Hard-working Rebels save Wrightsville houses as bridge burns
This impressive old stone mansion in downtown Wrightsville, Pennsylvania, has a storied history, once serving as a hotel and tavern. During the June 28 – 29, 1863, occupation of the town by a Confederate expeditionary force under Brig. Gen. John B. Gordon, the house was threatened by flaming embers from the conflagration that was engulfing the nearby Columbia-Wrightsville covered bridge. Rebel soldiers from an unidentified regiment labored to pass water uphill from the Susquehanna and Tide Water Canal to help douse the flickering flames on the roof of this house, as well as several others in the immediate hilltop vicinity. They were successful in stopping the spread of the fire that eventually destroyed most of the lower riverfront portions of Wrightsville.
There are several accounts left behind by the Rebels of their efforts to save the private homes of Wrightsville. Some Confederates later grumbled about obeying these orders, preferring instead to have watched the town burn down in retribution for Union atrocities committed at Darien, Georgia (events depicted in the movie Glory). One embittered soldier from the Darien vicinity later commented that if he ever got back to Wrightsville, this time he would personally torch the town.
Among the structures that were saved that rainy Sunday night back in June 1863 was the Washington House. The once popular hotel had various owners over the years that it flourished. Originally established as an innl to serve the local railroad stop, for several years after the U.S. Centennial it was owned by a Gainsburg, Pennsylvania, native named John A. Witman, a merchant and businessman of some renown in Dauphin County in the mid-1800s. He was the proprietor of the Washington House in Middletown. In 1876 he moved to Wrightsville, Pennsylvania, and for three years and a half was there engaged in mercantile business. He then disposed of his interests and again embarked in the hotel business, conducting the ‘Washington Hotel at Wrightsville for five years.
During the Civil War, a York Countian owned the hotel. During the Confederate invasion, it housed several refugees who had traveled to Wrightsville seeking to escape the Rebel march through Franklin, Adams, and western York County.
One Rebel, former school teacher turned private Issac G. Bradwell, may have stopped at this very house… here’s an excerpt from Flames Beyond Gettysburg: The Gordon Expedition, June 1863. His regiment was known to have been patrolling this part of Wrightsville.
Exhausted from the days of long marches and his unplanned duty as a firefighter, Private Isaac Bradwell decided to slip away from the great crowd to some quiet place and lie down for a few hours’ rest. Bradwell and a comrade left the teeming riverbank, heading for the “suburbs.” Coming upon a neat-looking residence, they decided to go in and spread their blankets in the piazza to escape the falling rain. They took seats on a nearby bench. Suddenly, they heard a multitude of voices speaking in low tones from inside the darkened house. It was filled with frightened women who had gone there to spend the night together. Hearing footsteps on the porch, one lady mustered up courage enough to open the door a few inches, timidly asking, “When are the Rebels going to burn the town?” Bradwell replied that Confederates did not burn towns; Yankee soldiers did. The disbelieving women repeated the same question about a dozen times, each time receiving the same assurances. A frustrated Bradwell finally suggested to his friend that they would not get any sleep at that house, so they went back down the steps and spread their blankets on the pavement in the rain. They spent the rest of the night “oblivious to all the trying scenes of war until the rattle of the reveille roused us from our slumbers at first dawn.”