One of the York Invalids describes the fight at Wrightsville
Google Books Search is one of my very favorite websites, as there are hundreds of vintage Civil War books from the late 18th century and early 19th century available on-line for free. I have spent countless hours while on business trips relaxing in hotel rooms skimming through these old documents looking for human interest stories for my books.
One of the books digitized from the collection of the University of Michigan is William J. Wray‘s history of the 23rd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. Wray relied on his own memories, as well as those of the soldiers of the old 23rd to compile this fascinating collection of stories, anecdotes, incidents, and eyewitness accounts of the regiment’s service in the Army of the Potomac during the Civil War.
Of particular interest to those of us in York County, Pennsylvania, Wray’s compilations include an interesting little article by one of the so-called “York Invalids” who fought in the Skirmish of Wrightsville. The invalids were the ambulatory patients of the York U.S. Army General Hospital on Penn Common. This unknown soldier has some fascinating details on the organization of the invalids, election of their officers, the retreat of the militia and invalids from York, and other tidbits of interest.
This remains one of the few contemporary accounts of the “Skirmish of York,” where elements of the 17th Virginia Cavalry fired a few rounds at the Union soldiers as their train left York. It wasn’t much of a fight, but it may have been the only shots fired at York as Major Granville O. Haller‘s force withdrew via train and foot to Wrightsville.
Here is this unknown wounded soldier’s brief narrative of the York Invalids’ service in the Gettysburg Campaign in resisting the Confederate invasion of York County.
I don’t believe this account has appeared in print in more than one hundred years, other than selected quotes that I used in Flames Beyond Gettysburg: The Gordon Expedition, June 1863.
On Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania in 1863, we were in hospital at York, Pa., recovering from wounds received at Fredericksburg. When the Governor of Pennsylvania sent a request to the hospital for volunteers, the surgeon in charge assembled the boys on dress parade, and after reading Governor Curtin’s telegram he requested all those who desired to volunteer for field service, in the State, to step one pace to the front, when 187 of the boys responded, it being left to their decision to choose their officers to command the battalion.
Canvassing was commenced and after casting ballot, a sergeant of the Second Wisconsin was elected our captain, and if my memory serves me right, a one-armed Philadelphia boy was selected first lieutenant, and a New York high private our second lieutenant. Of the 187 it was said 185 were wounded men, the balance of the hospital boys looked upon the whole affair as a huge joke or I might say scare of the Governor’s.
After organizing we were dismissed with orders to be ready at any moment. The first night we were placed on picket to try how the old thing worked, as the Johnnies at that time were probably near South Mountain, some fifty miles or more away. After several days of lounging around the hospital during the day and picketing at night, one of our scouts, for we had selected a sergeant of the First Maine Cavalry and another Philadelphia cavalryman, who had been off on scout duty since our entree into the new service, rode into the hospital grounds, and after a hurried consultation with the surgeons, preparations were at once made for the removal of the hospital inmates and property to Columbia, ten miles in rear on the north bank of the Susquehanna, and before the next morning, about the only ones left was the battalion.
About 4 P. M. we marched out the pike towards Gettysburg. When four miles out we returned hurriedly and took the last train for Wrightsville, none too soon, for the mounted infantry of Early’s Corps appeared on all the hills and formed a cordon around the town. After an exchange of shots at very long range, we arrived at Wrightsville, opposite Columbia, where some militia were entrenched, and about daylight we were thrown out on picket skirmish line. Some time about noon the Rebs began feeling their way in by shelling, the first shell passing over to the entrenchments. A cloud of dust then going towards the river, indicated that the militia were being withdrawn across the bridge and the battalion left to get all the glory. We hadn’t long to wait as skirmishers soon appeared and we had it quite lively for some time.
Our captain thought it about time to end the fun, or else we might have become boarders at Libby, Andersonville, etc., and word was passed along the line to rally on the cent1e, which was in an open field, in full view of the Johns. As soon as all were in, he gave the command left face, and we marched steadily by the flank, until we reached a deep road along the river, from where it was everyone for himself, to reach the bridge. We found it barricaded with heavy timbers. The bridge was a covered one, one and a quarter miles long, with a foot walk on the east side. One of the boys took the foot walk, and after running one-quarter mile, discovered his retreat cut off, as the bridge on that side had been cut and not knowing how to swim, he took his chance of going back to the mouth of the bridge. Fortunately, he found a window, crawled through and landed across the dead line. The bridge was not only sawed in two a quarter of a mile from the mouth, but was saturated with oil and combustible matter.
Soon the rebs came dashing into the bridge and we had a soft thing on them, firing from behind the uprights of the bridge–but orders must be obeyed and the bridge was fired. We lounged around, until the smoke and flames made it a race for life to reach the other end, a mile away, and when we got there, found that the artillery boys from the hospital had two twelve pounders planted to sweep the bridge and by that confounded order didn’t get a chance to fire a shot. The impression of the old soldiers was then, and belief now is, that the bridge should not have been fired, but the commander thought differently and another one and a half millions of debt, was the result. The battalion was the guest of the town and the good people of Columbia made our forced visit a most pleasant one.
The next morning it was discovered that the enemy was leaving. Twenty of the battalion volunteered to cross the river, so securing a boat and rope, soon established a ferry. Finding Gordon’s brigade had withdrawn, the battalion was ordered over, and by easy stages, marched back to York, picking up on the way many reb stragglers. The people of York were not of the Union loving kind before the rebs came, and the levies that were made upon them by the Confederates, was rather a severe lesson to a sympathizer. If they did not relish the blue before, they did now, and we were heartily welcomed.
After several days of duty, scouring the country, bringing in reb stragglers, we disbanded and took our station at our Ward Beds. We had a mother’s and father’s likeness, tied up in a silk pocket American flag, under the head of our bed, and when we looked for it, it wasn’t there. If the ex-Confederate who may have it in his possession, will send his address to the Secretary of the Twenty-third Pennsylvania Volunteers, he will be pleased to correspond.
Our scouts did some valuable services during this campaign and related many an exciting incident of the times they had among the rebs to the boys around the hospital camp fire.
William J. Wray, History of the Twenty-third Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry: Birney’s Zouaves. (Philadelphia: Survivors Association Twenty-Third Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers 1903-1904).