Union campsites in York County: 20th Pa. Volunteer Militia
On Sunday, June 21, 1863, Colonel William B. Thomas and the 20th Pennsylvania Volunteer Militia had been transported via the Pennsylvania Railroad to Columbia and had marched across the Columbia-Susquehanna Bridge before embarking on the Northern Central Railway for York, Pennsylvania. Upon arrival there, the 900-man regiment split into multiple battalions, with Lt. Col. William H. Sickles and five companies heading south to guard the Howard Tunnel, Hanover Junction, and various bridges and crossings. They dug in and built some entrenchments, some of which were still visible just a few years ago. Thomas and Company E stayed in York as headquarters and provost guards, while the remaining four companies steamed northward toward York Haven. Companies A and M were ordered to guard NCR Bridge #119 over the Conewago Creek near York Haven and Companies D and I set up camp on a commanding hill overlooking NCR Bridge #118.
All visible traces of those campsites are now gone, but we have the written record of their stay in the form of damage claims filed by the two farmers on which land Thomas’s troopers encamped.
19th century York County historian George Reeser Prowell briefly commented on the 20th PVM’s brief few days in York County and the ultimate result when the Rebels came calling…
“On the 28th of June, 1863, Gen. Early, while advancing on York, and when at Weiglestown, sent Col. French, with a detachment on the Seventeenth Virginia Cavalry, across Manchester Township, to the mouth of the Conewago, to burn the railroad bridges there. They halted, for a time, at Liverpool [now Manchester] and Mount Wolf. They took from the stores, boots, shoes, hats, and some other clothing, paid for them in Confederate currency, which they proudly affirmed would soon be ‘better than your greenbacks, as we are now on our way to Harrisburg, Philadelphia, and New York, and the war will soon be over.’
They cut down the telegraph poles, destroyed a number of small railroad bridges and the two large ones. They compelled Benjamin Miller, an intelligent farmer, to go with them and direct them to the bridges, which they set fire to with coal oil. In the afternoon they went to York.
About 400 Union soldiers had been encamped on Col. Hoff’s farm, to guard these bridges, but they crossed over the Susquehanna during the early morning of the same day, fearing the approach of a large army. A few shots were fired at the last boat load by the Confederates.”
In researching the York County damage claims for my recent books, I came across the Federal claim filed in Washington D.C. by “John Hough” (the Col. Hoff from Prowell’s account). Hoff’s deposition indicates that Thomas’s four companies destroyed several fields of ripening oats, rye, and hay. The soldiers burned all of his fence rails and 2,152 board feet of lumber as firewood. He also threw in his personal expenses for filling in rifle-pits dug by the militia. One of the soldiers confirmed Hoff’s claim of rifle-pits, telling a Philadelphia reporter that the regiment had “laid down our guns to take up shovels and picks.”
Old maps indicate that Colonel Hoff’s sprawling farm was off Wago Road (PA State Route 1019) across from the twin railroad bridges. Much of the land is now occupied by a massive industrial complex.
John Hoff was not the only farmer to suffer from Colonel Thomas’s defense of the Northern Central Railway. In the State Archives in Harrisburg we find the claim of farmer Samuel Bare, who wrote that the 20th Militia camped on his farm for more than a week. They took eight days worth of milk and butter from his seven cows, 8 bushels of potatoes, 2 barrels flour, 2 sheep, 2 barrels of ham, a harness, his chopping axe, 4 sets of gears, and destroyed 8 acres oats where they camped. His horse was used and worn out by the army, and later needed destroyed.
By the way, “intelligent farmer” Benjamin Miller’s once rural property is now a modern subdivision located at the intersection of Board Road and Meeting House Road north of Manchester. Contemporary newspaper accounts indicate that the Rebels threatened to kill Miller if he did not cooperate and guide them to the bridges.
The earliest aerial photograph I could locate is this May 10, 1940 pre-World War II photo taken as part of a U.S. government survey. The USDA Agricultural Adjustment Administration Northeast Division hired Aero Service Company of Philadelphia to take pictures throughout the county. Ironically, the Philly-based crew was flying over land where in June 1863 Philly-based Union soldiers had camped.
Note that the terrain in 1940 more closely resembled what Colonel Thomas’s boys would have seen. Modern developments and the factory now obscure much of this once pastoral region. Part of the creek has been diverted and rechanneled as a result of the industrial complex. A similar photo taken in 1957 shows that almost the entire area between the two bridges was torn up and mined, and no “commanding hill” now exists on the site. Hence, it is extremely unlikely that any artifacts or relics of the 20th PVM’s stay on the Hoff farm remain in the ground.