During the first winter of Civil War (1861-82), the Union Army operated a training camp for the 6th New York Cavalry on Penn Commons (now Penn Park) on the south side of York, Pennsylvania. Colonel Thomas Devin, later to lead a brigade of cavalry under John Buford at the battle of Gettysburg, commanded the Empire State troopers. After the cavalrymen left for the front in March 1862, the army sent an inspector to determine the value of the lumber once the abandoned barracks and stables were razed. Instead, the inspector deemed the buildings to be of sturdy enough construction to warrant saving them for possible future use.
The need came to fruition that summer when massive casualties in the Valley Campaign and Peninsula Campaign caused a shortage of hospital beds. Army officials decided to transform the cavalry barracks into a hospital (at first with about 1,000 beds; later expanded to 1,600 plus tents capable of housing hundreds more). The new United States Army General Hospital in York opened in late June 1862, and soon it was almost full.
The influx of convalescing soldiers into York, a community of some 8,600 people, brought the need for large quantities of hardware, food, flour, and supplies from the town’s merchants. Local butchers received lucrative contracts for beef and mutton; hardware dealers for stoves; laundries for cleaning bedding; and so forth.
The soldiers’ personal needs also brought a seedier side to town.
Entrepreneurs soon established several “low-class saloons” and brothels at various locations along South Street and New Street (now W. College Avenue). Among the more popular of these entertainment parlors was “Mrs. Crabb’s,” who operated a house on South Street near today’s Lindberg Avenue.
The personal papers and army documents of the hospital’s director from September 1864-July 1865, Dr. St. John W. Mintzer, are housed in the Medical History Library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia (upstairs in the Mutter Museum on 22nd Street). These papers at times discuss incidents that Mintzer encountered in dealing with these nuisance bars and brothels.
For example, on the night of April 26, 1865, Dr. Mintzer received written depositions from several witnesses to support the claims of Francis Huisman. The latter stated that he had ventured to Mrs. Crabb’s house about 8:30 that evening. He offered to treat the crowd to a round of drinks, the bar tab coming in at 75 cents.
When it came time to settle his account with Mrs. Crabb, Huisman received a rude surprise. “I handed her a $10 bill and the above woman refused to give me any change,” he complained to Dr. Mintzer that night. “While I was talking to the woman a soldier came from behind and stole my money out of my blouse pocket. I followed but was unable to catch him. The man who stole my money I believe is one of the fifers. I could recognize him. Had $80 with me.”
Suspicion soon fell on Pvt. William Plunkett, a musician from the 75th New York Volunteer Infantry. He was, indeed, a fifer. Plunkett had been a patient in the army hospital since October 25, 1864. He had enlisted in Company D at the age of 21 in Scipio, New York, in September 1861 for a term of three years. Originally an infantryman, he had later become the company’s fifer and served in Louisiana during the Red River Campaign. When his term of enlistment expired, Plunkett transferred to Company B as a veteran and received a re-enrollment bounty. On August 27, 1864, he became the regiment’s principal musician, which brought more responsibility and a nice pay raise.
Plunkett had since become severely ill while serving in the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign and was being treated at the army hospital in York at the time he allegedly robbed Huisman, perhaps in cahoots with Mrs. Crabb.
To verify the robbery claim, the hospital’s provost marshal interviewed witnesses. James Crozier of Company M, 7th Michigan Cavalry, testified, “I was at Mrs Crabbs last evening between 8 and 9 oclk. Saw Huisman there. Plunkett pushed H. in the house and when they reached the counter H. ran after Plunkett.”
Upon being searched, guards discovered $40.65 on Plunkett. However, there was not enough evidence to convict him. After the war ended, he mustered out honorably with his regiment in Savannah, Georgia, on August 31, 1865, the allegations of thievery and complicity in York notwithstanding.
The victim, Francis Huisman, never recovered his money.
It is not known if he ever again visited Mrs. Crabb’s house of ill repute.
Stay tuned over the next few months for several more human interest stories from the Mintzer Papers! I am currently researching and writing an article for Gettysburg Magazine on the army hospital in York and its role in the Gettysburg Campaign.