Franklin: "Burning of Chambersburg--Retaliatory," by Fielder C. Slingluff, November, 1909

Summary: Former Confederate soldier Fielder C. Slingluff gives a first-hand account of the burning of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania and the subsequent capture of many of the Confederate soldiers who participated in the burning. Slingluff defends the decision to burn the town by describing the extensive destruction of farms, homes, and towns in the South by the Union army.



An interesting contribution to war literature is an account of the burning of Chambersburg, Pa., by a Baltimore lawyer who was present at the destruction of the town as a member of the 1st Maryland Cavalry. For twenty-five years this narrative has been tucked away in archives, and now appears in a Baltimore paper. It is a letter to Mr. Ephraim Hiteshew, of Chambersburg, Pa., and is a reply to some reminiscences compiled by a Mr. Hoke, of Chambersburg. The letter tells of the destruction.

Fielder C. Slingluff, of Baltimore, wrote on August 1, 1884, to Mr. Hiteshew at Chambersburg, Pa.:

" I have received the papers sent me by you containing Mr. Hoke's reminiscences of the burning of Chambersburg and have carefully read them. At your request I give you my recollection of the events which immediately preceded and followed that occurrence. I write from the standpoint of the private soldier, having had no knowledge of the reasons which dictated official orders at the time, nor had my associates. We simply obeyed orders. * * *

"Mr. Hoke's articles are as temperate as possible from one whose house was burned by an enemy and, as he thinks, without justification. It is true he calls us 'villains' occasionally, and says we seemed accustomed to the business from the expert way in which we proceeded to the task. I will not quarrel with him for this, but will take a look at these villains to see who they were then and what they are now. I had just left college when I joined the Confederate army. When we went to Chambersburg, I belonged to the 1st Maryland Cavalry. This regiment was composed of the very first young men of our State. If they were not guided by the strongest instincts of principle in going into the Southern army and staying there, they were certainly a very peculiar set of young men, for there was anything but pleasure and comfort in our lives. We were generally hungry, slept winter and summer in the open air on the ground, got no pay that we could buy with, were scantily clad, and were apt to be killed in battle. I believe the unbiased man must say this was patriotism, although he can if he wishes reconcile his conscience by calling it 'misguided' patriotism. And you may be surprised to know that these young 'villains' have generally developed into good citizens and successful men. Go where you will through our State, and you will find them respected and at the head of the communities in which they live. In business I can name you a dozen of the leading houses in this city whose members were with Johnston and McCausland. The bar throughout the State is full of them, and they are in many cases among the leaders of their circuits. They are doctors in good standing in their profession; and many of the most thrifty farmers in this State, whose fine farms attest devotion to duty and to home, especially in such counties as Howard and Montgomery, were also present on that occasion.

"In addition to our regiment, there were five or six other regiments in the brigade, most of them from Southwest Virginia and the Valley of Virginia. The men who composed these regiments were the substantial citizens of their respective counties, and would compare favorably with the like number selected from any agricultural community in our country.

"Now you would like to know if the men whom I have described justified the burning of your town in their individual capacity irrespective of the orders from headquarters under which they acted. I must say to you frankly that they did, and I never heard one dissenting voice. And why did we justify so harsh a measure? Simply because we had come to the conclusion that it was time for us to burn something in the enemy's country. In the campaign of the preceding year, when our whole army had passed through your richest section of country, where the peaceful homes and fruitful fields only made the contrast with what he had left the more significant, many a man whose home was in ruins chafed under the orders from General Lee, which forbade him to touch them; but the orders were obeyed, and we left the homes and fields as we found them, the ordinary wear and tear of an army of occupation alone excepted. We had so often before our eyes the reverse of this wherever your army swept through Virginia that we were thoroughly convinced of the justice of a stern retaliation.

"It is no pleasure to me to have to recall the scenes of those days, nor do I do so in any spirit of vindictiveness, but I simply tell the truth in justification. We had followed Kilpatrick (I think it was) in his raid through Madison, Greene, and other counties, and had seen the cattle shot or hamstrung in the barnyards, the agricultural implements burned, the feather beds and clothing of the women and children cut in shreds in mere wantonness, farmhouse after farmhouse stripped of every particle of provisions, private carriages cut and broken up, and women in tears. I write of what I saw myself. We had seen a thousand ruined homes in Clark, Jefferson, and Frederick Counties-barns and houses burned and private property destroyed-but we had no knowledge that this was done by 'official orders.' At last when the official order came openly from General Hunter and the burning was done thereunder, and when our orders of retaliation came, they met with the approbation, as I have said, of every man who crossed the Potomac to execute them.

"Of course we had nothing personal against your pretty little town. It just so happened that it was the nearest and most accessible place of importance for us to get to. It was the unfortunate victim of circumstances. Had it been farther off and some other town nearer, that other town would have gone and Chambersburg would have been saved.

