Gordon Brigade Adds to Gettysburg Tale; Rebel Commander Destroyed Key Bridge across Susquehanna River before Battle

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), July 2, 2009 | Go to article overview

Gordon Brigade Adds to Gettysburg Tale; Rebel Commander Destroyed Key Bridge across Susquehanna River before Battle


Byline: Thomas J. Ryan, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

We normally think of Gettysburg in terms of the combat that took place in that remote south-central Pennsylvania town on July 1, 2 and 3, 1863. In actuality, that battle was the apex of a campaign that lasted nearly two months. During that time, a series of clashes occurred that influenced the outcome of Gen. Robert E. Lee's bold invasion of the North.

Scott L. Mingus Sr.'s Flames Beyond Gettysburg: The Gordon Expedition, June 1863 focuses on one obscure but critical event during that period, in the small riverfront town of Wrightsville, Pa., on June 28 - three days before the Battle of Gettysburg.

The community's claim to fame was a mile-long covered bridge, mostly wooden, across which railroad trains, wheeled vehicles and pedestrians crossed to the town of Columbia on the opposite side of the Susquehanna River. Canal barges powered by mules moved along an adjacent towpath.

While this book describes Lee's 1863 invasion, it more specifically highlights a single brigade in his army - six Georgia regiments under the command of the capable and aggressive Brig. Gen. John B. Gordon. Gordon led his brigade through Waynesboro and Gettysburg, then on to York. Ultimately, he arrived in Wrightsville, a few miles east of York, with orders to capture and hold the bridge for the passage of Maj. Gen. Jubal A. Early's division to the eastern side of the river.

Mr. Mingus' extensive volume, which is clearly written, scrupulously edited and well-organized, covers a lot of ground before it concentrates on the Wrightsville story. It follows Lee's army and Gordon's Georgians in early June from their starting point south of Fredericksburg, Va., and the Rappahannock River west to the Shenandoah Valley and north to the Potomac River before crossing into Maryland.

As his Army of Northern Virginia moved into Pennsylvania, it became evident that Lee's primary objective was to gain control of a major city in the North, such as Harrisburg, Philadelphia, Baltimore, or even the more heavily defended capital at Washington and hold it hostage for a peace settlement with the Federal government that would allow the rebellious Southern states to separate from the Union permanently.

Gordon was one of the many talented generals in the Rebel army on whom Lee depended to help accomplish his main objective, as well as several ancillary ones. In particular, the overall plan included the confiscation of food and horses, alleviating severe commissary and transportation deficiencies that the Rebel army had been experiencing for some time.

As Gordon's brigade progressed along its expedition into the North, it engaged in a number of minor skirmishes with green Pennsylvania militias that offered little or no resistance. The 35th Battalion Virginia Cavalry and the 17th Virginia Cavalry Regiment that accompanied Gordon's brigade conducted most of the military action that occurred. The men of Col. Elijah V. White's unruly and unkempt 35th Virginia, who regularly operated as guerrillas and raiders, struck fear into the hearts of Pennsylvania civilians.

The author devotes considerable space to describing the countryside and the people who inhabited it. In so doing, he introduces a number of Pennsylvania Dutch residents, one of the predominant ethnic groups in that area.

These people, along with others, had a burden to bear because the Southern soldiers fulfilled Lee's desire to lay hold of as much food and other supplies as possible while destroying transportation facilities such as railroads and bridges that served vital roles in supporting Federal military objectives.

Mr. Mingus points out that not all Pennsylvania residents were loyal to their government in Washington, and many demonstrated their antipathy by welcoming and supporting the invaders in a variety of ways. These Copperheads, as they were known, soon learned that their friendliness was not always rewarded because the Rebels indiscriminately confiscated from every farm and household, especially those with full larders and well-stocked barns. …

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