Another newly found letter on the burning of the Columbia Bridge!
Nails from the historic Columbia Bridge, the world’s longest covered bridge which stretched a mile and a quarter across the Susquehanna River between Wrightsville and Columbia, Pennsylvania. State militia ordered it burned during the 1863 Gettysburg Campaign, the subject of my book, Flames Beyond Gettysburg: The Gordon Expedition, June 1863. Photo by SLM on Sunday, August 1, 2010. Note that the old note says the bridge was burned July 2, 1863; it was actually June 28. Taken at the museum of the Columbia Historic Preservation Society.
Chris Vera and the good folks at the Columbia Historic Preservation Society have been very helpful to me as I rewrite the book for its upcoming second edition, chock full of more than a hundred new incidents and anecdotes not included in the first edition. So many people have sent me, or pointed out to me, contemporary sources not previously used in modern accounts of the bridge burning.
Some of these primary source materials have only recently been rediscovered, including a treasure trove of old documents that Chris and his colleagues have been examining and cataloging following their donation by M&T Bank.
Here is a another one of these old documents, reproduced with CHPS’s permission. I have transcribed the old calligraphy, so any errors in transcription are solely mine.
This old letter is a sworn deposition from Robert Crane, an official of the Reading & Columbia Railroad and a civic leader in Columbia with extensive influence in the community. He headed a party of civilians who actually burned the bridge under strategic orders from Maj. Gen. Darius N. Couch in Harrisburg, the commander of the U.S. Army’s Department of the Susquehanna. These orders were executed locally on the ground at Columbia by Col. Jacob G. Frick, a former Army officer who then led a regiment of state militia.
Here is the text as I interpret the handwriting of the court clerk.
“Lancaster County, Pa.
Before me a justice of the peace in and for the Borough of Columbia, County of Lancaster, State of Pennsylvania, personally came Robert Crane of Columbia, who being by me first duly sworn according to law, did depose and say, that in the presence of a written order from Colonel Jacob G. Frick of the 27th Pennsylvania Volunteer Militia, commander at Columbia dated 28th June, 1863, and also in pursuance of a verbal order from Major G. O. Haller of the United States Army, commander at York, York County, re Pennsylvania, I engaged a company of Bridge builders, carpenters, and other persons for the purpose of cutting and throwing the fourth span of the West End of the Columbia Bridge across the Susquehanna between Columbia and Wrightsville. And that in pursuance of such orders, we went upon the Columbia Bridge, cut the roof downward all the timbers excepting the arches and a small portion of the lower chords on Sunday the 28th day of June, 1863. We bored all the arches and charged them heavily with powder, attached fuses to the powder, and had them all ready for the matches. There were four men placed in charge of the matches and fuses on a given order. An order was given by Major Charles Knox, aid of Major Haller aforesaid, to me to apply the matches to the fuses which was accordingly done. When the blast went off it was effective but not sufficient to throw a span of the Bridge. There was no time to cut the spans down as the Rebel cavalry had entered the bridge from Wrightsville. Col. Frick then gave orders to the men to set fire to the Bridge which was done as directed, and it was burned down in obedience to his orders. The men in charge of the fuses and blast in the arches were John Q. Denny, John Lockhard, Jacob Miller (colored), and Jacob Rich. Captain Samuel Randall of the City Troop of Philadelphia, aid to Major Haller, had first been selected by Major Haller to deliver the order to me when to apply the match to the fuses. After our pickets were engaged in front of the rifle pits with the Rebels, Captain Randall came on to the bridge where we were engaged removing the timbers ec. and wished to know of sure if I understood that he Captain Randall was to deliver to me the order to destroy the Bridge. My answer was in the affirmative, when he said he did not so understand it so and said that I had better see Major Haller and have an understanding with him. I then took Captain Randall’s horse and rode out to the rifle pits to see Major Haller; when he Major Haller selected Major Charles Knox and detailed him and a few soldiers to aid him in delivering the order and to prevent confusion when [in] the Bridge. Major Knox performed the duties assigned him and gave the orders as above stated. On the morning of the 29th of June 1863 Major Haller called on me for my report which I made to him in writing, first submitting it to Col. Frick aforesaid for his approval which he gave after perusal with slight corrections, a copy of which report I have given to the Cashier of the Columbia Bank as amended by Col. Frick.
Sworn and subscribed before me this 20th day of July 1863,
J. H. [Henitz?], J.P.”
The Major Haller mentioned in the above transcription is Maj. Granville Owen Haller, a Regular Army officer from the 7th U. S. Infantry, who had overall command at Wrightsville and Columbia in his role as General Couch’s aide-de-camp. Haller was a native of York, Pennsylvania, and a graduate of York County Academy. He was a veteran of the Mexican War and a pre-Civil War Indian fighter in Washington and Oregon. Samuel Randall, also mentioned above, later became the Speaker of the House of Representatives and twice ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for president.
To view this document, and many others of historic significance, stop by CHPS’s museum on Sundays between 1 and 4 p.m.