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7/11/2017 7:23 am  #1

Beyond the Marker

Beyond the Marker 

Late in the afternoon of June 28, 1863, Confederate markerGeneral John B. Gordon peered through his field glasses at the Yankee defenses of the bridge at Wrightsville, the only bridge across the Susquehanna River between Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and Conowingo, Maryland. The note placed in his hands by a girl as he rode through York had proven to be extremely accurate. Still, Gordon had to plan carefully, since the Yankees had probably rigged the bridge for destruction.

This magnificent wooden structure was reputed to be the longest covered wooden bridge in the world. Built in 1834, it measured 5,620 feet from end to end. The Wrightsville Bridge was a combined railroad and highway span, and on its downstream side included a unique two-level towpath for the Pennsylvania Canal, which crossed the Susquehanna here and continued downriver to Baltimore. The bridge owner, the Columbia Bank, operated the bridge as a very profitable toll business.

Union Colonel Jacob G. Frick was in command of the bridge's defenses. Frick had formerly led a nine-month Pennsylvania infantry regiment that had been mustered out of service in May. Now Frick commanded the 27th Pennsylvania Militia, which had only arrived in Wrightsville on June 24.

Major Granville Haller, U. S. Army, had also arrived on the scene on the 27th and quickly disposed of the traffic jam approaching the bridge by persuading the bridge company president to allow the horde of refugees on the western bank of the river to pass over the river free of charge.

By the time Gordon's men approached, Frick had constructed a crescent-shaped earthwork defense to cover his 1,400 soldiers. In addition to his own regiment, Frick had part of another Pennsylvania militia regiment, three additional companies of white troops, a company of free blacks from Lancaster County, and two companies of militia cavalry.

Frick realized that his untested recruits would not be able to hold against any determined assault by Southern veterans, but they could slow them down long enough to withdraw across the bridge. Once the Yankees withdrew, he could render the bridge impassable marker by using gunpowder to blow up a span in mid-river. That way, the three Union cannon on the eastern bank of the river could control the bridge and prevent the enemy from repairing the damage.

Militia and townspeople barricaded side streets in Wrightsville to prevent a sudden enemy foray against the defenders. Rail cars were lined up on tracks parallel to the river to prevent enemy horsemen from dashing across the bridge before it could be disabled. Preparations were still underway when at about 5:30pm on the afternoon of June 28 they spotted a long line of Confederate skirmishers cautiously moving through fields of wheat and corn.

Convinced that the best way to approach the Yankees was a flanking movement to the south, General Gordon had sent his men out along Kreutz Creek. Unfamiliar with the terrain, they moved slowly, scouting for hidden bluecoats. Scattered fire broke out as the Rebels began to probe the Yankee defenses.

Then Captain W. A. Tanner unlimbered his four cannon along the York Pike and began to fire at the Yankee defenses and also hit houses in Wrightsville. (Gordon would later justify the bombardment by writing that because the Yankee defenses incorporated the whole town anything within the defensive perimeter was fair game.)

The start of the artillery bombardment was enough for Colonel Frick. With no artillery of his own on the western shore with which to reply, Frick ordered a withdrawal across the bridge before the enemy could close with his soldiers. The brief "battle" of Wrightsville resulted in one Yankee death (the victim was a member of the African-American company) and a lieutenant colonel and nineteen men taken prisoner. Gordon reported one of his men wounded.

Once across the bridge, Frick ordered the powder charges under the fourth span ignited. The resulting explosion damaged the span, but failed to collapse it into the Susquehanna. Worried that the Rebels might now capture the bridge, Frick–who had already had some of the timbers saturated with oil and kerosene in case of just this emergency– ordered the entire structure torched. The timbers lit easily, but soon winds spread the flames across the entire bridge.

Pursuing Confederates ran onto the bridge and tried to prevent the flames from spreading, but they had no buckets or other fire-fighting equipment. Gordon ordered citizens in Wrightsville to produce such items, but they claimed that the Yankees had taken everything. But then, when winds blew the fire into the edge of town, civilians quickly brought forth buckets and pails and formed a fire-fighting brigade to assist the soldiers in combating the flames.

When the fire was over, three houses, two lumberyards, and a foundry had gone up in smoke. Later, after reading Northern newspapers that told of how the Rebels burned Wrightsville, Gordon complained of the "base ingratitude of our enemies" in spreading such malicious gossip.

To express their gratitude to the Confederates for their help in saving Wrightsville from certain destruction, James F. Magee invited General Gordon to use his residence as his headquarters for the night. The next morning, Magee's daughter served breakfast for the general and his staff. Gordon asked her if she was a Southern sympathizer and had written the note handed to him in York, but she replied that her husband was an army doctor and, no, she was a steadfast Unionist. To this day, it has never been ascertained who wrote the note passed to Gordon.

The day of the fire, markerGeneral Jubal Early had decided to ride toward Wrightsville to see how Gordon's expedition had fared. In his report, Early wrote that he "had not proceeded far before I saw an immense smoke rising in the direction of the Susquehanna." Early then heard from Gordon the story of the skirmish and burning of the bridge, which collapsed into the river in a final burst of fire and smoke later that night. Early was disappointed, for he had wished to use the bridge to move his men across the Susquehanna, seize Lancaster, and then march on Harrisburg even as other units attacked the Pennsylvania capital from the west.

