“The Heroine of the Susquehanna”
During the Gettysburg Campaign, this red brick house in downtown Wrightsville, Pennsylvania, was the home of the chief burgess, Jame F. Magee and his family. His daughter Mary Jane Rewalt was staying there temporarily while her husband, Dr. Luther Rewalt, served in the Union Army as a surgeon.
On Sunday evening, June 28, 1863, Brigadier General John B. Gordon’s veteran brigade of nearly 2,000 Georgia infantry arrived in Wrightsville, chased up some 1,500 state militia, and occupied the town. The Yankees set fire to the nearby Columbia Bridge as they retreated across the Susquehanna River into Columbia to prevent the Confederates from seizing it and passing into Lancaster County. However, the winds shifted and embers from the blazing bridge set fire to parts of Wrightsville. Gordon’s men joined the townspeople in fighting the fires and arresting the progress of the inferno. Among the houses threatened was the Rewalt home.
Mary Jane sought out General Gordon during the chaotic excitement that Sunday night and pleaded with him to save her father’s house. Gordon ordered his men to do so, and through “tireless labor” they managed to save the home. In appreciation, Mary Jane invited Gordon and his staff officers to have breakfast with her in the morning.
The James Magee House on Hellam Street in Wrightsville, Pennsylvania. Magee was a wagon maker and the Chief Burgess (Mayor) of Wrightsville.
The next morning, Gordon arrived promptly. In his words, “There was one point especially at which my soldiers combated the fire’s progress with immense energy, and with great difficulty saved an attractive home from burning. It chanced to be the home of one of the most superb women it was my fortune to meet during the four years of war. She was Mrs. L. L. Rewalt, to whom I refer in my lecture, The Last Days of the Confederacy, as the heroine of the Susquehanna.
I met Mrs. Rewalt the morning after the fire had been checked. She had witnessed the furious combat with the flames around her home, and was unwilling that those men should depart without receiving some token of appreciation from her. She was not wealthy, and could not entertain my whole command, but she was blessed with an abundance of those far nobler riches of brain and heart which are the essential glories of exalted womanhood. Accompanied by an attendant, and at a late hour of the night, she sought me, in the confusion which followed the destructive fire, to express her gratitude to the soldiers of my command and to inquire how long we would remain in Wrightsville. On learning that the village would be relieved of our presence at an early hour the following morning, she insisted that I should bring with me to breakfast at her house as many as could find places in her dining-room. She would take no excuse, not even the nervous condition in which the excitement of the previous hours had left her.
At a bountifully supplied table in the early morning sat this modest, cultured woman, surrounded by soldiers in their worn, gray uniforms. The welcome she gave us was so gracious, she was so self-possessed, so calm and kind, that I found myself in an inquiring state of mind as to whether her sympathies were with the Northern or Southern side in the pending war. Cautiously, but with sufficient clearness to indicate to her my object, I ventured some remarks which she could not well ignore and which she instantly saw were intended to evoke some declaration upon the subject. She was too brave to evade it, too self-poised to be confused by it, and too firmly fixed in her convictions to hesitate as to the answer. With no one present except Confederate soldiers who were her guests, she replied, without a quiver in her voice, but with womanly gentleness: ‘General Gordon, I fully comprehend you, and it is due to myself that I candidly tell you that I am a Union woman. I cannot afford to be misunderstood, nor to have you misinterpret this simple courtesy. You and your soldiers last night saved my home from burning, and I was unwilling that you should go away without receiving some token of my appreciation. I must tell you, however, that, with my assent and approval, my husband is a soldier in the Union army, and my constant prayer to Heaven is that our cause may triumph and the Union be saved.’
No Confederate left that room without a feeling of profound respect, of unqualified admiration, for that brave and worthy woman. No Southern soldier, no true Southern man, who reads this account will fail to render to her a like tribute of appreciation. The spirit of every high-souled Southerner was made to thrill over and over again at the evidence around him of the more than Spartan courage, the self-sacrifices and devotion, of Southern women, at every stage and through every trial of the war, as from first to last, they hurried to the front, their brothers and fathers, their husbands and sons. No Southern man can ever forget the words of cheer that came from these heroic women’s lips, and their encouragement to hope and fight on in the midst of despair.”