York County saw several small Civil War skirmishes

Rossville, in northwestern York County, saw a small skormish in its streets when Union cavalry briefly clashed with J.E.B. Stuart’s rear guard on July 1, 1863, the same day as the opening of the Battle of Gettysburg in the next county to the west. (Scott Mingus photo).

I recently posted a blog entry about a small engagement during the Gettysburg Campaign in Dover Township between Jeb Stuart’s rear guard and a Union reconnaissance patrol that was shadowing his movements through York County. That posting prompted an inquiry about other largely unknown skirmishes or engagements within the county during the Civil War.

It appears that many readers may not be aware that there was hostile gunfire in so many different places across York County, although, other than the battle of Hanover and the skirmish at Wrightsville, casualties were almost non-existent.

I have covered many of these encounters in my various Civil War books that I have written, but I don’t believe I have ever assembled them in one place previously.

So, here goes!

Civil War cannon in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Hanover, PA (Scott Mingus photo).

June 27, 1863 – Hanover Junction: More than 200 troopers of the 35th Battalion, Virginia Cavalry under Lt. Col. Elijah V. White attack a line of Union soldiers and drive them more than a mile to their fortifications on a hilltop overlooking the valley of Codorus Creek and the railroad intersection. The defenders, two companies of the 20th Pennsylvania Volunteer Militia, retreat to Wrightsville and join the defenses there. White heads north through Seven Valleys toward the Howard Tunnel. No known casualties.

June 27, 1863 – Howard Tunnel: “Lige” White’s cavalrymen plan to destroy the tunnel to disrupt the Northern Central Railway, but are easily driven off by a strong detachment of the 20th PVM. The emergency militia regiment, nearly 1,000 strong, had been broken up in small detachments over a 15-mile stretch of the vital Northern Central Railway. That proved to be a mistake, as none were strong enough, other than the men safely ensconced in rifle pits on the sides and top of the tunnel, to make a difference when the Rebels finally arrive. White burns railroad bridges in the vicinity and heads for Spring Forge/Nashville to camp overnight. No known casualties. Word reaches the detachment of the 20th PVM guarding the Black Bridge near York. They withdraw, as do the units posted at the Gut near what was then called New Holland.

June 27, 1863 – York Haven: The 17th Virginia Cavalry, under Col. William Henderson French, attacks and drives off other companies of the 20th PVM under Col. William B. Thomas. After a sharp firefight, the Federals withdraw across the Susquehanna River on flatboats and rowboats. French then burns the RR bridges over the Conewago Creek and returns to his camp near Emigsville. Casualties are minimal. At least one Confederate is shot off of his horse while in the river [I have long speculated that this man could be the unknown Rebel body buried downriver at Accomac].

June 27, 1863 – York: Captain Thaddeus Waldo’s company of the 16th Virginia Cavalry exchanges shots with Union cavalry pickets west of York as they probe the Federal lines. No known casualties. The Yankees, elements of Capt. Robert Bell’s Adams County Cavalry, are a rear guard, allowing the bulk of York’s infantry defenders and Major Granville O. Haller to take the train eastward to Wrightsville. Some of the patients of the U.S. Army Hospital accompany them; the rest march to Wrightsville. Bell’s Cavalry follows to screen the eastward movement to the river.

June 28, 1863 – Wrightsville: More than 1,500 Union troops guard the river. They are a motley force, including the previous defenders of Hanover Junction, two militia cavalry units, a small group of civilian scouts, a home guard company of free black men from the river region, elements of the 87th Pennsylvania fresh off their stunning defeat at Second Winchester, the York U.S. Army General Hospital patients and their guard detail, and parts of three different emergency militia regiments. Confederate Brig. Gen. John B. Gordon leads 2,000 Rebels to Wrightsville and attacks about 5:30 p.m. One of the black home guardsmen is killed and several emergency militiamen are wounded. One of the militiamen suffers a non-fatal heart attack from the excitement and exertion in fleeing across the covered bridge before it is set on fire. Casualties: 1 Union defender killed, 11 men wounded, up to 21 prisoners of war. Confederate, 1 soldier, Pvt. C. C. Smith of Georgia, slightly wounded.

June 30, 1863 – Hanover: In the first serious clash between the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and the oncoming Union Army of the Potomac on Pennsylvania soil, cavalrymen battle in the streets of Hanover and in the fields southwest of town. Jeb Stuart’s Rebels are denied northward passage to the York-Gettysburg Turnpike and instead swing northeasterly toward York through Jefferson. Casualties: 215 Union troops, 117 Confederates in the largest military engagement in York County history. Hanover residents bury the bodies in the local cemetery; they are later removed to the new Gettysburg National Cemetery.

June 30, 1863 – Jefferson: Jeb Stuart’s rear guard, elements of Brig. Gen. Wade Hampton’s division, man the hills and roads southwest of Jefferson. A Union reconnaissance patrol following Hampton withdraws after an exchange of gunfire. No known casualties.

July 1, 1863 – Dover: Hampton’s rear guard skirmishes with Lt. A. J. Alexander’s Union recon patrol near Salem Church; the Federals withdraw westward temporarily after a brief engagement. No known casualties.

July 1, 1863 – Rossville: Again, the Federals probe Hampton’s rear guard. Shots are exchanged at the intersection in Rossville. No known casualties. Alexander withdraws again and heads southward to rejoin Judson Kilpatrick’s division near Abbottstown.

There may be others that I have missed, but those are the engagements off the top of my head without consulting my voluminous notes on York’s role in the Gettysburg Campaign.

To learn more about York County’s Civil War history, visit the museum of the York County History Center.

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