"And now, having given you the feelings and motives which actuated us, permit me to give my views of how your people felt about the affair. I must be frank enough to say that I think the reason the tribute demanded of you was not paid was because you people had no idea that the Rebels would carry out their threat to burn; nor was this confidence shaken until the smoke and flames began to ascend. I know that this is directly in the teeth of Mr. Hoke's tribute to the patriotism of his fellow-townsmen, that sooner than pay money to the Rebels they saw their homes laid in ashes; but he is himself a little illogical, for he gives greater condemnation to a cruel enemy for burning out a helpless people after they had shown to them that the banks had removed their deposits, and it was impossible for them to get the money demanded. Had your people believed that the town was actually in danger, I think they could have raised enough money to have avoided the catastrophe.

"Why this confidence of security? It grew out of the position taken by your people during the war-that we were Rebels, soon to be conquered; and that whatever cruelties were inflicted upon the homes of these Rebels were in the nature of penalties for rebellious conduct; and that such like acts would never dare to be attempted against loyal men. It was further strengthened by the fact that when the whole of Lee's army was in your State no atrocities were committed. I saw this confidence, almost amounting to contempt, on our march to your town itself, when the negotiations preliminary to the fire were in progress. I happened with a comrade or two to get behind the command on the march to the town, and in passing through a village of some size (I think it was Mercersburg) the knots of men on the corners poked fun at our appearance and jeered us, and never seemed to consider that the men upon whom they expended their fun had pistols and sabers in their belts and might use them. The strange part of the matter to us was to see able-bodied young men out of service-a sight never seen in the South during the war. In Chambersburg itself it seemed impossible to convince your people that we were, in earnest. They treated it as a joke or thought it was a mere threat to get the money, and showed their sense of security and incredulity in every act.

"When the two brigades of Confederate cavalry marched to your town, the order came for certain regiments and portions of regiments to enter and burn it. Our regiment as a whole, according to the best of my recollection, was not sent in; but there were several detachments from it on different kinds of duty sent there, and I was with one of them. It was afterwards a source of congratulation to our men that they had not been detailed for the purpose; for although they regarded it as a proper measure of retaliation, they did not seek the unpleasant task. The men who actually applied the torch may be classed in three divisions: First, those whose own homes had been ravaged or destroyed or whose relations had suffered in that way. These men were anxious for the work to begin, and the spirit of revenge which actuated them made them apparently merciless. There were many such in the brigade. Second, the far larger portion who simply obeyed orders as soldiers and who saved what they could and to whose humanity and liberal construction of the orders given them no doubt you must be thankful for the portion of the city that was saved. Third, the men to be found in all armies who looked upon the occasion as an opportunity to plunder and who rejoiced in wanton destruction. This last element was, I am glad to say, small; but I have no doubt to those who unfortunately came in contact with them they were but types of the whole command.

"As I had never seen the town before and did not know the names of your streets, I can give you no detailed account of the burning. After it began, it was quickly done. Men pleaded to have their houses saved; but the women acted in a much calmer manner after they understood the thing was inevitable, and in some cases excited our admiration by their courage and defiance. I saw a number of houses fired, but I saw no abuse of the citizens. Through the scenes of terror which your people passed I have read Mr. Hoke's annals in vain to find mention of an unarmed citizen injured or a woman insulted. Some of the men became inflamed with liquor, but I believe they were few. The most usual method of burning was to break the furniture into splinters, pile it in the middle of the floor, and then fire it. This was done in the beginning; but as the fire became general it was not necessary, as one house set fire to another. Most of the houses were vacant when fired, the occupants having fled.

"When the command was given to retire, it was quickly done. One little incident which happened after we left the town will illustrate all I have said about the feeling which actuated many of our soldiers. I think it was two or three miles from town (it may have been more or less) that some of us halted for a few minutes for water and perhaps something to eat. A brick farmhouse with a porch was located on the road with a pump to the side of it. Not far off was what we called a Pennsylvania 'Dutch barn,' larger than the house. It was full of the recently gathered harvest, and bore all the evidence of a plentiful yield to a good farmer. I hitched my horse to the lightning rod on the side of the barn next to the house, and was returning to get him when some one cried: 'Fire!' In an instant the barn was in flames. I had hardly time to unhitch my horse. Some of our party demanded in angry tones of two troopers who came from the barn and mounted their horses what they meant by such uncalled-for vandalism. The reply was, 'Why, d- it, they burnt our barn,' and on they rode. * * *

We recrossed the Potomac with some little opposition from an iron-clad car in our front on the track of the B. & O. Railroad, which was struck by a ball fired by the Baltimore Light Artillery and immediately left. We also had quite a severe little fight in the Blue Ridge Mountains, near Cold Spring, on the advance, in which several from our regiment were killed and wounded, and in which a body of your cavalry showed great spirit and determination; but aside from this we had no fighting at all. Hoke says that when Averill came up to us in the Moorefield Valley and captured and scattered our command they charged us with the cry of `Remember Chambersburg,' and cut us down without mercy. The fact is, we were down when he charged us. I will give you the plain, prosaic facts, of which I was an unfortunate witness and victim.

