Civil War book: ‘When flames brilliantly illuminated the sky over the Susquehanna River’
Flames shoot from a grill atop a pier from the bridge that the Union Army burned in 1863 to stop the Confederate advance. Two subsequent bridges used those same now-empty piers. In recent years, re-enactors have simulated the burning of the bridge as an observance of this milestone in local history. Scott Mingus has penned a history, ‘Flames Beyond Gettysburg’ that tells about that moment when Confederate Gen. John B. Gordon’s raid reached the west bank of the Susquehanna. Background posts: New Lincoln blog category introduced to honor Abe’s 200th birthday and History-making evening on rebel occupation of York could turn into daylong symposium and Mayor of York, Pa.: ‘We are no longer unprotected’.
Scott Mingus writes many memorable stories in his new book on the Confederate occupation of York County.
But he provides one quote that creates an image that will never leave your mind.
Here’s what one Union cavalryman later observed about the rebels’ charge at the bridge linking Wrightsville and Columbia in late June 1863:
“One old negro to whom was entrusted the duty of igniting the fuse sat very coolly on the edge of the pier, smoking a cigar.”
This York Daily Record/Sunday News photo of a Susquehanna River rescue attempt gives a view of three bridges. That’s the Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge in the foreground, the Wright’s Ferry Bridge in the background and the piers of the bridge that burned in 1863 in the middle.
What if the mined bridge span had fallen into the Susquehanna stopping the Confederates, as was the original plan?
You get it. One black man would have stopped a large rebel brigade by touching his smoke to the fuse.
Rough justice that.
But still, he was among the last to head east to safety, a brave man heretofore lost to history.
But Scott Mingus found him.
Here’s my York Sunday News column putting that scene and Mingus’ book in a greater context:
It was a foot race to the covered bridge in Wrightsville.
Fighting men in blue on this Sunday evening in 1863 were retreating — some orderly, others in panic — to the safety of the bridge and the Susquehanna River’s east bank.
An entire Confederate brigade was rushing to cut off the Union men and secure the span so the rest of their gray division could cross and perhaps head toward Harrisburg.
On the bridge, some Union officers and a work crew waited to drop one span mined with explosives into the water below.
Eyewitness Persifor Frazer of Philadelphia’s First City Troop later wrote about another man who held his ground that day.
“One old negro to whom was entrusted the duty of igniting the fuse,” he wrote, “sat very coolly on the edge of the pier, smoking a cigar.”
This unknown black man was one of the last to head east.
The explosion rocked the bridge but did not drop the span, and Union officers torched the bridge to keep the rebels from crossing.
The west bank of the Susquehanna was, indeed, the farthest east that the rebels would reach.
That small detail about the old guy with the stogie is indicative of the rich content uncovered by indefatigable researcher Scott L. Mingus Sr. in his just-released “Flames Beyond Gettysburg.”
The 624-page book traces the Confederate movement across the southern tier of Pennsylvania before the Battle of Gettysburg. Specifically, the narrative follows John B. Gordon’s brigade of Jubal A. Early’s division as it crossed Adams and York counties to the bridgehead in Wrightsville.
Mingus, a scientist with Glatfelter paper, extended his considerable research experience to the historical enterprise in gathering hundreds of previously unreported facts about Gordon’s raid.
He far exceeded other works in mining sources from well beyond the borders of southcentral Pennsylvania — hard-to-get regimental histories from Southern archives, for example.
Further, he effectively worked through claims for state relief filed by farmers and others. He used them to stitch a tapestry of the devastation caused by the Confederates.
And he calmly deals in detail with York’s controversial surrender to Gordon in a remote farmhouse in Farmers and the subsequent rebel stroll into York.
Simply, his work is the most thorough study yet of the Confederate occupation of York County.
But placed in a larger arena, Mingus’ work is the latest — and most ambitious — of about a dozen Civil War-oriented publications since the turn of the millennium to probe York County’s Civil War past.
After this topic was neglected for years, this generation of researchers is aggressively searching for stories and meaning in 19th-century York County. Unhindered by the ghosts of York’s surrender that often chilled researchers before the late 1980s, they are scrutinizing Civil War-era York County in an unprecedented way.
Whether intentional or by chance, their writings are bringing forth stories about the county’s everyday past, particularly difficulties and successes experienced by poor, rural whites; black people; and women of all classes.
As one example, John V. Jezierski’s study of William C. Goodridge brings forth the former slave’s accomplishments as a businessman in what must have been the forbidding town of York. His work provides a repository of information available to living historian Wm. Lee Smallwood, those behind an Underground Railroad museum in York and others involved in teaching about Goodridge’s life and times.
For his part, Mingus incorporates stories about the Confederate impact on black people of that day as part of his long narrative.
And he puts forth lessons where they can be found.
One outcome of the battle for the bridge, he writes, was the respect accorded black militiamen who fought in Wrightsville.
He cites Col. Jacob Frick’s report of that day applauding those black troops: “After working industriously in the rifle-pits all day, when the fight commenced they took their guns and stood up to their work bravely. They fell back only when ordered to do so.”
And the rough justice of a cigar-puffing black man who would try to stop a full Confederate brigade’s march east by placing his smoke against a fuse is not easily forgotten.
Mingus ends his work by noting that two bridges today flank the piers that once held the burned wooden span.
“Each day, thousands of motorists pass by, unaware of the story of that rainy June evening of 1863,” he wrote, “when flames brilliantly illuminated the sky over the Susquehanna River.”
No area resident need be unaware any longer.
Mingus’ work heads the list of resources available to people who want to start learning or yearn for more of York County’s Civil War story.
About the book
Scott L. Mingus Sr.’s “Flames Beyond Gettysburg: The Gordon Expedition, June 1863” a study, with driving tour, of the Confederation occupation of York County. Available via firstname.lastname@example.org; http://scottmingus.webonsites.com; or York Emporium, 343 W. Market St., York, 846-2866. Other works: “Human Interest Stories of the Gettysburg Campaign, Volume I & II” and “Gettysburg Glimpses: True Stories from the Battlefield.” Also forthcoming from LSU Press: “A Spirit of Daring: The Louisiana Tigers in the Gettysburg Campaign.”