Confederacy's Calling Cards

Written on 07/28/2020


The Old Courthouse on the Square still bears the pockmarks from the Confederate's shelling of Carlisle during the Civil War.

Prior to the Civil War, the Carlisle Barracks on the outskirts of town served as a calvary training base for the United States Army.  When the war broke out, the Army basically split into two, with soldiers from the South, including future Confederate Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell, heading home to take up arms against Lincoln's government.  

In late June 1863, a contingent of the Confederate calvary led by Ewell was sent on a raid into Pennsylvania to try to seize Harrisburg, the state capital of Pennsylvania and a main hub of train transport for the Union Army moving south.  As he was familiar with Carlisle from his time here, Ewell brought his calvary into town to look for supplies, and  while he was here, his men camped in the streets and seized food from the townspeople before continuing north towards Harrisburg.  While he didn't stay long, Ewell's unexpected layover in Carlisle caused a series of events that may very well have led to the South's loss at Gettysburg a few days later.

Heading north after raiding Maryland, Confederate Maj. Gen J.E.B. Stuart and his calvary came to Carlisle searching for Ewell but, instead, encountered a small contigent of Union militia who occupied the town after Ewell left.   Even though Stuart's brigades of calvary were far more experienced and in greater numbers than the Union forces, he didn't engage the troops immediately.  A skirmish erupted on July 1, 1863, after Stuart demanded a surrender of the Union militia and was refused.  In response, Stuart ordered the town shelled by his artillery.

The bombardment lasted for several hours until word came that Lee needed more troops as he was actively engaged with the Union Army near Gettysburg.  Stuart ordered the Carlisle Barracks burnt before withdrawing his men to join up with the main body of the Confederate Army.  Stuart's time in Carlisle caused him to miss the first day of battle in Gettysburg and allowed the Union forces to gain traction.  Although the Battle of Carlisle was a relatively minor event in the Civil War, Ewell and then Stuart's actions in Carlisle helped swing the momentum of the Battle of Gettysburg, and subsequently the war, in favor of the Union.

Some of the buildings that are standing from that time still bear the scars of the Confederate bombardment over 150 years later.  Most notably, you can still see the "calling card" of the Confederacy on the Old Courthouse columns and first floor window sill.  The easiest damage to spot is on the pillar to the left of the front entrance of the courthouse.  Look for the painted date "July 1863" in the indentation high above the steps.

Read more about the Old Courthouse.

Photo: Lena Hershey