Civil War-era graveyard in Columbia, Pa.
In the overcast late afternoon of June 28, 1863, as elements of the vaunted Confederate Army approached the small town of Wrightsville in south-central Pennsylvania, more than 1,800 men in blue uniforms awaited them behind recently dug shallow entrenchments. They included hastily organized emergency militiamen, wounded veterans of the Army of the Potomac who had arrived by train from York, and a scattering of other military units from such diverse places as Philadelphia and Gettysburg.
Alongside these mustered, paid soldiers were a group of 53 non-uniformed civilian volunteers, local men who had without compensation arrived to help extend and strengthen the horseshoe-shaped defensive works.They had labored all day with army-issued picks and shovels, and now they traded their tools for muskets. After some brief instruction from the uniformed officers, they squinted westward at the distant forms of enemy soldiers.
Some of these brave, unsung civilians were workers in the lumberyards which dotted the banks of the broad Susquehanna River in York and Lancaster counties. Others toiled in the rolling mills and iron foundries, particularly the Maultsby-Case complex in southern Columbia. Some were railroad workers or day laborers. A few were farm hands. These Pennsylvanians were there to defend their homes, their places of employment, and their way of life.
All were black.
All were there of their own choice, of their own free will.
One would never return to his home.
This photo (taken in the 1930s from an airplane) shows the approximate positions of the various Northern units in the Skirmish of Wrightsville. The defenders slowed the Confederate assault to take the wooden covered bridge that sat on the piers holding the iron bridge (beside Veterans Memorial Bridge). The Rebels overwhelmed the Union positions, and the defenders retreated across the bridge.
Lieutenant Francis Wallace of the 27th Pennsylvania Volunteer Militia was the editor of the Pottsville Miner’s Journal, a popular regional newspaper in north-central Pa., the heart of coal mining country. He and other men from that region had left the mines and farms to join the emergency militia less than 2 weeks ago. Now they served in the trenches beside the company of black civilian volunteers.
“No men on that day worked more faithfully or zealously, than the colored company—their conduct elicited the admiration of all who saw them,” Wallace later wrote in his newspaper. He had just days earlier reported that, “The negroes are especially anxious to elude the rebels as they fear they would be made slaves if captured….” Now, they held muskets in their hands — ready to risk death, injury, or capture. The very real possibility loomed of being taken to Virginia as prisoners and perhaps sold in the slave markets.
“They presented a motley appearance, attired as they were in every description of citizens’ dress,” wrote Lieutenant Wallace. “They were armed with the old musket altered to the percussion lock.”
When the shooting started, these brave civilians did not flinch. All 53 men are reported as staying at their posts. One man fell, never to rise again, when an artillery shell fragment smashed into his skull and effectively decapitated him. His comrades, unphased, retreated in good order with the 27th Militia across the bridge back to Columbia where they dressed their lines and presumably finally had a chance to mourn their lost friend.
His identity remains unknown. His grave is unidentified. Some contemporary accounts suggest he was buried in the trenches, perhaps to later have been reburied by his family members in Wrightsville’s or Columbia’s black cemeteries. No records have been uncovered. A roster of a black company exists from August 1863; many of these names may have been with the dead man back on that rainy last Sunday night in June. Who he was continues to be an unsolved mystery.
With the 150th anniversary of his death approaching, his sacrifice should be remembered. He was the only civilian in Lancaster or York counties to be killed in combat in the entire Civil War on home soil.
He was a hero.
And, he was black. And he technically wasn’t even a soldier.
White men in blue uniforms and black men in street clothes, standing side by side in the trenches, facing possible death. Almost two dozen white soldiers would be wounded at Wrightsville and twenty other militiamen captured, but only the unknown non-uniformed civilian volunteer lost his life in the defense of the Susquehanna River.
He was a “hero of the Susquehanna.”
For more on this story, please see Jim McClure’s York Town Square blog post.
Any reader with any information on who this long-forgotten man may have been is urged to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Visit author Scott Mingus’s Pinterest page for the Civil War in York County! Scores of photographs. Click here!
Pottsville Miners’ Journal, Oct. 24, 1863.