1930s aerial view of Wrightsville showing the June 28, 1863, defensive positions of the motley force of Union defenders
“Emergency Man” recalls defense of the Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge
Sunday, June 28, 2015, marks the 152nd anniversary of the destruction of one of the world’s longest covered bridges, the mile-and-a-quarter-long span across the Susquehanna River between Wrightsville in eastern York County and Columbia in western Lancaster County. The bridge was critical to the local economy and had military importance as well. It was the only surviving bridge south of Harrisburg all the way down to Maryland (the others had been previously destroyed by natural elements and never rebuilt).
According to Lisa Burk of Historic Wrightsville, Inc., the first Columbia Bridge was built in 1814 by Jonathan Wolcott with two local masons/carpenters Henry and Samuel Slaymaker. It was the longest covered bridge at 5,690 feet and was destroyed by an ice jam and high floodwaters in 1832. The bridge destroyed in the Civil War skirmish at Wrightsville was the second-longest covered bridge at 5,620 feet. It was successfully bid upon by Messrs. James Moore, John Evans, and Joseph Ott at the April 1832 Columbia Bridge Company board meeting. Ott later withdrew from the firm. For more on the antebellum history of the bridges, see Historic Bridges of Pennsylvania by William H. Shank and “The First and Second Columbia Bridges” by Robert H. Goodell in Papers Read before the Lancaster County Historical Society 1942 and 1953.
Union military leaders had orders to render the massive bridge impassable to approaching Confederates to keep them from entering Lancaster County and potentially moving northwest to attack Harrisburg from its relatively undefended rear. Likewise, Rebel Major General Jubal A. Early, unimpressed by the state militia’s prowess, wanted to seize the bridge, mount his infantrymen on captured horses, and dash toward the Pennsylvania capital.
More than a thousand barely trained “emergency men” awaited the oncoming Rebels. Called into service the previous week by Governor Andrew G. Curtin, they were to serve “for the duration of the emergency.” Most of these volunteer guardsmen had little previous military experience, although the majority of the officers and some of the men were veterans of the Army of the Potomac who had been recently mustered out after their service terms expired.
Among the motley collection of units defending the crucial river crossing were the soldiers of the 27th Pennsylvania Volunteer Militia, under the command of a talented veteran colonel, Jacob G. Frick. Unlike the other militia regiments guarding Gettysburg, York, and Harrisburg, a significant percentage of his men were veterans, having served under Frick in the former 129th Pennsylvania Infantry.
In their ranks was an 18-year-old private named James K. Polk Scheifly (spelled Shively in official army records). The native of Hamburg, Pa., had enrolled in Tamaqua in Schuylkill County on June 19 and the next day had been mustered into the 27th PVM at Camp Curtin in Harrisburg. He had previously served for three months at the start of the war back in the spring of 1861 in the Tamaqua Rifles, a company in the 10th Pennsylvania.
Almost 29 years later, Scheifly shared his war reminiscences with a reporter with his hometown newspaper. Here is that article, transcribed from the February 19, 1892, edition of the Evening Herald (Shenandoah, Pennsylvania).
Photograph by Scott Mingus of a painting in the collection of the Columbia Historical and Preservation Society
Sitting in the Scheifly House [then a prominent hotel and tavern in Shenandoah, Pa.] the other evening, after partaking of one of those excellent suppers for which Mrs. Scheifly has become noted, Mine Host James K. Polk Scheifly was called upon for a war story. “Jim” responded reluctantly, but was soon deep in the subject. Skipping over his term of service in the 25th Regiment [sic; 10th] the “Colonel” took up “the emergency.”
“Say, you fellows don’t know what soldiering is until you try it,” said he. “The 27th was a ‘crack’ regiment and contained many veterans of other regiments. Captain Jacob Martz, now dead, was our company commander, and Lew Boner and M. P. Fowler our lieutenants. Poor Boner is also among the dead. He was a good fellow, as were all our officers — commissioned and non-commissioned.
“We were at Wrightsville in June, and had thrown up miles of rifle pits, which made the rebel scouts in the neighborhood think we had thousands of soldiers on hand. You know, from history, that there were not more than a thousand men there [editor’s note: true for his regiment, but there were another 500 men present from other units]. ‘Ben’ Hughes was the fifth Sergeant and carried the colors of the regiment. Rumors of the coming of Early’s command made us feel uneasy. Refugees were coming in daily with horses, wagons, cattle, etc. and they passed over the wooden bridge to the Columbia side of the Susquehanna river.”
“I’ll never forget the time when the order was given to retreat, when all the companies, mine (Co. E,) excepted, ‘skedaddled’ pell-mell through the streets of Wrightsville, through the bridge, and on to Columbia, where the first stop was made. Rumor has it that some of the City Troop [First Troop, Philadelphia City Cavalry] did not stop until they reached Philadelphia. But, however that may be, Captain Martz’s company marched through the streets in an orderly and well-disciplined manner with colors flying amid shot and shell. At Columbia the members of our company were heroes and the ladies bestowed many acts of kindness upon us. They paid no attention to the men who didn’t have the letter ‘E’ on their caps. It was company ‘E’ that was feasted. Many of the ‘boys’ ate enough for six or seven ordinary men. The Wrightsville affair sharpened their appetites.”
After regrouping in Columbia, the 27th redressed its ranks and prepared for a possible river crossing, but none came. Once it was clear the Rebels had departed and were not coming back, Private Scheifly and the regiment returned to Harrisburg. Following the battle of Gettysburg, the 27th was among the state militia regiments which pursued the retreating Confederate Army of Northern Virginia into Maryland. Scheifly celebrated his 19th birthday in July while in the field with the 27th. Once the emergency was over, he and the regiment returned to the capital and the men mustered out of service.
Jim Scheifly married a local girl named Ella in 1868 and raised a family of four children in Shenandoah, a borough in the anthracite-coal mining country in northern Schuylkill County (roughly 100 miles northwest of Philadelphia). He died at the age of 83, but his widow lived well into the 1930s.
George T. Fleming’s The History of Schuylkill County, Pa. (New York: W. W. Munsell 7 Co., 1881) briefly mentions the old bridge defender. “James K. P. Scheifly was born in Hamburg, Berks county, June 27th, 1844, and in 1849 removed with his parents to Tamaqua. He served in the 10th and 27th Pennsylvania volunteer infantry during the Rebellion. In 1864 he was in trade at Alexandria, Va. He soon after went to the Pennsylvania oil regions and sunk the deepest well on French creek, but with unsatisfactory results. In 1S67 he engaged in hotel keeping at Slatington, Lehigh County, and was married to Ella J. Rudy, of Unionville, March 18th, 1868. Since 1870 he has been keeping the Scheifly House at Shenandoah. He was elected school director in 1876 and justice of the peace in 1878.”