07/07/2009 12:40:00 12:40pm July 7th, 2009 By scottmingus
Tom Ryan of the Washington Times has written a nice review of Flames Beyond Gettysburg. Here is his text.
We normally think of Gettysburg in terms of the combat that took place in that remote south central Pennsylvania town on July 1, 2 and 3, 1863. In actuality, this battle was the apex of a campaign that lasted nearly two long months. During that time, a series of clashes occurred that had an influence on the outcome of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s bold invasion of the North.
Scott L. Mingus, Sr.’s Flames Beyond Gettysburg: The Gordon Expedition, June 1863 focuses on one obscure but critical event during that period that took place in the small riverfront town of Wrightsville, Pennsylvania on Sunday June 28 – three days prior to the Battle of Gettysburg. The community’s claim to fame was a unique mile-long covered, mostly wooden, bridge across which flowed railroad trains, wheeled vehicles, pedestrians and canal barges powered by mules along an adjacent tow-path to the town of Columbia on the opposite side of the Susquehanna River.
While this book describes Lee’s 1863 invasion, it more specifically highlights a single brigade in his army – six Georgia regiments under the command of the capable and aggressive Brig. Gen. John B. Gordon. Gordon led his brigade through Waynesboro and Gettysburg, then on to York, Pennsylvania. Ultimately, he arrived in Wrightsville, a few miles east of York, with orders to capture and hold the bridge for passage of Maj. Gen. Jubal A. Early’s division to the eastern side of the river.
Mr. Mingus’ extensive volume, which is clearly written, scrupulously edited, and well-organized, covers a lot of ground before it concentrates on the Wrightsville story. It follows Lee’s army and Gordon’s Georgians in early June from their starting point south of Fredericksburg, Virginia and the Rappahannock River west to the Shenandoah Valley, and north to the Potomac River on into Maryland.
As his Army of Northern Virginia moved into Pennsylvania, it became evident that Lee’s primary objective was to gain control of a major city in the North, such as Harrisburg, Philadelphia, Baltimore, or even the more heavily defended capital at Washington, and hold it hostage for a peace settlement with the Federal government that would allow the rebellious Southern states to separate from the Union permanently.
John B. Gordon was one of the many talented generals in the Rebel army that Lee depended upon to help accomplish his main objective, and several ancillary ones as well. In particular, the overall plan included the confiscation of food supplies and horses in the North that would alleviate severe commissary and transportation deficiencies that the Rebel army had been experiencing for some time.
As Gordon’s brigade progressed along its expedition into the North, it engaged in a number of minor skirmishes with green Pennsylvania militia troops that offered little or no resistance. The 35th Battalion Virginia Cavalry and the 17th Virginia Cavalry Regiment that accompanied Gordon’s brigade conducted most of the military action that occurred. Col. Elijah V. White’s unruly and unkempt 35th Virginia, that regularly operated as guerrillas and raiders, struck fear into the hearts of Pennsylvania civilians
The author devotes considerable space describing the countryside and the people that inhabit it. In so doing, he introduces a number of Pennsylvania Dutch citizens, one of the predominant ethnic groups in that area. These people along with other citizens had a burden to bear, since the Southern soldiers fulfilled Lee’s desire to lay hold of as much food and supplies as possible, while destroying transportation facilities such as railroads and bridges that served vital roles in supporting Federal military objectives.
Mr. Mingus points out that not all Pennsylvania citizens were loyal to their government in Washington, and many demonstrated their antipathy by welcoming and supporting the invaders in a variety of ways. These “Copperheads,’ as they were known, soon learned that their friendliness was not always rewarded, since the Rebels indiscriminately confiscated from every farm and household, especially those that enjoyed full larders and well-stocked barns.
The author also relates the incongruity of Rebel officers reassuring Northern citizens that they did not come to harm them or destroy their homes, while at the same placing levies of cash and goods on the towns, and “purchasing” whatever met their fancy from individual families or local stores with worthless Confederate currency. For the most part, the people perceived the reality of the situation, and stoically acquiesced to the demands of the passing army. While many were left destitute as a result, they counted their blessings since they had feared the end result could have been much worse.
As the Rebel army marched relentlessly and virtually unopposed across Pennsylvania, thousands of citizens sought safer ground for themselves and their property. Those who moved eastward had to cross the Susquehanna River, and many crowded into the town of Wrightsville in order to pass over the bridge to Columbia. Massive traffic jams ensued that that did not dissipate until Pennsylvania militia officers intervened.
When Gordon and his brigade reached York as the vanguard of Early’s division, he received orders to push on to Wrightsville in order to secure the bridge. Early’s plan was to cross to the eastern shore of the Susquehanna, and march north to take Harrisburg in reverse while the other divisions of Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell’s corps attacked it head on.
The events that followed are the crux of Flames Beyond Gettysburg, the fifth volume in Ironclad Publishing’s popular The Discovering Civil War America Series. The final chapters are devoted to the strategy and tactics involved in a steadily developing confrontation between the inexperienced Pennsylvania militia assigned to protect the Wrightsville-Columbia Bridge under the leadership of Col. Jacob G. Frick and Maj. Granville O. Haller, and the battle-tested regiments of Gordon’s brigade on June 28.
This confrontation resulted in one of the most dramatic events of Lee’s Northern campaign, yet has not received the attention it deserves. The reason is that General Lee recalled his army from its planned attack on Harrisburg in order to concentrate in the area of Cashtown or Gettysburg to meet Maj. Gen. George G. Meade’s advancing Union forces. The presence of Gordon’s brigade in Wrightsville prior to these changed plans, however, led to the destruction of the majestic covered bridge spanning the Susquehanna River. Mr. Mingus explains how that unfortunate event came about..
The author judiciously includes a sufficient number of maps to guide the reader across the countryside as the Rebel army marched northward from Virginia to Pennsylvania. The narrative is well documented with endnotes supported by an extensive bibliography. An order of battle for the military units engaged at Wrightsville and a casualty list are also provided. There is a useful weather chart for the dates of Gordon’s expedition, and a chronology of Lee’s invasion from the starting date of June 3 to the conclusion on July 14.
John Gordon’s expedition to the bridge in Wrightsville is a fresh and engaging supplement to the Gettysburg chronicles. Having published several volumes of Civil War human-interest stories, Scott Mingus effectively applies that experience to this project. There are a number of driving tour guides appended (six in all), mainly focusing on the region between Gettysburg and Wrightsville/Columbia, that will especially appeal to people living in the Pennsylvania communities where much of this action took place.
Thomas J. Ryan of Bethany Beach is past president of the Central Delaware Civil War Round Table.
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