Monday, June 25, 2012

Civilian Spies: David McConaughy and the Adams Rifles

Gettysburg Civilian John Burns. This photo taken by Matthew Brady around or about July 15, 1863. Library of Congress.
Civilian John Burns stands at the center of one of the epic human interest stories of the battle of Gettysurg. As the story goes, the 69-year-old cobbler and town constable marched out of town upon hearing the sounds of battle on the morning of July 1st, and volunteered to fight with the Iron Brigade. Fighting that afternoon on McPherson Ridge, Burns received several wounds but managed to avoid becoming a rebel prisoner. Newspapers spread the story of his courage and patriotism after the battle, and he became a national hero.

That much we know. But the legend of John Burns grew from those basic facts, in no small part thanks to Burns himself. Soon stories conflicted on his age, the type of weapon he used in the battle, the number of wounds he had received, and even his exploits as a soldier during the War of 1812. In addition, Burns' story came to serve as proof of another emerging plot after the battle: the despicable and unpatriotic conduct of Gettysburg's civilian population. Burns fed this growing reputation by claiming that he had attempted to convince other civilians to join him in fighting on July 1st, but that they had refused. Indeed, Burns - a frequent victim of pranks and jokes in town before the battle - seemed to relish his new-found fame as the only Gettysburg civilian willing to lend the Army of the Potomac a hand during the battle of Gettysburg.

Burns did not launch the first aspersions against Gettysburg civilians, however. That honor belonged to New York Times correspondent L.L. Crounse. Filing a report from Gettysburg on July 7th, 1863, Crounse wrote:
The conduct of the majority of the male citizens of Gettysburgh [sic], and the surrounding County of Adams, is such as to stamp them with dishonor and craven-hearted meanness.... The actions of the whole people...are so sordidly mean and unpatriotic, as to engender the belief that they were indifferent as to which party was whipped.
Crounse continued his account by complaining that the citizens seemed most concerned with obtaining reimbursement for their own personal loss of property, and that many men fled town, leaving their wives and children behind. He concluded by insulting the intelligence of the populous, and describing Gettysburg as a "desert of shameless indifference and discourtesy."

Statue of John Burns located on McPherson's Ridge.
Photo taking in the early 1900s.
Thus in the weeks and months after the battle, the legend of John Burns grew, largely at the expense of the rest of Gettysburg's civilian population. Today, visitors to the battlefield can learn of the heroics of Burns by visiting his monument on the first day's field.

Yet while Burns perhaps stands alone as the only civilian who shouldered a musket and joined the federal line of battle, the notion that he alone of Gettysburg's civilians lent a hand militarily during the Gettysburg campaign is nothing more than one of the battle's great and lasting myths. After all, we must remember that before Burns sauntered out of town on the morning of July 1st, many of Gettysburg's finest had already volunteered to serve their country in its time of need. Over the course of the war eleven different Pennsylvania regiments featured companies recruited in Adams County. And even excluding these full time regiments - we must account for the townspeople and college students who signed on to assist during the emergency of Lee's invasion - and saw service as part of the 26th Pennsylvania Emergency Militia Unit.

For the sake of argument, though, let us exclude these brave young men, and focus on the claim that Burns remained the only civilian (unattached to any military organization) willing to chip in. This again does not measure up. A scan of official military message traffic in the days leading up to Gettysburg can help us piece together the story of a band of Gettysburgians who gave significant aid to the high command of the Army of the Potomac in the weeks and days leading up to the battle. We do not know the names nor the number of men involved, but we do know the leader of this organization: prominent lawyer and political leader David McConaughy.

Students of Gettysburg will instantly recognize McConaughy's name, though perhaps for other reasons. McConaughy helped found the Evergreen Cemetery in 1854, and served as president of its Association until 1863. After the battle, he purchased battlefield land and became the driving force for preserving the grounds and founding the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association. Through all of these notable achievements, his service to the Army of the Potomac in the campaign has fallen into shadow.

Born in 1823 in Gettysburg, McConaughy attended Gettysburg College in the 1830s, but transferred to Washington College, where he graduated in 1840. He returned to Gettysburg, where he studied law under Moses McClean and Thaddeus Stevens. A former Whig, McConaughy attended the Republican National Convention in 1860. By the start of the Civil War, he vied with rival lawyer David Wills for control of the Republican Party in Gettysburg.

At the war's outbreak, many of Gettysburg's citizens felt uncomfortable about the town's close proximity to Virginia and the Confederacy. After all many reflected, the town lay only one solid cavalry march from the Virginia and Maryland border. As a result, several civilian groups banded together to serve as scouts, including the "Gettysburg Zouaves" and the "Adams Rifles." The rifles formed in the spring of 1861, and chose McConaughy as their leader and "captain." During the early years of war, these groups kept watch at times on the passes of South Mountain, to serve as an early warning system for Gettysburg's civilians.

