How Volunteer Soldiers Blocked Robert E. Lee — By Burning the World’s Longest Covered Bridge


They have been inexperienced in fight. Most have been widespread laborers in a neighborhood rolling mill who had lately left their jobs to defend their office, properties, and family members. Now they have been in an unpaid house guard firm defending the world’s longest coated bridge in opposition to oncoming Confederates. None wore uniforms, however every of the 53 volunteers had army-issued muskets readily available as they wielded pickaxes and shovels to strengthen the horseshoe-shaped earthworks and rifle-pits surrounding Wrightsville, Pa. They ranged from 15-year-old John Aquilla Wilson to a number of older males who had seen loads of sunrises. Some feared they may by no means see the sundown on today if the Rebels captured them. All have been Black.

It was Sunday, June 28, 1863, and the sight of Black males marching to warfare in opposition to Accomplice forces was nonetheless new in southern Pennsylvania. A few of the guardsmen had family members and buddies who earlier within the yr had left Wrightsville and neighboring Columbia to enlist within the newly organized 54th and fifty fifth Massachusetts Infantry regiments. In contrast to their comrades, the lads digging trenches weren’t a proper navy unit however volunteers within the house guard firm—the one Black unit amongst 5 such newbie organizations from cities alongside the Susquehanna River. They made up in braveness and willpower for what they lacked in martial coaching. “They offered a motley look, attired as they have been in each description of residents’ gown,” wrote an admiring Lieutenant Francis Wallace of the twenty seventh Pennsylvania Volunteer Militia (PVM), a newspaper editor in civilian life. “They have been armed with the outdated musket altered to the percussion lock.”

The Black firm from Columbia, underneath the command of rolling mill co-owner Captain William Case, was a part of a 1,500-man drive unexpectedly assembled within the days earlier than the Rebels have been attributable to arrive. Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin, working with the Struggle Division and Maj. Gen. Darius N. Sofa of the Division of the Susquehanna, had known as for 50,000 volunteers to defend the commonwealth as soon as information arrived that parts of Robert E. Lee’s vaunted Military of Northern Virginia have been crossing the Mason-Dixon Line. Sofa didn’t have the authority to enroll Black males into the seven for-pay PVM regiments that have been mustered into the service, so the Columbians and York Countians served on their very own volition, with out compensation, uniforms, or tools, apart from the entrenching instruments and muskets that the quartermaster of the twenty seventh PVM had distributed.

Union troops underneath William F. “Baldy” Smith—and a minimum of one exuberant younger lad—assemble in downtown Carlisle in response to J.E.B. Stuart’s July 1 risk to shell the city. (Heritage Auctions, Dallas)

Their foes have been battle-tested veterans, the lead brigade of Accomplice Maj. Gen. Jubal Early’s Division that had occupied York, the biggest city between Harrisburg and Baltimore, earlier that Sabbath day. On June 27, Brig. Gen. John B. Gordon’s brigade of six Georgia regiments rested in fields close to the hamlet of Farmers Submit Workplace, some 10 miles west of York on the turnpike to Gettysburg. That night, Common Early rode south from the place his three different brigades have been camped at Huge Mount to satisfy with Gordon. The tall Georgian knowledgeable his commander {that a} delegation of York’s civic leaders had visited his camp and agreed that the Union troops defending the city would withdraw, leaving the borough of 8,600 individuals open to Accomplice occupation with none resistance. “If that proves true,” Early ordered, “you’ll move on by way of and transfer quickly to the river to safe each ends of the Wrightsville-Columbia bridge.”

