A town’s destruction and rebirth is commemorated

Marie Gullard

Ghost whispers seem to float on the air in and around Franklin County’s historic Chambersburg, Pa. They linger on the steps of the town’s courthouse, around its clock tower, town square, and stone quarry, and alongside the ubiquitous remembrance markers up and down its streets.

The spirits of Yankee and Confederate soldiers, as well as abolitionists, though never seen, are nonetheless palpable in some form throughout this town, where the Civil War is burned into its public consciousness.

Confederate Gen. John McCausland ordered Chambersburg to be burned when the town refused to pay a ransom.
Confederate Gen. John McCausland ordered Chambersburg to be burned when the town refused to pay a ransom.

Each year on the third Saturday of July, the citizens of Chambersburg commemorate the ransoming and burning of their town by Confederate troops on July 30, 1864, and its subsequent rebirth. The compelling, 45-minute drama is performed on the steps of the original stone courthouse that was set ablaze, unfolding the 150-year-old story in chilling detail.

The momentous re-creation utilizes special lighting and atmospheric effects that simulate the fire inside the structure, as well as the smoke bellowing from its rooftop. The scene becomes a living and breathing stage for the primary actors involved. Scores of extras, dressed as Confederate troops, infiltrate the audience in the square demanding money.

The realism of the moment hits home as many of the bystanders reach into their pockets. (All ransom money collected is donated to Franklin County Habitat for Humanity.)

“When people think of the Civil War and Pennsylvania, they think of Gettysburg,” said David Shuey. He portrays Confederate Gen. John McCausland, who acted on the orders of Gen. Jubal Early. “But Chambersburg was invaded three times during the course of the entire war.”

However, in July 1864, Early insisted that citizens turn over $100,000 in gold or $500,000 in Yankee currency or else the town would be set on fire. The stalwart townspeople would not meet the demands and the consequences were devastating. Some 500 mostly wooden structures were destroyed and approximately 2,000 people made homeless.

The exterior of the courthouse remained intact, its tall columns standing defiantly against the invaders’ wrath.

“I have stood (there) in McCausland’s footsteps and I have tried to portray him earnestly and honestly,” Shuey said. “There are moments when I get chills.”

 

A weekend festival

The burning event highlights a weekend festival that begins on July 15 with the 1864 Civil War Ball held in the nearby town of Greencastle, which was also once occupied by Confederate troops.

On July 16, the fun shifts back to Chambersburg and Old Market Day. This all-day street festival features hundreds of vendors, as well as food and live entertainment.

Later in the day, the town presents historic walking tours and exhibits along with book signings, prizes, giveaways, an old-fashioned photo booth, and an “A Capella & Unplugged” contest.

As the darkness nears, it is 1864 once more and the story of the town’s burning and rebirth commences over the now-hushed atmosphere.

“I like presenting the Chambersburg side of the story,” said historical actor John Shindledecker, who portrays J. McDowell Sharp, a town father who attempts to negotiate with McCausland. “I’d like people to know (these events) are not only a
part of the great Civil War story, but also part of our heritage to keep that story alive — to show people that war is just a big waste and everybody suffers.”

 

For more information

Franklin Co. Tourism: explorefranklincountypa.com

 

Franklin Co. Tourism

Confederate Gen. John McCausland ordered Chambersburg to be burned when the town refused to pay a ransom.

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