In this sketch by artist Lewis Miller, Confederate soldiers lower the Union flag in York’s Center Square during the occupation of York.
In this sketch by artist Lewis Miller, Confederate soldiers lower the Union flag in York's Center Square during the occupation of York. (Courtesy of York County Heritage Trust)

For two days and two nights, the streets of York City belonged to the South.

Weary men covered in the white powder of limestone roads invaded from the west and north. Townspeople dressed in their Sunday best watched as 6,000 Confederate soldiers marched into York and tore down the American flag in Center Square.

In exchange for a peaceful occupation, the Confederate occupiers demanded $100,000 in cash.

But they didn't stay long enough to collect the full ransom.

This is the story of what happened between Sunday, June 28, 1863, and Tuesday, June 30, 1863.

On those two days, York earned the unlucky distinction of becoming the largest Northern town captured by the Confederates during the Civil War.

But the town also dodged a bullet. York could have been Gettysburg.

Cause for concern: In the last days of June 1863, Yorkers knew the Rebels were coming.

Credible reports of their northern march had been spreading for days.

In fact, the possibility of a Confederate occupation had been on Yorkers' minds since 1862, when scouts returned to York with news that Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart was traipsing around Adams and Franklin counties, said Scott Mingus, an author, historian and leading researcher of York's Civil War history.

The site of a training camp for soldiers and a 2,000-bed U.S. Army hospital, York was a likely strategic target for Gen. Robert E. Lee's Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.

York was also a major stop along the Northern Central Railway and what is now Route 30, the Pennsylvania Turnpike of the time.

"There was always concerns that York would be a fairly interesting target to any Confederate invaders," Mingus said. "Some people even believed they might try swapping (southcentral) Pennsylvania for Southern freedom."

In mid-June, Pennsylvania's governor began recruiting and mobilizing troops to defend the state and prevent Confederates from crossing into Lancaster County, according to an article Mingus wrote for Gettysburg Magazine.

An address to the people of York from Maj. Gen. Jubal Early that was printed in the June 30, 1863 edition of the Gazette.
An address to the people of York from Maj. Gen. Jubal Early that was printed in the June 30, 1863 edition of the Gazette. (Courtesy of York County Heritage Trust)

Little, however, was done locally to prepare. Apathy prevailed.

Finally, on Saturday, June 27, Yorkers knew for sure that Confederate troops under the direction of Lt. Gen. Jubal Early were moving east, hoping to capture Harrisburg.

Lee, poising his army to deal a fatal blow on the Union, had handpicked Early - a "cranky" bachelor described, Mingus said, by a contemporary as a "loose cannon" - to take York.

Surrender: Only a small militia of volunteer coal miners and drafted federal workers stood between York and the approaching army. Those defenses wouldn't last long.

On the morning of Saturday, June 27, a young York businessman named A.B. Farquhar left in a buggy to meet with the Rebels before they arrived in York.

Fearing the Confederates would burn their town, York's leaders had sent Farquhar - who'd become frustrated with the lack of action - to mitigate the threat.

Farquhar met Brig. Gen. John Gordon and his 1,800 soldiers in Abbottstown, where they negotiated a peaceful occupation. He returned to York with an urgent message: The Rebels would spare York if its military defenders left town. But, if anyone resisted, Farquhar would be hanged.

Because Farquhar lacked official authority, members of the town council decided to make their own trip.

They met Gordon's troops near the village of Farmers outside Thomasville and struck a deal.

In exchange for a ransom of $100,000 and no resistance, Confederates would peacefully occupy the town.

"Some people will call it a surrender," Mingus said. "I don't think York had much choice."

Realizing the Confederates' arrival was imminent, the town's business owners scrambled into action. They hid York's jewelry and other valuable merchandise in coffins buried at the Christ Lutheran Church cemetery.

To explain the fresh graves, they posted warnings of a smallpox epidemic. The tactic worked, Mingus said.

No Confederate soldiers would risk investigating the plots during the occupation.

Upon returning that night, town leaders had another decision to make.

Should they remove the massive American flag flying 80 feet above the market sheds in Center Square?

"If they see our flag flying, will they shell our town?" they wondered, Mingus said.

