Part of the USA Today Network

Colonel William B. Thomas commanded York County’s defenses during the Gettysburg Campaign: Part 2

Here is some more information on Colonel William B. Thomas, a prominent businessman and abolitionist who had helped organize the Republican Party in Pennsylvania. He was in command of the 20th Pennsylvania Volunteer Militia that defended York County, PA during the Gettysburg Campaign. This is adapted from an old book, Biographies of Successful Philadelphia Merchants, by Stephen Noyes Winslow.
In a future post, we will look at some of the known campsites of Thomas’s 20th Militia, with modern photos of the old farms where they encamped during their stay in York County.

At request of Gov. [Andrew] Curtin the organization of the Twentieth Regiment was preserved, regular drills established, and the regiment kept on a war footing.
Early in the winter of 1862-63, with that perspicuity to which we have before made allusion, Col. Thomas predicted a second and more formidable invasion of the state, and so important did he deem the emergency that he wrote the President and the War Department that, in his opinion, such an invasion would take place, in comparison with which the former one would sink into utter insignificance; that all signs and known facts in regard to the rebel army pointed plainly at the extreme probability of such an event; the scarcity of food in the region infested by that army; the tempting bait of the teeming granaries of Pennsylvania; the clamor of the Southern populace, urging the transfer of the war from their soil to that of the North, thereby relieving them from the devastations of the armed hosts of both combatants, and the depleted and enervated condition of the Army of the Potomac, the aid promised by Northern traitors to their infamous scheme, all indicated that such an attempt would speedily be made.
In this view he urged upon them the complete and ample protection of the border by a volunteer force of at least fifty thousand, called out for six months–offering himself to raise ten thousand good and true men for that purpose. Unfortunately the government could not believe the danger so imminent, and, thanking him for his warning and patriotism, declined the offer.
Still of the same opinion, strengthened by every day’s record of events, he prudently and wisely determined to place his regiment on such a footing that it, at least could be ready when called upon. To this end he called for all his employees to join in the movement, and was nobly seconded by them; and also sent a circular, embodying the facts, as he believed them of imminent danger, to all the loyal leagues and organizations in the city. The response to this circular was not such as he expected. So earnest was he in this work, that by some he was called a military monomaniac. But soon had Philadelphia cause to rue the hour when she paid not heed to the watchman from the tower, and gave no listening ear to his warning.
Well do we all remember the dark days of early June, when the air was full of rumors of the coming tempest, when that portentous cloud of desolation rolled nearer and still more near our borders, and there was none to stop its coming–neither horsemen nor footmen; and the Southern horizon grew black with its gathering gloom; when white lips whispered words of ill omen in the trembling ears of quaking, shivering fear–“Lee has marched over the mountain wall, and holds Maryland…”
Then rang through our state the clarion call of the President and Governor. Now was the proudest hour of Col. Thomas’ life. While others hesitated and shrunk back, knowing not what to do, and urgent appeals for armed men came with every beat of the telegraphic pulse. Thanks to his energy, foresight and determination, Col. Thomas answered promptly, and without an if or a but, or a question as to pay, bounty or time of service mustered in, and marched his regiment, twelve hundred strong, to Harrisburg forty-eight hours alter the telegram asking his speedy appearance reached him.
Immediately upon his arrival there he reported to Gen. [Darius N.] Couch, and was by him assigned to the important and dangerous service of guarding the Northern Central Railroad [Railway], that great connecting link between Harrisburg and Baltimore. This was looked upon by the authorities at Washington, and by Gen. Couch, as of grave moment, as the free travel of that railway facilitated the movements of the pursuing army of the Potomac, and rendered easy the transmission of supplies and information from headquarters to the Department of the Susquehanna. Not disguising the danger, the General told Col. Thomas that he expected nothing less than that his regiment would be sacrificed to the urgent necessities of the case.
The next forty-eight hours found the Twentieth scattered for twenty miles, above and below York, along this thoroughfare, busily engaged in fortifying their different positions. From his headquarters, at York, where the details of his responsible command were worked out, the keen eye of the Colonel was over all, and a general personal supervision exercised. Scarcely a day passed but he made the regular circuit of his extensive lines, and every company felt his fostering care and fatherly interest. Fortifications were erected, rifle pits constructed, and careful preparations made for the coming of the foe.
On the third day preceding the commencement of the bloody contest at Gettysburg, the rebels appeared in very large force along the line of the Northern Central Railroad, menacing York with seven thousand men. Col. Thomas finding the place untenable by the force at his command, ordered that portion of the regiment in and about York to fall back to the river. So sudden was the appearance of the foe, that the portion below York (five companies) was cut off from the rest of it, and knew not their present danger. The wisdom and correct judgment of his retreat at that time, is amply sustained by the following telegraphic correspondence between Major [Granviille O.] Haller, chief of staff, and Gen. Couch, but which failed to reach Colonel Thomas until after the object had been effected. On the twenty-seventh of June Major Haller telegraphed:
“I think Colonel Thomas’ troops hopelessly exposed. Sought for him, but he was absent; so could not discuss the question; York must fall, and the bridges follow of course. He might, perhaps, withdraw to-night.”
The reply of General Couch came next morning, viz Harrisburg, June 28, 1863. “To Major Haller–When you find it necessary to withdraw the main body of [Col. Jacob G.] Frick’s command [27th PVM] from Wrightsville, leave a proper number on the other side to destroy the bridges, and use your own discretion in their destruction. Keep them open as long as possible, with prudence. Send one (1) or two (2) secret messengers with dispatches to Thomas to withdraw if he has not already done so.”
Col. Thomas had already fallen back, and the messenger arriving at York, ascertained the fact, but it must be borne in mind that Col. Thomas did not leave York until after the surrender of that town by the chief burgess which event took place at three o’clock on Saturday, the twenty-seventh of June, the companies at and above [in and south of] York leaving just in time to prevent capture. Reaching Wrightsville, the portion of the regiment mentioned took part in the spirited engagement at that place, and suffered a considerable loss in wounded and prisoners, and were ultimately forced to retreat across the Susquehanna, burning the bridge at that place to prevent pursuit.
The companies below [north of] York were also attacked, but succeeded in beating off their assailants, and forcing their way to the river, reaching the Lancaster County side in safety; from their point of crossing they rejoined the regiment which had been ordered to Bainbridge, and where they labored night and day on fortifications and rifle pits on the mainland, and also on the islands in the river, at the fords at that place, and by their efforts and determined aspect, prevented the threatened crossing of the river by the rebels at that place.
The Colonel was placed in command of all the forces; thus did General Couch show his confidence in and reliance upon Colonel Thomas. By his orders all the flat boats at the different ferries had been brought to the Lancaster County side, thus compelling the foe to try a crossing at the only accessive ford on the river, which was foiled by this admirable arrangements.
After the battle of Gettysburg, the regiment, in common with other militia, was thrown forward into the Cumberland valley, making forced marches through mud and rain, through storm, and the summer’s heat, to join General Meade, that he might be enabled with this reinforcement to drive Lee into the river and destroy him, but reaching within co-operating distance of that army, only to participate in its chagrin, felt co keenly, at the escape of that wily rebel.
Stephen Noyes Winslow, Biographies of Successful Philadelphia Merchants. (Philadelphia: James K. Simon, 1864), pp. 82-85.