Early had orders to burn the 1¼-mile-long wood bridge and take his division northwest from York to Dillsburg, the place he might help Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell’s efforts to seize Harrisburg ought to that show to be sensible. When he launched into his second main invasion of the Northern states on June 3, Robert E. Lee, as he had completed in his Maryland Marketing campaign of September 1862, hoped to strike a crippling blow to Union morale, both by seizing a significant metropolis or drawing the pursuing Military of the Potomac right into a battle on floor of his selecting that may finish in a decisive Accomplice victory. That favorable outcome may drive President Abraham Lincoln’s administration to barter an finish to the bloody warfare. One notably attractive choice that Lee thought of was to occupy Pennsylvania’s capital. With that in thoughts, he instructed his Second Corps commander, Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell, “If Harrisburg comes inside your means, seize it.” The order left room for Ewell’s discretion, relying on the circumstances he may encounter.

Brig. Gen. Albert Jenkins (left) and Maj. Gen. Robert Rodes led Ewell’s push into Pennsyl-
vania. On June 27, Jenkins secured Mechanics-
burg and Rodes quickly occupied Carlisle. (Virginia Navy Institute)

As in his earlier incursion into enemy turf, Lee audaciously divided his military to facilitate attaining his aim. Marching north on June 27 from the Chambersburg space, Maj. Gen. Robert E. Rodes’ Division of the Second Corps seized Carlisle. Effectively upfront, Brig. Gen. Albert G. Jenkins, commanding Ewell’s mounted infantry brigade, secured Mechanicsburg, from which the Confederates might threaten Harrisburg from the west. There remained an issue, nevertheless—Harrisburg was located on the jap financial institution of the Susquehanna River. Any try to seize the capital would require a frontal assault on the hundreds of New York and Pennsylvania militiamen who defended the heights on the western shore. Thus, Ewell despatched Early’s division east by way of Gettysburg to grab York, a precious prize with its railroad warehouses, street community, and normal prosperity.

On June 26, Early drove the defending twenty sixth PVM from Gettysburg, capturing 175 troopers with out shedding a person. He deemed the state emergency militia “so totally inefficient” that, on his initiative, he determined to grab the Columbia Bridge as an alternative of destroying it as ordered. So, on Saturday evening on the Jacob Altland Farm at Farmers, Early issued his orders to Gordon to safe the bridge. As he later wrote, the crusty Virginian now deliberate to march throughout the river into Lancaster County, seize the 1,000 horses rumored to have been taken to security there, after which march up roads paralleling the jap riverbank to threaten Harrisburg’s comparatively undefended rear.

The Columbia Bridge was a prize value controlling. A collection of ferries had served vacationers between Wrightsville and Columbia from colonial days till 1812 when businessmen within the latter city had commissioned a toll bridge. Ice floes had knocked it off its foundations 20 years later and partially wrecked it. The substitute bridge, opened in 1832 utilizing a lot of the wooden from its predecessor, spanned 5,620 toes. The huge, 40-foot-wide construction contained a roadway for the Philadelphia–Pittsburgh turnpike, tracks for the Pennsylvania Railroad that intersected the Northern Central Railway at Wrightsville, and a two-level towpath that related the Pennsylvania Essential Line Canal in Lancaster County to the Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal alongside the western riverbank in York County.

The Columbia Financial institution, the bridge’s proprietor, made a hefty revenue charging tolls to cross the river—$1.50 for a wagon and 6 horses; 6 cents for every pedestrian. Strategically, it was the one bridge between Harrisburg and Conowingo, Md., and the few viable fords in York County have been unusable as a result of latest rains had swollen the river.

This illustration of the hotly contested Susquehanna River span, titled “View of Columbia–From Wrightsville” predated the
June 1863 showdown between John Gordon and Pennsylvania militia, house guardsmen, and different defenders. The canal that lined the river right here is seen within the foreground. (Lancaster Historic Society)

Gordon’s Brigade, which Ewell tasked with quick-marching eastward to take the susceptible bridge, consisted of the thirteenth, twenty sixth, thirty first, thirty eighth, sixtieth, and 61st Georgia Infantry. York’s Democratic chief burgess, newspaperman David Small, had negotiated with Gordon on Saturday evening, so Gordon knew as he marched east from Farmers on Sunday that he probably would take York with out firing a shot. Behind a small display of Virginia cavalry, Gordon’s pioneers and the 50-man vanguard of the Colonel Clement A. Evans’ thirty first Georgia arrived in York at 10 a.m as church bells summoned the residents to Sunday worship companies. Most rushed into the streets or had already determined to skip church to look at the oncoming procession. Many had hidden or buried their valuables, and the banks had despatched their holdings to security.

