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Civil War Blog

A project of PA Historian

“A Prelude to the Unutterable Horrors of War”

Posted By on June 17, 2013

While Confederate troops splashed across the Potomac River and headed towards Pennsylvania, the state capital at Harrisburg went into a full crisis mode. The state government immediately sent out notice for troops to be raised to defend the state from the perceived threat of invasion. Governor Andrew Curtin sent out a proclamation calling for aid from neighboring states. However, when word spread to the city that Confederate forces had entered the border towns, the situation worsened.

View of Harrisburg from across the river in June or July 1863

View of Harrisburg from across the river in June or July 1863

As mentioned by diarists in other posts, General Milroy’s wagon train from Winchester fanned the flames of turmoil as it passed up the Cumberland Valley towards Harrisburg. Every town and village along the route towards the capital filled with the hundreds of Union stragglers. Soon after this hurried exodus, a whole new problem developed. Citizens from these towns packed up their families and hit the road along with hundreds of others, all leaving the perceived terror of Confederate rule.

A special map published by the New York Times

A special map published by the New York Times

One citizen summed up his evacuation from Chambersburg before the Confederates entered the town on the evening of the June 15.

“About midnight, awakened by the news that the Rebels were at Shippensburg. Dressing, we immediately left for Carlisle at midnight, being so dark and the roads jammed with wagons, made dangerous situation that I regretted leaving home in the first place. However, thanks to Almighty Providence, we arrived safely in Carlisle about 4 o’clock in the morning. Tried to get more sleep, but impossible, excitement here is mounting.

We got a bite to eat, the horse fed, and left for Harrisburg. All along the way the news had preceded us, people out securing and leaving with their goods. Driving away their horses, and all shops shut up…. 

…. We crossed the river without difficulty and found Harrisburg, in wildest confusion. Merchants shipping away their goods, families their furniture, and people fleeing in all directions. Almost laughable scenes some created.”

Hundreds of people from the Cumberland Valley packed up everything they could and struck out for the perceived safety of Harrisburg in just this fashion.

Sketch of "Southern View of Harrisburg," made in 1863

Sketch of “Southern View of Harrisburg,” made in 1863

However, the alarm was not limited to the citizens alone. The state government also began efforts to prevent its destruction. Boston Journal correspondent Charles Coffin wrote of what he saw in the Capitol. “At the State-House, men in their shirt-sleeves were packing papers into boxes. Every team, every horse and mule and handcart in the town were employed,” Coffin wrote.

The New York Times also reported that the state was actively moving its archives from Harrisburg to safety in Philadelphia.

New York Times

The State Capitol

The State Capitol as it looked in 1863.

The Pennsylvania government had gone from legislating and governing, to evacuating and preparing the city’s defenses in but a few, short days.

It appears at least one of the Harrisburg newspapers, The Telegraph, did not publish an edition on June 16, likely because of the chaotic events overtaking the city. However, the Harrisburg Patriot and Union summed up the events of that day with two lines that nearly perfectly sums up the frenzied events of the prior days.

Patriot and Union

But we need not prolong our attempt at description, as the scene was too much for the task of pen and paper. Yet it was but a mere preface, a prelude, to the unutterable horrors of war.”

Tomorrow’s post will take a look at descriptions of the city of Harrisburg as it swelled with refugees and soldiers alike. 

Top photo comes from the Cumberland County Historical Society.

Other photos come from the Library of Congress and the Pennsylvania Civil War Newspaper Collections. 

Stay tuned for more posts as Central Pennsylvania commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Invasion of Pennsylvania and the battle of Gettysburg. 


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