History-making evening on rebel occupation of York could turn into daylong symposium

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Confederate Gen. Jubal Early issued this handbill touting his magnanimity in not burning the town. Some people in York saw the address as an attempt to undermine the authority of the U.S. government. Background posts: The horrors of Civil War struck York after Sumter, Chambersburg seminars spread awareness of south central Pennsylvania Civil War history, Was York’s surrender justified?

A large crowd attended a panel presentation this week on the Confederate occupation of York – the invasion that commenced 145 years ago today.
A suggestion that seemed to resonate was to hold a daylong symposium on various aspects of the town’s surrender and occupation. With more time, we could present a true pro/con on the surrender decision, something beyond the scope of this week’s panel.
Stay tuned for all that.
The following (to be published in the York Sunday News – 7-29) is adapted from my opening and closing remarks as moderator of the panel made up of Mark Snell, Scott Mingus, June Lloyd and Scott Butcher:

This evening may be historic.
In the 1960s, a reporter was putting together material for a 100th anniversary story of the occupation of York.
She queried a local library about York’s surrender and was emphatically informed that the town did not, in fact, surrender.
This community self-consciousness about the surrender began thawing by the 125th anniversary in 1988 when a good-natured re-enactment took place.
After the Jubal Early re-enactor demanded the keys to the city, Mayor William Althaus said: Heck no. Or something like that.
Just in the past five years, there’s been a renaissance by York-based and outside-the-county historians actively studying York County in the Civil War. Perhaps a dozen books have dealt with that topic.
So, a panel at a city event on such a long-simmering topic as the occupation of York is rare, if not unprecedented, and long overdue.
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Gen. Robert E. Lee hoped to achieve many things in the Confederate campaign into Pennsylvania in 1863.
He sought to capture a prize — Harrisburg, a northern capital — and thus at least force the war’s opponents in the North to push for a negotiated peace.
His troops would forage from Pennsylvania’s lush farms and, thus, move bootprints away from the trampled fields of Virginia.
And he hoped to draw out the Union Army from the Washington, D.C., region with the hope of a pitched battle on northern soil.
So his men headed north in the spring of 1863, Gen. Richard Ewell’s corps in the lead.
That unit entered Pennsylvania in three prongs.
Robert Rhodes’ division reached Carlisle to front Harrisburg. Gen. Edward Johnson’s division camped in Shippensburg.
And Gen. Jubal Early’s more than 6,000 soldiers and detached troops headed through York County to burn the Susquehanna River bridge at Wrightsville, with orders to then rejoin Ewell in the Carlisle area.
Similarly, Early entered York County in three prongs on Saturday, June 27.
His main column marched through East Berlin on roads to Weigelstown and then to York.
White’s Comanches, a mounted column, took a southern route through Hanover to Hanover Junction.
John B. Gordon’s brigade marched down the main pike — present-day Route 30.
That day began a two-plus-day period in which Gen. Jubal Early’s division simply overwhelmed largely undefended York County.
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That night, Gordon, headquartered 10 miles from York in Farmers and ready to enter York the next day, learned that York’s fathers wanted a meeting to consummate a surrender deal forged earlier by young businessman A.B. Farquhar.
The surrender agreement was shaped this way: York’s citizens wouldn’t put up any resistance if the rebels would not burn the town or harm its citizens.
So the Confederates entered York on June 28, 1863, and soon extorted shoes, hats, food and money from residents.
Gordon’s brigade rode on to Wrightsville, with revised orders.
Union resistance had been so light that he would attempt to capture the Susquehanna River bridge. But Union forces, whose original mission was to defend the bridge, torched the mile-long covered structure to stop the rebel advance.
After about 40 hours in York, Lee recalled Early’s division, which countermarched to Gettysburg. There, some units sustained heavy casualties — more than 30 percent — in fighting on Cemetery Hill.
Immediately, controversy began surrounding the surrender: The pro-surrender position held that York sustained no loss of life and little property damage.
The anti-surrender contingent vigorously disagreed: There was, indeed, damage. York’s ill-advised decision cost the town its honor.
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The current debate over the surrender of York is healthy, as is any study of historical decisions that have lasting impact.
As the years passed after the war, the community and York’s students of history lapsed into silence on the occupation. York-area folks preferred to discuss and promote considerable achievements in the American Revolution and World War II.
In the past two decades, the community has warmed to the Civil War era.
But the decades-long sensitivity about the surrender has obscured many of York County’s Civil War milestones.
There has been talk of another forum — perhaps a daylong symposium — to study Civil War generals who were in York County — Early, Gordon, Jeb Stuart, George Armstrong Custer, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and William B. Franklin.
And that forum could also study the depths of the entire York-area Civil War story — which is very much one of great sacrifice. That story would explore:
– About 6,200 York County men served in the Union Army, and hundreds undoubtedly lost their lives in battle or from disease.
– A massive Civil War hospital on Penn Park was the destination point for 14,000 soldiers in blue. Hospital staff also treated rebel soldiers.
– Nurses and other medical workers from York traveled to Gettysburg to provide wagonloads of medical supplies and food for the wounded.
– Tens of thousands of raw recruits bivouacked and trained at the old York Fairgrounds. Local residents provided food and shelter for scores of these recruits as well as patients at the military hospital.
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Eye-witness Cassandra Small wrote that the occupation of York is a matter never to be forgotten.
Looks like the community is finally taking her at her word.

About Jim McClure

Editor of the York Daily Record/Sunday News, ydr.com and its many digital products. Journalism/history blogger: yorktownsquare.com. Author or co-author of seven York County, Pa., history books.

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