Treason or Slander?

by Gabby Hornbeck, ’13 On July 4th, 1863, Henry J. Stahle, editor of the Gettysburg Compiler was arrested and sent to Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland. He was accused of “copperhead treason” in the form of informing a “rebel colonel” during the…

By Gabby Hornbeck ’13

On July 4th, 1863, Henry J. Stahle, editor of the Gettysburg Compiler was arrested and sent to Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland. He was accused of “copperhead treason” in the form of informing “a rebel colonel” during the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg.(1) In speaking of his discussion with General Morris upon his forced return to Fort McHenry in late July of 1863, Stahle wrote,

We suspected that some fiendish political opponent was at the bottom of it, and we could afford to suffer more yet in order to discover him–and hoped Gen. Morris had now evidence enough to enable us to place our finger upon the very man. We asked him why he ordered our return. He replied, ‘a letter from Gettysburg.’ We asked to see it, and it was produced. There it was!–in the hand-writing of and signed by D. McCONAUGHY (2)

But who were these two figures? What roles did they play in the town of Gettysburg? And how did they come to be at such odds with one another? In looking at biographies of nineteenth century Gettysburg residents David McConaughy and Henry J. Stahle, there are distinct disparities between them. Both born in 1823, McConaughy came from one of the oldest families in the county, in addition to being a lawyer, admitted to the bar in 1845. Stahle, on the other hand, originated from York County, took up “the printer’s trade in the office of the York Gazette,” and purchased the Gettysburg Compiler in 1845.(3)  The most notable aspects of their persons, however, were their political beliefs. McConaughy was a Whig-turned-Republican and “was a member of the National Convention which nominated Abraham Lincoln for President the first time, and a member of the Electoral College at his second election.”(4) Stahle was a Democrat who “carried weight in his party,” ran a Democratic newspaper, and served as “a delegate to the convention that nominated General George B. McClellan.”(5)  

 

The issues and questions which pervade this story of alleged treason and subsequent alleged slander can be analyzed both through the scope of this individual event, but also through the broader lens of legal history and the American Civil War. On the individual level, the issues largely faced are those of biases, presented both by the individuals involved, as well as local Pennsylvania newspapers. For example, initial reports of Stahle’s actions from the Lebanon Courier proclaimed that he had “informed a rebel colonel about a certain number of wounded Union prisoners, with a given number of arms, [which] were concealed in the house of the postmaster of Gettysburg, Mr. Buehler.” The witness who attested to this story was Private Francis Williams, a Union soldier located in David A. Buehler’s house, and was later corroborated by Mr. Buehler’s sister during a deposition with the Provost Marshal in Gettysburg.(6)  Less than a month later, however, the Erie Observer declared that Stahle had “been released from his imprisonment in Fort McHenry, and reached Gettysburg last week.” This publication indicated their bias by stating, “The charge … was a malicious lie, gotten up by abolitionists for the purposes of injuring the character of a gallant and efficient member of the Democratic party … We trust Mr. Stahle will not let the matter drop here.” Such a statement foretold Stahle’s continued campaign to uncover the truth about McConaughy’s actions.

Compiler
An 1895 photograph of Stahle’s 1863 Gettysburg Compiler office and next-door home. Gettysburg Compiler Building, “Politics and ‘Penelope’ Wayside Marker.”

In 1865, Stahle used the Gettysburg Compiler to defend his version of the story which spoke of “an act of humanity” through securing a leg amputation for Lt. Colonel William W. Dudley of the 19th Indiana Volunteers, a Union officer residing in his home. As a modern wayside marker in Gettysburg reads, Stahle sought out a “Confederate surgeon,” although Stahle does not offer such clarification in his article. Additionally, Stahle describes his one week stay at Fort McHenry, his return to Gettysburg and ensuing arrest within the town. He was soon released, but sent back again for a brief period to Fort McHenry, before being once again released. Stahle identifies all he was subjected to as “political malice, distorted into a treasonable crime. I, going upon the street alone, for a surgeon and a barber, was metamorphosed into being seen there with a rebel officer pointing out Union prisoners.” McConaughy became the perpetrator of such slander and “political malice” through a series of letters later presented to Stahle, both written by McConaughy himself and by often anonymous trustworthy sources. Most notably, Stahle depicts the reaction of General Darius Couch, who had issued an appointment of McConaughy as an aide-de-camp on June 29th, 1863.(7)  General Couch, said to have initially expressed doubts about Stahle’s guilt, later issued “a special order quashing the whole affair,” without firmly showing his hand in terms of whose side he was on. This furthers not only the question of local political implications and this action as an individual event, but perhaps also how it plays into the greater context of the bureaucracy of the Union army during the American Civil War.

