Did a Burning Bridge Change History?

 

In just a few days, we will celebrate, or at least honor, two remarkably significant events of American history. They both occurred in Pennsylvania, one obviously in 1776, the other in 1863. But a third one – also in the Keystone State, also in 1863 – deserves some recognition today (June 28th), its anniversary.

The first and most obvious is American Independence Day, July 4th, celebrating our Declaration of Independence from Great Britain and its “Mad King,” George III. The second would occur just 87 years later on a battlefield at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

But there’s a third, almost forgotten event that involves the burning of a bridge of the Susquehanna River in southern Pennsylvania, which separates the cities of York, to the west, and Lancaster, to the east. Not far north is the state Capitol, Harrisburg. In the lower left-hand corner of this map, you’ll find Gettysburg. And this event would have some bearing on events there just a few days later, in 1863.

I’ll let a terrific website, explorePAhistory.com, tell the story, representing the Confederate “high tide” in Pennsylvania:

Late in the afternoon of June 28, 1863, Confederate General 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.

There’s a bunch here to unpack. This was no ordinary bridge, as noted above. More than a mile long and could accommodate trains, horses, and people. General Gordon’s six regiments had just captured the nearby city of York the previous day with no Union resistance. Gordon and his commanding officer, Maj. Gen. Jubal Early had a bigger prize in mind, however – the state capitol of Harrisburg.

Early told Gordon at York that “you will pass on through and move rapidly to the river to secure both ends of the Wrightsville-Columbia bridge.” After Gordon’s troops marched through York the next morning, they proceeded east along old Lancaster Pike, Pennsylvania State Highway 462, towards their objective.

Why did the Confederates want the bridge? It meant quick access to either Lancaster to the east or Harrisburg slightly farther to the north from the bridge. Or both. And with that control, they could move lots more Confederate troops over the bridge and perhaps move eventually towards Baltimore and on to nearby Washington, DC, pressure to sue for peace (victory).

And General Gordon was unlikely to face much opposition in Wrightsville. A new, inexperienced PA militia had encamped there just 4 days prior. Union Colonel Frick knew his militia wasn’t much of a match against Gordon’s battle-hardened regiments. So, he made plans to stop the Confederate advance by scuttling the center bridge span with gunpowder. But as a backup plan, he doused the wooden bridge with oil and kerosene.

Union troops briefly defended Wrightsville, but when Confederate artillery began shelling Wrightsville – the Union militia had no artillery with which to respond – they crossed the bridge into Columbia, Pennsylvania, and, after their gunpowder gambit failed, put their bridge-burning plan in motion.

Again, let’s consult explorePAhistory.com for what happens next.

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 (wife of a Union doctor) served breakfast for the general and his staff. . .

The day of the fire, General 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.

A few days later, Early, Gordon, and their troops would join Gen. Robert E. Lee west and north of Gettysburg. Had Early and Gordon been successful, Union Gen. George Meade’s troops might have headed to Harrisburg, not Gettysburg. And Lee’s troops might have joined them there for a very different July 1-4 battle that week in 1963. A burning bridge sent Confederate – and Union – troops elsewhere.

Almost exactly a year later (July 11th), Gen. Early would, indeed, make a foray into Washington, DC with an attack on Fort Stevens, located between Rock Creek Park and Georgia Avenue in what is now northwest Washington. After the Union’s defeat at the First Battle of Manassas (or, if you prefer, the Battle of Bull Run) – the first major battle of the war, about an hour’s drive west of Washington, DC – several forts were built to defend the city and its ports, including one where I now live in Arlington, Virginia – Fort Reynolds.

Early never really fully attacked Fort Stevens, assuming correctly that Union reinforcements were on their way. He would make his way back to the Shenandoah Valley and eventually rejoin Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

Some interesting factoids about the battle at Fort Stevens (a must-visit when visiting the nation’s capital). President Lincoln and his wife, Mary, rode out to see the fighting and were fired upon. A young officer, future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, is often credited for suggesting that he get down, calling Lincoln a “damn fool.”

It is the only time a sitting President has been fired upon in battle. Perhaps as interesting is the name of one of the Confederate commanders – John C. Breckinridge – who had been one of Lincoln’s Democratic opponents (the other being Stephen Douglas) in the 1860 presidential campaign.

But history and these names continue to dot our landscape and remain remarkably accessible. You can park and begin a bike ride at the Wrightsville bridge – Columbia side – on the terrific Northwest Lancaster River Trail, which I did last year. Sadly, I saw no signage or commemorative marker of the event. Those are across the river in York County, in Wrightsville, it seems. Fort Stevens is a National Park Service site.

As for Jubal Early, he remained an unrepentant rebel (despite being pardoned) who would live out his years in Canada. At least he had a White’s Ferry boat named after him (across the Potomac, just north of Leesburg, Virginia, across into Maryland. It no longer operates.

Hat tip to US Rep. Lloyd Smucker, R-PA, representing Lancaster and much of York Counties in Congress, for making me aware of this history.

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There are 5 comments.

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  1. Mark Camp Member
    Mark Camp
    @MarkCamp

    Interesting, educational article, and a pleasure to read. Thx, Kelly.

    • #1
  2. Douglas Pratt Coolidge
    Douglas Pratt
    @DouglasPratt

    Great post! Thank you!

    • #2
  3. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    I love learning!

    • #3
  4. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    From that illustration it doesn’t look like that bridge was one that was congenial to river steamboat traffic.  I wonder when it was built and whether there was any steamboat traffic to displace. 

    Further west there was a railroad lawyer, Abraham Lincoln, who got involved in litigation with the river steamboat industry when a railroad bridge was built across the Mississippi.  The steamboat people didn’t like it, and even seemed to have arranged some accidents with the bridge.  Seems to me that was around 1850, but I’d have to look it up to be sure.  

     

    • #4
  5. Kelly D Johnston Coolidge
    Kelly D Johnston
    @SoupGuy

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    From that illustration it doesn’t look like that bridge was one that was congenial to river steamboat traffic. I wonder when it was built and whether there was any steamboat traffic to displace.

    Further west there was a railroad lawyer, Abraham Lincoln, who got involved in litigation with the river steamboat industry when a railroad bridge was built across the Mississippi. The steamboat people didn’t like it, and even seemed to have arranged some accidents with the bridge. Seems to me that was around 1850, but I’d have to look it up to be sure.

     

    That is a great question about the Susquehanna (as the recent photo of the Jubal Early ferry boat demonstrates, that part of the Potomac River is very navigable). The Susquehanna, especially during the dry summer months, is quite wide but not very deep in many parts. There is, even today, a paddle boat that ferries a very small number of cars just north of where the Wrightsville bridge is located. It is possible that men and horses could have slowly forded the river but not artillery, and building pontoons over a mile-wide river would have been impractical if not impossible – certainly very time consuming. 

    • #5
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