How the Skirmish at Wrightsville-Columbia Bridge Changed the Battle of Gettysburg

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How the Skirmish at Wrightsville-Columbia Bridge Changed the Battle of Gettysburg

The fight would help save the Union.

Key Point: The fight over the bridge was a very short part of the overall battle. However, the Union burned it and prevented the South from capturing it.

The citizens of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, awoke one morning in late June 1863 to find the Civil War literally at their doorsteps. Because the bulk of the fighting to that point had taken place in the South, residents of most Northern states were far removed from the war, except for what they read in their newspapers. For the residents of Gettsyburg, that situation was about to change.

The neatly laid out town, with many of its homes and businesses made of sensible Dutch brick, was not nearly as obscure as legend would have it. With a wartime population of 2,400, it was actually in the upper 25 percent of all Northern cities in size. More than that, as seat of Adams County, Gettysburg was an important crossroads location for commercial traffic, boasting a railroad station, a new courthouse, several hotels and taverns, a theological seminary, a college, and a county jail. Its business center featured a thriving carriage-building industry, several tanneries, and 22 shoemakers. Contrary to what many Confederates had been led to believe, there were no local warehouses bulging with shoes. They had all gone toward the Union war effort.

Patriotism Flourished, But the War Seemed Far Away

Patriotism flourished in Gettysburg, with the town raising three separate volunteer infantry units—the Independent Blues, the Adams Rifles, and the Gettysburg Zouaves—and a Ladies Union Relief Society that sewed flannel shirts and other homespun garments for the boys at the front. The ladies also answered an appeal from the United States Sanitary Commission to send boxes of blankets, food, and clothing to military hospitals in Baltimore.

Still, the war seemed comparatively far away until Gettysburg residents received their first warnings in late June 1863 of a new Confederate invasion threat, mounted nine months after a previous Rebel advance into Maryland. Men mustered into the hastily formed 26th Pennsylvania Emergency Volunteer Infantry and patrolled roadways west of town, felling large trees across the thoroughfares to impede approaching Confederates. Everyone was on edge.

At 8 am on June 26, the first Confederates neared Gettysburg, the sharp spearpoint of Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell’s II Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia. A week earlier Ewell had received orders from General Robert E. Lee to march his corps into Pennsylvania ahead of Lee and the rest of the army. Ewell, accordingly, had crossed into Pennsylvania. While he led two divisions toward the state capital at Harrisburg, Ewell ordered Maj. Gen. Jubal Early to take his 6,500-man division across South Mountain to Gettysburg and then proceed to York, cut the North Central Railroad, and destroy the bridge across the Susquehanna between Wrightsville and Columbia.

On the morning of the 26th a cold drizzle fell as Early’s men marched toward Gettysburg, pausing along the way (in direct contravention of Lee’s standing orders not to destroy private property) to burn the Caledonia Furnace Iron Works owned by Republican Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, one of the harshest Northern abolitionists. Receiving information that local militia had massed at Gettysburg, Early decided to approach the town from two different directions. He sent Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon’s infantry division and Lt. Col. Elijah V. White’s 35th Battalion, Virginia Cavalry, directly down the Cashtown Pike, while Early and the balance of the division approached Gettsyburg from the north on the Hilltown Road.

No Match for the Fire-Tested Confederates

The green militiamen were no match for White’s fire-tested Confederates, who easily brushed them aside, killing 20-year-old Private George Washington Sandhoe and charging into Gettysburg in a style befitting their unit nickname, the Comanches. “It seemed as if pandemonium had broken loose,” recalled Gettysburg resident Lydia Catherine Zeigler. Professor Michael Jacobs of Pennsylvania College observed the cavalry’s arrival with true professorial disdain: “The advance guard of the enemy, consisting of 180 to 300 cavalry, rode into Gettysburg at 3:15 pm, shouting and yelling like so many savages from the wilds of the Rocky Mountains, firing their pistols, not caring whether they killed or maimed man, woman or child.” Disregarding the danger, 10-year-old Gates D. Fahnestock and his friends dashed to second-story windows to watch the proceedings “as they would a wild west show.”

