Historic Wrightsville, Pa., Museum features Civil War displays
The historic town of Wrightsville, Pennsylvania, is nestled along the banks of the mile-wide Susquehanna River in eastern York County. Today it has about 2,300 residents, roughly double its size during the American Civil War. Some accounts suggest that this was George Washington’s first choice as the capital of the fledgling United States. A major highway (then the turnpike between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh) crossed the river at Wrightsville and snaked its way westward through York and Gettysburg before crossing the South Mountain range and entering the verdant Cumberland Valley.
Wrightsville as a key stop on the secretive Underground Railroad for many years before the Civil War as slaves prepared to cross the broad river (either at night via flatboats or rafts, or smuggled in wagons or railcars across the wooden covered bridge to Columbia in Lancaster County.
During the Civil War, more than 2,000 veteran Confederate soldiers under Georgia-born Brig. Gen. John Brown Gordon attacked horseshoe-shaped Union militia positions surrounding Wrightsville on Sunday evening, June 28, 1863. After the inexperienced and barely trained militiamen retreated across the long covered bridge, a civilian work party, under army orders, burned the bridge to prevent Confederate passage into Lancaster County.
Historic Wrightsville, Inc. operates a nice museum inside of a large 19th century home along Locust Street on the north side of town.
Here are a few photographs of a portion of the Civil War items currently on display in this interesting small-town museum. It is well worth a visit if you are traveling through eastern York County on US 30 or PA Route 462 (the old turnpike).
This old Civil War musket belonged to a local man named William Smedley who was a long-time member of the famed Pennsylvania Reserves in the Army of the Potomac. He and this rifle participated in many of the army’s most important battles, including The Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse, and the Siege of Petersburg.
As the bridge burned back in 1863, the winds shifted and the riverfront along Wrightsville’s eastern side caught on fire. General Gordon’s men formed a bucket brigade to transfer water from the river and nearby canal to extinguish the flames in the town’s buildings, but not before flames consumed the post office, a millinery, several lumberyards and warehouses, an apartment building, and other structures. Late in the night Mary Jane Rewalt, the newlywed daughter of Wrightsville’s mayor, invited Gordon and his staff to breakfast the following morning to say thanks for saving the town from worse destruction. The above art print by B. A. Farnsler depicts Gordon as he approached Mrs. Rewalt’s father’s house along Hellam Street.
Another image depicting General Gordon and Mrs. Rewalt is in this case along with a photograph of her father’s house. James Magee served as chief burgess of the town during the midst of the Civil War. His daughter had married a local physician, Dr. Luther Rewalt, that April. He was off in the army, so his new bride, Mary Jane, had moved back in with her parents in the spring. The Civil War officer in the first photograph in this blog post is Mary Jane’s brother, Frank Magee.
This life-size image from the museum’s collection depicts a typical Confederate soldier, perhaps one from Gordon’s Georgia brigade.
The corresponding painting of a Union soldier is on the opposite wall of one room of the Historic Wrightsville Museum.
A portion of one of the many Civil War letters in the museum’s collection… this one discusses General Gordon’s attack on Wrightsville.
Periodically, York County author Scott L. Mingus Sr. signs books at the museum, including at the annual Museum Day each September as well as on other special occasions.
The museum stocks autographed copies of Mingus’s popular nonfiction book on General Gordon, Mrs. Rewalt, and the burning of the Columbia Bridge — Flames Beyond Gettysburg: The Confederate Expedition to the Susquehanna River, June 1863 (Savas Beatie LLC, 2009).
If you go: The Historic Wrightsville Museum is located at 309 Locust Street in downtown Wrightsville, PA. It is on the first road parallel and north of PA Route 462 (the Lincoln Highway, the old turnpike to Philadelphia). The museum is open most Sundays from 1:00 p.m. until 4:00 p.m. or by special appointment for groups. Call 1-717-252-1169 for information, directions, or to check availability.
From the museum’s website:
The Museum at Wrightsville is located in a house built in 1871, the former residence of John and Mary Redman. The house was given to Historic Wrightsville, Inc. in 1987 and since that time has served as the home of the organization which has done much to preserve the rich heritage of the town.
The first floor of the museum contains exhibit rooms housing permanent exhibits on the history of the town, including information on the different bridges at Wrightsville, and special rotating exhibits on particular aspects of local history.
Knowledgeable docents are available to answer any questions concerning the town or the area. Also in the museum are:
a small gift shop
a library of books relating to aspects of the Civil War
books and information on the Civil War in Wrightsville
information on up-coming events and other special programs sponsored by Historic Wrightsville, such as fund raising events and sale items.