More than 4,000 people had crammed into tiny Dover, Pennsylvania, on November 23, 1907, to watch a parade and then attend the unveiling ceremonies for a metal tablet commemorating Dover’s role in the Gettysburg Campaign; specifically, Jeb Stuart’s stay at Dover on July 1, 1863.
After giving the historical context as to the importance of preserving local history, keynote speaker Robert C. Bair, the president of the Historical Society of York County, discussed a mysterious Bible salesman who traveled all over York County for ten days in May 1863 and then guided the Rebel forces into downtown York a little more than a month later. Bair then gave some background on Stuart’s mission, his entry in Maryland and Pennsylvania, the capture of a lengthy, slow-moving Union wagon train in Rockville, Maryland, and the fighting at Hanover.
We pick up Bair’s narrative as he talks about Stuart and his time in Dover after pulling our of Hanover on the afternoon of June 30, 1863.
“Stewart [sic] had reached Jefferson after dark. At bout 2 a.m., July 1, he was at York New Salem, and about 6:30 a.m. arrived at Dover [some other contemporary accounts say the lead elements of Stuart’s column arrived in Dover a few hours earlier]. It was a singular journey and a strange sight, this tired, drowsy, solitary cavalcade made through that moonless night over the hills of York county, extending from New Salem to Dover, winding up and down like some monster moving among the quietude of peaceful farms. The monotonous tread of the horses, the scouffe of the saddles, the clacking accoutrements, the crack of the toiling wagons, the confused noises, as of distant rapids sounding in the night; all these marching cavalry, only, can create.
“How glad the early dawn must have appeared to these dust-choked wanderers (driven from their intended course by war’s gludgeon!) How good the gleaming harvest-laden fields, the contented homes, the staring, sturdy yeomen, up fresh from his morning meal, with timid wife and children glancing through the windows, or watching from the door-yards of Dover, must have seemed to them, and how the domestic peace and plenty of this thrifty hamlet as they sat down to bounteous tables here and broke their long saddle fast, how all of these must have appealed to their war-weary hearts, arousing in them as they turned to dear homes away down south in Dixie, love’s delight.
“Maidens! A soldier is not all war. No matter how stern his visage, cruel his occupation or scarred his arm — his heart is tender and his affections true.
200 Prisoners at Dover
“Stewart had taken some prisoners before he came to Hanover. He had paroled those taken at the time he captured the wagon train. He captured 123 at Hanover. He had in all about 200 with him at Dover. He says, “We paroled our prisoners.” It is not exactly known how many, but of those taken at Hanover to belonged to the Eighteenth Pennsylvania, 15 to the Sixth Michigan, 1o to the Fifth New York and 16 to the First Vermont cavalry regiment.
“The line of march was resumed about 10 o’clock a.m. As they moved slowly out of the town they little dreamed that at that hour, not far away, the sun had focused hot on gentle swales and dales, glens and rough ridges, and that toward that place, so soon to be a blistering, seething, scorching hell of fire, 153,000 men turn their faces drawing after them 350 cannon, all rushing toward the hills of Gettysburg; that Gettysburg upon which a cataclism [sic] is destined to break the precious vials of the nation’s blood, shake a continent, dissolve the old form of constitutional government, compel surprised attentin of the world and effectuate the eternal purposes of God
“At the same hour Stewart completed his restful halt in Dover, General Buford’s cavalry from Seminary and McPherson Ridge was discovering the Confederate advance coming from the Cumberland valley.
“When General Stewart was on his plodding way to Rossville, Wellsville and Dillsburg, the ‘First Day’ at Gettysburg was being fought desperately. It seems a thing incredible that General Stewart nor his men heard no sound from the guns that day, but he did not. If he heard, he heeded not, but kept his steady course to Carlisle. At Carlisle he first heard the news that Ewell had left that place and that Meade and Lee were locked in battle clutch.”
Bair continued his discourse with a brief discussion of the battle of Gettysburg and an epilogue of the fates of key Confederate and Union cavalry leaders who had fought at Hanover before closing:
“Were not all these brave Americans? Were they not national brothers of noble mind? They were! And if this be true, then may the young of our school day generation well inquire, how is this? Being men of Christian fortitude, why should they in this United States — this land of liberty, find cause to slay each other with the sword? This, the cause: this, the mystery. At the birth of this great government — at the nativity of its constitution — the nation, born as a man is born, had a dual nature. Two antagonistic forces in one body; two forces that must finally rebel against each other and fight it out. The conflict was irrepressible; it was inevitable. What is inevitable is divinely appointed. Freedom was predestined to overthrow slavery. These old Union veterans of all patriots are to be distinguished by our admiration for their participation in the great Rebellion, and honored for the profound American spirit they have inspired.
“Now, good friends of Dover, and all you who have helped make this day notable in local annals, I sincerely thank you for your considerate attention.”
Robert Bair sat down to applause and turned over the stage to the Rev. A. R. Steck, who made his own lengthy address to the throng. His was less focused on Jeb Stuart and Dover, and more on the Union cause of freeing the slaves and eradicating the country of the institution forever. He also touched on Reconstruction and other results of the war. When he concluded, the large assembly began returning to their homes.
All those who heard Bair and Steck speak that November Saturday in 1907 are long gone but the tablet remains. It has since been moved from Dover’s square to the fire station (in 1957), where it reminds the reader that at one time, the hard hand of war in the personage of J.E.B. Stuart once visited Dover.
To read much more on Stuart’s two-day ride through western York County and his sojourn in Dover, pick up a copy of Confederate Calamity: J.E.B. Stuart’s Cavalry Ride Through York County, Pa., by Scott Mingus.