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Remembering the Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge Burning

Location: Washington, DC


Mr. PITTS. Mr. Speaker, over a century ago, on a hot summer day, an event occurred of national significance that by some eyewitness accounts, altered history, as we know it today. This act of war produced an obligation on the part of the Federal Government that to this day remains unpaid and largely forgotten.

The event I am referring to is known as the "Burning of the Columbia Wrightsville Bridge." Occurring on June 28, 1863, just 72 hours before the Battle of Gettysburg, this catastrophic event did not just destroy an ordinary bridge-it destroyed an extraordinary bridge. Completed in 1834 at a cost of $128,726.50, it was the longest covered wooden bridge in the world, 40 feet wide with 27 piers, it spanned 5,620 feet across the Susquehanna River.

Ironically, this event and its impact on the region have lived in the shadow of the Battle of Gettysburg. Historians may debate whether or not this event had any impact on the Battle of Gettysburg. There is however, no denying the significant impact it had on preserving the loss of personal property throughout the region as evidenced by the following statement made by Colonel Jacob G. Frick, the man who gave the order to destroy the bridge. "The object to be kept in view, and which was paramount, was the prevention of the enemy from capturing the bridge, and thus frustrate them in their evident purpose to cross the Susquehanna at that point, get in the rear of Harrisburg, and between that place and Philadelphia destroy railroads and ravage the rich counties of Dauphin and Lancaster."

In order to fully understand the importance of this bridge and the town of Columbia, one must first examine conditions as they were in 1863 not as they may be today. First, how many of you are aware that the first place to be considered as the nation's capital was Columbia, Pennsylvania? It was an important travel artery for westward expansion, at times Conestoga Wagons would have to wait several days for their turn to cross the bridge. Railroads including the Philadelphia and Columbia, the Pennsylvania, and the Reading and Columbia all converged along the banks of the Susquehanna at Columbia.

These trains would either cross over the bridge to connect with the Susquehanna & Baltimore Railroad or transfer their cargo to packet boats that then traveled Westward via the Union Canal through the interior of Pennsylvania to Pittsburgh or where pulled by mules across the river via a towpath constructed on the side of the bridge to the Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal that connected Columbia with the Chesapeake Bay and beyond. Columbia being at the epicenter of this vital transportation network made it a logical destination for industries consisting of iron furnaces, rolling mills, saw mills, flour mills, and railroad machine shops that were supplying goods to a growing nation. Columbia's strategic position would have made it a fine prize indeed for any invading Southern army bent on disrupting vital communications and supply lines in the North.

Colonel Frick made this statement in a letter from 1892: "I was fully impressed with the belief at the time that this bridge was General Lee's objective point, and that it was to become the highway of the Confederate army to reach the centers which enabled the Northern army to maintain its position in the field by cutting off the supplies by capturing the eastern ports and plant the seat of war in Pennsylvania instead of Virginia."

In a letter received by Colonel Frick from Major Granville O. Haller, dated Seattle, April 28, 1892, says that he and Col. Thomas M. Anderson, commanding Fourteenth United States Infantry, had been discussing the burning of the bridge, Colonel Anderson wrote to Major Haller March 30, 1892, as follows:

All theories apart, I should say that it would have been better to have burned twenty bridges than to have taken any chances. If the burning of the bridge stopped Gordon, it was as important as a battle.

Who other than God of battles would know until the afternoon of July 3, whether Meade or Lee would be victor?

If Meade, then the enemy would be driven from our border. If Lee then the seat of war would have located itself between the Susquehanna and the Delaware and the Hudson. The Columbia Bridge would have become the Confederate highway to Lancaster, Philadelphia, and New York. In their onward march an army of veterans would have met with no fortified towns or cities; a practically unarmed and undisciplined militia, and a panic-stricken community in its front and a broken army sullenly following far in its rear; who can tell what awful results would have been had Lee been victorious at Gettysburg, yet who knew that he would not be until July 3, 1863?

The burning of the bridge which spanned the Susquehanna River at Columbia, has given rise to a rumor that its loss would have the effect of impairing the credit of the Columbia Bank. This now seems will not be the case, as the structure was destroyed by order of the military authorities, thus making the Government responsible for all loss. The following note from the Cashier of the Columbia Bank fully explains the circumstances.

June 29, 1863. Dear Sir, The bridge at this place, owned by the Columbia Bank, was burned by the United States Military authorities to prevent the Rebels from crossing the Susquehanna River.-Signed Samuel Schock, Cashier.

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