1863 Columbia Bridge Burner Led a Colorful Life
The Columbia Historic Preservation Society has spent much of the summer moving, sorting, and categorizing thousands of documents from an old bank in Columbia, Pa., a trove of records generously donated by the bank building’s current owner, M&T Bank. A few weeks ago, I blogged on a discovery by CHPS’s Chris Vera of various documents related to the burning of the Columbia Bridge, a major topic of my
2009 book Flames Beyond Gettysburg: The Gordon Expedition: June 1863. The book is being rewritten currently for a second edition to be published by Savas-Beatie.
One of the phrases in my book was taken from a 19th century account of the bridge burning from a wealthy teenaged Philadelphia cavalryman named Persifor Frazer, Jr. He was assigned to guard a section of the bridge that had been partially sawed out and subsequently mined with explosive charges. Among his duties was to protect the civilian who was to light the fuse in that sector (one of four civilians with four fuses, guarded by four members of the First Troop, Philadelphia City Cavalry).
He described his civilian partner as “old negro to whom was entrusted the duty of igniting the fuse [who] sat very coolly on the edge of the pier, smoking a cigar.”
Now, one of the documents Chris Vera has discovered in the old bank vault identifies Frazer’s temporary ward as Jacob Miller.
So who was Jacob Miller, who has risen from relative obscurity in recent years though my book and Chris’s efforts to regain a place of prominence in the story of the 1863 burning of the Columbia Bridge, an event that Confederate general Jubal Early believed changed the course of the Gettysburg Campaign?
Bradley Schmehl’s painting depicting the burning of the Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge on June 28, 1863, by Union militia to prevent the Confederates from crossing the rain-swollen Susquehanna River. Used by written permission under license; it is the cover art for my book Flames Beyond Gettysburg
Records on bridge burner Jacob Miller are relatively scarce. In the mid-19th century many towns and villages did not keep the quantity of civic records as in the 20th and 21st centuries. Birth records, death records, burial records, etc. were spotty at best for the black community, and apparently the African Methodist Church in Columbia and the other black churches in the region did not maintain detailed attendance records.
We know Jacob Miller lived in the Tow Hill section of Columbia, which was the black section of town. Some accounts suggest he worked for the canals. We know he was a master carpenter, and was summoned by railroad executive and Columbia Bank director W. Robert Crane to be one of four men assigned to the fuses that overcast June afternoon when they prepared the bridge for destruction.
However, some facts are known about Mr. Miller, whose frequent encounters with the law were indeed a matter of public record. The following incidents are adapted from the pages of the Columbia Spy.
On December 26, 1859, Miller appeared before Justice of the Peace Thomas Welsh (a future Civil War general from Columbia) and filed a formal complaint against Elizabeth Jackson and “Gallus Jane” for vandalizing his house, where Jackson’s husband had sought shelter during a fierce domestic dispute. On Christmas William Jackson went hunting in the countryside for the main dish for the holiday meal. However, pickings were slim and he failed to bring home a turkey or chicken, a transgression which infuriated his wife. She handed her bonnet to her sister-in-law, Gallus Jane, and attacked her fowl-less hubby, flailing away and driving him from their house.
They battled through the streets of Tow Hill until an exhausted Jackson took refuge in Jacob Miller’s house, “securing the door against his ardent spouse.” According to the reporter, “Liz then assaulted the refuge with sticks, stones, and much hard swearing, Gallus Jane still acting as bottle holder.” After a fiery diatribe in front of Judge Welsh in which the defendant railed against her husband, Liz whined that Jake Miller knew that Jackson “deserved a beatin’ an’ he had no bus’ness to let him in his house.”
Not amused, Welsh sentenced Elizabeth Jackson to sixty days at hard labor in the county prison. He found Gallus Jackson innocent, however, for her part in the crime, as he could not make “holding a bonnet in a domestic difficulty a penal offense.”
In August 1864, it was Jacob Miller’s turn to be the defendant. Constable James McGinnis arrived at the scene of a small riot in Tow Hill. A Miss Ann Russell, described as “a fair damsel,” charged Miller with playing a key role in the disturbance. McGinnis arrested Miller and brought him before Justice Samuel Evans. Russell testified that “Jacob did, with ‘malicious prepense,’ point a shotgun at her,” accompanied with a threat to fire it into a crowd of ladies, including the plaintiff. Someone threw stones at the women, but no one could identify old Jake Miller as one of the slingers. Judge Evans ordered Miller to post bail and appear in court on the third Monday of November. I have not found the results of that hearing.
In March 1866, Jake Miller made the news again. He complained to the police twice within a week about incidents involving his neighbors. He reported that a woman named Harriet Baily “maliciously” broke down one of the doors in his house. Constable McGinnis arrived in Tow Hill and arrested Baily. He brought her before the local Justice of the Peace, who “discharged the defendant upon her promising to pay for replacing the door.”
Later in the week, Miller again called the authorities. He accused a black man named George Young, Jr. of “stealing several fat hams” from his smoke house on Tow Hill. McGinnis made a second visit in response to a Miller complaint. He went to the house of Young’s father and arrested the younger Young. However, the accused turned the arrest into quite a spectacle. He turned “diverse somersaults, upsetting ‘Granny’ and giving the inmates of the house a terrible fright.” The newpaper reported, “It was for no use; McGinnis was too quick. When those vice-like hands grasped George, the game was fast.” George Young, Jr. was confined to Columbia’s jail when he couldn’t come up with bail money, and his trial date was set for April.