Item Description: Diary entry by J. Kelly Bennette for July 30, 1864. He describes the burning of the town of Chambersburg, PA as retribution for Union troop burning private property in the Confederacy.
Item Citation: Folder 3, in the J. Kelly Bennette Papers, #886, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
30th Scarcely had we time time for our hungry horses to satisfy their hunger on Pennsylvania corn & we to snatch a hasty bite four ourselves when the bugle sounded “to horse” & we are again on the dusty road. We have been driving before us all day a small body of yankees & tonight concealed by the darkness they stop at every turn in the road and fire on our advance guard & although they did no hurt to anyone yet it made it very unpleasant to the advance guard. Arrived at within a mile of Chambersburg a little before daylight. The first thing I knew of being in the vicinity was a dull “Boom!” & a charge of grape came flying over us like a flock of pigeons. At this place the 36th Batt lost another man killed. The yankees move their position & we went into line of battle & waited for the other Brig. to come up. While waiting I went to sleep & when I awoke the town was in our hands & on fire. A levy was made on the town thro’ Gen McC. by order of Fen. Early for $100,000 in specie or 500,000 in U.S. currency toward paying for private property burned by Hunter. The Mayor being absent the demand was made known to fifteen on the most prominent citizens who replied that we as rebels against the General Government had no right to make such a demand; and moreover that Gen. Averill had telegraphed that he would be there in time to save them. Gen. McCauseland immedi order the destruction of the town giving the women & children two hours to leave & remove what they could but many of them made no improvement of the time thus afforded & when our men urged them to save what they could. They replied that we dared not burn it, nor would they believe that Gen. McC, meant what he said “till the fire was in their houses.”
The burning of Chambersburg was generally condemned by our Regt. at first when all the sympathies were all aroused, but when reason had time to regain her seat I believe that they all thought as I thought at first; that it was justice & justice tempered with mercy. The burning per se is wrong no one can deny, and the bare idea of turning out of doors upon the cold charities of the world unprotected women & unoffending children is sufficient to cause the feelings to rebel. But there may be circumstances under which is it not only justifiable but become a duty, – stern it is true but nevertheless binding. Thru several times since the beginning of this war we have had opportunities of laying waste northern cities private property generally. But instead of this we have pursued toward them a course uniformally conciliatory hoping by this means to set the war on a civilized footing & thus protect our helpless ones at home. Orders were issued that private property must be respected as we came not to pillage & destroy but to conquer a Peace. Now what has been the consequence of this conciliatory policy? From Princeton for 30 miles toward Raleigh C.H. you do not see a house, the blacked chimnies alone marking where once the farm-house stood. From Memphis Norfolk & N. Orleans women without number have been sent thro’ the line not knowing where they were to find a home. Jackson Miss. Washington N.C. Guyandotte Va a large portion of Lexington Buchanon, Fredericksburg Wytheville Va, Newbern N.C. Winchester Va & hundreds of other towns & cities have been laid in ashes & often not giving the women & children five minutes notice. Private farmhouses of which there are thousands are not mentioned. In Wytheville for instance when David St. Clair carried his sick child from his burning house & took up its cloak to wrap around it he was cursed as a d–n’d rebel & bid to lay it down, & as he was passed thro’ he had to steal from his own porch the sheep-skin on which his dog slept to shield his child from the cold night air. We are in this war to defend the women– if we try one expedient & it fails we are recreant to our duty if we persivere in that expedient instead of changing the prescription. Now everyone knows that the conciliatory policy has failed- utterly failed- we are driven nolens volens to the opposite mode of proceedure. Instead of snatching from the hands of the ladies what they had saved from their burning houses
as the yankees & throwing it back into the flames as the yankes did in K. Valley, or stealing & destroying it as they did Mrs Anderson in the Valley of Va our men could be seen all over the city checking the fire or carrying trunks, bundles &c for the ladies. How beautiful the contrast! It must be acknowledge that there were some who having become drunk seemed to glory in the spreading destruction but it must be remembered that many of them have had strong provocation.
Leave what remains of C.burg & retrace our steps thro’ St. Thomas & after a march of 31 miles find ourselves at McConelsburg Penn. where we go into camp. 1220+25+31=1276