On June 29, as nervous Yankees patrolled the eastern shore and watched for evidence of a Confederate boat crossing, Gordon's men vacated the area and marched back to York, where Early concentrated his division.
Beyond the Marker

James McClure, East of Gettysburg (York, PA: York Daily Record), 2003.

Nye, Wilbur S. Here Come the Rebels! Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1965.

We live in a time in which decent and otherwise sensible people are surrendering too easily to the hectoring of morons or extremists. 

7/12/2017 8:46 am  #2

Re: Beyond the Marker

Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge, PACourtesy of Richard Edling, Philadelphia, PA


  The Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge
The Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge, officially the Veterans Memorial Bridge, and once called the Lancaster-York Inter-county Bridge, is a reinforced concrete arch bridge that spans the Susquehanna River between Columbia and Wrightsville, Pennsylvania. The Wiley-Maxon Construction Company began building the bridge in 1929 and finished construction in 1930. The bridge was designed by James B. Long and is approximately 5,183 feet (1,580 m) long. It is believed to be the longest concrete arch bridge in the world. The bridge is designated State Route 462 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and is also a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. It was constructed to replace the automobile traffic of an adjacent older steel bridge, immediately north of the Veterans Memorial Bridge. This earlier bridge jointly carried the tracks of the Pennsylvania Railroad and a two-lane roadway for cars. In the early 1960s, the railroad bridge was torn down. Its stone abutments date to even earlier wooden covered bridges, one of which was destroyed by Union militia during the American Civil War to prevent its usage by elements of the Army of Northern Virginia. These earlier structures also went by the name Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge.
The Burning of the Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge - American Civil War
By the summer of 1863, the American Civil War had been dragging for two years. In the eastern USA, some of the most intense fighting took place in Virginia, prompting Confederate leaders to seek an invasion of the North to relieve the suffering in Virginia and 'bring the war' to the Union states. To this end, the Southern army under the command of General Robert E Lee marched north through the neutral state of Maryland and crossed the Mason-Dixon line into Pennsylvania. In issuing his orders for the Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania General Lee instructed General Richard Ewell to capture the state capital of Harrisburg if it 'comes within your means'. During the war, Harrisburg was a railway hub and one of the main stop-over points for Union troops heading south. To capture Harrisburg, Ewell sent a part of his force north towards Carlisle, capturing the seat of Cumberland County without a fight on 27 June, 1863. The Southerners then moved east toward the Susquehanna River and the bridges across it which led into Harrisburg. At the same time, 2500 Confederate troops under the command of General John B Gordon were moving to the south in York County, advancing on the small town of Wrightsville to capture the wooden bridge across the Susquehanna River there. This bridge was the only way over the river for 25 miles to the north or south of Wrightsville. Opposing Gordon's battle-tested troops were about 250 local militia and volunteers in trenches around the western end of the bridge. The Federal troops were ordered to prevent the Southerners from gaining the bridge and were prepared to destroy it with explosives to prevent its capture. The Confederates quickly moved in and easily overwhelmed the defenders who fled across the bridge to the town of Columbia, Lancaster County. And when the explosives failed to detonate, the Union troops set fire to the bridge. It was a windy night and several embers from the burning bridge blew back into the town of Wrightsville, causing fires in the town itself which destroyed some homes and a lumber yard. The invading Rebels, halted by the loss of the bridge, helped the townspeople fight the fire by forming bucket brigades and working shoulder-to-shoulder with the 'conquered' citizens. The Confederates then left Wrightsville and headed west to rejoin Lee's army outside Gettysburg. The stone piers which supported the Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge can still be seen standing in the river today from the Route 462 bridge.
Historical Significance
Obviously the mission to capture the vital bridge was a failure for the Confederates. Some might argue that the burning of the Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge was little more than sideshow leading up to the main action at Gettysburg a few days later. However, it is important to remember that the goal of the Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania was to 'bring the war' to the North in the hopes that the Union populace would sue for peace. With this vital bridge burned, the Susquehanna River effectively barred the Confederates from advancing on the Pennsylvania capital and the cities of Lancaster, Reading and Philadelphia.

Last edited by Goose (7/12/2017 8:47 am)

We live in a time in which decent and otherwise sensible people are surrendering too easily to the hectoring of morons or extremists. 
     Thread Starter

1/29/2019 10:39 pm  #3

Re: Beyond the Marker

I have hazy childhood memories of crossing the (now) PA 462 (then US 30) bridge for many family outings; but I have absolutely no recollection of the dual railroad/highway bridge which stood adjacent to it; even though that bridge was standing for a few of my years but many of my trips.  Probably the sidewalls of the "old bridge" blocked this young'uns view.

I do remember the magnificent cast iron hexagonal lights; which, fortunately, have been restored to more or less of their former glory.

Life is an Orthros.

1/30/2019 9:41 am  #4

Re: Beyond the Marker

Two very fine recaps of history of the bridge, its burning, and its significance. 

I also remember the old hexagonal lights on the bridge as does Tarnation. They were much larger than the current replacements. I believe at least one still exists on a private property which can be seen if you go North or the Susquehanna Trail and turn left on Canal Road towards Dover. The first or second house on your left has one of them as an entrance to their property. 

"Do not confuse motion and progress, A rocking horse keeps moving but does not make any progress"

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