Art: Occupation of Wrightsville by Lee’s Army, June 28, 1863


My friend and contributing writer here at Uncharted Lancaster, Ben Webber, has been interested in accessing the Safe Harbor Water Power Corp archives. One of his passions is the Conestoga River history, and he’s been searching for an ancient map of the winding river that is rumored to exist in their archives.

As it turned out, I have a contact there, and after a few months of discussions, we were granted access. In addition to helping Ben look for these old river maps, I had the goal of scanning as many of their images, maps, and blueprints that might be of interest and eventually make them available to the public. We spent four hours going through several boxes containing hundreds of files during our initial visit.

Here’s something interesting that caught our attention.

Occupation of Wrightsville, PA by Lee’s Army June 28, 1863

From an authentic Civil War wood engraving. Original sketch by Albert Berghaus.

The curious document we uncovered was this print by Donald Ewin Cooke “from an authentic Civil War wood engraving” made by Albert Berghaus. Scroll down to read more about Cooke and Berghaus. I’m not sure how this print came to reside in the Safe Harbor archives, but it was a great find as neither Ben nor I had seen it before.

Burning of the Columbia–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. They would need to cross the Susquehanna River at Wrightsville to get there.

Pennsylvania militiamen from Columbia vowed to block the Confederate advance on the Lancaster County side of the river. Federal troops retreating from York joined them, as did a company of Black militiamen from Camp William Penn. In all, they mustered fewer than 1,500 men.

When Rebel Brigadier General John Brown Gordon arrived on June 28 with approximately 1,800 troops, the Union waited in their entrenchments.

Confederate Brigadier General John Brown Gordon.

The Confederate opened up with artillery fire, and the Union position rapidly became untenable. The Union 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 Colonel Jacob G. Frick gave the order to burn it.

The burning of the Wrightsville Bridge in the background.

Interestingly Confederate Generals Jubal A. Early and John B. Gordon had planned to save the bridge despite orders from General Robert E. Lee to burn it. Conversely, Union forces had initially hoped to defend and protect it.

As the Rebels 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 and set the stage for the three-day Battle of Gettysburg that would soon begin on July 1.

Afterward, the Columbia Bank and Bridge Company appealed to the federal government for reimbursement for damages incurred from the bridge burning, but none were ever paid. Estimates put the cost of damages with interest at over $170 million.

In 1864, the bank sold all interest in the bridge and bridge piers to the Pennsylvania Railroad for $57,000.

A Brief History of the Bridge

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. The 28 foot wide covered bridge was over a mile long at 5,620 feet, sitting on 27 piers. It enjoyed the distinction of being the world’s longest covered bridge.

The wood and stone structure had a carriageway, walkway, and two towpaths to guide canal traffic across the river. Tolls were $1.00 for a wagon and six horses (equivalent to $25.92 in 2020) and 6 cents per pedestrian (equivalent to $1.56 in 2020). Much of the mostly oak timber used in its construction was salvaged from the previous bridge. Its roof was covered with shingles, sides with weatherboard, and whitewashed interior.

Below are two images of the bridge before being destroyed.

The Canal Company made $40,000 in modifications to the structure in 1840. Changes included adding towpaths at different levels and sidewalls to prevent horses from falling into the river. The roof of the lower path formed the floor of the upper course. In this way, canal boats were towed across the river from the Pennsylvania Canal on the Columbia side to the Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal at Wrightsville.

In 1850, a double-track railway was added to link the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad to the Northern Central Railway. Due to fear of fire caused by locomotives, rail cars were pulled across the bridge by teams of mules or horses.

The bridge was located just north of the current Route 462 bridge. Its piers are still visible today, as seen in the Google Maps below.


Albert Berghaus

Albert Berghaus was an American illustrator from immediately before the Civil War up to the 1880s. He worked for Frank Leslie’s Weekly, also known as Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, producing sketches and wood engravings of important events in contemporary American history. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, later renamed Leslie’s Weekly, was an American illustrated literary and news magazine founded in 1855 and published until 1922. It was one of several magazines started by publisher and illustrator Frank Leslie.

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, April 28, 1883 cover.

After the Civil War, Berghaus traveled in the west, and in the late 1870s, he collaborated with Frederic Remington to illustrate “Tenting on the Plains,” an account by Mrs. George Custer.

Original works by Berghaus are incredibly scarce and held in some of the most prestigious public collections in the United States, including the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, and the White House.

Here’s an image of the original wood carving that appeared in the July 18, 1863 issue of “Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.”

Occupation of Wrightsville, PA by Lee’s Army and destruction of the Columbia railroad bridge by the Federal force, June 28th, 1863.

Donald Ewin Cooke

The print in question was made by Donald Ewin Cooke, born in Philadelphia in 1916. Cooke was an artist, author, illustrator, educator, publisher, and journalist. He founded Edraydo publishers, which became Haverford House, and wrote several books for children. His illustrations appeared in exhibits, art prints, and books. He died in 1985.

Special Thanks

Special thanks to Safe Harbor Water Power Corp., owned by Brookfield Renewable U.S., for allowing me access to their archives.

Never miss an update

Never miss an Uncharted Lancaster blog post by signing up for email updates below and following Uncharted Lancaster on Facebook or Instagram.

From an authentic Civil War wood engraving. Original sketch by Albert Berghaus.


2 thoughts on “Art: Occupation of Wrightsville by Lee’s Army, June 28, 1863

  1. These historic art prints should not be in the company archived but rather in the Columbia museum displayed for the public.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: