By the summer of 1863, the American Civil War had been dragging for two years. In the eastern USA, some of the most intense fighting took place in Virginia, prompting Confederate leaders to seek an invasion of the North to relieve the suffering in Virginia and 'bring the war' to the Union states. To this end, the Southern army under the command of General Robert E Lee marched north through the neutral state of Maryland and crossed the Mason-Dixon line into Pennsylvania.
In issuing his orders for the Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania General Lee instructed General Richard Ewell to capture the state capital of Harrisburg if it 'comes within your means'. During the war, Harrisburg was a railway hub and one of the main stop-over points for Union troops heading south.
To capture Harrisburg, Ewell sent a part of his force north towards Carlisle, capturing the seat of Cumberland County without a fight on 27 June, 1863. The Southerners then moved east toward the Susquehanna River and the bridges across it which led into Harrisburg.
At the same time, 2500 Confederate troops under the command of General John B Gordon were moving to the south in York County, advancing on the small town of Wrightsville to capture the wooden bridge across the Susquehanna River there. This bridge was the only way over the river for 25 miles to the north or south of Wrightsville.
Opposing Gordon's battle-tested troops were about 250 local militia and volunteers in trenches around the western end of the bridge. The Federal troops were ordered to prevent the Southerners from gaining the bridge and were prepared to destroy it with explosives to prevent its capture.
The Confederates quickly moved in and easily overwhelmed the defenders who fled across the bridge to the town of Columbia, Lancaster County. And when the explosives failed to detonate, the Union troops set fire to the bridge. It was a windy night and several embers from the burning bridge blew back into the town of Wrightsville, causing fires in the town itself which destroyed some homes and a lumber yard.
The invading Rebels, halted by the loss of the bridge, helped the townspeople fight the fire by forming bucket brigades and working shoulder-to-shoulder with the 'conquered' citizens.
The Confederates then left Wrightsville and headed west to rejoin Lee's army outside Gettysburg.
The stone piers which supported the Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge can still be seen standing in the river today from the Route 462 bridge.
Obviously the mission to capture the vital bridge was a failure for the Confederates.
Some might argue that the burning of the Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge was little more than sideshow leading up to the main action at Gettysburg a few days later. However, it is important to remember that the goal of the Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania was to 'bring the war' to the North in the hopes that the Union populace would sue for peace.
With this vital bridge burned, the Susquehanna River effectively barred the Confederates from advancing on the Pennsylvania capital and the cities of Lancaster, Reading and Philadelphia.