"I shall deem it a cheap purchase"
By Ross Hetrick
On his way to the Battle of Gettysburg, Confederate General Jubal Early on June 26, 1863 destroyed Thaddeus Stevens's Caledonia iron works near Chambersburg, PA inflicting the largest civilian financial loss during the invasion of Pennsylvania.
Stevens had long been a target of the Confederacy. As the most powerful congressman in the Union, he had long advocated freeing the slaves and then using them in the military. He also wanted to confiscate land from the richest Confederates and distribute it to the freed slaves.
When Early arrived, the iron furnace manager pleaded with him not to burn down the mill, telling him that it had been losing money for decades and was only kept open by Stevens for the sake of the workers. "That is not the way Yankees do business," Early cynically replied. "Mr. Stevens is an enemy of the South. He is in favor confiscating their property and arming the negroes," he said. "His property must be destroyed." He further said that if he had caught Stevens at the mill, he would have hanged "him on the spot and divide his bones and send them to the several [Confederate] states as curiosities."
Even before the burning, Caledonia had been nothing but trouble for Stevens. Started in 1837, the operation had amassed debts of $200,000 by 1842, forcing Stevens to move from Gettysburg to Lancaster, PA, to make more money as a lawyer to pay down the debt. He jokingly called it his "sinking fund" and he continued to lose money through the 1840s and 50s and only started making some money in the 1860s.
Stevens was at Caledonia on June 16 when word arrived that Confederates were in the area and he beat a hasty retreat to Shippensburg. Stevens would later sarcastically say he understood the Confederates regretted not meeting him since he "seems to very popular with the chivalry."
When Stevens heard about the burning, he at first quipped, "Did they burn the debts also?" He estimated that he lost $75,000 as a result of the mill's destruction, but he was more concerned about the 250 people who lost their work. "I know not what the poor families will do. I must provide for their present relief," he wrote a friend.
But despite the huge loss, which would have amounted to millions in today's money, Stevens took it in stride. "We must all expect to suffer by this wicked war," he wrote to a friend. "I have not felt a moment's trouble for my share of it. If, finally, the government shall be reestablished over our whole territory; and not a vestige of slavery left, I shall deem it a cheap purchase."
Ross Hetrick is president of the Thaddeus Stevens Society, which is dedicated to promoting Stevens's important legacy. More information about the Great Commoner can be found at the society's website: https://www.thaddeusstevenssociety.com/