July 30, 1864 – Lieutenant General Jubal Early launched another northern invasion, with one of his Confederate detachments raiding Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.
After being routed at Kernstown, elements of Brigadier General George Crook’s Federal Army of West Virginia fled to Martinsburg and Bunker Hill, north of Winchester in the Shenandoah Valley. Early’s Confederate Army of the Valley pursued in a heavy storm on the 25th, skirmishing as the Federals tried crossing the Potomac River to Williamsport, Maryland.
Crook’s Federals managed to cross the river and regroup at Sharpsburg on the 26th, just as Early’s Confederates entered Martinsburg. Early was informed that the Federals had burned the homes of several prominent Virginians while in the Valley, including those of Senator Andrew Hunter and Congressman Alexander Boteler. Early sought to retaliate by destroying the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad while sending a cavalry force to Chambersburg, a prosperous farming and industrial town in southern Pennsylvania.
Brigadier Generals John McCausland and Bradley T. Johnson led 2,500 Confederate cavalry across the Potomac near Cave Spring, west of Williamsport, on the 29th. Residents of Chambersburg learned that the Confederates were targeting their town and began evacuating supplies, equipment, and other valuables. Meanwhile, a small Federal force delayed the Confederates with skirmishes at Hagerstown, Maryland, and Mercersburg, Pennsylvania.
McCausland’s troopers reached the outskirts of Chambersburg at 3 a.m. on the 30th. A designated Confederate entered the town and showed a leading citizen Early’s order:
“To General J. McCausland: You are hereby ordered to proceed with such forces as will be detailed, and as rapidly as possible, to the town of Chambersburg, Penna., and demand of the authorities the sum of $100,000 in gold, or in lieu thereof the sum of $500,000 in greenbacks, and in case this demand is not complied with, then in retaliation for the burning of seven properties of peaceful inhabitants of the Valley of Virginia, by order of the Federal Gen. (David) Hunter, you will proceed to burn the town of Chambersburg and rapidly return to this point.”
Three cannon shots signaled the Confederates to assemble in the town square at 6 a.m. A Confederate read Early’s order, and the town leaders were given six hours to comply. During that time, troops raided liquor stores and looted businesses and houses. When the leaders refused to pay, the Confederates evacuated the 3,000 residents and burned Chambersburg.
Nearly two-thirds of the town was destroyed, including 400 buildings, of which 274 were private homes. The damage was estimated to be worth at least $1.5 million. This was the only northern town that Confederates burned in the war.
McCausland’s troopers left the smoldering ruins at 1 p.m. and camped for the night at McConnellsburg. The next day, the Confederates rode to Hancock, Maryland, where they skirmished briefly with Federal cavalry under Brigadier General William W. Averell. The Confederates then continued west toward Cumberland before crossing the Potomac and leaving Maryland.
Meanwhile, Major General David Hunter, commanding the Federal Department of West Virginia from Harpers Ferry, scrambled to regroup the army under Crook and Averell. On the 31st, Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck wrote Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander:
“It appears from General Averell’s reports that while General Hunter was collecting his forces at Harper’s Ferry to attack the enemy on the south side the rebel army crossed on the morning of the 29th near Williamsport, and moved, by Hagerstown, into Pennsylvania. Their cavalry captured and partly destroyed Chambersburg yesterday.”
Grant had been pondering how to stop Early’s Army of the Valley. He wrote President Abraham Lincoln proposing the consolidation of the four military departments around Washington (the Susquehanna, West Virginia, Washington, and the Middle Department) into a “Military Division,” much like Major General William T. Sherman’s division of three armies in Georgia.
Grant proposed putting Major General William B. Franklin in charge of this new division, “because he was available and I know him to be capable and believe him to be trustworthy.” As an alternative, he proposed Major General George G. Meade, while replacing Meade as commander of the Army of the Potomac with Major General Winfield Scott Hancock. Grant wrote:
“With General Meade in command of such a division, I would have every confidence that all the troops within the military division would be used to the very best advantage from a personal examination of the ground, and (he) would adopt means of getting the earliest information of any advance of the enemy, and would prepare to meet it.”
Lincoln responded by placing Halleck in command of the four departments, with his headquarters remaining in Washington. The president then traveled to Fort Monroe on the tip of the Virginia Peninsula to meet with Grant in person. On the last day of July, they spent five hours discussing the gloomy situation:
- Grant had just presided over one of the worst Federal military fiascos of the war at the Crater and seemed stalled in front of Petersburg.
- Sherman’s armies advanced to the outskirts of Atlanta but did not seem able to get in.
- Hunter’s Federals had just been humiliated in the Shenandoah Valley, and Confederates continued raiding the North.
Regarding the four military departments in and around Washington, Grant reiterated, “All I ask is that one general officer, in whom I and yourself have confidence, should command the whole,” and that was not Halleck. By this time, Meade had declined the offer to command, and Lincoln said that Franklin “would not give satisfaction” to the Republicans in Congress because of his affiliation with Democrats, especially former General-in-Chief George B. McClellan.
Grant finally proposed placing Major General Philip Sheridan, commander of the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps, in charge. Grant said that Sheridan should unify the commands and destroy Early’s army in the Valley. Lincoln agreed.
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