Wrightsville merchant sued insurance company for losses from fire
Civil War artist Bradley Schmehl painted this impressive depiction of the Columbia Bridge on fire on Sunday evening, June 28, 1863, as retreating Union militia cross into Lancaster County. Under orders from the army officers, a work crew of civilian carpenters set the bridge on fire to prevent pursuing Confederates from crossing into Columbia and threatening Harrisburg. Image used under license; cover art from Flames Beyond Gettysburg: The Confederate Expedition to the Susquehanna River, June 1863 (Savas Beatie, March 2011).
The bridge fire began on the western side, at the fourth span (some 800 yards from Wrightsville). Shifting winds carried flaming embers into the town, and several lumberyards and businesses caught on fire. Despite the efforts of Confederate general John B. Gordon and his men to arrest the fire, several buildings were lost.
Among them was the mercantile store of George Harris, which was a total loss.
Harris was covered by insurance, or so he thought.
He was in for a rude surprise.
Harris’s insurance company hid behind a clause in the standard contract which denied payment in the even the loss was caused by riots, mobs, or insurrection. They also claimed that because the property was in the name of Rebecca Harris, that her husband could not take out an insurance policy on it (even though their official agent, James Kerr Smith, had sold the policy and collected annual premiums of $207). Mrs. Harris had purchased the property in April 1861 from the estate of her deceased father, businessman and former county sheriff John Kauffelt, and had taken possession that same July.
George Harris sued in common pleas court, seeking his money from the York Mutual Insurance Company.
After his appeal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court eventually ruled in the plaintiff’s favor on June 29, 1865.
“Stipulated: ‘No insurance against loss by fire occasioned by mobs or riot.’
On Sunday, June 28,1863, an organized military force of the Southern Confederacy advanced from the borough of York to the borough of Wrightsville, to a bridge then across the Susquehanna. The Union troops were on the western side of the river. The Confederates attempted to cut off the retreat of the Union troops; and to frustrate that attempt, fire was communicated to the bridge by order of the officer in command of the Union troops, the fire extending to the property insured.
Held, the Confederates were not a mob or rioters, but a regularly organized public enemy; that the act of burning the bridge was an act of sovereignty executed by the regularly constituted authorities, and therefore not within the saving clause of the policy. Harris v. York Mut. Ins. Co., 50 Penn. St., 841.”
However, it turned out that Harris was under-insured.
York Mutual Insurance paid $1223 for the specific loss of the business itself. It was not nearly enough to cover Harris’s losses.
His wife, Rebecca Harris, then filed damage claims with the state in an effort to get compensation for the couple’s losses. She asked for the staggering sum of $5606, citing the “loss of 3 buildings and contents during fire caused by the burning of the Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge at the orders of Maj. Gen. Darius N. Couch in Harrisburg.”
Harris lost a 2-story house / post office / confectionery store at the corner of Front and Hellam, as well as a 2nd house and a wooden frame foundry building.
Pennsylvania approved the claim, but budget cuts and red tape got in the way and the payment was never issued.
George and Rebecca Harris were ruined financially by the Gettysburg Campaign, like so many other Pennsylvanians. However, the Harrises were fortunate — they had other business interests to fall back upon and to rebuild. In 1880 the state awarded George a lucrative contract to build a lock on the local canal.
The site of the burnt Harris store, the northeast corner of Hellam and Front streets in Wrightsville immediately adjacent to the western entrance of the Columbia Bridge, is now occupied by a factory of the Donsco Company.
Text adapted from Flames Beyond Gettysburg and from A Digest of the Law of Insurance: Being an Analysis of Fire, Marine, Life, and Accident Insurance Cases by Oliver B. Sansum (Chicago: Callaghan and Company, 1876), pp. 364-65. Some details are from the records of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and the transcripts of the hearing.