RiverRoots: 1863 Bridge Burning
River Roots: 1863 Bridge Burning
River Roots is Susquehanna NHA’s blog series featuring history from York and Lancaster Counties that showcases the Susquehanna River’s historic, cultural, and natural resource contributions to our nation’s heritage.
In the Susquehanna River, between Columbia and Wrightsville, a row of piers stands vacant. For over a century, these piers held bridges that connected Lancaster and York Counties. The most famous of those bridges was the wooden covered bridge that was burned during the Civil War. The fire that consumed that bridge changed the course of history.
The Columbia Bank and Bridge Company financed its first bridge across the Susquehanna River in 1814, but ice lifted it from its piers and destroyed it in 1834. The Company knew that a replacement bridge needed to complement the new commercial growth. They chose a new location: just north of the present-day Route 462 bridge. The bridge design included double railroad tracks inside a covered structure. Two towpaths for moving canal boats across the Susquehanna. Thirty years after its completion, this bridge became a choke point in the Civil War.
In the late spring of 1863, the Confederate Army pushed north through the Shenandoah Valley to invade the Northern states. They reached Pennsylvania with orders to raid for much-needed supplies and then to beat the Army of the Potomac on their turf. General Robert E. Lee wrote:
[The Yankees will be] broken down with hunger and hard marching, strung out on a long line, and much demoralized when they come into Pennsylvania. I shall throw an overwhelming force on their advance, crush it, follow up the success, drive one corps back on another, and by successive repulses and surprises, before they can concentrate, create a panic and virtually destroy the army.
Four Confederate Corps totaling over 70,000 men invaded Pennsylvania and spanned out across Franklin, Cumberland, Adams, and York Counties. Although Pennsylvania had raised an emergency militia, it was far smaller and poorly trained.
In late June, Major General Jubal Early’s Confederate division of nearly 12,000 men captured York city and demanded a ransom of supplies and money to outfit his troops. Early sent a brigade of men east under the leadership of Brigadier General John B. Gordon. After the war, Gordon wrote that his goal was to cross the Susquehanna River into Columbia, seize as many horses as possible, and move toward Harrisburg or Philadelphia. However, a contingent of Pennsylvania militiamen and local volunteers stopped Gordon in his tracks.
The bridge at Columbia had long been a bottleneck. It shared all the traffic across the river: rail, canal, wagon, pedestrian, carriage, horse, and livestock. The 40-foot wide and 5,620-foot-long bridge was essential to the commerce and prosperity of York and Lancaster Counties. There were only three bridges crossing the lower Susquehanna during the Civil War: The Camelback Bridge (Market Street) in Harrisburg, the Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge, and the Conowingo Bridge in Maryland. The Susquehanna River also had a significant current and flow in the lower section. With this knowledge, Union General Couch knew that the Susquehanna River would make a formidable defensive line.
Couch sent the 807-man 27th Pennsylvania Volunteer Militia, led by Colonel Jacob Frick, to defend the Columbia bridge. served as a lieutenant colonel at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. He had been mustered out of the army in May of 1863, but he went to Harrisburg to serve when Confederate Army threatened Pennsylvania. Many of the men that he led were from Frick’s native Schuylkill County in and nearby Northampton, Huntingdon, and Berks counties. They arrived by train to Columbia on June 24th, 1863, with orders to defend the fords and bridges across the Susquehanna River.
Citizens of York, Adams, Cumberland, and Franklin Counties rushed to move important property across the river to the safety of Lancaster. The turnpike up to the bridge in Wrightsville was lined with wagons, livestock, and horses. After a meeting between with Army and bridge company leaders, the company removed the tolls to allow for quicker movement of materials. Mules and horses had always pulled freight through the bridge. Volunteers worked through the night to get all the wagons, livestock, and horses over to Lancaster County.
All that was left in Wrightsville were canal boats and locomotives. Canal boats in the Susquehanna & Tidewater Canal were pulled across the river and anchored on Columbia’s shore. Moving the locomotives was harder. Their funnel-shaped smokestacks wouldn’t fit through the bridge. Plus, there was always a fear that a spark from the engine would light the wooden bridge on fire. Railroad workers dismantled the locomotives and a team of ten mules slowly hauled the engines through. These were the first engines to ever cross the bridge. It took the better part of the day to move all the locomotives across the river to safety. In Columbia, they were coupled to waiting trains and pulled to Philadelphia.
