Burning the Wrightsville Bridge

By late June 1863, the Confederate Army had invaded Pennsylvania. After capturing York, the Rebels planned to take the state capital, Harrisburg, and possibly Philadelphia. To get there, they would need to cross the Susquehanna River at Wrightsville. Pennsylvania militiamen from Columbia, on the Lancaster County side of the river, vowed to block the Confederate advance. Union troops retreating from York joined them, as did a company of African American militiamen, the first Black troops from Camp William Penn. In all, they mustered fewer than 1,500 men.

When Confederate Brigadier General John Brown Gordon arrived on June 28 with approximately 1,800 troops, the Federals were waiting in their entrenchments. The Rebels opened up with artillery fire, and the Union position rapidly became untenable. The Federals decided to retreat to Columbia and blow up a section of the over mile-long bridge behind them, denying the Rebels access to Lancaster. The explosion failed to destroy the bridge, so the order to burn it was given. As the Confederates surged forward, the bridge erupted in flames. Gordon's men worked for hours to extinguish the blaze. They kept Wrightsville from going up in smoke, but the bridge, financed by the First National Bank of Columbia, was destroyed. Gordon's brigade was recalled to York the next day. The Pennsylvania militia had saved Lancaster.