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Rebel invasion recalled 28 years later: Part 2 The unwise country physician

Diorama of Wrightsville in 1863 (Burning of the Bridge Diorama, 124 Hellam St., Wrightsville

On June 29, 1891, the York Daily newspaper republished an article that had appeared the previous day in the Philadelphia Press marking the 28th anniversary of the Confederate expedition to capture the long covered bridge between York and Lancaster counties.

It was a time of great fear and trepidation in south-central Pennsylvania, as powerful twin columns of veteran Rebel soldiers headed for the two major river crossings at Wrightsville and Bridgeport (now Lemoyne) to the north. More than 6,600 Rebels under Major General Jubal A. Early marched eastward from the Gettysburg area through York County to York, occupying the county seat on Sunday, June 28, 1863. That afternoon, a Georgia brigade under Brig. Gen. John B. Gordon headed farther east to seize the bridge at Wrightsville.

A motley group of militia of varying quality and martial experience awaited them. Part 1 of this four part series outlined the general situation as the Rebels moved toward York. Now, in Part 2, preparations are being made in Wrightsville to protect the bridge.

“When the news came that Lee’s army was marching northward, its real objective point being Philadelphia, and that the Susquehanna would be crossed at Columbia, what a state of excitement and consternation the people of Wrightsville and Columbia were in. The former village was almost immediately deserted by the residents, and the old bridge for days creaked and groaned until the continuous passage of wagons loaded to repletion with household effects of the farmers of the surrounding country.

“Then came the war-like preparations by the ninety-day men and to their aid came a troop of cavalry from Philadelphia. To this day the residents of Columbia talk of that troop. Mounted on splendid chargers, gorgeous with gold lace and braid, they came galloping into town upon what they termed a ‘jolly flirtation picnic.’ They had the picnic, but the ‘Johnny Rebs’ were their guests.

“About  a mile below the bridge a substantial dam existed. For fear the ‘Rebs’ would take to this as a means of crossing the river in case of failure of the bridge, a small breastwork built of brownstone was hastily erected at a point where the dam touched the Northern shore, and two cannon of small calibre were mounted therein so as to sweep the approach.

Another view of the Burning of the Bridge diorama

“After being sworn in the ninety day men [27th Pennsylvania Volunteer Militia] and the cavalry marched across the bridge into Wrightsville, and out on the York turnpike about  a mile and a warm reception for the invaders was determined upon [Saturday, June 27, 1863]. Then rain began to fall and a hearty recognition and appreciation of the services of the veterans at the front was emphatically recorded. Several of the younger men deserted their comrades for the night and took refuge in the many nearly empty houses in the almost deserted village. As all were ‘greeners’ this breach of discipline was overlooked and as it cleared up the next morning all were back in the ranks ready to defend their country and homes.

“To those who stuck it out, the night was a dreary and dismal one. False alarms were frequent and sleep out of the question. The only notable incident of the night was the foolhardy action of a country physician. He had been to a farmhouse nearby paying a professional visit and at midnight started for the town. He had not taken the trouble to ascertain the countersign for the night, and when he was challenged by the pickets, put spurs to his horse, and answered back an invective advising them to pay a visit to the lower regions. A volley from the rifles of  the guards carried away his hat and wounded his horse, and he came to a standstill a wiser and badly frightened man.

“From time to time reports came by telegraph from York telling of the near approach of the Confederates to that town, and then these reports ceased, indicating that the office was closed and the operator seeking a place of safety.

“While these fighting preparations had been going on prominent residents of Columbia, heading by Robert Crane, were putting their best foot forward devising plans to destroy the bridge, as a determined resistance by the home guards was not thought of. At the suggestion of Mr. Crane, powder in kegs was placed that in case the fire should fail a span of the bridge could be blown out, and back of this another plan was prepared to fire the bridge. As afterward developed, all these precaution[s] where [sic] chock full of wisdom.”

Stay tuned for part 3!

Upcoming events:

Scott Mingus will be signing his Civil War and Underground Railroad books this Thursday evening, January 12, at 7 p.m. in the Lititz Public Library, 651 Kissel Hill Road, at the monthly meeting of the Lancaster Civil War Round Table. His topic will be Confederate General William “Extra Billy” Smith, one of the more colorful and engaging characters of the War Between the States. The meeting is free and open to the public. See you there?