Accomplice bands performed within the distance as Captain William Henry “Tip” Harrison led the primary troopers into city to protect the crossroads and stop interference with the lengthy column of 1,800 Georgians coming from the west. A few of Gordon’s early arrivers hauled down an 18- by-35-foot handmade U.S. flag that flew from a 110-foot-high pole in York’s Centre Sq.. Some accounts counsel that Gordon threw it throughout his saddle; others say he folded it in his saddlebag. One story, probably apocryphal, says he tied it to his horse’s tail and dragged it by way of the muddy streets. The sight reportedly so enraged a neighborhood lad, Adam Spangler, that he ran house to discover a gun to kill the Insurgent normal. His father correctly suggested him that such an act might result in a bloodbath of the townsfolk.

A few blocks east of the city sq., a woman, who Gordon reckoned was about 10 to 12 years outdated, handed him a bouquet of pink roses. In it, he found a folded piece of paper in “a lady’s flowery handwriting” that gave an in depth description of Wrightsville’s defenses. “I fastidiously learn and reread this unusual word,” Gordon later wrote. “It bore no signature and carried no assurance of sympathy for the Southern trigger, nevertheless it was so terse and specific in its phrases as to compel my confidence.” The lady, Mary Ann Small, probably had obtained the flowers from a stranger with directions to offer them to the final. Her mother and father weren’t often called Southern sympathizers.

Shot 5 instances and grievously wounded through the Sunken Street combating at Sharpsburg, Gordon someway escaped demise and was again in motion at Chancellorsville in Might 1863. By the tip of the warfare, he had assumed Second Corps command in Robert E. Lee’s military. (Library of Congress)

When different parts of his division arrived to safe York, Early dispatched Gordon’s Brigade on his mission to Wrightsville, marching behind a lot of Lt. Col. Elijah V. White’s thirty fifth Battalion, Virginia Cavalry, and the 4 3-inch ordnance rifles of Captain William A. Tanner’s Courtney (Va.) Artillery. Gordon proceeded slowly towards the river, pausing to offer his males an prolonged lunch break simply east of York. Early’s different three brigades (Brig. Gen. William Smith’s, Brig. Gen. Harry Hays’, and Colonel I.E. Avery’s) and his three different artillery batteries remained within the York space. “Outdated Jube” demanded that the townspeople furnish $100,000 in money and big quantities of sneakers, meals, and provides. He would accumulate a lot of the requisitioned provisions and footwear however garner solely $28,610 from door-to-door solicitations by civic officers.

Gordon, Early’s most dependable subordinate, was a proficient, skilled chief of males. Born in Upson Nation, Ga., on February 6, 1832, he had attended the College of Georgia however had not graduated. He was a lawyer and businessman with no navy coaching when the warfare broke out. From his first struggle at Seven Pines on Might 31, 1862, Gordon displayed pure management qualities, in addition to single-minded devotion to obligation. He additionally possessed uncanny sturdiness, surviving a wound at Malvern Hill on July 1 of that yr and 5 extra wounds whereas defending a portion of the Sunken Street at Sharpsburg (Antietam). His promotion to brigadier normal was permitted within the spring of 1863. He fought properly at Chancellorsville in Might and once more in June at Second Winchester, the place his spirited assault had helped break the Union strains on the primary day of that battle.

