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Spy story! Two Rebel scouts supposedly cross the Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge

Painting of the burning of the Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge. Scott Mingus photo. Painting at the Columbia Historical Society.
Painting of the burning of the Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge. Scott Mingus photo. Painting at the Columbia Historical Society.

The February 14, 1930, issue of the Altoona (Pa.) Tribune contains a story I had not previously read concerning the burning of the Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge during the Civil War’s Gettysburg Campaign. Townspeople, under the direction of Pennsylvania state militia officers and the Regular Army aide-de-camp to a prominent Union general, torched the mile-and-a-quarter-long covered bridge to keep Confederate forces from crossing the Susquehanna River into Lancaster County.

This newspaper article includes the reminiscences of a reported former Confederate secret agent who says he was on the bridge as it burned. There is no corroboration for the story, and I believe it to be an old man’s self-serving tale. The shred of credibility comes from the fact that the person who submitted it to the newspaper was the son of the commander of Company G of the 27th Pennsylvania Volunteer Militia, which helped defend the river crossing against Brig. Gen. John B. Gordon’s veteran Confederates on Sunday night, June 28, 1863.

However, it is a good story which I present for the entertainment of our Cannonball readers, with the caveat that it likely did not occur in the exact manner as described…


[Editorial note: The first writer is “H.W.S.”]

“Colonel” William L. Moseby, at Wrightsville Bridge

“Another episode in the active life of a Confederate scout for General Robert E. Lee has been sent to The ‘Tribune’ by Captain S. T. Moore, the first child born in Altoona. As it concerns the burning of the Wrightsville, Pa., bridge, where this writer’s father commanded Company G of the 27th Pennsylvania Volunteers, it is of interest from several points of view. The aged surveyor general says:

“By reference to the splendid history of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania written by William H. Egle in 1874, it will be noted that General Jubal A. Early, with his branch of the Confederate army confronted the City of York in June 1863 and through the efforts of the chief burgess and some influential citizens who visited the general in his camp [sic; they actually visited General Gordon], the city was surrendered to him provided he would guarantee the safety of the citizens and their personal property, to which the crafty general readily agreed. The first action was to immediately haul down the large American flag from the high pole in the center of the public square and confiscate it as his trophy. The general then moved to and occupied the court house as his headquarters. The farmers of York county had already driven their horses, mules and cattle over the Wrightsville bridge into Lancaster county for safety. Lancaster county then had large corrals of horses, mules, cattle, even swine and sheep for the Federal army south, and General Early was very anxious to prevent their getting to the Federal army, and more anxious to get them for the Confederate army. General Early appreciated the fact that they could not expect to get over the Susquehanna river by using the bridges at Harrisburg, with the fort at the west end of the bridges, so [he] took the most available plan of using the Wrightsville bridge.

“General Gordon with his brigade passed on through York to the western end of the Wrightsville bridge to effect a crossing, but met with and had quite a heavy skirmish with the 27th Pennsylvania and New York [sic; there were no New York militia at Wrightsville] Federal troops then guarding the bridge. When the larger army of General Gordon was seen to be gaining that point, the Federal commander ordered the firing of the bridge to prevent the Confederate army from crossing into Lancaster county where large corrals of horses, mules, cattle, sheep and swine were gathered for the Union army.

“Here is where Colonel Moseby’s interesting description of his venture as [a] scout begins, as related to me while seated on the front porch of his hospitable home in Wells Valley, Fulton county, after a hearty dinner, and enjoying our cigars, and the beautiful Fulton county panorama of hills and valleys which spread out before us:”

[Editorial note: the narrative now switches to the rather fanciful account of “Colonel” Moseby]

“‘Well, Captain,’ he said, ‘I must tell you about my humorous yet dangerous experience at the Wrightsville bridge. General Lee was very anxious for more supplies for his army, and sent General Early to try to reach Harrisburg and not only capture that city and surrounding territory, but at the same time get the enormous supplies that the Confederate army was so badly in need of, and also to prevent the War Governor Curtin’s further activity. Finding that the western end of the Market Street bridge was so well guarded and a good-sized fort well supplied with troops [sic; Early never went to Harrisburg; it was Ewell whose men threatened Harrisburg], Early decided to go by way of York and the Wrightsville bridge, as that was not so likely to be so well guarded [editorial note: um, no! Early marched straight to York from Fulton County by way of Gettysburg, not Harrisburg], and he would have better chances to cross the Susquehanna river into Lancaster county, and then on to the capitol.’