Evidently, the members of the Adams Rifles included many of McConaughy's law clients, although we don't know the names of many of them. Undoubtably, some who served eventually joined a regimental command and left Gettysburg for the front. Among the known participants were R.G. McCreary - a lawyer who lived just east of the Diamond on York Street, T.D. Carson - cashier at the Gettysburg Bank, and also a resident of York Street, and J. Howard Wert - a school teacher.

We don't know how frequently the Adams Rifles patrolled to the west and south of Gettysburg on the lookout, but we do know that when the Army of Northern Virginia invaded Pennsylvania in 1863, this early warning system suddenly became a scouting and spying operation aiding and informing the federal response to the invasion.

By mid-June, the Gettysburg command began passing key information on to Major General Darius N. Couch in Harrisburg. Having recently resigned from the Army of the Potomac, Couch had just assumed command of the newly created Department of the Susquehanna. On June 16th, he sent the following message to Washington:
McConaughy and his scouts had pinpointed the arrival of the first Confederate troops in Pennsylvania.

As the Army of the Potomac moved north, reports from McConaughy began to flow directly to the Army of the Potomac and Colonel George H. Sharpe, the head of the Bureau of Military Information  - its centralized intelligence arm. On June 27th federal cavalry at Emmitsburg forwarded the following report to Chief of Staff Butterfield at Army Headquarters:

 The efforts and reports of this band of Gettysburg spies, combined with those of federal cavalry and the Bureau of Military Information, helped the Army of the Potomac's high command make a highly accurate assessment of the Army of Northern Virginia's relative positioning. Amazingly, as he attended to his scouting duties, McConaughy's wife gave birth to a son on June 26, the day rebel infantry entered Gettysburg. At army headquarters meanwhile, Sharpe was impressed with the civilian scouting operation. On June 29th he wrote McConaughy directly:
The General directs me to thank you for yours of today. You have grasped the information so well in its directness & minuteness, that it is very valuable. I hope our friends understand the great game that is now being played, everything in the way of advantage depends upon which side gets the best information. The rebels are shortly in advance of us - but if thro' the districts they threaten our friends will organize & send us information as you have done, they may rest secure in the result - and we hope a near one.
In his excellent book published in 1996, The Secret War for the Union: The Untold Story of Military Intelligence in the Civil War, historian Edwin C. Fishel summarized McConaughy's contributions:
Fate had laid an important task in McConaughy's hands. Of the various supplies of intelligence serving the Army of the Potomac in the last days of June, he was the one whose reports, more than any other, drew the Union forces to Gettysburg.
The Army of the Potomac's Bureau of Military Information. Colonel George H. Sharpe is on the left.
Photo taken in August of 1863. From the Library of Congress.

Despite the amazing efforts of these civilian-spies, little has made its way into print about their efforts, though a clear record exists. Instead, after the battle Gettysburg's citizens - who in the first three days of 1863 saw their lives turned upside-down - had to endured the taunts and criticisms of an obnoxious New York Times reporter. Then, they watched as John Burns basked in the glow of the nation's limelight, while he burnished his own reputation by criticizing the patriotism of the rest of his community.

Today, we can only speculate as to who aided and assisted McConaughy, Carson, and McCreary in gathering their intelligence reports that Sharpe found so valuable, and what impact the reports had on the battle's outcome. We can safely say however that Gettysburg was not a "desert of shameless indifference," and that John Burns was not alone among Gettysburg's citizens in aiding the cause in June and July of 1863.


  1. Great story.
    My great, great grandfather was Thaddeus Stevens Slentz. He and his family were from Gettysburg and many of them lived through the battle. He joined the Adams Rifles in 1861 whose founding purpose seems to have been gathering information regarding rebel activity in the area. Later that year he was a member of Co. F of the 87th infantry and of the regimental band. When the bands were eliminated in 1862 he was discharged. He went back to Gettysburg, his wife, their first child and his job as a printer at the Sentinel. What he did during the battle is a mystery. He was in Hanover on the 27th of June and traveled back to Gettysburg with Daniel Skelly. Other than that, there is no information on him. His father, mother, sisters and an older brother, John T. Slentz and his family, sought refuge at the Seminary. Maybe he was with his in-laws, the Samuel Gilbert family. That he could have been part of continued efforts of McConaughy and company is not out of the question. My mental picture of him is that of an outspoken, pugnacious person, willing to mix it up from time to time. So, something new to research.
    Steve Strack

    1. John T. Slentz was my g great grandfather. Do you have more information on him??? Carol Thoman

    2. John T. Slentz was my g great grandfather. Do you have more information on him????? Carol Thoman

  2. Thanks Steve, glad you enjoyed the post. I definitely found this story of how Gettysburg civilians played a role in the campaign and battle fascinating. If you find out any more about your ancestor, I'd love to hear about it.