23rd PA at Columbia - Wrightsville Bridge
The Burning of the Wrightsville Columbia Bridge
William J. Wray…From Fredericksburg to Wrightsville
Though the 23rd Pennsylvania was in Maryland during the Gettysburg Campaign on their way to fight at the battle of Gettysburg in July of 1863, one of the members of their regiment, Private William J. Wray of Company F, was not. He had been wounded on December 12th 1862 at the Battle of Fredericksburg, the ball passing through the left eye, exiting his head and into the arm of his best friend and blanket mate Patrick Hickey of the same Company. He was taken from the field by Hickey and given to the care of a Union Field Surgeon, who transferred him to a hospital in Washington D.C. After a few weeks he was transferred to a well Developed Hospital in York, Pennsylvania named General Hospital.
When he arrived he met another from the 23rd Regiment, Company F, and James Henry who was wounded in the leg at Malvern Hill on July 2nd 1862. Wray had lost his eye but he had not lost his desire to serve the Union, he had enlisted for three years and only death would keep him from service. At that time the Army was in need of military Victories and not one-eyed wounded soldiers, so Wray had little chance to ever rejoin his regiment. He had a free pass out with the possibility at one hundred percent he could be honorably discharged on a Surgeons Certificate; however he was stubborn and tough and decided to stay in. There would however be only one place for him, The Invalid Corps, a new part of the Army dedicated to wounded soldiers who wanted to continue to serve but with the restrictions that they would be used to guard forts, batteries and Government Officials which posed little threat to them.
Ewell’s Movement toward the Wrightsville Bridge
On June 24th 1863, General Ewell was reported to be in the Chambersburg, PA area and on the march toward Gettysburg. Rumors had been that there was a good supply of footwear there which the army of Northern Virginia desperately needed. Ewell would go there on his own with permission from General Lee with the Stipulation that he would not enforce any major action until the Army has been concentrated for a full attack. General Early of Ewells Division was sent through Gettysburg and to the East on his own mission. To seize the bridge at Wrightsville and cut the Railroad lines of the Baltimore and Harrisburg lines and cripple the Federal Supply line. In doing this the Federals would have their much needed supplies for the Gettysburg Battle cut off and Lee could drag the battle out and starve the Yankees, much needed supplies? On July 27th, Ewell entered York at 9:30 AM, went to the town square and lowered the stars and stripes. He held the town at ransom and was able to march away with $29,000 in Cash, 1300 pairs of shoes and socks and three days of rations.
Position of McGowan's Invalid's- William J. Wray -- July 28-29 1863
Wray being on the Southern end of town about a mile and a half away had heard of the impending visitation and had volunteered for a new defense, a new unit named “McGowan’s Invalids”, mostly made up of soldiers from the Hospital in York. Under the Command of Lt. Col. Green they would be placed in Wrightsville on the left of the line. This line would be in the shape of a backwards “C” with the “gut” facing York. A total of 1130 men would now face off a force of 7,000 rebels. A small line of pickets would be placed in front of the line. The Bridge was not easily defended. On both sides there were large hills in which the enemy could get artillery up there and pound the entrenched, Invalid Soldiers from their positions.
The Destruction of the Bridge
Knowing this a plan was developed that if escape was necessary, one 200 foot section of the bridge would be destroyed after the last union defender would cross it, making the bridge impassable and also protecting the railroad line which was on the Columbia side. Around 7 PM Virginia Artillery began the bombardment of the Town. After ponding Federal forces and advancing the Union forces ordered a retreat across the bridge that had been weakened by sawing through the support timbers. The Invalids helped by overturning carts in the streets and collecting all possible buckets and throwing them in the river. When all Union defenders had passed across the bridge to the Columbia Side, the 200 foot section was saturated with Kerosene and Oil, fuses were lit and the section was fired. The bridge span rocked under the explosion but did not fall into the river, so it was decided quickly to fire the entire bridge. As the bridge was set on fire, the rebels entered the town looking for buckets to put out the fire, but they had been taken by retreating soldiers or thrown in the river by McGowan’s Invalids. The Only Fire Pumper in town was also taken across to Columbia.
Now the Federals began to dig entrenchments on the Columbia side where artillery pieces had already been. The Flames reached over 100 feet in the air and had also caught a lumberyard in Wrightsville and some homes on fire. Desperate residents and Early’s men now were trying to save the town instead of fighting the defenders. The fire could be seen from York, Harrisburg and Lancaster. The Bridge burned from 8 PM on the 28th until 1 AM on the 29th when the last section fell into the River. At ten AM on the Morning of the 29th a messenger under white flag crossed the river to the Columbia side with news that Early’s rebels had retreated toward York. At the time no one knew exactly why a force so large would retreat, but the answer would come days later when it was learned they would be needed at the Battle of Gettysburg as a part of a much larger attack.
Panoramic View of the Wrightsville Columbia Bridge (Frank P. Marrone Jr.)
William J Wray, sitting along the river on the Columbia Side with plumes of Black Smoke filling the air would not be there for those three Days in Gettysburg, but his contribution by saving the Federal Rail lines that would supply and fuel the Battle would be an equal contribution to Victory. I highly recommend the books listed below for your research on this action.
The information to put this write-up together was taken from the following sources:
© May 30, 2005
- "Birney's Zouaves" The 23rd PA Infantry Volunteers
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