The questions which arise from this story are varied. What became of these men involved in such a scandalous memory? McConaughy would go on to be remembered for his dispute with fellow Gettysburg lawyer David Wills over the creation of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, and his subsequent actions to create the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association. (8)  Henry J. Stahle would continue on as editor of the Gettysburg Compiler, as well as his “active interest in getting the railroads to Gettysburg,” among other such progressive acts.(9)  Interestingly enough, both were members of
the Evergreen Cemetery Association, which draws questions of how may they have associated or continued any sort of relationship following such a dispute. In a broader sense, this story becomes drawn into the larger question of legal history during the Civil War, as Stahle was essentially arrested and may have been put to trial under a military tribunal. Bureaucracy also plays a potential role in this story.

The case of the alleged treasonous actions and potential slander of two citizens of the town of Gettysburg paint a broad story of how the Battle of Gettysburg and the town as a whole was woven into the greater patchwork of the American Civil War. Whether debated through political, legal, cultural, or local history, this story of McConaughy and Stahle offers a microcosm of the American Civil War. What remains are questions of what the story meant for the memory of these individuals, as well as who the actual perpetrator of a crime truly was.


Footnotes:

(1) “The Doing of a Rebel Sympathizer in Gettysburg,” Lebanon Courier, (July 16, 1863).
(2)  Henry J. Stahle, “McConaughy Smoked Out! – His Last Gasp,” The Gettysburg Compiler, (Oct. 9, 1865).
(3)  History of Cumberland and Adams Counties, Pennsylvania, Part III History of Adams County (Chicago: Warner, Beers, and Co., 1886), 372.
(4)  Ibid., 362-63.
(5)  Ibid., 362-63, 372.
(6)  “The Doing of a Rebel Sympathizer in Gettysburg,” Lebanon Courier, (July 16, 1863). ; “Deposition of Miss Elmira Freeman,” Department of Susquehanna: Provost Marshal’s Office, Gettysburg, PA., July 20, 1863.
(7)  “Death of Hon. David McConaughy, The Oldest Member of the Bar Passes Away-A Loyal and Energetic Citizen and an Able Lawyer,” Gettysburg Star and Sentinel, (January 22, 1902).
(8)  Kathleen R. Georg, “This Grand National Enterprise: The Origins of Gettysburg’s Soldiers’ National Cemetery & Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association,” (May 1982): 6-12.
(9)  History of Cumberland and Adams Counties, Pennsylvania, Part III History of Adams County (Chicago: Warner, Beers, and Co., 1886), 372.

Sources:

Adams County Historical Society, Gettysburg, PA – Articles
Stahle, Henry J.. “McConaughy Smoked Out! – His Last Gasp.” The Gettysburg Compiler (October 9, 1865).

“A Pennsylvania Editor Arrested and Released.” Erie Observer (August 1, 1863).

“Death of Hon. David McConaughy, The Oldest Member of the Bar Passes Away-A Loyal and  Energetic Citizen and an Able Lawyer.” Gettysburg Star and Sentinel (January 22, 1902).

“Deposition of Miss Elmira Freeman.” Department of Susquehanna: Provost Marshal’s Office. Gettysburg, PA.: July 20, 1863.

“The Doing of a Rebel Sympathizer in Gettysburg.” Lebanon Courier (July 16, 1863).

Further Reading:

History of Cumberland and Adams Counties, Pennsylvania, Part III History of Adams County.  Chicago: Warner, Beers, and Co., 1886.

Georg, Kathleen R.. “This Grand National Enterprise: The Origins of Gettysburg’s Soldiers’  National Cemetery & Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association.” (May 1982): 1-24.

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