Prelude to Gettysburg
One of the great debates of our Country's history and legacy is what scholars call "the two Civil Wars": the first a matter of campaigns, generals, and troop movements and the second focusing on the ways that the great conflict affected the daily rhythms of life on farms, and in communities.
Regardless, Gettysburg was the site of the largest battle ever fought on American soil and it involved a great deal more than the resources of one single, famous town.
In six counties near Gettysburg, civilians and militia answered the first call to arms and bravely endured relentless threats and the destruction of their property. Here, women raised funds to support the war and nursed tens of thousands of wounded soldiers left behind from the battles fought in the orchards and fields. Interestingly, part of the battlefield was owned by Freeman, Abraham Brien. Although a number of Gettysburg area Black men joined volunteer militias or USCT regiments during the war, no Black veteran was interred in Soldiers' National Cemetery until 1884. Still, free men and freed men alike enlisted to fight for their own rights, children sacrificed their security, sometimes their lives. Their combined efforts provided the turning point for the Union cause.
It was June of 1863. The Confederate Army had taken York, and was preparing to cross the Susquehanna River by capturing the bridge that linked Wrightsville and Columbia, overtake Lancaster and advance to Harrisburg. Several hundred Union troops in retreat from York, a number already wounded, joined the Pennsylvania Militia and set up defenses near the Wrightsville bridge on the western side of the Susquehanna. Their force was strengthened by a valiant Black militia company. Still, they were outnumbered by more than a thousand men and had to abandon their defenses and retreat across the bridge.
A desperate plan was put into action. The Wrightsville-Columbia Bridge, key to local commerce and communications, would be sacrificed. Union forces wired a span of the structure to blow up, but the explosion was not strong enough to do the task. The order to burn the bridge was then given by Colonel Jacob Frick, and proved effective. The efforts of the Pennsylvania Militia at the Susquehanna River towns spared Lancaster and slowed the advance of the Confederates towards Harrisburg.