“Captain Tanner,” an orderly dispatched from General Gordon called down from his lathered mount, “Compliments of the General. He wishes for you to send the left section of your battery over to yonder hill and deploy. See the stone house and barn to the east? That’s where he wants you to go. Once there, you may open.”
“Please give the general my compliments, sir,” Captain William Tanner eagerly replied, “and tell him the Courtney Artillery will do honor to the Old Dominion this day.”
As the orderly rode back to inform the brigade commander, Tanner raised his field glasses and surveyed the scene off to the northeast. He could see a long, low, dark line of earthworks stretching as far as the eye could see surrounding the small town of Wrightsville, Pennsylvania. Brightly colored flags dotted the line here and there, marking the positions of various detachments of Pennsylvania state militia. “Melish,” he thought to himself. “They will run off at the first shell. They always do.” Scanning further, he examined the best routes to move the two guns into position on the small knoll housing the stone house. Satisfied that he could get the guns there without impunity, he relayed the appropriate instructions to the lieutenant in charge of the section. “See to it,” he ordered.
Quickly, the two limbered three-inch rifles moved from Strickler Ridge forward to the hillock, where the crews unlimbered the guns facing the earthworks. The gunner aimed the piece while the Number Five man brought up the oblong, conical explosive shell from the limber. Other men cut fuses while the Number Two crewman loaded the charge. Number One rammed it home. Once satisfied that all was ready, the lieutenant gave the order and his subordinates repeated it. Number Four yanked the cord attached to the friction primer and the heavy iron gun fired. Smoke surrounded the hilltop position, carrying into the stone house, as the second gun repeated the process and fired, even as the Number One man on the first gun sponged the barrel to extinguish any sparks before loading the next explosive charge.
To the west, back on Strickler’s Ridge with his other two guns, Captain Tanner observed the results. “There goes the Melish,” he sneered as he spotted sudden movement and darkly clad Yankees begin to scurry across the fields toward town. He turned to the section chief standing beside him and ordered additional fire to be poured onto the earthworks. As more and more Federals being to retire, he quickly shifted his fire to air bursts over the town and sent word for the section on the stone house hill to aim for the distant covered bridge. As long lines of butternut- and gray-clad Georgia infantry swept through a field of ripened wheat, the Virginia artillery officer watched the remainder of the militia depart. “Strange,” the thought, “Many of them are retiring in good order. Unusual for militia. They almost act as if they are veterans. I wonder.”
As twilight deepened and a rain storm approached, Tanner finally stopped firing. He had expended forty rounds. Now, it was up to General Gordon’s boys.
Although the details above of this battery’s work and the dialogue are hypothetical, this description paints a plausible scenario about the actual action on the hilltop on Sunday evening, June 28, 1863, in the fields west of the Susquehanna River.
That hillock housing Tanner’s left section was on an estate known as “Hybla.” Little could William Tanner know that a farmer named Huber owned it. Even less could he have known its earlier history as one of the primary stations on the Underground Railroad, where slaves from his native Virginia and from Maryland and elsewhere received shelter, food, clothing, and assistance before being taken across the broad Susquehanna River to safety in Lancaster County. Ironically, Tanner and his cannoneers, fighting to preserve the Southern way of life and secure its independence, including the right to keep its institutions such as slavery free from Federal interference and its soil free from Lincoln’s soldiers, were firing from the old home of some of the area’s more anti-slavery activists, the Mifflin family. Samuel and Susannah (Wright) Mifflin, and later their son Samuel, had led the early fight in eastern York County along the river to help former slaves escape their masters’ reach.
And now, that historic property sadly potentially faces the wrecking ball if Hellam Township rules on favor of Tim Kinsley and the Blessing family and agrees this upcoming Tuesday to destroy the only combination Underground Railroad / Civil War battlefield site in all of York County and one of the very few in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
To lose it for just another industrial park, one that easily could be located at another site, would be an absolute travesty. Rule in favor of preserving the property. Rule in favor of my grandchildren, and all the children to come, who need to know the story of the Underground Railroad in York County, and the role the county played in the Gettysburg Campaign.
We owe them that much. It’s the least we can do to make sure that history does not disappear forever. I don’t want to have to stand in Rutter’s parking lot this time next year and tell my little grandkids, “See, that common-looking large steel building over there? Once, that warehouse was the most important Underground Railroad site in this area. Imagine, if you will, a small hill. Imagine a stone farm house. Imagine a pair of Confederate cannon perched on that hill firing at the river crossing. You can’t imagine it? Neither can I. All I see is a modern intrusion. Well, let’s go get some ice cream and I can tell you more about what happened here.
There once was a Confederate captain named Tanner…”