Confederates labored to save burning buildings in Wrightsville during Gettysburg Campaign
This historic marker was installed last year as part of the Pennsylvania Civil War Trails program. It commemorates the efforts by Georgia Confederate soldiers under Brig. Gen. John B. Gordon to extinguish a series of fires in downtown Wrightsville, Pennsylvania, caused by flaming embers from the burning Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge. That conflagration occurred on Sunday evening, June 28, 1863, during the Gettysburg Campaign when Union militia set fire to the bridge after crossing it into Lancaster County; their goal was to deny its usage to the Army of Northern Virginia.
As the fire from the massive mile-and-a-quarter long covered bridge spread westward with the prevailing winds from a rainstorm, Wrightsville’s citizens and merchants produced buckets, pails, tubs, pitchers, and anything else suitable to carry water up from the Susquehanna River and/or the adjacent Susquehanna and Tide Water Canal. A bucket brigade of Rebel infantrymen helped save individual homes and businesses and helped arrest the fires that were burning out of control in the Westphalia district of Wrightsville and in the industrial section north of Hellam Street.
In this Cannonball blog entry, let’s look at just a few of the buildings the Confederates labored to save. Their efforts paid off, as the structures are still intact 146 years after the inferno that destroyed many adjacent or nearby buildings such as the post office, a millinery and store, apartments, houses, a lumberyard, and other factories.
This was the home of Wrightsville’s chief burgess, Jame F. Magee, in 1863. His daughter Mary Jane Rewalt ought out General Gordon during the chaotic excitement that Sunday night and pleaded with him to save her father’s house. Gordon ordered his men to do so, and through “tireless labor” they managed to save the building, although some nearby buildings did burn down. In appreciation, Mary Jane, whose husband Luther Rewalt was a surgeon in the Union army serving in the South, invited Gordon and his staff officers to have breakfast with her in this house.
The next morning, Gordon arrived promptly. In his words, “There was one point especially at which my soldiers combated the fire’s progress with immense energy, and with great difficulty saved an attractive home from burning. It chanced to be the home of one of the most superb women it was my fortune to meet during the four years of war. She was Mrs. L. L. Rewalt, to whom I refer in my lecture, The Last Days of the Confederacy, as the heroine of the Susquehanna.
I met Mrs. Rewalt the morning after the fire had been checked. She had witnessed the furious combat with the flames around her home, and was unwilling that those men should depart without receiving some token of appreciation from her. She was not wealthy, and could not entertain my whole command, but she was blessed with an abundance of those far nobler riches of brain and heart which are the essential glories of exalted womanhood. Accompanied by an attendant, and at a late hour of the night, she sought me, in the confusion which followed the destructive fire, to express her gratitude to the soldiers of my command and to inquire how long we would remain in Wrightsville. On learning that the village would be relieved of our presence at an early hour the following morning, she insisted that I should bring with me to breakfast at her house as many as could find places in her dining-room. She would take no excuse, not even the nervous condition in which the excitement of the previous hours had left her.
At a bountifully supplied table in the early morning sat this modest, cultured woman, surrounded by soldiers in their worn, gray uniforms. The welcome she gave us was so gracious, she was so self-possessed, so calm and kind, that I found myself in an inquiring state of mind as to whether her sympathies were with the Northern or Southern side in the pending war. Cautiously, but with sufficient clearness to indicate to her my object, I ventured some remarks which she could not well ignore and which she instantly saw were intended to evoke some declaration upon the subject. She was too brave to evade it, too self-poised to be confused by it, and too firmly fixed in her convictions to hesitate as to the answer. With no one present except Confederate soldiers who were her guests, she replied, without a quiver in her voice, but with womanly gentleness: ‘General Gordon, I fully comprehend you, and it is due to myself that I candidly tell you that I am a Union woman. I cannot afford to be misunderstood, nor to have you misinterpret this simple courtesy. You and your soldiers last night saved my home from burning, and I was unwilling that you should go away without receiving some token of my appreciation. I must tell you, however, that, with my assent and approval, my husband is a soldier in the Union army, and my constant prayer to Heaven is that our cause may triumph and the Union be saved.’
No Confederate left that room without a feeling of profound respect, of unqualified admiration, for that brave and worthy woman. No Southern soldier, no true Southern man, who reads this account will fail to render to her a like tribute of appreciation. The spirit of every high-souled Southerner was made to thrill over and over again at the evidence around him of the more than Spartan courage, the self-sacrifices and devotion, of Southern women, at every stage and through every trial of the war, as from first to last, they hurried to the front, their brothers and fathers, their husbands and sons. No Southern man can ever forget the words of cheer that came from these heroic women’s lips, and their encouragement to hope and fight on in the midst of despair.”
This sturdy brick house on Front Street was also saved by the Rebels, as were a few other nearby structures. However, much of the immediate neighborhood was devastated and needed to be rebuilt after the cleanup of the ruined buildings. A huge lumberyard and an iron foundry were among the factories destroyed in this region along the river north of Hellam Street.
A block south of the house shown above is the historic Wrightsville House, an old tavern that was popular well before the Civil War. Some accounts suggest that Confederate soldiers climbed onto the roof to help pass water to douse flaming embers that kept blowing onto the flammable shingles.
The Wrightsville House is occasionally open today for special events. I spoke there a few years ago on the burning of Wrightsville during one of the Rivertownes’ Riverfest celebrations.
As residents surveyed the damage the final days of June 1863, a dozen fire-damaged structures needed significant repair. Several anguished citizens found their homes or places of employment along the riverbank reduced to smoldering ashes. Three buildings owned by George W. and Rebecca Harris were totally destroyed (at a loss of $8,000). His foundry, occupied by Eden Wolf of Baltimore, had suffered $4,000 in damages. Henry Kauffelt‘s planing mill, operated by Mr. Duke of Baltimore, was a total loss. The wealthy Kauffelt, a director of the First National Bank, was relieved to find that flames had not consumed the town’s largest depository. Nearby, Kauffelt and Lanius’s massive lumberyard was now only a memory, and they assessed the damage at $8,000. William H. Lanius, an officer in the 87th Pennsylvania, later rebuilt his father’s business. Postmaster Alexander J. Thomson filed a Federal damage claim for the loss of the post office and its contents.
Officials estimated the total damage as between $16,000 and $21,000. The economic effect of lost wages and business taxes to the community was even higher, notwithstanding the psychological effect of the loss of prized personal property and family heirlooms. Several residents later hired the York law firm of Cochrane and Hay to represent them, but they recovered no compensation from either Pennsylvania or the Federal government.
For much more on Wrightsville during the Gettysburg Campaign, please see Flames Beyond Gettysburg: The Gordon Expedition, June 1863, and East of Gettysburg: A Gray Shadow Crosses York County, Pa., by fellow blogger and author Jim McClure.