Faces of the Confederate occupation of York. From left, Confederate Brig. Gen. John Gordon, Confederate Lt. Gen. Jubal Early, York resident Cassandra
Faces of the Confederate occupation of York. From left, Confederate Brig. Gen. John Gordon, Confederate Lt. Gen. Jubal Early, York resident Cassandra Small, and A. B. Farquhar. (Courtesy of York County Heritage Trust)

Knowing the risks, they decided to let the flag fly.

Invaded: Around 10 a.m. Sunday, June 28, the first wave of Confederates arrived in York, marching through West York and into the city along Philadelphia, King and Market streets.

"People in downtown York were getting ready for church. The rebels found the town completely filled with people," Mingus said. "By and large, most of the York residents were curious more than anything."

Yorkers gawked at the invaders, figuring this a once-in-a-lifetime event.

At least one woman, most likely on Philadelphia Street, passed out socks to soldiers marching in bare, bloody feet.

Among the onlookers was a woman named Cassandra Small, who stood on the porch of her family's home. (The former P.A. Small homestead at 59 E. Market St. was the headquarters of the Lafayette Club until very recently.)

In a June 30, 1863, letter to a cousin, Cassandra Small wrote: "Sunday morning Mother, Mary and I, dressed for church; all the rest expected to stay at home. Just as the bells rang, the cry was heard, 'They are coming!' Oh, Lissy, what did we feel like? Humiliated! Disgraced! Men who don't often weep, wept then."

Upon arrival, Gordon stopped at the Smalls' home to make a spontaneous speech, albeit one he'd given in towns his soldiers had previously invaded. According to accounts of the speech, Gordon assured Yorkers the Confederates were there "in no spirit of retaliation."

"The men who are before you in dusty gray uniforms, barefooted many of them and ragged, are gentlemen and the sons of gentlemen. They are actuated by no mean spirit, but by the loftiest conception of duty that ever moved men in any war - that of self-defense," Gordon said. "I beg to assure you that no private property will be disturbed, and if one woman in this city is insulted by one of these soldiers, I promise you the head of such a man."

The fear of an enemy invasion was compounded by the ideological divide among Yorkers, said June Lloyd, a local historian and former librarian at the York County Heritage Trust.

Among the people watching the parade of soldiers invade York were opponents of the war - and President Abraham Lincoln - known as the Copperheads.

"They were not supporters of Lincoln and his party at all. They didn't think the administration could do anything right," Lloyd said. "They wanted the Union reunited, but they also wanted the war over."

Republican attorney James Latimer, who kept his family hidden inside, expressed in a letter to his cousin that he found the behavior of some Yorkers disgraceful.

"Even Philip Small, who should have known better, allowed his family to stand on his porch to gaze at them," Latimer wrote, according to Mingus.

In her letters, Cassandra Small refers to a next-door neighbor who revealed himself during the occupation as a "secessionist."

"He entertained the officers all the time. His sister ... waved her handkerchief to them, until our clergyman rushed to her and stopped her, saying, 'If you have no respect for yourself, have some for the people you live among.' Now we have nothing to do with them," she wrote.

Shared streets: Soon after his arrival, Gordon ordered the removal of the flag at Center Square.

"There's where the mystery begins," Mingus said.

Accounts vary about what happened to the American flag removed by Confederate soldiers. Some, Mingus said, suggest that the Southerners trailed it in the dirt behind them as they marched through town. Others suggest Gordon took the flag, folded it neatly and placed it in his saddle bag.

And some believe the Confederates turned it over to their medics, who may have used it as bandages at Gettysburg.

The confusion is exacerbated, Mingus said, by reports of a smaller flag that had flown at a York bookstore.

"Historians really don't know the fate of either," he said, adding that it's also unclear whether the Rebels replaced the American flag with a Confederate one in Center Square.

Soon after arriving, Gordon and his brigade continued moving past York toward Wrightsville, where militia men had gathered to defend the bridge across the Susquehanna River to Lancaster County.

Around noon, the rest of Early's 6,000 troops arrived in York from the north.

After a negotiation with Judge Robert Fisher over the fate of county records, Early moved his headquarters into the courthouse on the site of what is currently the York County Administration Center on East Market Street.

