Efforts have continued in Congress for 125+ years to approve repayment for burnt bridge
On Sunday evening, June 28, 1863, under orders from a major general in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania state militiamen oversaw the preparations and then the execution of a plan to destroy the mile-and-a-quarter long covered bridge over the Susquehanna River between Wrightsville and Columbia. It was the longest such covered bridge in the world and was the only bridge at the time between Harrisburg and Conowingo, Maryland. Its destruction prevented Confederate troops from entering Lancaster County and possibly threatening Harrisburg from its undefended rear.
The First National Bank of Columbia owned the toll bridge, and it was the citizens of Columbia who physically torched the bridge (under army orders).
And therein lies the gist of an ongoing attempt, now entirely symbolic, by a series of Lancaster County congressmen to have the Federal government pay the long-standing private claim for the loss of the bridge.
Here is the story…
This painting photographed at the Columbia Historic Preservation Society’s museum depicts the early stages of the destruction of the bridge. It correctly shows the fire as starting on the Wrightsville side (some accounts, including several Confederate accounts) indicate the middle of the bridge.
Citizens could file damage claims with the commonwealth of Pennsylvania after the war for losses incurred to the invading Confederate army or to the occupying Pennsylvania Volunteer Militia regiments. If the property damage or theft of personal property came from Federal troops, the claim had to be filed with Washington.
The Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge fell into the cracks. Pennsylvania did not allow a claim to be filed because the bridge was fired by Columbia citizens at the instruction of a Federal officer, Major General Darius Couch in Harrisburg, and his aide-de-camp on-site at Wrightsville, Major Granville O. Haller of the 7th U.S. Infantry. So, because the emergency militiamen were not actually the source of the destruction, no claim could be filed in PA.
Enter the Feds.
In particular, the U.S. House of Representatives.
For about 30 years after the Civil War, there appeared to be a glimmer of hope that Columbia would receive its money. According to the Gettysburg Times of March 18, 1939, “As late as 1890, the house war claims committee filed a favorable report with congress. It pointed out that Major General Darius N. Couch, commander of the Department of the Susquehanna, took possession of the bridge in June 1863 as ‘an indispensable necessity.'” The committee report then outlined the basic facts of the Civil War incident, closing with commentary that its destruction played a role in the eventual outcome of the battle of Gettysburg. Congress after some debate compromised. It eliminated the provision to actually pay the claim but did authorize the Treasury Department to study the matter.
That tabled the issue for a few years, until 1902 when the U.S. Senate approved a resolution referring the tabled house bill to the Federal Court of Claims. Three years later, the court returned its report, undervaluing the bridge at $50,150 and reciting the history of the bridge and the events which led to its wartime destruction. However, the house claims committee again tabled the bill in 1908. Every two years thereafter, Lancaster’s congressmen kept trying without any success.
In 1939, Representative J. Roland Kinzer of Lancaster County tried again in earnest to collect on the longstanding claim. He argued strongly for the validity of the claim, but the country was coming out of a depression and war clouds loomed over Europe, so more pressing matters took precedence.
Ever since then, the issue has been merely symbolic.
In 2003, Rep. Joe Pitts took up the cause. By then, with interest, the claim had grown to $170 million dollars. According to the Star-News, August 31, 2003, he joked that he would push Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to include payment for Columbia’s lost bridge in reparations to rebuild war-damaged bridges in Iraq “just for fun.” However, White House Office of Management and Budget spokesman Trent Duffy replied that the claim had expired and added, “The bridge might have to be counted, with bravery, as Columbia’s contribution to liberty.”
In March 2009, Rep. Joe Pitts (left) received an autographed first edition copy of Flames Beyond Gettysburg from Susquehanna Valley Civil War historian and author Scott L. Mingus Sr. The book, since revised, updated, and reprinted multiple times, remains in print and is the definitive account of the wartime destruction of the Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge.
Who knows? Perhaps someday a Lancaster politician may succeed and actually get Congress to pay for the bridge’s destruction; money that perhaps could be used to develop further the historical story of Columbia in the Civil War.