Confederates had at least two reasons for torching the home of Alexander McClure when they occupied Chambersburg on July 30, 1864. McClure, the editor of the local newspaper, The Franklin Repository, was both an abolitionist and a leader of the state Republican Party.
McClure was not home when the rebels arrived, but his wife Matilda was. She was not intimidated by the confederate captain sent to destroy her house, according to a story that appeared in The Daily Pittsburgh Gazette on Aug. 2. The report was based on conversations with four refugees from Chambersburg who were eyewitnesses to the destruction of their city.
The officer identified himself as Frederick Smith, the son of William “Extra Billy” Smith, the governor of Virginia and, previously, the oldest general in the Confederate Army.
“It doesn’t make any difference to me who you are,” Matilda McClure told him. “If you are ordered to burn my house, the sooner you do it the better.”
“Mrs. McClure endeavored to get away, but they detained her in the house, telling her they were ordered to burn the property in her presence,” the story said. The soldiers began their work with axes, chopping up her parlor chairs for kindling. The rebels piled the wood in her bedroom, in front of “an elegant wardrobe in which were her finest dresses ... and applied the torch.”
“An unwilling witness to this act of vandalism,” she had been allowed to “take a few items from her centre table as keepsakes, and these were all she saved.”
While the McClure mansion was reduced to a ruin, not all its contents were destroyed, according to the Gazette. “After the flames had begun to spread, several of the rebels got to work and carried out a larger number of the colonel’s books, and, it is said, that nearly half his library was saved by them.”
Confederate leaders apparently had done their homework before Gen. John McCausland led the raid into Pennsylvania and had up-to-date intelligence. “The rebels came prepared with a list [of targets] and seemed to be well posted [about] persons and localities,” the eyewitnesses said.
At least some Confederates saw opportunities to enrich themselves. “Robberies were common on the highway and many persons were deprived of watches, jewelry and money by threats of personal violence,” the Gazette reported.
A man named Daniel R. Knight, “while carrying a child in his arms and helping some ladies out of town, was halted by a rebel who demanded his pocket book,” the newspaper said. The request was backed up by the revolver the Confederate had placed under his victim’s chin. “His pocket book was handed over, containing $30,” the story said.
Chivalry, however, was not completely dead. Margaret McDowell, “mother of the late Captain [Samuel] McDowell, a distinguished cavalry officer killed at the battle of Marietta, had her house saved by making presents of preserves to the soldiers.” Her son, an artillery officer, had died a little more than a month earlier in Georgia.
Chambersburg was destroyed in revenge for Union attacks directed by Gen. David Hunter on military and civilian property in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley earlier in 1864. When the rebels left, shortly before midnight, they “took very little plunder with them, saying their mission was to destroy,” according to the Gazette’s eyewitnesses.
“You can hurrah for Gen. Hunter now, and thank him for all this,” one Confederate told a resident before he burned down her house.
Len Barcousky: email@example.com or 724-772-0184. See more stories in this series by searching “Barcousky” and “Eyewitness” at post-gazette.com.