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The skirmish at Wrightsville

Copyright 2007, Scott Mingus and Tom Poston, all rights reserved. Map of the June 28, 1863 skirmish of Wrightsville, Pennsylvania. No reproduction without written permission.
On the late afternoon of Sunday June 28, 1863, more than 1500 Confederate soldiers under Brig. Gen. John B. Gordon of the Army of Northern Virginia marched from York, Pennsylvania, eastward through Hallam to Wrightsville on the river, a distance of some 10-11 miles. Their goal was to seize the mile-and-a-quarter-long covered bridge over the Susquehanna River, a key military target that would allow passage into Lancaster County where several important railroads could be interrupted. Defending the bridge was a motley collection of hastily trained Pennsylvania volunteer militia, invalided veteran soldiers emptied from the beds of the U.S. Army Hospital in York and their guards, a handful of active duty troops from the 87th Pennsylvania who had been badly embarrassed at the Second Battle of Winchester by these same oncoming Georgians, and three small cavalry units, one of which was a parade show group from Philadelphia.

Looking southwesterly toward the fields through which Gordon’s Rebels advanced.

Gordon formed the 31st Georgia into battle line in the fields beyond the white farm and slowly advanced the veteran regiment, while two other regiments skirted to the hills north of Wrightsville in a flanking movement and three regiments performed a similar flanking march near Kreutz Creek to the south.

Gordon’s 31st Georgia continued to slowly advance eastward through the farm fields toward the distant Union earthworks protecting Wrightsville (which were between today’s 7th and 8th streets, then open fields). In 1863, this was a large field of ripening wheat. As the Southern soldiers approached, Pvt. Isaac Bradwell and other noted the somewhat erratic pop-pop-pop of Union defensive fire from the trenches, and surmised they were encountering militia. Meanwhile, the two flanking columns were moving into position as Rebel artillery began to shell the town from a small rise on the Strickler farm.

Looking southwesterly toward the Rebel position.
Union Capt. Joseph Oliver‘s skirmish line from the 27th Pennsylvania Volunteer Militia held what is now the roadway of Cool Creek Road. They periodically exchanged fire with the advance pickets of the 31st Georgia crouching in the wheatfield. No one was hit in this exchange of gunfire, which perhaps lasted half an hour at the most.

Looking easterly toward the Susquehanna
Captain Oliver’s pickets withdrew across this field into the entrenchments, a portion of which would have been in the distant center of this photo (they are long since gone, having been plowed over in the 19th century). Meanwhile, Gordon’s flanking columns emerged from their hiding places and began pressuring the Union defenders, particularly to the south along Kreutz Creek and in the fields just to the north of the creek ravine. The other northernmost two regiments would have followed the reverse slope of the little ridge line shown in the above photo to stay relatively hidden from the Union defenders until they formed battleline beyond the Huber farm (the distant house and barn in the picture).

A section of Capt. William Tanner‘s Courtney Artillery (from Richmond, Virginia) unlimbered on the small rise at the Huber farm and began hurling shells at the Union lines at Wrightsville. Shell fragments rained down upon the town and its defenders as they began an orderly and well conducted retreat across the bridge into Columbia.

As the Yankees retired through Wrightsville and the covered bridge into Lancaster County, they left behind a dead, decapitated black civilian defender, a mortally wounded officer from Philadelphia, and some 20 prisoners of war including a lieutenant colonel who dawdled in his retreat and was cut off with his men. Rebels poured across the abandoned trenches and entered Wrightsville only to find that the bridge had been set on fire behind the retreating enemy soldiers (after an explosive charge failed to level one span). Colonel Jacob G. Frick and Maj. Granville O. Haller of the Union army had been ordered to deny the Confederates the use of the bridge, and that was accomplished at great loss to the regional economy through the destruction of the venerable span.

As can be seen in this 1938 aerial photograph, Wrightsville had not changed much in the first 75 years after the Gettysburg Campaign. As of June 2009, the northern portion of the battlefield of Wrightsville still is relatively untouched, although much of the southern part is now Cool Creek Golf Course and an adjacent housing development. The Union defensive positions have largely been swallowed up by Wrightsville’s late 20th century westward expansion. The old toll road / turnpike that Gordon used to arrive at Wrightsville is now the paved Lincoln Highway and Cool Creek Road mirrors the older dirt lane where Oliver’s skirmishers deployed. The Huber farm is still intact, as are the rural hills that Gordon used to screen his troop movement.
The skirmish at Wrightsville was the second largest military engagement in the history of York County, with nearly 3,000 armed combatants involved, second only to the Battle of Hanover.

For much more on the skirmish at Wrightsville, including several detailed driving tours, see Scott Mingus’s Flames Beyond Gettysburg: The Gordon Expedition, June 1863 (2009, Ironclad Publishing, Columbus, Ohio). Discounted and autographed first edition copies are available from the author for only $20, which is nearly 15% off the retail cover price of $23.95.