Wrightsville foundry owner petitioned Congress for war damages
This photo from 1938 shows the town of Wrightsville, Pennsylvania, along the western bank of the broad Susquehanna River. During the Civil War 75 years earlier, Union militia defended the town and its vital bridge against Confederate forces before retiring into Lancaster County and burning the covered bridge. (Click on the photo to enlarge it for easier viewing.)
Embers from the flaming bridge blew into Wrightsville and ignited several buildings along the riverbank, including lumberyards, houses, warehouses, shops, and a large iron foundry. Southern soldiers formed a bucket brigade to relay water to threatened areas, and their determined efforts saved most of Wrightsville.
However the iron foundry, just northwest of the bridge, was a charred ruin, as were most of the riverfront businesses.
Foundry owner Edmund Wolf after the war petitioned for compensation from the U.S. government for his losses, citing that the militia burned the bridge under the orders of Federal military authorities. Wolf, a native of New Holland in York County who lived in Baltimore, was a Maryland state legislator during much of the Civil War. In the spring of 1861, he had been a delegate to the Maryland Union Convention and strove to keep the state loyal to the Federal government. His stove foundry provided employment for several Wrightsvillians.
Here is an entry from the United States Congressional Serial Set, Issue 3043, which delineates Wolf’s claim and the ensuing legal arguments for and against paying such claims.
House Report No. 1594, Fifty-first Congress, first session.
Mr. [Levi] Maish, from the Committee on War Claims, submitted the following
|To accompany H. R. 7966.]
The Committee on War Claims, to which was referred bill (EL B. 7906) for the relief of the heirs of Edmund Wolf, submits the following report.
The claim is for the sum of $33,000 for stock, fixtures, tools, patterns, flasks, etc., in the Wrightsville Foundry, in York County, Pa., the property of Edmund Wolf, which was destroyed under the following circumstances:
Wrightsville is on the west side of the Susquehannah River and Columbia on the east side; said two towns were at the time the above property was destroyed connected by a wagon bridge across said river.
On the 28th day of June, A. D. 1863, Major General [Darius N.] Couch, commanding the Department of the Susquehannah, learning that a portion of the Confederate forces was approaching said town of Wrightsville with the intention of crossing the river at that place, in order to join a larger force which two days later engaged our Army on the field of Gettysburg, ordered said bridge to be burned in order to prevent its being used by the Confederate forces. The order was obeyed and the bridge was burned; but in its burning, fire was communicated to some buildings adjoining the western end of said bridge and by these communicated to Mr. Wolf’s foundry, which was totally consumed. For this property so destroyed the claimants ask relief to the extent of the sum of $33,000.
The entire loyalty of Mr. Wolf is beyond doubt.
The question presented by these facts is one which was for some time mooted in this country, as it involves the liability of the sovereign to compensate a subject for property taken for precautionary purposes in time of war. The authorities upon this point were very fully and carefully collated by the late Senator Howe, of Wisconsin, in a report made to the Forty-second Congress upon the claim of J. Milton Best, after the same had been vetoed by the President. In the course of that report he says:
Among the text writers, Vattel discusses the very question, “Is the State bound to indemnify individuals for the damage they have sustained in war?” “Such damages,” he says, “are of two kinds; those done by the State itself, or the sovereign, and those done by the enemy. Of the first kind some are done deliberately and by way of precaution, as when a field, a house, a garden, belonging to a private person, is taken for the purpose of erecting on the spot a town rampart, or any other piece of fortification, or when his standing corn or his store-houses are destroyed to prevent their being of use to the enemy. Such damages are to be made good to the individual who should bear only the quota of the loss…”
The House debate continued for some time, with proponents of reparations claiming “The state has an eminent right of property over the goods of the subjects, so that the state or those that represent it may make use of them, and even destroy and alienate them, not only in extreme necessity, but for the public benefit, to which we must add that the state is obliged to repair the damages suffered by any subject on that account out of the public stock.”
The committee studying the matter came to consensus and agreed.
Here is the closing paragraph from their report:
“Mr. Wolf’s foundry was destroyed as the natural result of the burning of the bridge ordered by General Couch, not in any manner as the result of an accident. It was the consequence of the act of an officer of the Government acting in good faith and for what he believed to be the interest of the Government, and under such circumstances in view of the authorities cited the claim is just and proper. The committee, therefore, recommend that the bill do pass.”
I have not found any confirmation, however, that Mr. Wolf ever received a government check for his $33,000 claim.