The Burning of the Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge
One of the Confederate objectives during the Gettysburg Campaign was to seize the long covered bridge across the Susquehanna River between Wrightsville in York County and Columbia in Lancaster County. Lt. General Richard S. Ewell ordered Major General Jubal Early to destroy the bridge, but Early instead decided to capture the bridge and keep it intact, cross into Lancaster County, and attack Harrisburg from the rear.
Among the defenders in the horseshoe-shaped line of earthworks just west of Wrightsville were the soldiers of the 27th Pennsylvania Volunteer Militia, an emergency regiment hastily raised in the counties northeast of Harrisburg (including many small towns along today’s I-81). One Schuylkill County infantryman left a written record of his brief service in York County.
Our force of about 1200 men was attacked by Gen. [John B.] Gordon’s Brigade of Ewell’s Corps, numbering some 4000 men with 4 pieces of artillery. There were three brigades in reserve. The people of Wrightsville say that the rebels complimented our skirmishers highly on their effective resistance, and said they were completely deceived in regard to our force. They thought we were stronger. The rebels’ idea was to cut off our retreat; bag us, and take possession of the bridge, in all of which attempts they were completely foiled.
When the Regiment had recrossed the bridge, the structure was fired near the Wrightsville side of the river under the personal supervision of Col. [Jacob B.] Frick. We then marched to the eastern suburbs of Columbia, where we stacked arms in a large field and gave three rousing cheers for Col. Frick and the 27th Regiment.
The bridge burned for several hours, presenting a grand spectacle as span after span was consumed, the burning embers falling hissing into the water which flowed dark and sullen beneath. Thousands of citizens witnessed the fire with a sense of relief, for the passage of the river could now be contested by our small force with some chance of success. Before, to stop the march of the rebel soldiers, who numbered thousands to our hundreds, was impossible. The rebels swarmed on the opposite shore, but to cross that mile of water was the difficulty.