After Action Report

In late June of 1863, Confederate troops were marching Northward from Maryland into Pennsylvania. According to General Isaac Trimble, General Robert E. Lee predicted that the US Army would be “broken down with hunger and hard marching, strung out on a long line, and much demoralized when they come into Pennsylvania.” Lee planned to “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.”

On the 28th, US Army forces were indeed retreating. But as the rebels were poised to cross the Susquehanna River into Lancaster County, the order came instead to destroy the Columbia-Wrightsville bridge, barring their passage. Explosives failed to bring the bridge down and Confederates, led by General John B. Gordon, began advancing over it. In desperation, the Pennsylvania militia set the span on fire. Having been coated earlier in crude oil from a Columbia refinery, it burned completely in a matter of hours. The decision to raze the bridge saved Lancaster, Harrisburg, and Philadelphia from invasion and changed the course of history, sending the Confederate Army west to Gettysburg for a fateful encounter.

Union defenders retreat across the Susquehanna burning the Wrightsville Bridge behind them.
Invasion of the North- Destruction of the bridge over the Susquehanna, at Columbia, Pa. – Sketched by a correspondent. (Harper’s Weekly Magazine, July 18, 1863, p. 453.)

This was the second bridge to cross the Susquehanna between Columbia and Wrightsville. The two-year construction project began in 1832 and was financed by the Columbia Bank and Bridge Company for $157,300. At the time, it was the longest covered bridge in the world, being over a mile long at 5,620 feet sitting on 27 piers. It sat just north of the current Route 462 bridge. On the outside, two towpaths for moving canal boats were added in 1840. A double railroad track was added in 1850. The piers of the bridge are still visible today just north of the Veterans Memorial Bridge.

LancasterHistory holds a piece of the Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge that burned in 1863. A copy of the June 29th after action report written by Robert Crane to Major Granville O. Haller is currently on display in the “Lancaster in the 60s” exhibit. Below is a scan of the after action report is below, including a transcription.

After Action Report

To view the scans below, click on each image to enlarge said image.

Transcription of Document

Major Granville O. Haller
Commanding Division of the Susquehanna
Columbia June 29, 1863

Having received order from you to employ a force of carpenters & bridge builders for the purpose of cutting and throwing a span in the Columbia Bridge crossing the Susquehanna between the borough of Columbia & Wrightsville, I engaged such a force for that purpose. 

Guards were placed upon the bridge during the afternoon and night of Saturday the 27th up to half past seven o’clock of Sunday evening the 28th, when the bridge having been weakened at two points, one of which was the fourth span from Wrightsville (there being [blank] spans and the structure a mile and a quarter in length), by the removal of all except the anchor, and a very small portion of the lower chords, the arches bowed and loaded with powder, with few attached all ready to apply the match. 

At a given signal by your aid Maj. C. M. Knox in the presence of and by approval of Col. Fricke at about seven and a half o’clock, all the forces having passed over from the borough of Wrightsville, when the plank flooring was removed and the matches applied to the fuse by John D. Denney, John Lockard, Jack Reich, & Jacob Miller, persons stationed for this purpose; every charge was [perfect?] and effective. 

The rebel cavalry and artillery approaching the bridge at the Wrightsville end, Col. Frick in order to more effectually destroy the connection, the bridge not falling, ordered it to be fired, at which time the rebel artillery were playing upon us. The following Gentlemen: E.K. Smith, Civil Engineer, William Frasick, Isaac Reuel, Henry Burger, John Gilbert, Fred Bush, H.P. Moore and M. Green who assisted me in this reprehensible and dangerous work, will please receive my own, as well as the most heartfelt thanks of the community for effecting the object that prevented the rebels from crossing the Susquehanna at this point. 

With high regards, I remain
Your Humble Servant
Robert Crane 

The following men were omitted in copying my report: Michael Gebhart, John B. Backman, Davis Murphy, Kelley App, Michael Shuman, Henry Duck & S. M. Tenney.