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Letters to LINCOLN during the Invasion; “Burning bridges on the Northern Central”


This is the fifth in a series of letters or messages sent to President Abraham Lincoln during the Invasion of Pennsylvania by the Rebels during June and July of 1863.  Other Letters to LINCOLN in this series include:

Related Gettysburg & Lincoln posts include:

Continue reading to see who wrote, “They are burning bridges on the Northern Central [Rail]road.”


The following message was sent from Major General Darius Couch to President Abraham Lincoln. The message was sent from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania at 7:40 p.m. on June 28, 1863 to The White House.

The message was written the day the towns of York & Wrightsville were occupied by Rebels.  It was sent as the Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge was only burning for scantly a few minutes.  Either Couch did not consider the attack of a brigade of Rebels on Wrightsville an “attack in force,” or he had not yet received word of this skirmish at Wrightsville.


This response from Darius Couch to President Abraham Lincoln was actually in response to the following inquiry Abraham Lincoln sent directly to Couch a few hours earlier; at 4 o’clock that afternoon.


Upon discovering the President’s initial inquiry, it became clear that Couch was likely responding that no “attack in force” had yet been made on the bridges crossing the Susquehanna River in Harrisburg.  Couch’s statement “I may have lost 400 men in the vicinity of York and Gettysburg” for the most part is in reference to the state militia lost or taken prisoner when the Rebels’ captured the town of Gettysburg on June 26th.  However as the force of 15,000 Rebels worked their way eastward towards the Susquehanna River, a scattering of additional state militia were lost or captured.

The Rebel forces had burned most of the Northern Central Railroad bridges over streams and creeks throughout York County by June 28th.  The President was keenly interested in the state of the Northern Central because it was a principal supply link for not only the Union Army but also for supplying Washington D.C. during the war.

Let’s explore who was Darius Couch?  During the Civil War, Couch quickly rose in the Union officer ranks.  During the initial years of the war, he served in both the eastern and the western fronts, rising to the rank of major general during July 1862.  As noted in Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin’s Proclamation issued on June 12th 1863:

Information has been obtained by the War Department that a large rebel force, composed cavalry, artillery, and mounted infantry, has been prepared for the purpose of making a raid into Pennsylvania. The President has, therefore, erected two new departments; one in Eastern Pennsylvania, to be commanded by Major-General Couch, and the other in Western Pennsylvania, commanded by Major-General Brooks.

Thus at the onset of the 1863 Rebel Invasion into Pennsylvania, Major General Darius Couch was given command of a new United States War Department in Eastern Pennsylvania.  The official name of this department was The Department of the Susquehanna.

Major General Couch had several tasks; the foremost was quickly organizing all of the hastily assembled volunteers in the Pennsylvanian militia.  Once organized, his significantly outnumbered forces played a strategic role in protecting the state capital, Harrisburg, and the southern portions of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and to deny the Rebels passage across the critical Susquehanna River.

The advance of the Rebel forces eastward towards the Susquehanna River was delayed just enough by Couch’s hastily assembled forces to allow the Army of the Potomac to catch up with the main force of the Army of Northern Virginia while they were still in Adams County.  Without this delay and if the Rebels had managed to capture the Susquehanna River Bridge, General Robert E. Lee’s Army may have advanced into Lancaster County.  Here, the Army of Northern Virginia could have virtually free reign to threaten Harrisburg, Philadelphia, New Jersey and possibly even New York City; because the barrier of the Susquehanna River would then become their natural shield from the Army of the Potomac.

The source of the above messages to Abraham Lincoln is The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series 1, Volume 27, Part 3 (Gettysburg Campaign), Page 385, Published in 1889 by the United States War Department.

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