After we recrossed the Potomac, we marched to the Moorefield Valley to rest and recuperate after a severe campaign. There is no lovelier spot in all Virginia than this little mountain-locked valley; and as it had escaped the desolation of war, it was the very spot for rest. Our regiment was camped nearest the river, and the company to which I belonged was nearest the river of all. My messmate and I had crossed the fence from the field in which the regiment was camped make our bed in a soft green fence corner, so that I believe we were the nearest of the whole brigade to the enemy. We had camped quietly for a day or two, when in the middle of the night the order came to `saddle up.' We were soon ready for a reported advance of the enemy; but after waiting an hour or two with no further orders the men gradually got under their blankets and went to sleep. Just at the break of day I felt a rude shock, which I supposed came from the careless tread of a comrade, and I made an angry remonstrance. This was followed by a kick which I thought came from a horse. I, furious, threw the blanket from over my head and found a couple of Averill's men with cocked pistols at my head, one of whom said: 'Get up, you -- Chambersburg-burning -- !' I got up at once, and mildly intimated that I had nothing to do with the burning of Chambersburg, and considered it altogether wicked and unjustifiable.

"As soon as I collected my thoughts 1 took in the situation. I saw the blue-back column of Averill winding down the road and breaking off into the fields where our men slept. I saw them, to my utter humiliation and disgust, dashing in among the men and waking them up from their sleep. Some of our command who had heard the rush of the charge succeeded in mounting their horses and escaping. With such some shots were exchanged, but the greater part of our regiment was caught asleep and captured without firing a shot.

"As soon as the comrade with whom I was sleeping (a cousin of mine) and I had given up our arms the usual and almost invariable compliments which pass on such occasions took place. 'I want them boots,' said trooper No. I. I had just gotten them in Hancock a day or so before; and as they were regular cavalry boots and worth, with us at least, $150 to $200 in Confederate money, it nearly broke my heart to part with them. But the occasion was pressing, and they were soon exchanged for a very sorry-looking pair. My hat, which was also a recent Maryland acquisition, with a martial black plume, was appropriated by trooper No. 2. My pockets were carefully investigated, but that part of the raid was a complete failure. I had myself paid the same compliment to my guests when the situation was reversed.

"And how was it that the burners of Chambersburg were thus ignominiously routed, scattered, and captured by a foe whom I have said they despised? The answer is a simple one. It was through the carelessness of our commanding officer, and was inexcusable. It happened in this way, and I am again in position to give the exact facts: When we camped in the little valley, a detail was called on for picket duty. That duty fell to the lot of Lieut. Samuel G. Bonn, of my company. No truer man or more charming gentleman ever wore a saber. After the war he settled in Macon, Ga., became a prosperous merchant, and died some years ago. He went out on the picket post with about ten men some two or three miles from our camp. This was the only guard between Averill and our sleeping men, and it must be remembered that when this little band went on the outpost they were worn out with the fatigue of the nearly incessant marching for the four or five previous days and nights. So wearied were the men that after their first night's duty Lieutenant Bonn sent word back to camp and begged to be relieved; stating that his men were absolutely unfit for duty. I take it for granted this message was sent to headquarters; but whether it was or not, it was an unjustifiable piece of cruelty to keep those wearied men on duty. His appeal was unheeded. He told me after the surprise was over that the men on the outpost actually went to sleep upon their horses, and that in addition to all this no provision was made for their rations.

"While in this condition just before the dawn of day they heard the welcome sound of what they supposed was the relief picket coming from our camp, and soon they welcomed twenty or thirty troopers in gray ( ?) in their midst. Their rejoicing was short-lived, for as their supposed friends surrounded them they quickly drew their revolvers, and in an instant our men were prisoners. To run down the outpost of two men was the work of a moment, and then there was nothing between Averill and the men who burned Chambersburg but a few moments of darkness and a couple of miles of dusty road. These men in gray were what in those days were known as `Jesse Scouts.' They were familiar with the country, knew the little mountain roads, and had clothed themselves in the Confederate gray. They slipped in between our main body and the picket post and then played the part of the 'relief.'

"As we were captured, we were gathered together in a circle, and soon poor Bonn and his pickets were brought in looking unhappy and dejected. He felt keenly the responsibility of his position, but after his story was told no one ever attached any blame to him. About five hundred of our brigade were captured and taken to Camp Chase, Ohio, where for eight long, miserable, weary months we bewailed the day that Chambersburg was founded, builded, and burned."Bibliographic Information: Source copy consulted: Confederate Veteran, Volume XVII, Number 11, November, 1909, pp. 559-561