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Rebel invasion recalled 28 years later: Part 4 “The dainty morsel of pine”

One of a series of paintings of the Columbia Bridge on fire painted by students in 1913 for Columbia’s Old Home Week. (C. Wallace photo)

Twenty-eight years after the Confederates invaded Pennsylvania in what became known as the Gettysburg Campaign, the York Daily newspaper ran a lengthy article on June 29, 1891, recalling key events in York County, including preparations in Wrightsville to defend the river crossing. Confederate Major General Jubal Early planned to seize the Columbia Bridge (he was actually under orders to burn it, but obeying orders was not exactly his strong suit in Pennsylvania), march across the Susquehanna River into Lancaster County, wreck the railroads, mount his men on captured horses, and then push on toward Harrisburg. Glory beckoned.

It was not to be.

In Part 1 of this four-part series recounting of that long-ago newspaper report, the correspondent outlined the situation and set up the Rebel drive to the river. Part 2 dealt with preparations in Wrightsville to defend and then destroy the old bridge, which had been rebuilt in the early 1830s from the wreckage of an earlier upstream structure knocked down by ice floes. It was at the time reportedly the longest covered bridge on Earth, but would soon be deemed “the dainty morsel of pine.” The story included the close call of an unwise country doctor who tried to bypass nervous militia pickets without the proper countersign. He received a flurry of bullets for his trouble and, in response, told the military men where to go.

In Part 3, two unsung heroes, John Peart and William Hess, volunteered to ride west through Hellam toward York to determine if the Rebels really were approaching, as rumored. As the duo galloped back shouting the alarming news, some of the militia volunteers (specifically the fancily uniformed First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry and elements of the 20th and 27th Pennsylvania Volunteer Militia) took to their heels.

Here is the final installment from the York Daily, republished from the Philadelphia Press of June 28, 1891.

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

“To add to the fright and excitement it was discovered that the enemy, on foot, were also coming into town by the way of the railroad. An oversight, that almost proved disastrous to the home guards, was in not guarding this approach [the City Troopers had been stationed along the railroad closer to town]. The road entered the town through a deep ravine or cut and wound around the base of the hill, upon the sides and top of which Wrightsville was located. While the ‘sojer boys’ were looking for the enemy by way of the turnpike they were being flanked, and had not Peart and Hess gone forward [they were in reality not the only scouts to have spotted the Rebels and spread the word] the chances were that all would have been made prisoners and the bridge captured.

“With the ‘Johnny Rebs’ hardly a hundred yards away and coming toward him with a rush, Mr. Crane [a local railroad and bridge official] applied the torch to the bridge, but not before the last fleeing home guard had safely passed the entrance. [Actually, a lieutenant colonel and some 20 of his men were cut off and captured.] Several shots were fired, but all without effect. Yells of disappointment came from the rebels. Water, although nearby, was unhandy to reach in large quantities, but by diligent work the invaders were subduing the flames. Then the powder was fired and with a deafening roar and crash splintered wood accompanied a dense volume of smoke skyward. This explosion had apparently failed, only the sides and top having been blown away, the footway still remaining. For a moment the enemy hesitated, not knowing what to expect next, but regaining courage they again rushed forward, only to be beaten back by an overpowering volume of smoke and flame. The remaining plan to fire the bridge had been successful; the rebels seeing this quickly retired, and soon the quaint old wooden structure was being greedily devoured by the flames. All that day and far into the night the flames fed upon the dainty morsel of pine.

19th-century depiction of the bridge on fire (author’s collection)

“As darkness settled over the river the scene was truly sublime. For miles around the reflection of the light was seen and thousands of people lined both banks of the river looking on with wonder and awe. As span after span was devoured by the flames and fragments dropped with a splutter into the water below and were carried down stream, an additional wierdness [sic] and beauty was given the scene.

“Many of the people of Columbia who had fled in dismay towards Philadelphia when the rebels had reached Wrightsville, returned when the bridge was well on the way to destruction as they felt pretty safe with a mile and a quarter of deep water between them and the invaders.

“As rightly surmised, the Rebels turned their attention toward the dam, but the body of water flowing over it was too heavy, and after several ineffectual attempts to secure foothold thereon, the plan was given up. At frequent intervals during the day, the hoarse booming of cannons, stationed on the hills on the south bank and pointed toward Columbia, were heard, but the shells fell short, hardly reaching the centre of the river. For several days companies of the invaders could be distinctly seen along the river bank looking for a fording place, but the noble old stream would have none of this, and acted as a perfect barrier against the invasion of Lancaster County.

“It was about Thursday of that week when the last of the invaders were seen. They no doubt withdrew to participate in and perhaps add their names to the long list of slain upon Gettysburg’s bloody but glorious field of battle.”