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Rebel invasion recalled 28 years later: Part 3 Two courageous volunteers

Detail from the 1860 Shearer & Lake Map of York County. Volunteers John Peart and William Hess rode west from Wrightsville on the gravel turnpike toward York to try to determine if the Confederates really were approaching. (PHMC)

Twenty-eight years after Confederate Major General Jubal Early led more than 6,600 Confederate infantry, cavalry, and artillerymen into York County, Pennsylvania, the York Daily newspaper republished a story in the Philadelphia Press that recounted many details of the invasion, with a particular focus on the Union defense of the covered bridge at Wrightsville.

In Part 1 of this four-part series, we looked at the background of the story and introduced two unsung local heroes whose contributions had not been documented in contemporary accounts. Part 2 covered the nervousness in Wrightsville on the weekend of June 27-28, 1863, as rumors spread of the fall of York and the approach of the Rebels.

Now, in Part 3, here is the story of those two long-ago heroes, John Peart and William Hess.

“Out on the turnpike, as hour after hour flitted by, they became frightened with so much anxiety as to be almost unbearable. No sign of the enemy could be discerned in any direction, and different plans of ascertaining whether they were approaching or not were discussed. The cavalry, stationed a few yards in front of the infantry, had reached their limit of usefulness and would go no further [sic] away from the main body. Finally a man named John Peart, son of a prominent farmer of Lancaster county, and who was home from the army at the front on a furlough, and was a thoroughbred horseman, volunteered to ride out toward York until the enemy was sighted. If he was not captured he would quickly return and warn the main body of troops. Experience in the army had made Peart cautious and he demanded a good horse and a companion before undertaking his reconnoitre. The first proviso was quickly provided for, but he second did not meet with quite so prompt an acceptance.

“Finally William U. Hess, now manager of the Western News Company at St. Louis, offered to accompany Peart, and mounted on their magnificent animals they started on their perilous journey.

Brig. Gen. John B. Gordon commanded the oncoming 2,000-man Confederate column, which consisted of Georgia infantry and Virginia artillery and cavalry. (Library of Congress)

“The turnpike from Wrightsville to York is one continuous hill and dale, and the length of a mile is about as far as the eyesight will carry.

“Up and down hill and on and on rode Peart and Hess without sighting the ‘terrible Johnnies’ and finally they became careless and dubious as to the enemy having left York. They were leisurely ascending the longest hill on the road, and when they had reached its peak, not a quarter of a mile away, down in the valley they sighted a long line of Confederate cavalry [the 35th Battalion, Virginia Cavalry] galloping in their direction.

“Well, comparisons are usually inaccurate, but the way those two horsemen started for home would have put to blush a close finish between Garrison and Murphy on the backs of Tenny and Salvator [a famous 1890 thoroughbred horse race].

“The rebels caught a glimpse of the two horsemen and with blood-curdling yells started in pursuit. These yells, of course, did not retard the flying soldiers, but if anything added to it. Peart’s foresight in demanding good horses became apparent as the faithful animals quickly distanced their pursuers.

“The comrades left behind [First Troop, Philadelphia City Cavalry] were anxiously discussing the chances of their safe return and how valiantly they would withstand the onslaughts of the ‘confeds’, when a half mile up the road, Peart and Hess dashed over the brow of the hill into sight. Swinging their hats over their heads and shouting at the tops of their lungs, ‘The Rebels are coming!’ ‘The Rebels are coming!’ they came onward with a fear inspired rush.

“That was enough. All thoughts of heroism oozed away like the dew before the sun and a wild race for the bridge was begun.

“That entertaining romancer, Rudyard Kipling, in one of his stories tells of a joke perpetrated upon a crack cavalry regiment of the English service, wherein a skeleton on horseback had scattered the cavalrymen like the wind and put a blot on the regiment’s escutcheon. This race for the bridge recalls that story inasmuch as the cavalry company’s record therein was not the kind of the kind that calls for laudation. None of the enemy had been seen, but the cry ‘The Rebels are coming!’ was sufficient to cause a panic. Instead of the gorgeously attired cavalrymen covering the [eventual] retreat as they should have done, they were the first to enter the bridge, but fast as their horses had carried them down the hill to the bridge the soldiers on foot were right on their heels.”

Stay tuned for Part 4!

John Peart, a corporal in the 1st Pennsylvania under Col. Thomas Welsh during the early part of the war, was 23 years old during the Rebel invasion of York County. He married Martha Herr in 1867 at a Quaker ceremony in Philadelphia. Peart went on to become a wealthy industrialist in Lancaster County, including owning a thriving lumber business in Columbia. His daughter Caroline (1870-1963) was a noted artist whose collection of exceptional artwork is now housed at Franklin & Marshall’s Phillips Museum of Art. John Peart died in 1906. F&M still tends to the Peart family cemetery in Washington Boro (Manor Township).

William Hess’s St. Louis News Company was a prolific early producer of postcards reflecting numerous landmarks of the riverfront city and surrounding region.