This Day (Never Surrender Edition)

Published:April 29, 2011 by Brendan Wolfe

On this day in 1861, the First Rockbridge Artillery organized in Lexington, Virginia, with VMI professor John A. McCausland as its first captain.

One suspects that even as a young man, McCausland was an old cuss. He had that bald-headed, bug-eyed look about him. He retreated grudgingly, if at all, as his 1927 (!) obituary in the Washington Post suggested: “The veteran of the gray legions whose pride was that he had never surrendered, even after Appomattox, surrendered at last to the encroaching weakness of old age which took toll of his naturally rugged physique. He had not been ill.”

Of course not. And what a life he had lived: In 1859, while at VMI, “Tiger John” served as Stonewall Jackson‘s assistant and marched the cadets north to Charles Town, where they guarded the very scaffolding from which John Brown bravely dangled. Then, in 1864, he led another legion north, this time into Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Seeking revenge for the burning of Lexington and the barracks at VMI, McCausland demanded of the town fathers $100,000 in gold or $500,000 in paper money. “The residents declared they could not produce the sum,” the Post reported. “McCausland said they appeared to be making no effort to meet his demand, and ordered the torch applied.”

John A. McCausland: taskmaster.

Our entry notes what the obituary failed to mention: that the end result was 550 buildings destroyed, 3,000 people left homeless, and $1.6 million in damages. No wonder the old man never surrendered! Had he turned himself in, he would have been forced to face the attorney for Franklin County, Pennsylvania, who had indicted him for arson. Instead, the former math professor hid out in Canada, England, Scotland, France, and finally Mexico.

McCausland spent his last five decades hiding out in the hills of West Virginia. Chambersburg, meanwhile, moved on. According to its website, after McCausland’s raid, “the Borough was rebuilt and has grown.”*

IMAGE: The Burning of Chambersburg, July 30, 1864 by Ron Lesser

* Which is true. 1860 census: pop. 5.255; 2000 census: 17,862.