York County can never forget this unknown Civil War soldier. But we have.

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York County Civil War historian and Yorkblogger Scott Mingus showed the approximate positions of the various Northern units in the Battle of Wrightsville, Pa. 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) in this circa-1930 base photograph. The Rebels overwhelmed the Union positions, and the defenders retreated across the bridge. In this fighting on June 28, 1863, a member of the black militia company, indicated here, was killed. His heroics are largely forgotten today. Also of interest: Battle of Wrightsville – Rare photograph of the battlefield and Check out this story about another Wrightsville hero – Mary Jane Rewalt.

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A new marker for an unknown Confederate soldier was unveiled at his longtime burial spot along the Susquehanna River recently. In my York Sunday News column today (3/14/13) - Another unknown soldier – I suggest we remember another unknown soldier – a black militiaman fighting for the Union:

Gen. John B. Gordon’s Confederate troops advanced slowly on Wrightsville at about 6 p.m., June 28, 1863.

Their point men rose from fields of grain to pepper with gunshot Union regulars and militiamen defending the town from recently dug trenches.

The impatient Rebels were intent on reaching the mile-long covered bridge spanning the Susquehanna River. If they could take the bridge, this unit of Robert E. Lee’s Army could take Harrisburg from the rear or march on to Philadelphia.

Seeing the Yankees in trenches, the attackers unlimbered four cannons from W.A. Tanner’s Courtney (Virginia) battery.

James Kerr Smith, a Hellam Street resident, counted 49 shots, both solid shot and exploding shell. Gordon’s boss, Gen. Jubal Early, later wrote that the Union defenders started running on the third shot, suggesting a shorter bombardment.

Whatever the number, many enemy shells fell into the town of Wrightsville filled with civilian men, women and children.

One of the shells found its mark.

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A fighting man with a black militia unit from Columbia was one of those in the Union trenches.

His unit had been steadfastly digging trenches before the Confederate approach. When the gray-clad soldiers came within sight, his unit exchanged their shovels for rifles.

At some point in the bombardment, one of the Confederate shells struck the man, decapitating him. His identity is unknown today.

Other shells barely missed civilians.

Amanda Beaverson, crossing a street with her two children, escaped the explosion of a nearby shell without injuries.

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About 150 years later and just a couple of miles away, a crowd gathered to commemorate another Civil War soldier.

According to tradition, he was identified as a Confederate soldier when his body was discovered on the bank of the river.

Historians don’t know his name or the Confederate unit he served with.

The Confederates were along the river in York Haven and other points upstream. Did his body wash downstream? Was he one of Gordon’s scouts, looking for a ford across the Susquehanna? Was he part of Gordon’s brigade, who had strayed or deserted?

One way or another, his burial place has been marked over the years. Now, a new monument marks the spot of this unknown Confederate, and those gathered were there last weekend for the dedication.

So we have an unknown enemy soldier, an invader of our soil, who is remembered today with a marker. His kinsmen in uniform blew the head off of a defender and fired on a town full of civilians. On the march, they stole horses, terrorized women and children and destroyed crops.

And then not far away, we have a site where an unknown friendly soldier in blue lost his life in defense of his home and country.

The site where he died, which could be identified within a couple of yards, is forgotten today.

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There’s a lesson here as we contemplate the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.

This is a time for serious contemplation about a most difficult moment in our history.

At the heart of this struggle rested ingrained racism that swirled beneath the efforts of many Southern generals on horses and fighting men in butternut and gray on the march.

The Rebels were fighting for a racist cause that at the end of the day sought to keep black men, women and children enslaved.

Slavery was a racial issue because the only form of chattel slavery in the South or North was black-only bondage.

In a border county like York, we were unduly exposed to Southern views about slavery before, during and after the Civil War. The many Confederate flags around the county today testify to that.

We should ensure in this 150th anniversary that we don’t get caught up in the glamour of Confederate generals with plumed hats and the Southern-inspired pageantry that is often applied to this bloody war. To paraphrase Robert E. Lee, this was a terrible war – so, 150 years later, we should not grow too fond of it.

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The Confederates, after 20 miles of marching that late-June Sunday in 1863, lost the footrace to the bridge.