Many people had also fled through the bridge to Columbia. In the western counties of Franklin, Adams, Cumberland, and York, many African Americans fled from the Confederate army through Columbia. They ran because the Confederates could claim they were fugitive slaves, regardless of whether or not they had ever been enslaved. Just three months earlier in March, the Confederate government issued orders that “fugitive slaves” should be rounded up and shipped south to special depots. The Confederates captured and enslaved hundreds of Black Pennsylvanians during this campaign.
In Columbia, Annie Welsh wrote, “…it was distressing to witness old and young, [B]lack and white, with all that they were able to move, and a great many with nothing but what they have on, come crowding through and into our town.” Some individuals returned after the Gettysburg Campaign, but many others did not. The Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania made an indelible mark on the makeup of South-Central Pennsylvania. Annie simply wrote, “People were leaving in all directions.”
Setting the Explosives
Union General Couch knew that his untested troops might be outnumbered and overpowered, so he developed an alternative defense. From Harrisburg, he directed troops to place combustible materials on the Camelback Bridge and the Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge. Early on Sunday morning Robert Crane, the superintendent for the Reading and Columbia Railroad, received orders to supervise the placement of explosives on the bridge at the first sight of Rebels. The goal was to drop the fourth span from Wrightsville. If the 200-foot tall span fell into the river, it would stop the Confederates cold. They would be forced to retreat to York. Frick and the railroad superintendent felt that the bridge span could have been easily rebuilt after the Confederates retreated.
In Wrightsville, Frick set a defense line on either side of the turnpike just west of town and used a horseshoe troop formation to defend the town and bridge. Four companies from Columbia, three white and one Black, joined his troops and brought the total to 175 men. A force of convalescent Union soldiers also joined Frick. Columbia’s white companies left by Sunday, leaving only the 53 African American men with Frick’s militiamen. Frick was particularly concerned about the southern flank which had only 238 to cover a 1,200-yard line over the tough territory around Kreutz Creek. Frick believed that they could hold the bridge if the Rebels only sent a small raiding party.
Mid-afternoon, Confederate Brigadier General Gordon marched his mile-long column of men through Hallam. At the general store and post office in town, they seized 200 dozen eggs, 20 pairs of boots, 20 pairs of shoes, 25 yards of calico cloth, and 10 barrels of pickled mackerel. Most of Wrightsville’s horses had been moved across the Susquehanna, but the Confederates still found and grabbed as many as they could find.
Gordon headed up a high ridge to observe the Union position. He was relieved to see that there was no artillery supporting the defenses. Gordon decided to divide the brigade and attack both Union flanks in a classic military tactic called the pincer movement. As Gordon prepared for an attack, a local music instructor left Wrightsville for York after giving a lesson in town. He spotted the long column of Rebels in the distance, reversed course, and sped back to Wrightsville. He was escorted to Colonel Frick and asked to describe the nature and size of the approaching troops.
Frick quickly sent word of the advance to two men: General Couch in Harrisburg and Railroad Superintendent Robert Crane in Columbia. Crane had already rounded up a group of carpenters to help him prepare the bridge for demolition. Between 15 and 20 Columbians headed to the fourth span from Wrightsville, nearly 800 feet from land. Once there, Crane and his workers removed planking so that artillery, wagons, and cavalry couldn’t cross the bridge. The men bored holes into the timbers and filled them with gunpowder. They sawed the heavy timbers and removed the roof and sidewalls to weaken the span.
Battle to Burning
Calvary men traveling up the railroad line fired the first shots on the southern flank of Wrightsville. Just as firing intensified throughout the line, Colonel Frick was informed that a scout had reported that the Confederate troops advancing towards them included three brigades of infantry and one regiment of cavalry. Although that message was not true, it meant Frick anticipated his 900 men would be up against nearly 5,000. Fighting continued for nearly an hour and fifteen minutes. It was becoming clear that he could not hold off the Rebels’ consistent thrusts on both flanks. If he waited much longer, they would sweep behind him, gain the bridge, and cut off the retreat. Frick gave the signal for a retreat across the bridge to prevent a senseless slaughter.
