One of Gordon’s men discusses the Rebels saving Wrightsville, Pa. from burning
The Columbia Bridge burns on the night of Sunday, June 28, 1863, in this photograph of a painting at the Columbia Historical Society in Columbia, Pennsylvania. Union troops retreating from Wrightsville (foreground) marched across the bridge into Lancaster County (background) and then had four citizens of Columbia apply the torch to the structure, which was the world’s longest covered bridge. The wind shifted, and the flamed threatened to destroy Wrightsville.
That’s when Confederate Brigadier General John Brown Gordon and his Georgia infantrymen took decisive action to save the town.
I document much of this in my book Flames Beyond Gettysburg: The Confederate Expedition to the Susquehanna River. Gordon’s men formed a bucket brigade around the burning section and passed water to keep the flames from spreading. They also procured gunpowder and blew up some structures as a fire break.
I have been taking a fresh look at Gordon’s brigade in the Gettysburg Campaign for Eric Wittenberg’s and my upcoming book on the Second Battle of Winchester, I found a previously overlooked account which adds more depth and color to the known facts. Unfortunately, the following letter reprinted in the Atlanta Weekly Constitution references an earlier exchange in two issues of the Blakely (Ga.) Early County News, and I have been unable to locate a copy of those dates. These accounts are from when Gordon was running for governor of Georgia vs. Major Bacon, and Gordon’s supporters and detractors were exchanging commentary on his worthiness for the office and his past activities.
Here is the account from the Atlanta Weekly Constitution of June 26, 1886, as written by former Lt. B. R. Doster, Company G, 13th Georgia, who was serving in the Gettysburg campaign as the regimental adjutant.
“The following is taken from that staunch and reliable democratic paper, the Early County News. It is from the pen of Doctor B. R. Doster, one of the most intelligent and popular citizens of southwest Georgia, and one of the best physicians in the state. He is a particularly accurate man and his graphic description of the following event will be read with interest:
“Blakely, Ga., June 15, 1886 — Editors News: Some might infer from Mr. T. E. Hightower’s [the 2nd Lieuteant of Co. G, 13th Georgia in 1863] communications, in your issue of the 10th inst., that Gordon’s brigade, at Wrightsville, Pa., June 28th, 1863, was in a state of insubordination, as he says, ‘all order in our ranks was broken,’ and every man acted ‘voluntarily, of his own accord without orders from any officer,’ Gordon not excepted. He may not have intended to convey the idea, but his language points strongly that way. If he did, it is a reflection not only on General Gordon, but on the morale and discipline of his soldiers– such an one as I dissent to. I beg leave to reiterate that the general tenor of the facts were substantially (as I saw and heard) as stated in my interview with Mr. J. J. Smith, the efficient correspondent of the Atlanta Constitution, which was copied in the Early County News of the 3d inst.
“I was on detached service at the time, as adjutant of the Thirteenth Georgia, Colonel James M. Smith, late governor of Georgian, commanding. Therefore, I was in a position to officially know something of the general’s orders and inferred intentions about this matter, and as well as I remember the Thirteenth was at the head of the column and when it reached the intersection of the Main street [Hellam Street] with the one on the river front [Front Street], it was General Gordon’s order, communicated through the regular military channel, to halt, stack arms, leave a guard with the guns, detail a company to act as provost guard, and in obedience to that order, I, as adjutant, detailed company ‘F’ from Fayette county, Captain Jones, commanding, to perform this duty. The other regiments filed to our right and rear, the artillery [Capt. William Tanner’s Courtney Artillery, a battery from Virginia] parked on right of infantry. After orders to break ranks, then came the order to throw the lumber into the river, and try to save the town. The soldiers went to work vigorously, with free, hearty, good will, and soon accomplished this commendable object.
“General Gordon, on horseback, was passing around and about during this time, when I heard him ask three ladies who were on a front porch where he could get some powder. They told him, and he rode rapidly away, and in a reasonable length of time afterwards, I heard the explosion.
“The idea of blowing up the bridge [and a couple of houses on the fire line as other accounts state] with powder may have been suggested to General Gordon by ‘some of our soldiers.’ His men were intelligent, and Gordon very approachable by any private, and it matters not by whom suggested, Gordon was acting on that line, and permitted it to be done. Therefore, I think General Gordon does deserve special praise. Why? Because he was in supreme command at that time and place. It was his prerogative as a general officer to have ordered his command out of town and let it burn, or, Sherman-like, ordered it burned. We would have done either, as true soldiers obey their superior officers.
“I would not untruthfully exalt a general, or detract one iota from the achievements of a private soldier. They were the true heroes of the late war, but would not have accomplished much without such leaders as Lee, Jackson, and Gordon. The latter, with his brave men, most of whom filled honorable graves, saved Wrightsville, and I honor them for it.
“After the fire was under control, then it was that the soldiers came up from the river and broke open the [rail]cars. Then the picnic commenced; the boys ‘held the fourth of July,’ and some, I am sorry to say, drank too much. As soon as General Gordon ascertained this, he ordered the heads of the barrels knocked in and the whiskey poured out. The general always divided the spoils with his men–only interdicting whisky[sic]. After they got all the other things they wanted from the cars, and the order came to fall in, I noticed all obeyed the order, and we marched out about dark and bivouacked for the night two miles from town [on the George W. Dellinger farm in Hellam Township]…”
Doctor Doster went on to discuss other attributes of Gordon’s personality and the support for him Early County and other parts of southwestern Georgia, and built his case for Gordon as governor.
A little biographic information… B. R. Doster was active on various medical organizations and boards in his region, as well as holding office in the Medical Association of Georgia for several years. He was elected as vice president of the Albany, Ga., Chautauqua organization. He was very popular, and the local camp of the Confederate Veterans was named Camp Doster in his honor. He and his wife suffered through several personal tragedies. In 1887 he lost his young son, Holt Dealer Doster, in an unfortunate tragedy; another son, Battery, had died in 1878 when he was only a month old.
Now to somehow find a copy of Lieutenant Hightower’s account in the Early County News. Perhaps a road trip on my next time to Atlanta would be in order?