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Forward of Gordon at Wrightsville, Main Granville O. Haller of the seventh U.S. Infantry led a motley drive of some 1,500 males assembled to defend the river crossing. The York native had commanded McClellan’s headquarters guard at Antietam however had been at house recuperating from sickness when Common Sofa tapped him to command the defenses of Adams and York counties. Born in York on January 31, 1819, Haller was commissioned as a lieutenant within the 4th U.S. Infantry in 1838 after which fought the Seminoles in Florida in 1840–41 and the Mexicans in 1846–47. He served within the battles of Monterrey, Veracruz, Churubusco, and Molino del Rey, generally alongside a fellow officer within the regiment, 2nd Lt. Ulysses Grant. Transferred to the Washington Territory in 1853, Haller fought the Yakimas from 1855 to 1856, and was able to struggle the British, if crucial, through the 1859 border standoff on San Juan Island often called the “Pig Struggle.”

Haller had arrived in Wrightsville on Saturday night on the final prepare out of York, bringing the beautiful information that the borough’s leaders would give up the city to Early. Certainly one of his first acts was to persuade the bridge’s house owners to droop the gathering of tolls. Large strains of refugees crowded the streets, anxiously ready their flip to pay to cross the Susquehanna to presumed security. Haller wished the avenues left clear for troop motion. It might show to be a smart resolution.

Residents of York, pictured nearly as if they’re having fun with a parade on this Accomplice-sympathetic illustration, watch because the U.S. flag is lowered and the city is surrendered to Maj. Gen. Jubal Early’s command. Shortly after the “ceremony,” Brig. Gen. John B. Gordon marched his brigade of Georgians to Wrightsville, about 12 miles to the east. (From the Assortment of the York County Historical past Middle, York, PA.)

About 650 of the defenders of Wrightsville have been from Colonel Jacob G. Frick’s twenty seventh PVM, augmented with parts of the twentieth and twenty sixth PVM that had earlier retreated from Hanover Junction and Gettysburg, respectively. As well as, Haller had at his disposal some 200 ambulatory sufferers from the U.S. Military Common Hospital in York (largely wounded or in poor health veterans of the Military of the Potomac); about 50 refugees from the 87th Pennsylvania of the eighth Corps who had fled to York after that regiment was dispersed on the Second Battle of Winchester; the 53 Black house guardsmen; Captain Robert Bell’s Adams County Impartial Cavalry; and the First Troop, Philadelphia Metropolis Cavalry.

Colonel Frick had appreciable earlier expertise in battle. Born in Pottsville, Pa., on January 23, 1825, he entered navy service in June 1846 as a third lieutenant within the third Ohio Infantry through the Mexican Struggle. He subsequently obtained a Common Military fee and, when the Civil Struggle erupted, he grew to become the lieutenant colonel of the 96th Pennsylvania. He carried out properly through the Seven Days Marketing campaign.

On July 29, 1862, Frick took command of the 129th Pennsylvania. Throughout the ill-fated Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862, he led the regiment in an uphill advance till lastly pushed to the bottom close to the stone wall. Frick distinguished himself once more at Chancellorsville. Confederates seized the regimental flag, however Frick countercharged and recovered it. He would obtain a Medal of Honor in 1892 for his valorous management on the latter two battles. He and his males mustered out in Might 1863 when their phrases of service expired.

Now, with the Confederates threatening Pennsylvania, Frick and plenty of of his officers and surviving males enlisted within the new twenty seventh PVM, bringing some stability to the largely inexperienced recruits. Arriving on June 22, he set about strengthening the crescent-shaped line of earthworks west of Wrightsville. Railroad employees, civilian volunteers, and school college students had begun work on the entrenchments and rifle-pits per week earlier. Now, his males from north-central Pennsylvania put aside their weapons and labored to increase and deepen the works. Haller and Frick ordered males to roll railcars to the bridgehead, the place troopers overturned them to barricade the doorway. They left simply sufficient room to move between the vehicles in a single file. That ought to cease the Accomplice cavalry, which is all they thought would assault the bridge. Nobody at the moment imagined a full-scale invasion with an enemy infantry brigade because the opponent.

