Rebel Cavalry Gallops into Wrightsville
On the late afternoon of Sunday, June 28, 1863, Confederate Brig. Gen. John B. Gordon led more than 2,000 Confederate infantry, cavalry, and artillerymen on an expedition from York, Pennsylvania, to Wrightsville to capture the world’s longest covered bridge. The seizure of the Columbia Bridge would allow Gordon and the rest of Maj. Gen. Jubal A. Early‘s division to cross the river into prosperous Lancaster County. Early then planned to destroy the railroads in the area, ransom the city of Lancaster for money and supplies, and then march on Harrisburg from its relatively undefended rear.
However, first there was the matter of disposing of more than 1,500 hastily organized Pennsylvania home guard units and state emergency militia that guarded the approaches to the Columbia Bridge at Wrightsville on the York County side of the Susquehanna.
Leading the way in the approach and attack was Lt. Col. Elijah Veirs White‘s 35th Battalion, Virginia Cavalry. Later deemed as “White’s Comanches,” the troops from Maryland and Virginia were among the better partisan rangers within the Confederate army, and they had a reputation for ferocity on the battlefield and speed and precision of their lightning-quick raids on Union supply lines.
Now, as the Union militia retired from their Wrightsville defenses, White’s men advanced into town across the Northern Central Railway’s bridges over Kreutz Creek.
The Wrightsville, York & Gettysburg Railroad owned the 13-mile stretch from Wrightsville to York, and leased it to the Northern Central for daily operations. There were a number of small bridges along the route, with the Willow Street crossing fairly typical. In the calendar year 1862, the year before the Rebels arrived, the WY&G RR made $28,677.66 in revenues from trains crossing the route, of which 2/3 were freight receipts. The remainder was mostly passenger traffic, with $650 in Federal revenues from carrying the U.S. mail. Among the railroad’s directors was U.S. Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, a noted abolitionist firebrand and Radical Republican.
Elijah White’s force, likely numbering less than two hundred men because of companies being sent on side missions, followed the Kreutz Creek ravine about a mile from Strickler’s Ridge eastward toward Wrightsville. Behind them marched three regiments of Colonel Clement Evans’ Georgia infantry, sent by General Gordon to flank the Wrightsville entrenchments. Evans’ men skirmished with the Yankees, with the bulk of the force keeping in the ravine along the railroad tracks.
In 1863, the distant bridge in this photo would have been a wooden bridge. The surrounding countryside, now wooded, was open farmland in 1863. As White’s men initially approached, the First Troop, Philadelphia City Cavalry defended the bridge and the Willow Street area. A skirmish broke out in this vicinity, and Major Charles McLean Knox, Jr. narrowly missed being killed when a bullet whizzed just past his head.
After the First City Troop fell back to the Columbia Bridge, “Lige” White’s howling Rebels crossed the wooden bridge and galloped into Wrightsville. Their entry was typical of the previous towns they had captured, including Gettysburg on June 26 — loud war cries, pistols fired into the air, and a dash through the streets while startled residents ducked for cover. They rode up to the Columbia bridge, but found it blocked by overturned ore cars with just enough room for a man to pass through. Dismounting, the cavalrymen cautiously entered the old bridge and exchanged shots with some of the Yankees rear guard. Soon they noticed the bridge was on fire, and White’s men along with some of Gordon’s infantry force tried vainly to extinguish it and save the burning bridge. Six hours later, the bridge, and part of Wrightsville, were gone as flames spread in the growing windy and light rain.
On Monday morning, June 29, General Gordon withdrew from Wrightsville. The Columbia Bridge was gone, the river was too swollen by recent rains to be forded, and their were no boats for an amphibious landing.
As White’s cavalry prepared to leave, their first act was to burn the Willow Street railroad bridge. They torched every bridge all the way back to York that late morning and afternoon.
They were the first Rebels to enter Gettysburg, and they were the first into Wrightsville. In both cases, they chased off Pennsylvania home guard cavalry.
A day later, on June 30, they would skirmish again at East Berlin. This time, however, the opponent was not well intentioned amateurs, but the veteran cavalry of the Army of the Potomac.
The stage was set for the Battle of Gettysburg.