On the fourth bridge span from Wrightsville, four men sat ready to light the fuses. Robert Crane signaled to John Denney, Jacob Rich, John Lockard, and an old Black man named Jacob Miller to light the fuses and run across the destructing bridge and back to Columbia. Denney had worked in the Henry Clay Furnace nearby and had considerable experience in blasting. They felt confident the charges would drop the span. However, Denney reported that it “scarcely shook the bridge.” Although the explosion failed to drop the span, it did scare the Confederate company that had just reached the bridge entrance.
Frick again turned to Robert Crane and asked him to set fire to the span. Quickly, men dragged fuel, boards, and wood shavings to the span. They soaked the kindling and bridge floor with coal oil and kerosene. John Denney and his three companions threw torches and ran. By the time they exited the eastern edge of the bridge, a column of flame could be seen in the sky.
Confederate troops tried to extinguish the fire, but the wind from the east intensified the fire and it spread across the whole western end of the bridge. Gordon rode into Wrightsville and demanded buckets and pails from the residents of the town, but none could be found. He was left to sit on his horse at the riverbank and watch the span collapse. Major General Jubal Early arrived to find Gordon on the riverbank. After hearing the account of the day, Early, frustrated that his chance to cross into Lancaster County was thwarted, left the bridge to its fate and returned to York.
The fire raged through the night and sparks landed on Wrightsville homes, spreading the blaze. Gordon’s men stayed in Wrightsville and helped put out the fires. Miraculously, buckets, pails, and tubs came from their hiding places to fight the flames. The bucket brigade worked for hours. Although dozens of buildings suffered damage, most of them were salvageable.
Columbians tried to save the remaining half of the bridge. Men went into the bridge and removed floor planks and pulled support beams, but the effort was in vain. It was only when the span closest to Columbia caught fire that the local fire company was able to stop the flames. Annie Welsh wrote to her husband that it was, “a Magnificent but awful sight.” Each span burned for nearly half an hour before it fell into the river. The flames and smoke were clearly visible from Marietta. General Couch stated that, in Harrisburg, they watched the glowing night sky to the southeast. Some Gettysburg residents thought the red glow in the west was from the Confederates burning York City.
Double Back West
By 11:00 am the next day, nearly all of the Confederates had left Wrightsville. They had contemplated other options to cross the mighty Susquehanna River, but they had all been too dangerous with Union artillery sitting in Columbia. In York, Jubal Early’s plans to invade Harrisburg were officially ended when orders came from Robert E. Lee to join the rest of the army near South Mountain. Gordon’s brigade was exhausted from long marching, battle, and firefighting. They wearily arrived in Adams County on Tuesday night, June 30th. The next day, the Battle of Gettysburg began. Many of the men that sacked Wrightsville did not leave Pennsylvania, as over 500 men from Gordon’s brigade died in the battle.
Years later, Jubal Early complained that, had Gordon been able to take the bridge, his division could have cut off the Pennsylvania Railroad, marched on Lancaster, and then attacked Harrisburg. Early’s plan had been “entirely thwarted by the destruction of the bridge.” Columbians had mixed feelings. Some were proud the Union militia and volunteers had stopped the Confederate. Others were frustrated, saying that they would have rather seen Rebels in the town than the bridge burned. No matter your opinion, the flames over the Susquehanna that night changed the outcome of the Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania.
Come to Riverfest! The last weekend in June each year, the river towns commemorate the burning of the bridge in a weekend-long heritage and recreation festival.
Visit Historic Wrightsville at the Burning Bridge Diorama.
Reach the book Flames Beyond Gettysburg: The Confederate Expedition to the Susquehanna River, June 1863 by Scott L. Mingus Sr., which is the most comprehensive account of the event.
 Flames Beyond Gettysburg, 223.
 Mingus, 261.
Guttman, John, and Scott L. Mingus Sr. “Stopped Cold by Fire.” America’s Civil War. May 2022.
McPherson, James M. “To Conquer A Peace: Lee’s Goals in the Gettysburg Campaign.” HistoryNet, September 3, 2018
McSherry, Patrick M. “Defense of Columbia, June 1863,” Journal of the Lancaster County Historical Society. Vol.84, no. 3 (1980), 135-154.
Nicholas, Rachael. “African Americans during the Gettysburg Campaign.” National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, June 1, 2020.
Mingus, Scott L. Flames Beyond Gettysburg: The Confederate Expedition to the Susquehanna River, June 1863. El Dorado Hills: Savas Beatie, 2013.