Colonel Jacob Frick and his Mannequin 1850 Officer’s Sword. Frick devised a plan that ultimately led to torching the Columbia Bridge. He was awarded a Medal of Honor for gallantry on the battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. (Library of Congress/Photograph Illustration: Daniel Hass; Photograph Courtesy of Morphy Auctions, www.morphyauctions.com)

Once studies arrived on June 26 that Early’s whole division had turned eastward and now was in Gettysburg, with the bridge presumably of their crosshairs, Haller and Frick knew that they had little probability with their comparatively untrained drive to defeat the Rebels. Collectively, they labored out a contingency plan involving a swift retreat throughout the bridge. Haller had three artillery items in Columbia with which to blow holes within the bridge deck within the occasion of an enemy advance, however his males lacked ammunition. Therefore, carpenters and volunteers from Columbia bore holes within the bridge’s superstructure; Frick envisioned blowing up the fourth part from the Wrightsville aspect with expenses of gunpowder, dropping the 200-foot span into the water. If that didn’t work, he deliberate to have barrels of coal oil rolled on the bridge from a Columbia service provider. Troopers, in that case, would douse the bridge deck and stacks of kindling. As a result of the bridge was privately owned, Frick and Haller determined to have civilians related to the Columbia Financial institution apply the torch, not authorities troopers.

At 5:30 p.m. on June 28, Wrightsville’s defenders noticed a protracted line of Accomplice skirmishers cautiously approaching throughout the unfamiliar wheat and cornfields. Because the thirty first Georgia started probing the defenses, Gordon despatched two robust columns on both sides of the enemy strains to show their flanks if attainable. He ordered Captain Tanner to unlimber his artillery items, sending sections to hills on both aspect of the turnpike. They’d fireplace some 40 shells into Wrightsville over the subsequent hour. By then, Haller had retired to Columbia to wire an replace to Common Sofa in Harrisburg, leaving Frick in tactical command of the sphere.

Frick, figuring out the place was quickly turning into untenable, started disengaging his forces. He carried out a hasty withdrawal by way of Wrightsville and throughout the bridge. Practically all of his males reached security, apart from a lieutenant colonel and 19 militiamen who have been taken captive earlier than they might cross. A fraction of one among Tanner’s shells decapitated one of many Black defenders from Columbia, making the unidentified man the one fatality of the skirmish at Wrightsville. Gordon reported solely one among his infantryman wounded. “The regiment held out properly,” bragged Personal Joseph B.W. Adams of Firm D, twenty seventh PVM, in a July 9 letter to The Pittston Gazette, “until the rebels have been seen to be out flanking them, with the intention of occupying the bridge, slicing off our retreat and capturing all arms. On this, Colonel Frick led the Regiment over the bridge, amid fireplace of the enemy’s cannon, after which set fireplace to the bridge.”

As soon as most of his troops have been safely in Columbia, Frick ordered the powder expenses detonated, however they solely splintered some parts of the help arches and blew holes within the roof and sidewalls, leaving the bridge deck nonetheless satisfactory. As Gordon’s troops approached the riverside, Frick ordered the oil and kerosene–soaked timbers set alight. “I actually being on guard on this aspect of the river, was secure from the shells, however I might see them dropping within the river,” noticed Personal Adams. “The hearth from the burning bridge was a splendid sight rolling up the fiery clouds towards the heavens. It was a tragic necessity to destroy this stunning construction, nevertheless it was our solely course, to forestall the destruction of our regiment.” He concluded, “None killed, and all in good spirits, prepared for them once more. The boys say they have been fired on through the retreat, by the copperheads of the city, and that one woman (or feminine, fairly) displayed a small Accomplice flag.”

