Burning the bridge and changing the course of history

A fire lights up the evening at a previous year's "Flames Across the Susquehanna" event. (Vinny Tennis / Staff)

If that bridge hadn't burned, the Confederate army never would have turned its feet toward Gettysburg.

And the Civil War might have taken a very different course.

So, while Gettysburg gears up to mark the 150th anniversary of the linchpin clash between those desperate, blue- and gray-clad soldiers, Columbia and Wrightsville are preparing to celebrate their own role in that decisive encounter.

"I just picked up five members of the 54th Massachusetts," says Chris Vera, president of the Columbia Historic Preservation Society. "I keep getting more."

The Boston-based re-enactors are among nearly 100 costumed Civil War soldiers who will be camped out in Columbia this weekend -- just like their counterparts 150 years ago waited to stop rebel troops from crossing the Susquehanna River.

"They're staying Friday and Saturday nights," Vera says. "They'll set up their tents and stay for the weekend."

The Civil War encampment is just one facet of the events marking the weekend. Activities are sponsored by the Columbia Historic Preservation Society, or CHiPS, and Rivertownes USA.

The celebration began last weekend with a Civil War Ball at the National Watch & Clock Museum on Saturday and an Underground Railroad motor coach tour Sunday from Wrightsville to Christiana.

But the big festivities begin Friday -- the 150th anniversary of the fire that changed the course of the Civil War.

"We had a strategically good plan here in Columbia, compared to Gettysburg," Vera says.

Elements that led to the crucial battle at Gettysburg fell into place largely by chance, he explains. But there were tactics in place to hold the line at Wrightsville and prevent General Robert E. Lee from crossing with his troops into Columbia -- and beyond.

"Lee wanted this bridge in Columbia," Vera says. "If he took this bridge, he would have had the state. And, of course, Columbia with the railroad and the canals, the textiles -- they were going to get all the goods and replenish his soldiers."

According to pacivilwartrails.com, a website sponsored by the governor's office of tourism, the Confederate Army had invaded Pennsylvania and captured York in its bid to end the war.

Its goal was to invade Harrisburg, then maybe Philadelphia. But it first needed to cross the Susquehanna River at Wrightsville.

"Pennsylvania militiamen from Columbia, on the Lancaster County side of the river, vowed to block the Confederate advance," the website explains. "Union troops retreating from York joined them, as did a company of African American militiamen, the first Black troops from Camp William Penn. In all, they mustered fewer than 1,500 men."

The troops tried to defend the river crossing but superior Confederate forces drove them back, so the order was given to blow up a section of the bridge. Unfortunately, the explosion failed to take down the intended portion.

"It was a good plan," Vera says. "Of course, when the bridge didn't fall, there was a little bit of panic."

With rebel troops in sight, the bridge was fired -- leaving the Confederates to fight the blaze and save Wrightsville from burning.

Denied Lancaster County, the Confederate army turned back to York -- and within a few days found its way to a little place called Gettysburg.

And, well, that's a whole 'nother story.

Here's the schedule for the weekend's activities in Columbia and Wrightsville.

Friday: entertainment begins at 7 p.m. with music by the Susquehanna Travellers on the grounds of the John Wright Restaurant. Opening ceremonies begin at 8 p.m., followed by more music from the Travellers at 8:30.

"Flames Across the Susquehanna" -- the lighting of braziers atop the abandoned bridge piers to simulate the burning of the bridge -- takes place at 9:30 p.m., followed by fireworks at 10.

In case of rain, fiery portions of the evening will be held Saturday.

Saturday: "Prelude to Gettysburg" runs 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and includes a Civil War encampment with field hospital along the river, plus a kid's camp featuring era-appropriate games, stories and songs.

The Camp Case encampment and hospital will be situated in the Columbia River Park north of the Route 462 bridge.

Throughout the day, the production "Emancipation of Slavery," about the Underground Railroad, will be performed outside the Reading & Columbia Railroad Freight Station.

Civil War relics and documents of the bridge burning will be on display at CHiPs headquarters, 19 N. Second St. Commemorative postal cancellations will also be available.

At 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., Glenn Banner will present a lecture about his book, "Flames Across the Susquehanna," at CHiPS. At 3 p.m., local historian Randolph Harris will speak about the Underground Railroad at the same location.

An antique, art and crafts show will run through the day at Locust Street Park.

There will be a military ball for re-enactors, with music by the 77th NY Regimental Balladeers, from 7 to 9 p.m. at John Wright's.

Across the river, Historic Wrightsville will host 2 1/2-hour-long guided walking tours at 9 a.m. and 6 p.m.

Cemetery tours will be held at noon at Fairview Cemetery and at 4 p.m. at the Union and Mount Pisgah cemeteries.

Sunday: "The Civil War Comes to Wrightsville" will be presented at 2 p.m. at Locust Street United Methodist Church, 314 Locust St., Wrightsville.

Closing ceremonies, beginning at 7 p.m., will be at the United Methodist Church on Walnut Street at Route 462. A community chorus directed by Chuck Williams will perform.

Bridge Burning Commemoration

Sat. and Sun.

Columbia and Wrightsville

684-5249

www.facebook.com/civilwar15...

towns. www.columbiahistory.net.