June 28, 1863, a new chapter in Columbia, Pennsylvania history
Late in the afternoon of June 28, 1863, Confederate General John B. Gordon peered through his field glasses at the Yankee defenses of the bridge at Wrightsville, the only bridge across the Susquehanna River between Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and Conowingo, Maryland. The note placed in his hands by a girl as he rode through York had proven to be extremely accurate. Still, Gordon had to plan carefully, since the Yankees had probably rigged the bridge for destruction.
This magnificent wooden structure was reputed to be the longest covered wooden bridge in the world. Built in 1834, it measured 5,620 feet from end to end. The Wrightsville Bridge was a combined railroad and highway span, and on its downstream side included a unique two-level towpath for the Pennsylvania Canal, which crossed the Susquehanna here and continued downriver to Baltimore. The bridge owner, the Columbia Bank, operated the bridge as a very profitable toll business.
Union Colonel Jacob G. Frick was in command of the bridge’s defenses. Frick had formerly led a nine-month Pennsylvania infantry regiment that had been mustered out of service in May. Now Frick commanded the 27th Pennsylvania Militia, which had only arrived in Wrightsville on June 24.
Major Granville Haller, U. S. Army, had also arrived on the scene on the 27th and quickly disposed of the traffic jam approaching the bridge by persuading the bridge company president to allow the horde of refugees on the western bank of the river to pass over the river free of charge.
By the time Gordon’s men approached, Frick had constructed a crescent-shaped earthwork defense to cover his 1,400 soldiers. In addition to his own regiment, Frick had part of another Pennsylvania militia regiment, three additional companies of white troops, a company of free blacks from Lancaster County, and two companies of militia cavalry.
Militia and townspeople barricaded side streets in Wrightsville to prevent a sudden enemy foray against the defenders. Rail cars were lined up on tracks parallel to the river to prevent enemy horsemen from dashing across the bridge before it could be disabled. Preparations were still underway when at about 5:30pm on the afternoon of June 28 they spotted a long line of Confederate skirmishers cautiously moving through fields of wheat and corn.
Convinced that the best way to approach the Yankees was a flanking movement to the south, General Gordon had sent his men out along Kreutz Creek. Unfamiliar with the terrain, they moved slowly, scouting for hidden bluecoats. Scattered fire broke out as the Rebels began to probe the Yankee defenses.
Then Captain W. A. Tanner unlimbered his four cannon along the York Pike and began to fire at the Yankee defenses and also hit houses in Wrightsville. (Gordon would later justify the bombardment by writing that because the Yankee defenses incorporated the whole town anything within the defensive perimeter was fair game.)
The start of the artillery bombardment was enough for Colonel Frick. With no artillery of his own on the western shore with which to reply, Frick ordered a withdrawal across the bridge before the enemy could close with his soldiers. The brief “battle” of Wrightsville resulted in one Yankee death (the victim was a member of the African-American company) and a lieutenant colonel and nineteen men taken prisoner. Gordon reported one of his men wounded.
Once across the bridge, Frick ordered the powder charges under the fourth span ignited. The resulting explosion damaged the span, but failed to collapse it into the Susquehanna. Worried that the Rebels might now capture the bridge, Frick–who had already had some of the timbers saturated with oil and kerosene in case of just this emergency– ordered the entire structure torched. The timbers lit easily, but soon winds spread the flames across the entire bridge.
Pursuing Confederates ran onto the bridge and tried to prevent the flames from spreading, but they had no buckets or other fire-fighting equipment. Gordon ordered citizens in Wrightsville to produce such items, but they claimed that the Yankees had taken everything. But then, when winds blew the fire into the edge of town, civilians quickly brought forth buckets and pails and formed a fire-fighting brigade to assist the soldiers in combating the flames.
When the fire was over, three houses, two lumberyards, and a foundry had gone up in smoke. Later, after reading Northern newspapers that told of how the Rebels burned Wrightsville, Gordon complained of the “base ingratitude of our enemies” in spreading such malicious gossip.
To express their gratitude to the Confederates for their help in saving Wrightsville from certain destruction, James F. Magee invited General Gordon to use his residence as his headquarters for the night. The next morning, Magee’s daughter served breakfast for the general and his staff. Gordon asked her if she was a Southern sympathizer and had written the note handed to him in York, but she replied that her husband was an army doctor and, no, she was a steadfast Unionist. To this day, it has never been ascertained who wrote the note passed to Gordon.
The day of the fire, General Jubal Early had decided to ride toward Wrightsville to see how Gordon’s expedition had fared. In his report, Early wrote that he “had not proceeded far before I saw an immense smoke rising in the direction of the Susquehanna.” Early then heard from Gordon the story of the skirmish and burning of the bridge, which collapsed into the river in a final burst of fire and smoke later that night. Early was disappointed, for he had wished to use the bridge to move his men across the Susquehanna, seize Lancaster, and then march on Harrisburg even as other units attacked the Pennsylvania capital from the west.
On June 29, as nervous Yankees patrolled the eastern shore and watched for evidence of a Confederate boat crossing, Gordon’s men vacated the area and marched back to York, where Early concentrated his division.