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Manchester resident recalled Rebel invasion

Early 20th-century aerial view of the railroad bridges across Conewago Creek near the intersection of Board Road and Wago Road south of York Haven (
Early 20th-century aerial view of the railroad bridges across the Conewago Creek near the intersection of Board Road and Wago Road south of York Haven (

As Major General Jubal Early’s long column of Confederate soldiers reached Weigelstown, Pennsylvania, on Sunday morning, June 28, 1863, Early dispatched Colonel William H. French’s 17th Virginia Cavalry eastward through York County to burn two Northern Central Railway bridges over the Conewago Creek not far from the Susquehanna River. The troopers likely followed what is today Church Road to reach Board Road, where they turned northeasterly. They headed through the villages of Liverpool Post Office (now Manchester) and Mount Wolf, where they paused to rest and collect shoes and supplies. Not knowing the exact way to the bridges, they impressed “an intelligent farmer,” Benjamin Miller, to be their guide. Then, the Rebels continued on Board Road to Wago Road and rode northward. After chasing off elements of the defending 20th Pennsylvania Volunteer Militia, the Virginians soaked the strategically important bridges liberally with coal oil and then set them on fire.

The Rebel raiders created quite a stir in Manchester Township.

Forty years later, in the summer of 1903, aged resident Michael Gross, sat on his front porch in the borough and recounted incidents from the invasion to local historian George R. Prowell.

Here is a portion of Mr. Gross’s reminiscences, taken from an article Prowell subsequently wrote for the July 21, 1903, York Daily.

Early 1900's postcard of Manchester, Pennsylvania. French's 17th Virginia Cavalry rode through this street on Sunday, June 28, 1863, on their way to burn the railroad bridges over the Conewago Creek. (Manchester Borough).
Early 1900’s postcard of Manchester, Pennsylvania. French’s 17th Virginia Cavalry rode through this street on Sunday, June 28, 1863, on their way to burn the railroad bridges over the Conewago Creek. (Manchester Borough).

Michael Gross was a third-generation York Countian, born on a farm southwest of Liverpool on January 14, 1815. His grandfather, Samuel Gross, emigrated from Germany  to British North America in 1750 and settled a short distance northwest of what would later become the village. He carved out a farm and constructed a log house. He passed along stories of his journey to his son John and grandson Michael.

After talking at length with the reporter about his early days in Liverpool, including driving cattle to Baltimore and other early memories, Gross responded in some depth when asked about the most exciting times in his memories of Manchester.

“O,” he replied, “it was the time the Rebels came in 1863, when the people got very much excited. We didn’t know they were coming until we saw them coming across the road toward Manchester from Weigelstown. There about 200 of them all on horseback, cavalrymen, I believe. We didn’t know [at] first what they wanted. Some people went to the attic, while others went to the cellars. They rode on through Manchester without disturbing any property, but stopped at Mt. Wolf, where they took a lot of shoes and other goods out of George Wolf’s store. They didn’t take anything in our township but horses, but they got a lot of them from some of our farmers and rode away with them. I guess many of them were afterward killed in the battle of Gettysburg.”

Prowell added some additional information in his article.

“The soldiers Mr. Gross refers to were a detachment of cavalry under Lieut. Col. [actually, Col.] French. These troops were sent by Gen. Early on Sunday morning, June 28, 1863, to the mouth of the Conewago creek to burn the bridges owned by the Northern Central Railway Company. There was a squad of Union soldiers guarding these bridges. When the Confederates entered Manchester borough [note: the borough was not incorporated until 1869], hearing they were outnumbered by the enemy, they skipped hurriedly across the Susquehanna to Bainbridge. The bridges were burned by the Confederates who soon came to York and joined Early’s division of 8,500 [6,600] that had entered York on June 28.”

Detail of the 1876 Atlas of York County showing the George H. Wolf farm, the Hoff farm where the 20th PVM camped, and the local road and railroad network.
Detail of the 1876 Atlas of York County showing the George H. Wolf  and Benjamin Miller farms, the Col. John Hoff farm where elements of the 20th PVM camped, and the local road and railroad network. (Scott Mingus derivative work)

Michael Gross died on November 26, 1905, and is buried in Manchester. Four years after his porch-front conversation with Gross, George Prowell consolidated that information with other accounts. He then penned this passage in his book, History of York County, Pennsylvania (Chicago: J. H. Beers & Co.., 1907), Volume 1.

“On the night of June 28, General Early with a division of 9,000 Confederate troops leading the advance of Lee’s army encamped in Paradise Township. He moved eastward through Weiglestown and when he arrived at that place detached Colonel French with 200 cavalrymen to pass through Manchester and Mt. Wolf to York Haven, there they were ordered to burn the railroad bridges. This was the first and only time that the inhabitants of Manchester saw the Confederate troops during the invasion into Pennsylvania. Their unexpected arrival caused a flurry of excitement. Some people ran to the cellars, others to the garrets and watched the troopers as they rode by. The soldiers halted in town, went into stores and took such shoes as they could find. These they paid for in Confederate notes. They proceeded to Mt. Wolf, where they also ransacked the store of George H. Wolf. Before leaving this village, telegraph poles were cut down. There was a battalion of the 20th Pennsylvania Emergency Regiment guarding the bridges at York Haven. When the Union troops heard of the approach of the enemy they crossed the Susquehanna on flatboats to Bainbridge. The Confederates arrived at York Haven early in the afternoon and immediately burned the two railroad bridges over the Conewago at this place, setting them or fire with coal oil. Their mission had then been completed and as there were no Federal troops in sight, except on the opposite side of the river, which could not be forded. Colonel French and his men returned through Mt. Wolf and Manchester and proceeded down the turnpike, joining Early’s command at York the same afternoon.”

Back in 1886, chronicler John Gibson had used some of Prowell’s earlier work in his own History of York County (Chicago: F. A. Battey Publishing Co., 1886).

“On the 28th of June, 1863, Gen. Early, while advancing on York, and when at Weiglestown, sent Col. French, with a detachment on the Seventeenth Virginia Cavalry, across Manchester Township, to the mouth of the Conewago, to burn the railroad bridges there. They halted, for a time, at Liverpool and Mount Wolf. They took from the stores, boots, shoes, hats, and some other clothing, paid for them in Confederate currency, which they proudly affirmed would soon be “better than your greenbacks, as we are now on our way to Harrisburg, Philadelphia, and New York, and the war will soon be over.” They cut down the telegraph poles, destroyed a number of small railroad bridges and  the two large ones. They compelled Benjamin Miller, an intelligent farmer, to go with them and direct them to the bridges, which they set fire to with coal oil. In  the afternoon they went to York. About 400 Union soldiers had been encamped on Col. Hoff’s farm, to guard these  bridges, but they crossed over the Susquehanna during the early morning of the same day, fearing the approach of a large army. A few shots were fired at the last boat load by the Confederates.”