Fire on the Conewago!
On June 28, 1863, a veteran Confederate division under Major General Jubal Early entered York County with the goal of driving off local militia defenders and holding York for ransom. Near Weiglestown, Early dispatched Colonel William French with most of the 17th Virginia Cavalry on a mission across Manchester Township. His objective? Seize and burn the twin railroad bridges over Conewago Creek near York Haven. Their destruction would severely hamper traffic between Baltimore and Harrisburg on the Northern Central Railway.
Unknown to Early, the Yankees had, several days before, dispatched nearly a thousand fresh soldiers to York County to guard important bridges, the Howard Tunnel, and key supply routes. They were commanded by Colonel William Thomas (a wealthy Philadelphia businessman and Republican politician who was a personal friend of Abe Lincoln). Most of Thomas’s men worked for him in the Customs House and Port of Philadelphia, but all were equipped with the latest in rifled muskets. The cavalrymen had pistols and sabers, with an occasional carbine. A clash of arms loomed, and the unsuspecting Confederate cavalrymen would be outnumbered and outgunned.
French’s cavalrymen rode past lush York County farmlands and entered Manchester (then called Liverpool) and Mount Wolf. They stopped in the vicinity to rest, feed and water their horses (or exchange played out mounts for fresh ones confiscated from farmers), and do a little shopping. Confederates entered the small shops and stores of both villages and began picking items off the shelves. Soon, their arms were filled with clothing, shoes, hats, boots, and personal goods. Shopkeepers, initially relieved that the Rebels intended to pay for the merchandise and not steal it, soon found out to their dismay the majority of the “Johnnies” had only Confederate scrip. When the merchants protested and demanded Federal currency, the Southerners retorted that their money would soon be “better than your greenbacks, as we are now on our way to Harrisburg, Philadelphia, and New York, and the war will soon be over.”
The troopers cut down several telegraph poles and destroyed several small railroad bridges in the region. Soldiers compelled local farmer Benjamin Miller to go with them. Coerced by Rebel pistols, Miller guided the Virginians to the two large bridges, which they set on fire with coal oil.
For several days, about 400 Union soldiers from the 20th Pennsylvania Volunteer Militia had camped near York Haven on the farm of a Colonel Hoff. The were supposed to be guarding the vital bridges. However, these hastily organized and poorly trained men, soldiers for less than a week, hastily retreated in the early morning when news arrived that Rebels were approaching. Fearing that a large army was aimed right at them, they piled into rowboats and began crossing the Susquehanna River to Lancaster County. It took some time for the small flotilla to make the crossing across the rain-swollen river and return for more men. The vanguard of the 17th Virginia arrived while the last boat load of Pennsylvania soldiers feverishly rowed across the broad Susquehanna. A few Rebs fired desultory shots at the fleeing militia, but no one was hurt. The frightened miltia regrouped in Bainbridge, while Rebel yells cascaded across the river.
By mid-afternoon, the once imposing bridges at York Haven were but a memory and French’s cavaliers were camped just north of York. After a rest break, they would be dispatched again to burn more bridges south of town, finishing off bridges skipped the day before by the 35th Battalion of Virginia Cavalry.
For more posts on the Confederate damage to the Northern Central Railway, see these posts:
Destruction of Fishel’s Bridge
Rebels destroy the Codorus Bridge (Black Bridge)
Fire on the Conewago