“The most refined and intelligent folk” – A Rebel Voice from York County, PA
A Confederate Civil War reenactor pauses at the 2019 White Hall Civil War Days in White Hall, PA. Photo courtesy of Dr. Thomas M. Mingus.
Among the 11,000 or so Confederate soldiers who marched or rode through York County, Pennsylvania, during the 1863 Gettysburg Campaign was Private Isaac Gordon Bradwell of the 31st Georgia. The young man would survive the Civil War, become a school teacher, and become perhaps the most prolific writer of all the enlisted men who tramped through York. He frequently contributed detailed articles to the Confederate Veteran magazine, including a series that recounted the days leading up to the Battle of Gettysburg. I drew heavily upon Bradwell’s memories for inclusion in my recent book, Flames Beyond Gettysburg: The Confederate Expedition to the Susquehanna River, June 1863 (Savas Beatie, April 2011).
Gordon Bradwell formed a favorable opinion of the civilians of York, a feeling that is echoed in many other contemporary Confederate accounts. However, he had a much different opinion of the residents of Wrightsville, a town some ten miles east of York along the Susquehanna River.
“The day we marched into Gettysburg was cold and raw, although it was June, and a drizzly rain falling. The brigade entered the town from the west and marched to the public square, where the head of the column turned down the main street to the south and halted while our military band took position on the principal corner and played “Dixie” and many other selections; but none of the older citizens showed themselves. The younger set, however, of both sexes, considered it a holiday and turned out in force. They were anxious to know when we were going to burn the town. Crowds of these youngsters hung to us everywhere we went, asking this same question. Our only answer was that Southern soldiers didn’t burn towns.
The 31st Georgia Regiment was selected to do provost guard duty in the town, and we were up a great part of the night. Worn out by the long march of the previous day and tramping over the town until a late hour, wet and chilled to the bone, I made my way to the courthouse and threw myself down on a bench to spend the few remaining hours of the night in sleep. At early dawn the rattle of the drum called us to ranks, and we set out on the march to York.
This place was much larger than Gettysburg and the inhabitants did not shut themselves up in their houses through fear of us, but were so anxious to see us and converse with us that we had some difficulty in forcing our way through the city. ft was Sunday morning, and everybody was dressed in his very best. So great was the pressure that our officers marched us through the town in single column of twos. Handsomely dressed women extended their hands from each side, anxious to have a word with us; but our officers hurried us along as rapidly as possible. Among the men I saw several who were suffering from wounds, but these kept themselves well to the rear and did not seek to come in contact with us. The people of York were the most refined and intelligent folk we met in the State and reminded us of our friends at home, both in manners and personal appearance. They did not seem to be a bit reserved, and if we had not known where we were, we might, from their conduct, have supposed ourselves in Dixie.
We continued our course to the east and in two days more reached Wrightsville, on the Susquehanna, where we met the first hostile demonstration since we had entered the State. The river at this place is very wide and rapid. A long bridge spanned the stream, and from the bridge the town extended up a long and rather steep hill, and consisted of a row of wooden buildings on each side of the street. About a mile from the village the State militia threw up good earthworks, but ran away after exchanging a few shots with us, set fire to the town, and blew up the bridge. This was very fortunate for us, for, no doubt, if it had not been done, we would have gone right on to Philadelphia and would have been too far away to help other parts of the army at Gettysburg. When we reached the village the flames were fast eating their way up the street, and the entire place would have burned but for the heroic efforts of our pioneers and soldiers in subduing the conflagration. This we succeeded in doing only after blowing up several houses with kegs of powder. But we got no thanks from the citizens for what we did; they seemed to think we had come only to kill and destroy. We were animated by a different spirit from that which inspired Sherman at Atlanta and at Columbia, S. C, and Sheridan and Custer in the Valley of Virginia.”
Confederate Veteran, Issue #30.