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Confederate Calamity: Fitz Lee visits Wellsville, PA

This impressive sandstone mansion along Doe Run just south of Wellsville, PA, was built by whip-maker Abraham Wells in 1868 to replace his earlier home. Nearly 2,000 Confederate cavalrymen rode past this site, although the house itself is post-war. Wells’ nearby whip factory produced whips and ammunition belts for the Union army.

Confederate Brigadier General Fitzhugh Lee led his brigade of Virginia cavaliers into the village of Wellsville in Warrington Township in northwestern York County, Pennsylvania, on the afternoon of July 1, 1863. Lee’s men were tired and exhausted from their grueling ride northward through the county following the Battle of Hanover the previous day, and many of his men later recalled how they dozed off and slept in the saddle as their horses plodded along in the lengthy column. However, by the time the column reached Wellsville, spirits had been raised, and the Rebels broke out into song, serenading the Keystone civilians with Southern martial airs.
It must have been quite a scene.

Lee’s column split off from Harmony Grove Road and headed for Wellsville using a pair of parallel roads, including Quaker Meeting Road. A portion of his command raided a couple of farms along the road, taking horses. They rode past the historic old Quaker Meeting House, which still hosts events today. It remains one of the oldest churches in this region.

Across the road from the mansion is this equally impressive barn, parts of which date from the original Abraham Wells farm. The nearby fields, Doe Run, the wood lines, the pastoral setting — all are quite similar to what the Confederates may have seen as they rode past yet another example of York County’s prosperity. No wonder many Rebels later wrote about the size of the “Dutchmen’s huge barns.”

Shortly after passing Wells’ farmstead, Lee’s advance patrol entered the village of Wellsville and secured the town as the vanguard approached, followed by the main column.

Wellsville has retained much of its small town 19th century feel, and some of the existing buildings were there as Fitz Lee’s boys belted out “Dixie” and other popular Southern airs

About noon, Lee’s saddle-weary Virginians entered the village. Although tired from the long rides over the past week, the men were in a cheerful mood. Someone started signing a Confederate war song, and soldier after soldier soon joined in until the entire brigade was having a merry sing-along. The sound of singing cavaliers echoed off the buildings as the column passed through town.

A few Rebels dismounted and entered a general store owned by two brothers, Abraham and John E. Wells, descendants of the pioneer for whom the village was named. The Southerners selected some items from the store’s inventory of goods, and reached into their pockets and purses to pay for the personal items with Confederate paper money. Satisfied with their shopping, they emerged from the store, remounted, and trotted off to take their place in the long line, which took two full hours to completely pass through Wellsville.

A few Wellsville residents watched the parade from the sidewalk, although most either had fled the oncoming Rebels or peered from the safety of their windows.

The sight of armed enemy cavalrymen singing their way through the little out-of-the-way town must have left quite an impression on young and old.

The town was decidedly pro-Union in its sentiments. Company H of the 87th Regiment Pennsylvania volunteers enlisted at Wellsville in August 1861 for a three-year term. Ross L. Harman, the first captain of the company, Wells A. Farrah, the first lieutenant and John L. Shilito, second lieutenant, were all from Warrington. The company joined the regiment at York, and served with it in the mountain campaign of West Virginia in 1862 and 1863, and in the Army of the Potomac under Grant in 1864. During the entire war this company lost in killed and wounded five commissioned officers.

Lieutenant Slothower was killed near Winchester, Virginia, on June 13, 1863, and Sergeant John H. Griffith was wounded. The following day Wells A. Farrah, who had been promoted to captain, was mortally wounded in the battle of Carter’s Woods. In the hard fought battle at Monocacy near Frederick, Maryland, on July 9, 1864, Lieutenant Daniel P. Dietrich, of this company, a native of Warrington Township, was instantly killed and several of his men wounded. During the entire three years of service, Company H. took part in the regiment in twenty-eight skirmishes and battles.

Little did the men of the 87th know that, not long after their stunning defeat at Carter’s Woods during the Second Winchester battle that within 2 weeks their wives, sweethearts, and family members would see Rebel flags in the streets of Wellsville and listen to the singing cavaliers of Fitzhugh Lee.

Colorized cover art by Wheaton, Illinois-based graphic designer Ivor Janci.