriages and wagons to hear the stories that each newcomer would relate.”
The following day, September 13, was one of intense excitement in downtown York. A small squad of Union cavalry scouts rode into York escorting three alleged Confederate spies who they had captured near Abbottstown. These spies would eventually be sent south on the Northern Central to Baltimore and incarcerated in the Federal prison at Fort McHenry.
That night, York officials convened another public meeting, this one in the Laurel Fire Company’s engine house. Among those known to have been present were the town’s chief burgess, David Small, as well as Judge Robert J. Fisher and attorney John Evans. Other attendees included businessmen Latimer Small, Thomas White, Peter McIntyre, and Daniel Kraber. This group constituted a “Committee of Observation and Safety” for York.
Similar groups formed in other nearby towns as well. They debated how best to defend their respective areas in case the Rebels made an appearance. At times these discussions were heated, with some folks arguing for a strong defense and others preferring to negotiate or what would today be terms as “passive resistance.”
In any event, no one quite knew for certain what Robert E. Lee intended to do, or his ultimate destination. Some speculated he would take his entire army up to Harrisburg; others believed it would be a less significant event, that Lee would only send his cavalry into Pennsylvania to forage for supplies.
Time would tell.
For now, as the second week of September came and went, speculation and uncertainly reigned, and the rumor mill generated plenty of wild tales.