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Painting of the burning of the Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge. (Scott Mingus photo. Painting at the Columbia Historical Society.)

Army fife used at Wrightsville last seen in Altoona

The sound of fife music wafted over Wrightsville, Pennsylvania, during the last weekend of June 1863. The 27th Pennsylvania Volunteer Militia, a regiment of some 650 men from the coal-mining region of north-central Pennsylvania, had arrived earlier in the week in Columbia, across the Susquehanna River from Wrightville, to protect the world’s longest covered bridge. That bridge, a mile-and-a-quarter in length, was the only way to cross the broad Susquehanna from Harrisburg south to Maryland other than ferry service, which had been suspended.

Major General Darius N. Couch, the commander of the Union Army’s Department of the Susquehanna knew the importance of protecting the bridge, so he dispatched the “emergency men” to defend it or destroy it if too many Rebels approached. He also installed Maj. Granville O. Haller as the local commander of the defenses of Adams and York counties, with the authority to have the bridge burned if necessary.

The 27th formed the backbone of the 1,500 or so men who would defend Wrightsville against Brig. Gen. John B. Gordon’s Georgians and Virginians on the evening of Sunday, June 28.

They carried the battle flag of one of Pennsylvania’s regiments from the Army of the Potomac that had been mustered out of the service only weeks before. The 27th’s colonel, Jacob B. Frick, and several officers and enlisted men were veterans of that regiment, the 129th Pennsylvania.


Years later, a newspaper in Altoona mentioned the whereabouts of one of the fifes used during the defense of Wrightsville. Here is the story from the March 4, 1937, edition of the Altoona Tribune. The author was a local columnist, Henry W. Shoemaker.


There is no more interesting relic in Altoona than A. J. Holtzinger’s fife of Civil War days

“There is no more interesting relic in Altoona than A. J. Holtzinger’s fife of Civil War days. Carried by his grandfather in many a fierce encounter of the fratricidal strife, its most stirring service dates from the burning of the bridge at Wrightsville, “the farthest East of the Confederacy.’

“On June 27 [sic, 28], 1863, when a detachment of General John B. Gordon’s cavalry made a last desperate attempt to overthrow the brave defenders of the bridge and a Southern advance seemed possible, the order was given to burn the bridge and retreat across to Lancaster county. Among the Union defenders were the 27th Pennsylvania Volunteers [Militia] recruited at Pottsville and the famous First City Troop of Philadelphia.

“It is interesting to note that the father [Lt. Henry P. Shoemaker of Company G] of the writer of this article, an officer in the 27th, marched across the bridge to the tune f Comrade Holtzinger’s fife. The venerable instrument, probably a century old at least, is in an excellent state of preservation but lacks a mouthpiece, which can be easily put on. Most old musical instruments require restoration, and it is said that the hunting horn used by Stephen Franks, pioneer hunter and fur-trader, has been restored several times. Franks’ horn is now in the custodianship of George P. Gable, co-master of the Frankstown Hunt.

“Altoona is proud to be the repository of Mr. Holtzinger’s unique relic and it is hoped that he will exhibit it with the Franks horn so that it can be enjoyed by all our citizens…”

Company G’s musician is listed as John M. Greger. Albert J. Holtzinger of Altoona, born in 1873, died in 1960. He is buried in Alto Reste Burial Park in Altoona. The current whereabouts of Holtzinger’s old Wrightsville Civil War fife are unknown to this blogger.