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School group in 1895 explored old Civil War fortifications along Codorus Creek

A 15-yard long linear section of old Civil War earthworks on a particular hill in southern York County overlooking the Northern Central Railway. (Scott Mingus photo)

During the late spring of 1863, railroad and civic officials throughout south-central Pennsylvania feared that Robert E. Lee’s oncoming Confederate Army of Northern Virginia might target the transportation infrastructure, in particular railroads and bridges. Efforts were made at several locations in York County to guard the vital Northern Central Railway, a key supply line for the Union army. The single set of railroad tracks ran through York Haven, Mount Wolf, Emigsville, York, Jefferson Station, Hanover Junction, Glen Rock, and Shrewsbury Station (now Railroad) before entering Baltimore County, Maryland. Efforts were being made to double track the route north from Baltimore City, but that would not be completed until after the Civil War.

Railroad work crews, civilian volunteers, and members of the 20th Pennsylvania Volunteer Militia hastily dug earthworks, rifle pits, and other defensive positions on high ground overlooking certain bridges. They established campsites along the railroad near York Haven, the Gut, Emigsville, the Howard Tunnel, Hanover Junction, and Larue. A few of these old earthworks remain in a few places. In some areas, they are almost imperceptible; in others, they are deeper and easier to spot.

One of the soldiers in the 20th PVM wrote in mid-June 1863, “The next forty-eight hours found the Twentieth scattered for twenty miles, above and below York, along this thoroughfare, busily engaged in fortifying their different positions. From his headquarters, at York, where the details of his responsible command were worked out, the keen eye of the Colonel [William B. Thomas, headquartered in the National Hotel] was over all, and a general personal supervision exercised. Scarcely a day passed but he made the regular circuit of his extensive lines, and every company felt his fostering care and fatherly interest. Fortifications were erected, rifle pits constructed, and careful preparations made for the coming of the foe.”

Perhaps the most notable in those days were the half-moon, lunette-shaped earthworks north of York on the heights above the NCR tracks near the Black Bridge. The 20th PVM hastily abandoned them upon the arrival of the Confederates and retreated to York Haven (and then across the river on boats to Bainbridge). Colonel William H. French’s 17th Virginia Cavalry then destroyed the original Black Bridge. It was soon rebuilt by the U.S. Military Railroad, and the NCR was operational within weeks of the battle of Gettysburg.

Early 20th-century postcard of the post-Civil War Black Bridge (author’s postcard collection)

Within 40 years of the Civil War, already erosion, farming, and other activities were erasing most of the old entrenchments and rifle pits. In April 1895, a teacher at the East York Intermediate School took the students on a nature walk that included a stop at the old Civil War defenses that once protected the Black Bridge. Here is a newspaper account of that hike, adapted from the April 25, 1895, edition of the York Daily.

“As school is fast drawing to a close, the teachers and pupils of the Intermediate school decided to take a tramp in the country, partly to learn from nature, her multitudinous forms of sceneries. The pupils found great delight in examining the miniature lakes, gulf, bays, straits, etc., of which the Codorus has ample specimens. The rail-road cut this side of the Black bridge on the Northern Central formed an interesting topic. A number of specimens of the stone taken out of the cut were selected by different pupils for the cabinet in the school room.

“The most interesting part of the trip was yet to come. At Stack’s flour mills is a cable bridge spanning the Codorus creek. This bridge retains the popular name of ‘swinging bridge,’ as it is difficult for a person to maintain his balance while walking across it. While the pupils were crossing it ‘duck fashion,’ many were the words denouncing so frail a structure, while the boys, who having more of the daring spirit, enjoyed it greatly and even performed some gymnastic feats upon the cables.

“The gay crowd of boys and girls marched about a mile farther down the creek to a place where kind Nature pours forth a stream of the most delicious water. Here a council was called and the decision rendered was unanimously in favor of making an hour’s stay and taking dinner, and after dinner to have a run all around that lovely place. It was hard luck for any stray snake, bat or any living creature who by chance fell a victim t the hands of the boys, who were as vigilant as Daniel Boone and Buffalo Bill in their hunt for Indians on the western frontier. About 1 o’clock the homeward journey was commenced. Then murmuring from nearly every one could be heard. ‘Tired,’ ‘thirsty,’ ‘headache,’ were among the most common complaints.  On the way coming home the entire school examined the half moon fortifications thrown up by the Union soldiers for the protection of the Black bridge, which was threatened by the rebels. As this was the only railroad that could carry provision and ammunition to the union soldiers, it was absolutely necessary for its protection.

“The school returned at 4 o’clock none the worse for their long tramp, not one to be soon forgotten.”

Many years ago, historians Mel Miller of the West Manchester Historical Society and Tom Schaefer of Penn State-York (with the written permission of the railroad) carefully mapped the badly eroded remnants of the defenses of the Black Bridge for posterity. Mel is now deceased and Tom has long since moved away, but they entrusted me with a copy of their blueprints. Please note that this is private property, so please do not attempt to locate the old earthworks without permission. There is not much left to see, and the area years ago was picked clean by metal detectors.

The most extensive group of Civil War fortifications in York County was in the fields surrounding Wrightsville to protect the vital river crossing. All vestiges of them are long gone. I am told that in the mid-1940s and early 1950s, some traces could still be seen in scattered places northwest of town.