Former Confederate General Returns to York 31 Years Later
The Rewalt house now and in the late 19th century.
The first time John B. Gordon came to York, in late June 1863, he had an occupying army with him. He returned unarmed in 1894 and received a much warmer welcome.
By then Gordon was a U. S. Senator from Georgia, serving a reunited nation. The occasion was a stop on his popular lecture tour on The Last Days of the Confedercy. Newspaper accounts relate that the enthusiastic audience at the York Opera House had paid from 25 to 75 cents to hear Gordon’s reminiscences.
In the presentation, Gordon addressed his earlier visit to York County, including his encounter with Mary Jane Magee Rewalt of Wrightsville: “He paid a warm tribute to the spirit of the ‘heroine of the Susquehanna’ whose house he had saved from burning at Wrightsville, and who courteously entertained him and his staff but who did not hesitate (to prevent her act from being misunderstood) to assert in the midst of the confederate officers her devotion to the Union cause, telling them of a husband…in the Union army.”
Gordon also fondly remembered Mrs. Rewalt in his Reminiscences of the Civil War, published in 1903: “There was one point especially at which my soldiers combated the fire’s progress with immense energy, and with great difficulty saved an attractive home from burning. It chanced to be the home of one of the most superb women it was my fortune to meet during the four years of war.”
To read more about the General and the Wrightsville lady see my column below, previously published in the York Sunday News.
“Heroine of the Susquehanna”
It has unfortunately become commonplace to read stories of young York County wives coping alone at home, since their husbands have been dispatched for military service. These situations are replays of similar separations during the past 230 years in the life of our country. But in June 1863, wives at home were not the only ones worried about loved ones. The war had come to York County and the soldiers, hearing of the invasion of southern Pennsylvania, anguished over the fate of their families.
York County was fortunate. The Confederate Generals in charge were interested in food and shoes, not in harming the citizens. We have often heard how thirty-one-year-old Confederate General John B. Gordon marched through York on his way to the Susquehanna River crossing at Wrightsville. The covered bridge there was extremely important to the southern army. Union Colonel Frick’s job was to keep the Confederates from crossing at all costs, because the rebels then would have continued north along the river to take Harrisburg, destroying railroads and bridges on their way. Gordon relates another important objective in his memoirs: He says his orders, after crossing the bridge, were to find horses for his men and hurry through Lancaster to Philadelphia, thus drawing part of General Meade’s men to defend that important city. Since Lee was marching north, it would have been to the rebels’ advantage to spread Meade’s army as thinly as possible.
As the southerners approached, a team of carpenters worked feverishly to weaken part of the bridge, with the plan to sacrifice one span by blowing it up. Locals John Q. Denney, John Lochard, Jacob Rich, and Jacob Miller lit the fuse. The charge went off, but the span held. By that time the rebels had started firing and would soon start to cross. Colonel Frick ordered the bridge to be set on fire. Constructed of wood and covered with a wooden shingle roof, the fire spread quickly. General Gordon often recounted later that the citizens of Wrightsville claimed they had no buckets or tubs to quell the flaming bridge. The riverfront lumber yard caught fire and the flames quickly spread to town. Gordon later said he could have supplied the whole southern army with the buckets that then suddenly appeared.
The Confederates pitched in to save the houses. As the flames died down a young woman in her late twenties found out that Gordon’s men would be heading back west the next morning. Out of gratitude for saving her home she invited General Gordon and his staff to breakfast. Her name was Mary Jane Magee Rewalt. Her father, James Magee, a wagon maker, was Chief Burgess (Mayor) of Wrightsville. Her brother, Frank J. Magee, was a Captain in the 76th Pennsylvania Volunteers. Mary Jane had been married a few months before, in April 1863, to Dr. Luther L. Rewalt. Dr. Rewalt was a native of Middletown, Dauphin County. Soon after receiving his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania, Rewalt was commissioned as a surgeon with the 25th Pennsylvania Volunteers.
Gordon graciously accepted the hospitality. Knowing that there were quite a few southern sympathizers in the county, while at breakfast he broadly hinted that Mrs. Rewalt might be one of them. In no uncertain terms she straightened him out, telling him and his men that with her “assent and approval” her husband was serving in the Union army and that her “constant prayer to Heaven is that our cause may triumph and the Union be saved.” Gordon was so impressed that he recounted her story many times while on the lecture circuit many years later and in his memoirs. He referred to her as “the heroine of the Susquehanna” during his well-received talk at the York Opera House in 1894.
After the war Luther Rewalt settled down in Wrightsville with Mary Jane to practice medicine. Mary Jane’s father left her the house at Hellam and Third Streets. Brother Frank J. Magee became Wrightsville school principal, president of Wrightsville Hardware, and a state legislator. According to Gibson’s 1886 History of York County, the Rewalts had five children: James W. Mary F., Annie M., William H., and Francis J. For an unknown reason, the successful, middle-aged Rewalts left Wrightsville and moved to Madison, South Dakota. Luther became a member of the G.A.R. post there, as he has been in Wrightsville. Madison happened to be the site of a very active Chautauqua, the extremely popular forum for entertainment and culture that spread over the country a century ago. When Gordon lectured there, Mary Jane sought him out. The gallant southern General, by then a U. S. Senator and former Governor of Georgia, was finally reunited with his “heroine of the Susquehanna.”
The public is invited to the free Patriot Days Symposium, Looking through Gray Clouds: Personal Accounts of the Confederate Invasion, at DeMeester Recital Hall in Wolf Hall from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Thursday June 25, co-sponsored by York College of Pennsylvania and York County Heritage Trust.
The moderator will be Jim McClure, author of East of Gettysburg: A Gray Shadow Crosses York County, Pa. Participants include Dennis Brandt, author of From Home Guards to Heroes: The 87th Pennsylvania and Its Civil War Community; Scott L. Mingus, Sr., author of Flames beyond Gettysburg: the Gordon Expedition, June 1863 and Terry Latschar, licensed Gettysburg Guide, who will provide a first person interpretation of Cassandra Small.
Click here for more on York County Heritage Trust Patriot Days, including the Civil War symposium and a bus tour.
Click here for information on Madison, South Dakota, a popular stop on the Chautauqua circuit.
Click here for the full text, one of several online of Gordon’s Reminiscences.