Bridge burning slowed Confederate advance

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Stone piers in the Susquehanna River are all that's left of the old Wrightsville bridge, but back in 1863 it was pretty grand; the world's largest covered bridge, and the only bridge between Harrisburg and Maryland.

The Confederates wanted to seize it, so the Union army knew they had to get rid of it. At first, they wanted to shoot it down, but they didn't have enough ammunition for that. They tried making holes in it and stuffing it with gun powder and explosives, but that didn't work either.

“All the gunpowder did was knock holes in the roof, knock holes in the wall of the covered bridge,” historian Scott Mingus said, “but the bridge deck itself, which carried railroad trains for the Pennsylvania Railroad as well as the Northern Central Railroad, was too sturdy.”

The Union had no choice but to burn the bridge, but they wanted to destroy only part of it. Things didn't go as planned.

“Fifty-year-old seasoned oak, a mile-long wind tunnel, especially when a wind storm was blowing up from the east, the bridge just could not be put out,” Mingus said.

It took six hours for the bridge to burn, and some of the embers from the fire blew on to nearby homes and buildings. It was Confederate soldiers who helped put those fires out.

The Union succeeding in delaying the Confederate army – some of the soldiers arrived in Gettysburg a day late – and the burning might have altered what happened in Gettysburg.

“Day one of Gettysburg certainly would be quite different,” Mingus said. “One could only speculate on how different it would have been.”

 

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