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Homemade bread, preserves, hot coffee & gunpowder!

Detail from the 1860 Shearer & Lake Map of York County (YCHT)
Detail from the 1860 Shearer & Lake Map of York County, showing Wrightsville and the bridge over the Susquehanna River (PA State Archives)

The year was 1938. In Gettysburg, thousands of aged Civil War veterans gathered together one final time to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg. Many York Countians, some still living, traveled to view the massive encampment and talk to the old soldiers. Local Boy Scouts ministered to their needs. Stories abounded.

Here in the York-Lancaster region, a 92-year-old former resident of Columbia and Wrightsville recalled one of the more interesting side events of the June-July 1863 Gettysburg Campaign: the Confederate occupation of Wrightsville after the defending Pennsylvania volunteer militiamen retreated across the long covered bridge to Columbia and set it on fire to prevent the Rebels from crossing into Lancaster County.

Her name was Emily Brenneman.

Here is her story, taken from the July 7, 1938, issue of the York Gazette and Daily.

Painting of the burning of the Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge. (Scott Mingus photo. Painting at the Columbia Historical Society.)
One of several painting of the burning of the Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge done by students at Wrightsville early in the 20th century. (Scott Mingus photo. Painting is at the Columbia Historic Preservation Society)

“Wrightsville, July 6. — Since the celebration of the Blue and Gray reunion at Gettysburg, it has left the citizens of this town history conscious and more fully aware of the town’s identity with events which have shaped the destiny of state and nation. In various storefronts are displayed relics of Civil war days. Buildings that figured in those events have been appropriately marked and tourists from all parts of the country passing through will receive some historical education. Leaflets are being printed, giving the locality’s historical background and high-spots of history. These will be sent out by business houses as enclosures with their ordinary mail and widely distributed among tourists. Plans are being discussed for the town to hold a large celebration on the next anniversary of ‘Farthest East Day’.”

Former Resident Reminisces

“The anniversary of ‘Farthest East Day’ and the Blue and Gray reunion at Gettysburg brought many recollections of Civil war days to Miss Emily Brenneman, 92-year-old resident of Lancaster and former resident of Wrightsville. When interviewed, Miss Brenneman told of the can of gunpowder and the bundle of fuses that were hidden under the back porch of her home in Columbia and which was later used to blow up the bridge to halt the rebels. Miss Brenneman, who was nineteen at the time tells how she was much too busy slicing down big loaves of home made bread, carrying crocks of preserves from the attic, tossing wood in the range and brewing gallons and gallons of coffee to worry much about the sinister black can of gunpowder under the back porch.

“A crowd of blue-clad soldiers [likely from the 27th Pennsylvania Volunteer Militia] had descended upon the Brenneman home and the family was giving them everything of the best to send them on — on to Harrisburg where they were to cross the old camelback bridge and march to Gettysburg.

“At Wrightsville, the lean, ragged, hard fighting forces of Confederate Generals Early and Gordon had arrived on the heels of fleeing thousands. The officials of Columbia with vision of a vast army pushing across the old bridge from Wrightsville made the historic decision [at army orders] to burn the bridge.

“Miss Brenneman said the foot-high can of powder waited on the back porch until nearly dusk on Sunday evening. Then her father, who was [later] the Chief Burgess of Columbia, together with Wesley Upp and some other men, carried the powder to the old covered bridge and soon black smoke was curling up from the great span and flames were lighting the faces of the excited throngs who gathered in the streets of Columbia. From her house on Locust street, between Fourth and Fifth, where she lived, Emily fought her way down toward the burning bridge. But the crowds were too dense and anyway, there were soldiers to be fed, so she turned back to the hot kitchen where her mother and two sisters had cooked every scrap of food in the place.

Confederates “Saved” Town

“Up at the head of Wrightsville a line of trenches had been dug, but those residents who didn’t run across the bridge at the approach of the men in gray, hid in their cellars. They didn’t destroy anything and instead of wrecking the town of Wrightsville as its inhabitants had feared, the Confederates really saved it by putting out fires set by sparks from the burning bridge, older residents say.

“When Wrightsville celebrated the seventy-fifth anniversary of the burning of the brid[g]e last Tuesday, Miss Brenneman enjoyed reading accounts of that event and relived again in memory of that June day that she spent cooking for Union soldiers.

Will be 93 in August

“Emily Brenneman, who will be ninety-three on August 16, lived in Wrightsville for a number of years with her brother-in-law and sister, Mr. and Mrs. Calvin Flury. Alfred Williams, well known young Democratic leader in town, is a grand nephew of Miss Brenneman. She is a great reader and her lively eyes read with much interest the events that took place at Gettysburg within the past week.”