The Columbia Historic Preservation Society operates a small museum on 2nd Street in downtown Columbia, Pennsylvania. Once considered as a possible site for the U.S. capital before Washington, D.C., Columbia is a historic town on the eastern bank of the Susquehanna River, directly across the mile-wide watercourse from Wrightsville in York County. During the Civil War, the world’s longest covered bridge connected the two riverfront towns. Union militia, under the orders of Major General Darius N. Couch in Harrisburg, burned the bridge on Sunday evening, June 28, 1863, to prevent a portion of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia from crossing into Lancaster County and potentially marching to seize Harrisburg from its unguarded rear.
Recently the M&T Bank allowed CHPS officials to sort through scores of 19th century files from an old bank building to see what might be of historic value. Among the documents found, and now on display in the CHPS museum, were autographed letters from James Buchanan (the president before Lincoln), Simon Cameron (Lincoln’s Secretary of War), industrialist Andrew Carnegie, and others.
Of interest to Civil War buffs was an old letter, actually an affidavit, from John Quincy Denney, one of the quartet of Columbia citizens charged by army officials with actually burning the bridge to prevent Brigadier General John B. Gordon‘s brigade of Georgians and their Virginia cavalry escort from crossing the Susquehanna.
Here is the text of Denney’s letter, some of which is indecipherable:
Lancaster County Pa.
Before me a Justice of the Peace in and for the Borough of Columbia, County of Lancaster and the State of Pennsylvania, personally came John Q. Denney, who being by me [just or first] duly of [friend?] according to the law did declare and say as follows:
“I was standing in Black’s Hotel on the afternoon of Sunday the 28th of June 1863, when W. Robert Crane came and asked me if I would go along with his party on to the Bridge that he [and] E.K. Smith had been appointed by Col. Jacob G. Frick then commanding at Columbia to cut the timbers of the Bridge, to bore and charge the arches with powder in order to have it in such condition as to blow it up or otherwise destroy it in case our forces stationed at Wrightsville should be attacked by the rebels and repulsed. I told him I certainly would do everything in my power that was considered [acceptable] by Col. Frick. I with the others went on to the bridge with W. Crane, tore up the planking on one of the spans near the West End, cut off all the timbers that we thought of would have been safe to cut without destroying the possibility of our troops to [hop] over, bored and charged the arches with powder ready for the match if [acceptable]. Jacob Rich, John Lockard, Jacob Miller and myself were appointed to take charge of the lighting of the fuses but a short time, when Col. Frick came and notified us that our forces would retreat and our only safety was to blow up the bridge. In a few minutes our soldiers retreated and [hopped] over the Bridge and the order was then given by Col. Frick to apply the matches was done. Each of us four, Jacob Rich, John Lockard, Jacob Miller and myself had charge of a fuse and we applied the matches when the order was given; but the explosion failing to blow up or destroy the Bridge as was expected we then under [express] order from Col. Frick set fire to the Bridge by building a fire in the middle of a span near the place where we had charged with powder. We then retreated while the rebels entered the West end of the Bridge and endeavored to extinguish the flames and the Bridge was entirely consumed.”
John Q. Denney
Affirmed and [witness here] before me
this 24th July 1863
David E. Brundy
In my April 2009 book, Flames Beyond Gettysburg: The Gordon Expedition, I include a detailed newspaper interview with Mr. Denney in which he adds even more details on the Confederate invasion and local officials’ efforts to destroy the bridge. Denney described the smoking embers of the collapsed bridge as presenting an eerie appearance sticking out of the river in the days after the aborted attempt by the Army of Northern Virginia to seize it.
Located in the original English Evangelical Lutheran Church, Columbia Historic Preservation Society is dedicated to the preservation of history for the river town, formerly known at Wright’s Ferry. The museum contains many other interesting artifacts of Columbia’s history, including the above painting of the bridge fire. Nails from the burned bridge are in the collection, as well as records of the construction of the bridge.
Colorful lithographs such as this one graced the walls of many veterans in the years after the Civil War as memorials to their service.
Here is the main hall of the museum of the Columbia Historical Preservation Society. Among the artifacts are Native American items from the Shawnee village that once graced the riverbank prior to the white settlers’ town.