Things settled down once Gordon’s infantry marched into town. “These Confederates were very firm and businesslike in their attitude toward the townspeople,” reported Henry Jacobs. But fellow resident Fannie Buehler, whose postmaster husband was in hiding for fear he would taken prisoner by the Confederates, had a less admiring view of the invaders. “I never saw more unsightly set of men,” she noted, “dirty, hatless, shoeless, and footsore.” A Southern flag went up in the town square, and regimental musicians annoyed citizens by playing “Dixie” and other patriotic Confederate airs long into the night. Years later, Gordon would look back on the opening salvo in the Battle of Gettysburg as a mere dustup: “I had met a small force of Union soldiers,” he said, “and had there fought a diminutive battle when the armies of both [George G.] Meade and Lee were many miles away.”

“You Boys Ought to be Home With Your Mothers”

Early arrived in Gettysburg late that afternoon and went to the Adams County courthouse. There he reviewed the 175 bedraggled militiamen whom his troops had captured. “You boys ought to be home with your mothers and not out in the fields where it is dangerous and you might get hurt,” the general tongue lashed them. He then presented a list of demands to city fathers. Early wanted 7,000 pounds of bacon, 1,200 pounds of sugar, 1,000 pounds of salt, 600 pounds of coffee, 60 barrels of flour, 10 barrels of onions, 10 barrels of whiskey, 1,000 pairs of shoes, and 500 hats. Or, he said, he would accept $5,000 in cash. Borough President David Kendlehart rejected Early’s demands as exorbitant but promised that town merchants would “furnish whatever they can of such provisions.” In the end, Early had to settle for the 2,000 rations his men discovered at the train depot.

The next morning the Confederates rode out of Gettysburg, heading east toward York. At that point, Maj. Gen. Darius N. Couch had fewer than 250 men to defend the Union’s newly created 34,000-square-mile Department of the Susquehanna. He called for volunteers, but his main ally was the Susquehanna River itself. He was determined that no Rebel unit should cross it. There were only a few points where such a crossing was even possible. Between Harrisburg and the neighboring state of Maryland there was only one, east of York, between the villages of Wrightsville and Columbia.

The World’s Longest Covered Bridge

There the river, a mile wide, made a formidable military barrier. In 1777, when the British occupied Philadelphia, the Continental Congress had retreated west across it to the safety of York, where its members signed the Articles of Confederation. Since then, an impressive bridge had been built over the river. Completed in 1834, the 5,620-foot-long Wrightsville-Columbia Bridge was the world’s longest covered bridge. It featured 27 wooden spans, each 200 feet long, 40 feet wide, and stout enough to bear loaded train cars. It rose on stone pylons 15 feet above the high water mark. As an intersection of road, rail, river, and canal traffic, Wrightsville was of much greater strategic import to the invading Confederates than Gettysburg.

Couch assigned its defense to Colonel Jacob Frick. With fewer than 1,000 men—most of them freshly recruited militia—Frick needed allies to stall the enemy advance until reinforcements arrived. Couch sent his aide-de-camp, Major Granville O. Haller. But the Confederates had easily scattered Haller’s militia and irregulars at Gettysburg, and they had no reason to stop there. Early’s orders to destroy the Wrightsville Bridge did not preclude capturing it first and linking up with Ewell from the far side of the Susquehanna. “I directed General Gordon, in the event of there being no force in York,” Early reported, “to march through and proceed to Columbia Bridge, and secure it at both ends, if possible.”

The rain cleared off Saturday morning. Gordon’s Georgia brigade led the way toward York, 30 miles away. His cavalry fanned out on his flanks, burning rail bridges, cutting telegraph lines and, as one lieutenant put it, “gobbling up all the horses, wagons, cattle and sheep for miles on either side of the march.” Fearing a sack, and despite Haller’s pleas, York surrendered. Early caught up to Gordon that evening a dozen miles from town. The Georgian reported, “I have been visited by a delegation from York, and have agreed to take possession of the town without destroying property.” Early replied, “I could not have given you better instructions.”

Early Makes Requisitions

York was the largest Northern city occupied by the Confederacy. As he had done at Gettysburg, Early moved quickly to extract all possible gain from the city. “I then made a requisition upon the authorities for 2,000 pairs of shoes, 1,000 hats, 1,000 pairs of socks, $100,000 in money and three days’ rations of all kinds,” he reported later. “Subsequently, between 1,200 and 1,500 pairs of shoes, the hats, socks, and rations, were furnished, but only $28,600 in money was furnished, which was paid to my quartermaster Major [C.E.] Snodgrass, the mayor and other authorities protesting their inability to get any more money, as it had all been run of previously, and I was satisfied they made an honest effort to raise the amount called for.”