By the time they arrived at the bridgehead, the span was aflame.

Union commanders had tried to drop a span into the river and save the bridge. That mining did not dislodge the sturdy wooden span, so the Union officers went to Plan B – burn the structure and allow the river to keep Gordon’s men at bay.

The fire spread to Wrightsville, and the Confederates, in turn, worked to keep the fire at bay.

Some expressed gratitude to the makeshift firefighting unit clad in gray that kept Wrightsville from burning mostly to the ground.

But Gordon’s men were under orders not to burn or destroy civilian property, so their act was a protection against the wrath of Robert E. Lee.

The next day, Gordon ordered a countermarch to York – a march that would eventually take them to the battlefields of Gettysburg.

When the Southern men cleared out, the body of the black fighting man was found in the trench.

Maybe some day, a researcher will uncover the identity of this brave man, whose death preceded the sacrifices of the 54th Massachusetts at Fort Wagner, S.C., featured in the film “Glory.”

This unknown soldier should be honored with a marker on or near the spot where he fell, defending his country against a vicious enemy attack.

 Also of interest

Another yorktownsquare.com story about the grave of the unknown Confederate soldier: The story of two missing grave markers

In a Cannonball post that rounds out and amplifies this one, Scott Mingus tells more about the black fighting men in the trenches defending Wrightsville.

About Jim McClure

Editor of the York Daily Record/Sunday News, ydr.com and its many digital products. East Region Editor, Digital First Media. Journalism/history blogger: yorktownsquare.com. Author or co-author of seven York County, Pa., history books.
This entry was posted in All politics is local, Archives, all posts, Black history, Civil War, Events, Explanations/controversy, Famous York visitors, For photo fans, Local journalism & Web, Local landmarks, Pain & trauma, Uncategorized, Unsung/obscure sites, War and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to York County can never forget this unknown Civil War soldier. But we have.

  1. Bill Landes says:

    Jim:

    Great commentary. I for one love your daily blogs and don’t miss a one. You are much appreciated by this ex-Yorker.

  2. Harold McElwain says:

    Interesting article but, they’ve (historians) known about the decapitated black soldier for many,many years. It’s in the 1963 Wrightsville CW Centennial booklet. Why are you waiting till now to bring it up? I agree that he deserves a marker just like the Confederate soldier. Should have been done long ago. I don’t care for the tone of this article. Making the Confederate cause strictly about slavery and calling it a racist cause. There was much more to the Civil War than that. The writer has an agenda with this article. He states that the Confederates fought the fires in Wrightsville out of fear of General Lee’s wrath. BS! They did it because it was the right thing to do. In an issue of the Confederate Veteran Vol.27 1919, a Confederate vet described the scene. They were actually happy to have saved the town from destruction of the fire. They had no reason to fear “General Lee’s wrath” because they didn’t set the fire. Remember, the Union soldiers set the fire on the bridge that spread to the town, not the Confederates. And the remaining citizens of Wrightsville were grateful to the Southern soldiers. There were also numerous acts of kindness on the part of “the invaders”. Remember also, the North invaded the south first and did much greater destruction to the south than the south EVER did to the North! Mrs. Rewalt, (a staunch Union woman) who lived on Hellam St., thanked General Gordon and his staff, for saving the town, with breakfast the following morning. The only “destruction” caused by the Confederates were a few buildings damaged by the falling shells. Most of the shells fell harmlessly into the river. One of shells struck a building on the corner of N. 2nd St. & Walnut St. The building was called “big brick” and held the Odd Fellows hall on the first floor and a Temperence association on the 2nd floor. The damage to the Temperence hall was celebrated by the hotels and bars on Front St. General Gordon was a member of the Odd Fellows and posted a guard at the door and promised the hall would not be disturbed. A shell struck a church on Locust St and a house across from the church. The only other incident of “damage” was the loss of fence rails for fire wood.

  3. Harold McElwain says:

    The YDR has money, why don’t you erect the marker for the soldier? The marker should be placed near the water tower in Wrightsville. That’s about as close to the original location as you can get. And it would be beside the Fairview Cemetery, which would be fitting as there are many Union soldiers buried there.

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