Lonely Confederate grave alongside the Susquehanna River in Hellam Township
Headstone erected in 1988 to mark the approximate spot of an earlier grave of a Confederate soldier who perished in the June 1863 Gettysburg Campaign. 2006 photo by Dr. Thomas M. Mingus, Civil War historian and author from Manchester Township, York County, PA.
This modern headstone is nestled between scenic River Road and the Susquehanna River about a mile north of the Accomac Inn in northeastern Hellam Township in York County, Pennsylvania. Of all the gravestones associated with the Army of Northern Virginia in the Gettysburg Campaign, this one is farthest east (excepting those soldiers who died in captivity or in hospitals). It is one of the three known graves of Rebel soldiers from the campaign who are buried in York County – the other marked gravesite is in York’s Prospect Hill Cemetery where five Rebs are interred after dying at the temporary hospital in the local Odd Fellows Hall. An unmarked grave near Big Mount marks the final resting place of Charles Brown of the Louisiana Tigers (I recount that story in my recent book on the Tigers). And, not to forget, at one time there were several Confederate graves from the Battle of Hanover in southwestern York County, but these men were disinterred in the late 1800s and re-interred elsewhere..
So, who was this unknown Rebel who is remembered with a small headstone alongside the mighty Susquehanna?
Author and fellow blogger Jim McClure of the York Daily Record was the first person to alert me to this grave shortly after I moved to Pennsylvania in the early part of this decade from NE Ohio. Jim’s office was near mine in downtown York, and he was kind enough to share his passion for York County history with me, and in turn, I became interested in digging deeper into York’s rich Civil War lore.
Jim shared some of the theories of this unfortunate Rebel’s demise (many of which he relates in his fine book, East of Gettysburg: A Gray Shadow Crosses York County, Pa. which can be purchased at the Borders store in York or on the Internet at amazon.com and other retailers).
First, the scanty facts that are available: A body of a dead Confederate soldier was found on the riverbank, and speculation at the time was that he had drowned while trying to cross the river. Nearby accouterments suggested he was a cavalryman.
1. The dead Reb was a deserter who was trying to cross the river and escape into Lancaster County, from which like others he could head for Canada.
2. He was a scout sent by General Early or Gordon to test how deep the river was following recent heavy rains. Early had been ordered to cross the river and destroy the Pennsylvania Railroad.
3. He was on a homemade raft with two comrades when he fell off and, being unable to swim, drowned.
Other theories have been proposed, including that he was murdered by locals and dumped into the river.
By the way, according to one of the current residents along River Road, the old Confederate grave and many of the bones were washed away in 1972 during flooding caused by Hurricane Agnes.
Service records of the 17th Virginia Cavalry, which was operating in the region the last weekend of June while burning the railroad bridges in York Haven, do not reveal any fatalities specific to York County, but several men are listed as missing in action during the campaign. It is possible that one of them is our riverbank casualty. The regiment had chased off the 20th Pennsylvania Volunteer Militia which had been guarding those bridges, and the Yankees has withdrawn on rowboats to Bainbridge.
An old newspaper account from the period suggests that a few Rebels were later seen hiding in the bushes near Marietta on the eastern riverbank, so perhaps a party of scouts indeed were sent across the wide river to locate a suitable place for a flanking movement, or, as some accounts suggest, the men deserted and were hiding from the Federal cavalry patrols that roved the region.
Here is a similar contemporary account which claims that a Rebel spy was killed near Marietta. Could this be our missing man???
Philadelphia Press, June 29, 1863. Courtesy of Penn State University’s “ActivePaper” website.