The burning of Chambersburg remains controversial in south-central Pennsylvania to this day. Once known as the “queen of the Cumberland Valley,” the town was an important stop on the Cumberland Valley Railroad and served as the company’s headquarters. It contained machine shops, warehouses, a massive iron turntable, and other facilities, including a telegraph station.
Chambersburg was a frequent Confederate target during the war. In 1862, J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry raided the town and burned some of the CVRR buildings and nearby trains, as well as several warehouses, before departing for Adams County. The following year, much of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia either passed through Chambersburg or camped there in the days preceding the battle of Gettysburg. George Pickett’s Virginia division destroyed the railroad tracks, turntable, and many of the remaining buildings, including the rebuilt depot.
But, for Chambersburg residents, the real horror did not come until late July 1864.
Tiger John and his men came calling.
Confederate Major General Jubal A. Early, the same man who in 1863 had created so much havoc here in York County, ordered his cavalry under Brigadier General “Tiger John” McCausland to ride from Maryland north to Chambersburg. He was to ransom the town for $200,000 in gold or $500,000 in currency. If the residents refused to pay, McCausland was ordered to burn Chambersburg.
McCausland brought almost 3,000 men into Franklin County. On the morning of July 29, 1864, he positioned artillery on a hill a mile from town and opened fire to alert the townspeople to his presence. He subsequently led 830 of his men into downtown, where he insisted on meeting with the civic leaders. The courthouse bell summoned them to the Diamond (town square), where he outlined his demands. Knowing that a 2,500-man Union cavalry division under Brigadier General William W. Averell was only ten miles away at Greencastle, the town fathers refused to pay.
To their shock and horror, the Rebels secured two or three barrels of kerosene, rolled them into the courthouse, and lit it on fire. Detachments, often liquored up, ranged throughout the town with torches and firebrands, lighting more than 50 small fires that consumed almost all of an 11-block area. Most of the houses and businesses along the two main roads, Main Street and Market Street (now US routes 11 and 30), burned, along with stables, barns, outbuildings, schools, two churches, and all of the public buildings. Cows, cats, dogs, horses, and pigs all died in the conflagration, but human casualties were minimal, fortunately.
Several Rebel officers refused to participate or objected strenuously before following orders. A colonel was placed under arrest for not taking part.
One of the horrified Confederates was Brice Benton Blair, the Presbyterian chaplain of the 37th Battalion, Virginia Cavalry. Blair had been born on March 9, 1839, in Dillsburg in northwestern York County. His parents, Thomas Porter & Rebecca J. Ferree Blair, and they children had moved west to Shippensburg at the border of Franklin and Cumberland counties. As a young man, he studied at Princeton Theological Seminary.
After the war erupted in April 1861, young Blair eventually went south and cast his lot with the Confederate States of America as a chaplain, being named in April 1863 as the spiritual guide for the 37th Battalion, Virginia Cavalry.
Now, he stood in the streets of Chambersburg, a town he knew well, and watched as soldiers of his unit torched part of the town. He went to the Presbyterian Church and found an old acquaintance, the Reverend S. J. Nicolls. Horrified at the scene of destruction, he wanted to make sure that his family and friends in Shippensburg did not think that he had brandished a torch. He had been taught that arson was wrong.
Taking a pencil and envelope, he scribbled a hasty note for Nicolls.
“Please write my father and give him my love,” the message read. “Tell him, too, as Mrs. Shoemaker will tell you, that I was most strenuously opposed to the burning of the town.” He signed the note, “B. B. Blair, Chaplain, and son of Thomas P. Blair, Shippensburg, Pa.”
Blair departed with the rest of McCausland’s troops, many of which carried booty taken from the residents before burning their houses, about three hours after arriving. They headed west toward McConnellsburg.
Blair survived the war and returned to his ministry with the Presbyterian Church. He pastored several churches and then also served as a supply preacher when needed to fill vacancies or to preach when the pastor was out of town or ill.
He lived with his family in Shippensburg under his death on June 19, 1871.
The Reverend B. B. Blair was only 32 years old. He is buried in Spring Hill Cemetery in Shippensburg.
Excerpted from an upcoming book (2019) by Cooper Wingert and Scott Mingus on the Cumberland Valley Railroad in the Civil War, which includes a section on the burning of Chambersburg.