Confederate soldiers visited York's stores, trading southern currency for food and clothes. The town's shoemakers and millers stayed busy with orders from Confederate officers.

There's a story, Mingus said, of a Swiss immigrant who owned a confectionery store in what is now Cherry Lane. Confederate soldiers bought up everything in the store, leaving the owner with fistfuls of southern currency "he couldn't do anything with," Mingus said.

Missing from the scene were most of York's 1,200 black residents, who'd left town, no doubt unwilling to risk the threat of capture and enslavement.

Yorkers reeled from the sight of Confederate soldiers wearing black backpacks with the words "87th PA" printed on the back. Many men from the York-based infantry regiment had been captured days earlier in Winchester, Va.

News of the assault hadn't yet traveled back to York, Mingus said.

So the parents and sweethearts who witnessed the enemy roll into town with their loved ones' equipment had no way of knowing who'd been killed and who might still be alive.

In his book "Gettysburg Glimpses," Mingus writes of a North Carolina man named William B. Hockett, who wrote in his journal on June 28 of his disgust at Confederates taking horses and supplies from York residents. A Quaker, Hockett traveled with the army as a non-combatant, Mingus wrote.

"Nothing that they see escapes their grasp, and they are thrown away because men cannot carry them," Hockett wrote.

In addition to the $100,000 ransom, Early demanded that Yorkers provide his men thousands of shoes, hats and socks - a demand recorded in the Official Records of the Civil War.

York's leaders went door to door, collecting $28,610 in cash that they gave to the Confederates.

"The Confederates were threatening to burn the town if they didn't get the rest of their money," Mingus said. "But cooler heads prevailed."

Besides, Gettysburg was calling.

Retreat: On Sunday, in Gettysburg, Lee had received word that the Union Army was in Maryland and moving north.

"That was the first time he realized they were that close," Mingus said.

On Monday, Lee began sending couriers with orders to pull his Army together. The message got to Early late Monday while he was negotiating with city leaders over the ransom.

"The courier and his escort galloped into downtown York, basically interrupted the meeting and said, basically, 'Look, you need to leave,'" Mingus said.

The talks halted, and Early began prepping to abandon York. During the night, he pulled troops from downtown.

By daybreak, most Confederate soldiers - including Gordon's men, who'd returned to York on Monday from Wrightsville - were on the move or about to leave.

By 10 a.m. on Tuesday, June 30, they were gone. York's occupation was over.

"The townspeople, as far as we know, few, if any, suffered any physical damage," Mingus said. "Although, several lost horses from their stables. By and large, it was very civil."

In a letter to her cousin dated Tuesday, June 30, 1863, Cassandra Small wrote of her relief in seeing the soldiers leave - and her fear that they would soon return.

"Can it be true that our quiet town has been in possession of the Rebels, and that for the last two days we have all been prisoners of war!" Small wrote. "Oh, Lissie, you can't form any idea of our situation, but thanks be to our Heavenly Father, they have all left us this morning."

Farquhar's impulse to ride out and meet the enemy would prove to haunt him long after the occupation.

Months later, having endured his neighbors' blame for York's "surrender," Farquhar traveled to Washington, D.C. to ask Lincoln if he'd done the right thing. The president said he did.

In a July 8 letter, Small defended the decision of town leaders to meet the occupation without resistance.

"All the Rebels say it was their intention to have the battle here, and then we would have been in the situation of Gettysburg," she wrote.

Gettysburg: In the end, the decisive battle of the Civil War would be fought not in York but in a smaller town about 30 miles west.

During three days of battle, more than 50,000 men were killed, wounded or captured in Gettysburg. A quarter of Early's division suffered casualties, Mingus said.

The overwhelming casualties in Gettysburg sparked an epic response from York County residents, many of whom traveled to Gettysburg to help. They read to the wounded and wrote letters to their families, Mingus said.

More than 2,000 wounded Union soldiers from Gettysburg ended up at the hospital on the site of what is now Penn Park.

"York's shining moment in all this was the massive reaction to all the wounded," Mingus said.

- Erin James may also be reached at