Background post – Fire on the Conewago!
During the Civil War, the railroad tracks of the Northern Central crossed over the Conewago Creek near York Haven on a pair of single span wooden bridges. If these bridges could be destroyed, direct rail access from Baltimore to Harrisburg would be severed. Major General Darius Couch, commander of the Department of the Susquehanna, ordered part of the 20th Pennsylvania Volunteer Militia to safeguard the twin bridges against any Rebel attack. The Philadelphia-raised regiment had only been in the service for a few days when it was taken by train to York County and marched to to its various assignments. Little did they know, the Confederates were indeed coming for those bridges.
Many of the soldiers in the 20th PVM had been workers in the Port of Philadelphia, the Corn Exchange, or the Customs House. Their commander was Colonel William Thomas, an early commonwealth Republican leader and the Port Collector. He sent several companies to York Haven to protect the vital bridges. They camped on the farm of antebellum Colonel John Hough (spelled Hoff in some accounts). On June 28, 1863, Major General Jubal Early’s Confederate division, more than 5,500 strong, arrived in western York County at Weigelstown. There, he dispatched the 17th Virginia Cavalry to burn the bridges.
Colonel William French’s veteran cavaliers raided Mount Wolf and Manchester, procuring horses, supplies, food, and personal goods before approaching the bridges. Union pickets spotted them, and the inexperienced Philadelphians precipitiously fled across the river to Bainbridge using a flotilla of rowboats. The Rebels fired a few desultory shots, but missed. They turned their attention to the bridges, pouring coal oil on the timbers and setting them ablaze. The column of smoke could be seen for miles. Major General Couch would be furious when he learned that the defensive force had not even tried to stop the Rebels, despite outnumbering them.
The bridges would be rebuilt within weeks, allowing rail transport to resume.
Landowner John Hough’s descendants later filed a claim with the government for damage to the property caused by the state militia prior to its hasty and inglorious retreat. They had trampled several fields of crops, including oats, rye, and hay. The also burned his fence rails and 2,152 board feet of lumber.
For more posts on the Confederate damage to the Northern Central Railway, see these posts:
Destruction of Fishel’s Bridge
Rebels destroy the Codorus Bridge (Black Bridge)
Fire on the Conewago