An encounter in Paradise Township
Numerous small skirmishes and engagements occurred throughout York County during the Gettysburg Campaign. In the vast majority of these fights, a few shots were exchanged and both sides rode away, with few, if any, casualties resulting from the encounter. It has been estimated that there were over 10,000 such minor fights in the Civil War, with most being too small to be remembered except for a casual mention in local newspapers or diaries/journals from townspeople or eyewitnesses. Very few of these engagements had any strategic importance, and more were relatively long-distance exchange of gunfire from patrols, pickets, scouts, and other small parties of soldiers.
York County saw its fair share of these minor skirmishes. Here is the story of one such now long-forgotten encounter, one that foreshadowed the large Battle of Gettysburg, as it was among the first contact points between the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and the Federal Army of the Potomac.
It was the hot, sticky afternoon of June 30, 1863. Near the border of Adams and York counties, patrols from the 17th Virginia Cavalry trotted leisurely down what is today’s PA Route 234 toward the village of East Berlin. Keeping their eyes peeled for signs of the enemy, they were screening the westward retrograde movement of Major General Jubal Early’s infantry division. Off in the distance, they noted a suspicious cloud of dust. Investigating, they spotted a small squad of Federal cavalry and attacked. The Yankees quickly fled and made good their escape, dodging the distant howling Rebels.
Arriving in East Berlin, Jubal Early encountered a Confederate courier who had ridden northward from the Abbottstown vicinity. He delivered a message for the general from the commander of yet another Rebel cavalry patrol. Lieutenant Colonel Elijah V. White, in charge of the 35th Battalion Virginia Cavalry, had been operating along the Gettysburg-York Turnpike (today’s U.S. Route 30), protecting Early’s left flank during the westward retreat. White had unexpectedly stumbled into a force of Federal cavalry at Abbottstown, a quiet rest stop about one day’s journey from the Wrightsville bridge over the Susquehanna River.
White’s message confirmed to Early that the enemy force was not the inexperienced militia cavalry he had periodically battled with since leaving Gettysburg on June 26. Instead, White had encountered the advance of General Judson Kilpatrick’s veteran cavalry, whose presence indicated the Army of the Potomac must be near. Early hustled westward until three miles east of Heidlersburg, where he camped for the night and awaited orders. It would be the last night on earth for many of the Rebels who had tramped through York County and occupied York.
The small encounters at East Berlin and Abbottstown convinced Early that a more serious engagement loomed. In the morning, he would turn his force towards Gettysburg, where the Yankees awaited.