“General Early [editorial note: perhaps he really meant Ewell?] ordered me to go to Harrisburg, then down the valley, entering the corrals and estimating the number of troops, horses, cattle and all details, then cross at Wrightsville and rejoin General Early at York. Selecting a companion for the trip, and assuming the disguise of Cumberland county farmers, and having Pat Kelly, a long, gangly loose-built but very wiry Irishman, for the companion, dressing in overalls, blue blouses and pants in boots, with a dung fork over my shoulder and an old shovel over his shoulder, we made our way toward the bridges to Harrisburg. We found the bridges well guarded , but with our straw hats, flannel shirts and farm tools, we told a good story and were soon on our way through the city. We had no trouble in getting jobs as stablemen at the horse and mule corrals, and soon had all the information we needed at that place, and in order not to excite suspicion, we decided that the only way we could get from there, through the guards, was to fight with each other and be discharged, which we planned and carried out very successfully.

“Getting on down the valley to the cattle pens, still having our farm tools with us, we were put to work cleaning the pens, and made all our detail observations, then by good luck, we heard that the Federal army at Wrightsville was being driven over the bridge to Columbia, and would burn the bridge. That meant that we must get across that bridge before it was destroyed. Watching our chance, we slipped out between the guards, as most of them had been sent over to the west end of the bridge to help fight the Confederates; we were just in time to find that the Federals were coming through the bridge and the first [sic; fourth] span burning. We pleaded with the soldiers to help us get back to our farms and homes, and the Federal soldiers in their excitement actually placed planks that had been torn up, on the bridge stringers so that we could crawl across, and we had barely gotten on the York side abutment when the span fell into the river. We were certainly a happy pair of ‘farmers’ to get on York county soil again, and made speedy time to the headquarters of General Early with our report [editorial note: Jubal Early never mentioned any such scouts or a report on the number of horses, cattle, and mules being held in Lancaster County], and were the recipients of his hearty thanks for our successful scout trip and report, and were allowed to return to our duties. Soon after, the general received orders to report at once to Gettysburg [sic; his orders were to march to Heidlersburg and rendezvous with Ewell], and the attempt to get over the Susquehanna river was over.”

[Editorial note: The text now returns to the correspondent, H.W.S.]

WVLmem2“The story of General Gordon’s attempt to cross the Wrightsville bridge is well described in his memoirs. There is a handsome granite marker in the town of Wrightsville [note: at Fourth St. and Hellam St.; see the above photo] which tells the story of that stirring day of June 27 [sic; June 28], 1863, when the Confederate thrust on Lancaster and Philadelphia was all but accomplished. — H. W. S.”

Well, that was certainly an interesting story, and I stress the word, story.

While the Confederates most certainly had a bevy of spies active in south-central Pennsylvania before and during the Gettysburg campaign, this account by Colonel William L. Moseby has absolutely no corroboration. He gets so many details wrong, most notably condensing Ewell and Early into one man, that his tale lacks credence. And, the account of crossing the burning bridge seems fantastic, especially with so many very, very detailed eyewitness accounts from the soldiers who were on the bridge, including chief guard Persifor Frazer, that it seems strange they would not at least mention two desperate farmers trying to get across while the bridge was on fire and going against the flow of almost a thousand men going the opposite direction, many of which were panic-stricken.

However, there are some facts which might lead one to believe that at least some of the account might have some basis in truth (or that the old man had a rather active imagination):

  1. William Leslie Moseby indeed lived on a farm in Wells Township, Fulton County, starting in 1863. He is mentioned in several records and accounts of that region, including a Pennsylvania Supreme Court case in 1911 over Moseby being falsely evicted from a property he thought he had legally purchased (the seller never actually had title).
  2. Moseby was born June 22, 1836, in Rappahannock County, Virginia. During the Civil War he was supposedly a lieutenant in his cousin John Singleton Mosby’s 43rd Battalion, Virginia Cavalry (famed as Mosby’s Rangers).
  3. According to an on-line auction house’s catalog for the sale of Moseby’s saddle, “Family reports state that throughout the war he acted as a double-agent and stories exist of his travel to the Northern parts of Pennsylvania trading information about Southern troop movements with the Northern troops in order to secure quinine to sell back to the Southern camps where he would also relay information about Northern troop movements. After some time he became expertly familiar with the Tuscarora region of Pennsylvania. Legend has it that during an Army raid he apparently became separated from his fellow troops and happened upon a cabin that housed a beautiful young woman with whom he immediately fell in love and decided to abandon his war career. He spent the remainder of his life in Fulton County Pennsylvania where he was a famous and controversial figure even after his death.”
  4. Moseby’s memoirs, “Confederate Scout’s Personal Narrative,” appeared in the December 12, 1929, issue of the Fulton County News. It is reproduced on-line here.

“Colonel” William Leslie Moseby died April 9, 1921, in Wells Tannery, Pa., and is buried nearby.