This illustration of the Columbia Bridge in flames appeared in Harper’s Pictorial Historical past of the Civil Struggle (1866). The concrete Veterans Memorial Bridge crosses right here right this moment, erected adjoining to the rebuilt Columbia Bridge, which was razed within the Sixties. (Harper’s Weekly; Photograph by Jon Guttman)

The hearth, as soon as began, unfold shortly. The wind shifted, blowing embers into the jap fringe of Wrightsville. “I known as on the residents of Wrightsville for buckets and pails, however none have been to be discovered,” Gordon later wrote. “There was, nevertheless, no lack of buckets and pails a bit later, when the city was on fireplace.” Lengthy strains of his males handed water uphill from the river and canal into Wrightsville, limiting the destruction to a couple homes, the put up workplace, a millinery, two lumber yards, and a foundry. Later, after studying Northern newspaper accounts describing how his males had burned Wrightsville, Gordon fumed at what he known as the “base ingratitude of our enemies.”

The black, oily smoke from the bridge fireplace could possibly be seen for miles. The sight alarmed Early, who, with some workers officers and his headquarters guard, rode out from York to verify on Gordon’s progress, later writing that he “had not proceeded far earlier than I noticed an immense smoke rising within the path of the Susquehanna.” Gordon knowledgeable him of the skirmish and the burning bridge, the final part of which collapsed some six hours after Frick had ordered it to be torched. Upset at his failure to safe the river crossing, Early rode again to York within the darkness.

Grateful for the Georgians’ function in saving the city, Mary Jane Rewalt, the newlywed daughter of Chief Burgess James F. Magee, provided to cook dinner breakfast for Gordon and his workers on the next morning. The Georgian, after establishing his campsite for the night, retired after a protracted day to his headquarters close to the Detweiler farm.

On Monday morning, Gordon arrived on the Magee home, the place Mrs. Rewalt fed him and his officers a tasty breakfast. When Gordon inquired “as as to if her sympathies have been with the Northern or Southern aspect,” she replied, “You and your troopers final evening saved my house from burning, and I used to be unwilling that it is best to go away with out some token of my appreciation. I need to let you know, nevertheless, that, with my consent and approval, my husband is a soldier within the Union Military, and my fixed prayer to Heaven is that our trigger could triumph and the Union be saved.” An admiring Gordon later deemed her “the heroine of the Susquehanna.”

After breakfast, Gordon returned to York and camped alongside the street to Carlisle. That afternoon, a courier despatched by Ewell positioned Early and knowledgeable him that Common Lee was concentrating the military and that he was to march his division to Heidlersburg, some 23 miles west of York in Adams County.

June 28, 1863, marked a momentous day within the Gettysburg Marketing campaign. Main Common George Gordon Meade assumed command of the Military of the Potomac after Joseph Hooker resigned. Whereas the bridge was burning at Wrightsville, Accomplice spy Henry Thomas Harrison arrived at Lee’s headquarters close to Chambersburg, Pa., with information that Meade was now in cost and, extra alarmingly, the Union military was nearer than Lee believed.

As we speak, a monument on the intersection of North third Road and Hallam Road (the previous Lincoln Freeway and York Turnpike) commemorates Wrightsville because the easternmost level that Accomplice forces reached through the Gettysburg Marketing campaign, though a lot of the battlefield has lately been misplaced to improvement. 4 new Civil Struggle Trails markers assist the general public visualize what occurred on June 28. A brand new bridge was constructed on the identical piers because the burned construction in 1868, nevertheless it was destroyed by a heavy windstorm in 1896. The piers have been strengthened and rebuilt, and an iron-and-steel bridge then serviced the river crossing till the Pennsylvania Railroad razed it within the early Sixties. The Veterans Memorial Bridge, accomplished in 1930 because the longest concrete multiple-arch bridge on the planet, now connects Wrightsville and Columbia.

A number of hundred yards to the north, the newer Wright’s Ferry Bridge conveys visitors alongside U.S. Route 30 into Lancaster County. In between, adjoining to the Veterans Memorial Bridge, are the piers of the world’s longest coated bridge, which Union forces sacrificed to forestall Jubal Early from attaining his aim of investing Harrisburg from the rear. 

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