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Columbia Bridge burned 148 years ago today

Civil War artist Bradley Schmehl painted this impressive depiction of the Columbia Bridge on fire on Sunday evening, June 28, 1863, as retreating Union militia cross into Lancaster County. Under orders from the army officers, a work crew of civilian carpenters set the bridge on fire to prevent pursuing Confederates from crossing into Columbia and threatening Harrisburg. Image used under license; cover art from Flames Beyond Gettysburg: The Confederate Expedition to the Susquehanna River, June 1863 (Savas Beatie, March 2011).
The Columbia Bridge was the economic umbilical cord which connected York and Lancaster counties during the 19th century. Said to be the world’s longest covered bridge, it was the only Susquehanna River bridge south of Harrisburg to the Maryland state line during the Civil War. The massive wooden structure provided a roadway for pedestrians and wagons, as well as a railroad passage and a canal boat towpath used by mule teams to tow boats across the river to canals on the opposite side.
Here is one young soldier’s description of the controversial burning of the bridge, which would not be replaced until after the Civil War.

“Two freight cars had been run along the railroad track on the right bank of the Susquehanna, in such a way as to cover the entrance to the bridge and thus prevent a direct charge into it.
[Henry] Ashhurst and [Peter A.] Browne were assigned the duty of remaining by this obstruction to give notice to the party at the mined pier of the approach of the Confederates. The retreat had already begun, and the infantry, together with citizens of Wrightsville and vicinity were streaming around the temporary tet-du-pont formed by the freight cars. Many of the troops threw away their guns and equipments which impeded their flight.

The planking had been partly removed on both sides of the pier to prevent the passage of cavalry, artillery or wagons. Major [Charles M.] Knox and Colonel [Jacob G.] Frick stood on the footway on the down-stream side of the bridge, superintending the retreat, their horses picketed to the beams. One old negro to whom was entrusted the duty of igniting the fuse sat very coolly on the edge of the pier, smoking a cigar…
The order was then given to the troop guard to follow their companions to Columbia, Col. Frick’s horse being led by the writer, who was the last of the four, leaving only Colonel Frick, Major Knox and the negro at the pier. The writer expected every second to hear a loud explosion, but as the distance increased between himself and the “mine,” his astonishment at the absence of any detonation augmented. At the Columbia entrance were two light guns trained on the bridge, which seemed to be sufficient to check any projected passage by an enemy. Emerging from the covered structure into the open air, he saw a curl of smoke rising from the pier where the mine had been placed, and shortly afterward a column of flame mounted high in the air.
The reason for the absence of an explosion was said to have been that the “mine” consisted of several augur holes bored in the supporting beams and filled with powder. The intention was to blow up the support of the span between the third and fourth piers and throw it into the river. But the augur holes were too deep and the explosion merely blew out the bottoms of the holes. Whether the attempted explosion of itself set fire to the bridge, or whether this was accomplished by other means when the mine failed, is unknown to the writer. It was now evening, and as the darkness increased the spectacle of the burning bridge grew more imposing. Before 9 o’clock, fear began to be entertained for the safety of the town of Columbia, and all able-bodied soldiers and some citizens worked hard to tear up the planking and dismantle the bridge to check the fire, but the effort was vain, and the flames steadily advanced from the western shore.

First Sergeant [M. E.] Rogers’ notes say:
‘When it was proposed that the troop should try to save half of the bridge, the men immediately fell in and proceeded to the bridge, where they worked as industriously as possible for two hours, but to no effect, as they were not in sufficient force to cut the bridge away. The citizens positively refused to do anything until compelled, with drawn pistols, to go to work, but such forced labor was found to be of no avail. The fire advanced with such rapid strides that it was necessary to abandon the structure to the flames. The men returned to quarters quite exhausted.’
By observation of the watch during the burning of three or four spans, it was found that twenty minutes elapsed from the time the west end of a span first caught fire until the whole span fell into the river in flames.
The fire was started at the extremity of the third from the Wrightsville side, and there were twenty-one spans. The eighteen spans between the origin of the fire and the Columbia shore took, therefore, very closely six hours to burn, and the fire having been set, say about 7 P.M., the destruction of the bridge was complete by 1 A.M. Monday morning.
It would be difficult to imagine any grander sight than the arches of burning flame from the ill-fated bridge, the reflection of the light on the foliage of the island below it, and the hissing of the fire rafts, each consisting of one partially consumed bridge-span floating down the river with the current, temporarily arrested by obstructions, and the whole mass finally stringing out into a line of fire and a shadow of charred wood to the falls below. But the same scenes were transpiring in Columbia and in Wrightsville. In the latter place the Confederate soldiers were working as hard to save that town as their foes to save Columbia. It was late before the danger of a general conflagration was passed, and the tired troops were able to seek rest.”

Pvt. Persifor Fraser, Jr., First Troop, Philadelphia City Cavalry. Writing as “A Private Recruit” in Journal of the Military Service Institution of the United States, Vol. 43, 1908. pp. 281-296.