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Historian pinpoints borough's key role in Civil War

July 23, 2004|by DON AINES

chambersburg@herald-mail.com

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Ed Bearss first passed through Chambersburg while hitchhiking across the country from Montana in 1941, having first read about the town four years earlier in a book about J.E.B. Stewart.

The historian emeritus of the National Park Service arrived by bus Thursday, accompanied by many of the history buffs who signed up for this year's Chambersburg Civil War Seminar. A reception in his honor was held in the new Heritage Center.

That book about the Confederate leader, which included a chapter on his 1862 raid on Chambersburg, sparked Bearss' interest in the Civil War. That interest bloomed into a career as an author and television personality whose face became familiar to the public through Ken Burns' "The Civil War" and The History Channel's "Civil War Journal."

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"Chambersburg has a lot to attract people. Heritage tourism is big," Bearss told a group of about 50 people in the center. Confederate troops passed through the Cumberland Valley railroad center three times during the war, including the route to Gettysburg in 1863 and the July 31, 1864, raid by Gen. John McCausland.

McCausland torched the town, destroying hundreds of buildings, when the borough was unable to meet his ransom demands. It was the only town north of the Mason-Dixon Line to meet that fate.

Bearss has come to Chambersburg a number of times since 1989, when the seminars began as part of the annual ChambersFest celebration.

"If there wasn't a Chambersburg, there might not have been a battle of Gettysburg," Bearss said. It was here that Gen. Robert E. Lee decided to take his army east for a showdown with Union forces.

For years, tourists have passed through Chambersburg on the way to Gettysburg, said Ted Alexander of Greencastle, Pa., the chief historian at Antietam National Battlefield near Sharpsburg. "It was like we were the stepchild" of Gettysburg, Alexander said. The Heritage Center now gives tourists a place to stop and learn about the history of the area.

The center includes displays on the frontier history of the area, as well as the Underground Railroad, Civil War, transportation and architecture, Alexander said.

The evening included a demonstration of bugle calls by New Jersey musician George Rabbai. More than "Reveille" and "Taps," Rabbai noted that there were 48 infantry bugle calls, 39 for the artillery and 26 for the cavalry, taking up most of their activities throughout the day and in battle.

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