Economic Warfare Against Northern Towns

This entry is part 16 of 18 in the series The Hard Hand of War

The Burning of ChambersburgIn June 1864, General Robert E. Lee ordered Lt. Gen. Jubal Early to cross the Potomac and menace Washington. Lee’s hope was that the Union government would order General Ulysses S. Grant to divert troops from his Overland Campaign to defend the capital. During their time on the northern side of the Potomac River, Early and the Army of the Valley carried out a campaign of economic warfare against some of the towns in their path.  His goal was to raise much needed money and supplies for the Southern cause.

Three towns in particular were to be the targets of his campaign of economic warfare: Hagerstown and Frederick in Maryland and Chambersburg further north in Pennsylvania.

Early’s Army crossed the Potomac on July 5-6, 1864 and he almost immediately dispatched Brig. Gen. John McCausland with a 1,500-man cavalry force to the town of Hagerstown on July 6th with instructions to demand $200,000 in currency and collect as much in the way of supplies that he could find. The Confederates claimed that it was to repay damages caused by Maj. Gen. David Hunter’s earlier campaign in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

McCausland felt that the sum was too large for the town to pay so he reduced it to $20,000 which was collected from the residents. McCausland had been ordered to burn the town unless they paid the ransom.

The money was collected and turned over to the Confederates. At the same time his troops were collecting a substantial amount of supplies that had been left behind by the Fifth United States Cavalry. They included 120,000 bushels of oats, 400 cavalry saddles and other equipment, in addition to clothing for the troops.

On July 9th, Early arrived in Frederick. He instructed his commissary officer to demand supplies from the town. The note of demands reads as follows:

“Hon. Mayor: I am directed by Lieut. Gen. Early, commanding, to require of you for the use of his troops, (500) five hundred barrels of flour, (6,000) six thousand pounds of sugar, (3,000) three thousand pounds of coffee, (20,000) twenty thousand pounds of bacon. I am respectfully your obedient servant, W.J. Hawks, Chief Com. C.S. Army of Va.”

The Confederates were told that the food demanded by them was not available. Early then sent another note to the town authorities with a demand for $200,000 in currency. He gave them the option to provide medical supplies, stores, ordinance and quartermaster materials. The note was accompanied by a note threatening to burn the town to the ground.

Over the next several hours the town authorities, led by Mayor William G. Cole, haggled with a group of Confederate negotiators that included Lt. Col. William Allen who was Early’s chief quartermaster, his chief commissary officer W.J. Hawks, Dr. Hunter McGuire and John A. Harmon. The ransom was for 10% of the town’s taxable base. Pointing out that Early had only asked Hagerstown for $20,000, they sent him a note asking him to reconsider.

Early’s negotiators refused their request and by late in the afternoon, the town authorities agreed to the request. The town was forced to borrow the large sum from the Frederick banks. It was delivered at about 5:00 PM in large baskets after the city officials had received word of the Confederate victory at Monocacy Junction.

The Confederates also seized a variety of medical, commissary and quartermaster supplies valued at a minimum of $262,500. These came from various warehouses that were scattered around the town. Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace had only a vague idea of the government materials that were in the town and therefore, did not order everything removed when his troops evacuated the town. However, much in the way of Federal government supplies remained in storage and were still untouched when Union troops re-occupied the town.

The fact that the ransom that was paid by the town of Frederick to preserve the town and any government supplies in the town became a point of contention between the city and the Federal government well into the 1900s. The original notes were not paid off until 1951 at a total cost to Frederick of $2,300,000. No reimbursement from the Federal government has ever been made to Frederick.

After their return to Virginia, On July 28th Early detailed McCausland to take his brigade, General Bradley T. Johnson’s, and Captain William G. McNutty’s battery, totaling in all about 4,000 men, and proceed Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. He was to deliver a demand of $100,000 in gold or $500,000 in greenbacks, in retaliation for damages done by Hunter in the Valley of Virginia. If he was refused, fifty of their leading citizens were to be arrested and their town was to be burned.

McCausland arrived in Chambersburg on July 3oth and made his demands to the authorities. When the demands were not met, McCausland ordered his troops to burn the city. Commencing with the public buildings, they started fires simultaneously in fifty places. By one o’clock the entire town was in flames. Five hundred and twenty-seven buildings, valued at $313,294.34, were destroyed and, in addition, $915,137.24 in personal property were reduced to ashes.

McCausland force was being closely followed by Union cavalry under the command of Brig. Gen. William Averell. He tracked him down at Moorefield, West Virginia and on August 7th surprised the Confederates in a sunrise attack on their camp. McCausland had 420 of his men captured plus all his artillery, 678 horses, equipment, three battle flags, and 150 killed, wounded, and missing. By the time that they returned to the main army at Mount Jackson, they were exhausted and worn down by their long raid.

Meanwhile, Grant had found himself a commander who was aggressive enough to defeat the elusive Early. Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan was given command of the Army of the Shenandoah. He then proceeded to fight a series of battles culminating in the Battle of Cedar Creek. The battle was a crushing defeat for the Confederates. They were never again able to threaten the northern states through the Shenandoah Valley, nor protect the economic base in the Valley.

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