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Streams of refugees pass through downtown York as Rebels approach

Refugees in the Cumberland Valley, Harper’s Weekley, Courtesy of Jim Schmick

On Saturday, June 27, 1863, several thousand refugees were on the roads of York County, Pennsylvania, hoping to escape the oncoming Confederate army. Rebels were sweeping up the Cumberland Valley through Carlisle headed for Harrisburg, and many residents of Cumberland County packed up their household valuables and took their families, horses, and livestock southeasterly through York County toward the Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge over the Susquehanna River. They hoped to find refuge across the mile-wide river in Lancaster County.

Meanwhile, a constant stream of refugees from Franklin and Adams counties headed east across the Gettysburg-York-Wrightsville Turnpike (later famed as the Lincoln Highway in the 20th century). More than a thousand horses passed through the town of York.

Old photograph of refugees in the South fleeing before the Union army’s arrival. Public domain. Adapted from former Confederate general John B. Gordon’s reminiscences.

Here is an excerpt from a new article I have just finished regarding the cavalry raid of Albert G. Jenkins through northwestern York County. Once I have polished the full article, I will submit it to Gettysburg Magazine.

Reports that “the Rebels are coming” fostered fear and uncertainty among the people of Cumberland, Dauphin, and York counties. Soon, refugees thronged the roads to Harrisburg and Lancaster, as they hurried their horses and livestock across the Susquehanna River to presumed safety. In Washington Township in northwestern York County, a Quaker woman named Phebe Angeline Smith wrote that “strings of horses over a quarter mile long” headed down the State Road toward York. Their owners intended to cross the mile-wide river using the covered bridge at Wrightsville. Over a hundred horses reportedly were clustered there awaiting passage to Lancaster. She reported, “such exciting times out thare[sic].” Fatefully, she added, “They neighbours round here was going to start a way with thares but have made up thare minds to wait a day or so.” For some of her neighbors, the delay in removing their horses and mules would prove to be an unwise decision.

In my 2009 book, Flames Beyond Gettysburg: The Gordon Expedition, June 1863, I covered the refugee situation in a little more depth. Among the passages is this description:

Refugees crowded the roads, streaming toward Lancaster or Philadelphia and supposed safety. Columbia resident J. Houston Mifflin noted a dichotomy in the horde. Whites who could get a horse to haul their beds and children rode in relative comfort, while droves of poor blacks had to walk, often while carrying enormous loads, occasionally including parts of beds. Other blacks carried their children and household items as they trudged along the dusty turnpike.

Carts, wagons, carriages, horses, trains–the tired and frightened throng used all available forms of transportation to cross the bridge. Tolls were a dollar for a freight wagon and six-horse team, thirty cents for a carriage or small wagon and two-horse team, sixteen-and-a-half cents for each horse and rider, and six cents for a pedestrian. The sudden windfall from their bridge pleased Dr. Barton Evans and other bank executives. Cashier Samuel Schoch kept a running tally of the cash inflow, and toll collector William McConkey worked overtime to keep the traffic moving.