The vanguard of the Army of Northern Virginia reached Pennsylvania in June 1863 after marching from the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg, Va. With orders from Gen. Robert E. Lee to capture Harrisburg, the state capital on the east bank of the Susquehanna River, Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell sent a division of his corps under the command of Maj. Gen. Jubal Early to York with orders to destroy a bridge across the river at a small nearby town named Wrightsville.
Early decided to detach Brig. Gen. John B. Gordon’s brigade with orders to take control of, rather than destroy, the bridge. This would open up the possibility of capturing locations east of the river, including the important city of Philadelphia.
The world’s largest covered bridge, at Wrightsville, was more than a mile-long, and served as an important communication and commerce link between northern Pennsylvania and the Chesapeake Bay. Travelers went across to Columbia on the eastern end via train, vehicle or on foot, and mules towed barges from a tow path running alongside the bridge.
In an account of his experiences during the war, Gordon wrote that, while he was in York, a little girl handed him a bouquet of flowers in which he discovered an anonymous note describing the Union defensive position in front of the bridge at Wrightsville and how best to attack it. This was not surprising, given that many Northern Peace Democrats or “Copperheads” sympathized with the South.
However, when Gordon’s troops arrived on the scene, Col. Jacob G. Frick, commanding a Pennsylvania militia unit defending the span, ordered his men to burn the Wrightsville-Columbia Bridge to prevent the Rebels from being able to cross. The only remnants of the stately wooden structure are the stone foundations that serve as a reminder of an ingenious example of 19th-century engineering.
To learn about what happened in this small community in June 1863, I met with Don Lehman of Historic Wrightsville on Sept. 13, 1998, to take a tour of the surrounding area. The first stop was Strickler’s Hill, where Gordon arrived to observe the town’s defenses.
We drove down Route 462 to Bair’s Mill Road, where Gordon’s artillery shelled the town, and moved on to the fields where the defensive entrenchments of Union militia were once located on the western end of the bridge. We moved on to a toll house still in existence that once controlled traffic moving along what was a log road during the Civil War era.
The next stop was up river, at the grave of an unknown Confederate soldier whose drowned body washed ashore after the burning of the bridge and was found and buried by local residents. In 1988, Sons of Union Veterans Camp #33 placed a memorial stone on the grave.
Mystery surrounds the identity of the dead soldier. He may have been a deserter, or possibly a scout looking for an alternate place to cross the river after the bridge was destroyed.
A marker with two cannon barrels commemorates the fact that, on June 28, 1863, Wrightsville was the “farthest point east reached by the Confederate forces” during Lee’s invasion of the North. The Burning of the Bridge Diorama located in a small building on Hellam Street is an historical museum that features the town in 1863, and uses sight and sound to tell the story of Gordon arriving in Wrightsville, looking for a way across the Susquehanna River. (It is open on Sundays. For information, call (717) 252-1169.)
The climax of this story is that, even if Gordon had been able to secure the Wrightsville-Columbia Bridge before it was destroyed by fire, Ewell and Early would not have been able to lead their troops across to the other side. A message arrived on June 29 from Lee, recalling Ewell’s corps 40 miles to the west in the direction of a small town called Gettysburg, where a momentous battle was about to begin.
Our next tour of the Civil War in American cities and towns will be a visit to Aiken, S.C. This small town was in the path of Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s cavalry that was on its way to destroy the Confederate powder works in Augusta, Ga.
Tom Ryan is the author of the multiple award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” and “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War;” with signed copies available at Bethany Beach Books, at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach and at Allison’s Card Smart in Milford. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.
By Tom Ryan
Special to the Coastal Point