Browsing Posts in Civil War (1861-1865)

The skirmish at Oyster Point was a small engagement that took place in late June 1863 in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania between Confederate forces under General Albert G. Jenkins’ command and Union militia from New York under General William F. Smith’s command. After Confederates entered Mechanicsburg, General Jenkins set up artillery and sent Virginia cavalry in pursuit of Union militia who had been in the town. At Oyster Point the Confederates encountered two militia regiments from New York and Landis’ Philadelphia Battery of Light Artillery. Later that day General Jenkins ordered his force to withdraw to the Rupp House in Mechanicsburg. Confederates returned on June 29, but they were unable to dislodge the Union militia. The Battle of Sporting Hill took place on the following day as Confederates left Mechanicsburg and marched towards Gettysburg. As a veteran who served with the 22nd New York Regiment recalled:

While this skirmish was of no particular account in itself, it is really historic. It was at the furthest northern point which was reached by the invaders, and marks the crest of the wave of the invasion of Pennsylvania. The retreat of the Confederate force there commenced did not end until the Potomac was crossed. The success obtained must be largely ascribed to the gallant conduct of Landis’ Battery,….”

A historical marker is located at the intersection of 31st Street and Market Streets in Camp Hill. You can read more about this battle in an essay on ExplorePAhistory.com, Robert Grant Crist’s article “Highwater 1863: The Confederate Approach to Harrisburg” (Pennsylvania History 1963), and in Wilbur Sturtevant Nye’s Here Come The Rebels! (1965).

The Battle of Sporting Hill, which was part of the Gettysburg Campaign, took place on June 30, 1863 in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania between elements of the 16th Virginia Calvary Regiment and two New York Militia Regiments. The Confederate forces at Sporting Hill served as a rearguard for General Albert G. Jenkins, whose brigade was stationed several miles away in Mechanicsburg. Early on June 30, however, Jenkins moved out after he received General Robert E. Lee’s order to regroup at Gettysburg. The 22nd and 37th New York Militia Regiments, which were under the overall command of General Darius N. Couch, were out on reconnaissance when they engaged Jenkins’ rearguard. (Union General William F. Smith had ordered a patrol once he realized that Confederates were withdrawing from the area). As John Lockwood recalled, the two New York regiments were:

“ordered out to reconnoiter. Expecting to return in course of the day left everything behind except arms and ammunition and thus passed through rest of campaign! They moved along the Carlisle road to ‘Sporting Hill’ where had a skirmish.”

Union forces forced Confederates to withdraw after they brought in a detachment from Landis’ Philadelphia Battery of Light Artillery, but they were unable to pursue them. Reports indicated that approximately sixteen soldiers died during the engagement. A historical marker is located at the intersection of 31st Street and Market Streets in Camp Hill. You can read more about this battle in an essay on ExplorePAhistory.com, Robert Grant Crist’s article “Highwater 1863: The Confederate Approach to Harrisburg” (Pennsylvania History 1963), and in Wilbur Sturtevant Nye’s Here Come The Rebels! (1965).

The Rupp House in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania served as the headquarters for Confederate General Albert G. Jenkins’ brigade during the Gettysburg campaign in late June 1863. On June 28 Jenkins’ troops captured Mechanicsburg without encountering any resistance. Two days later, however, Jenkins received General Robert E. Lee’s order to regroup at Gettysburg. As Jenkins’ brigade left on June 30, his rearguard became involved in the Battle of Sporting Hill. The Rupp House was built in 1787 by Jonas Rupp. His grandson’s family owned the house in 1863 and they remained in Lancaster, Pennsylvania while the Confederates were in Mechanicsburg. The Rupp House is at 5115 East Trindle Road, but it is currently not open to the public.

You can learn more in an essay on ExplorePAhistory.com, Robert Grant Crist’s article “Highwater 1863: The Confederate Approach to Harrisburg” (Pennsylvania History 1963), and in Wilbur Sturtevant Nye’s Here Come The Rebels! (1965).

Image courtesy of Flickr user cthoyes.

Columbia Bridge over the Susquehanna River, circa 1850

On the evening of June 28, 1863, Confederate General John B. Gordon reached his objective in Columbia, Lancaster County: the one and one quarter mile covered bridge of Columbia-Wrightsville.  As the Rebels charged onto the first span of the bridge, four explosions went off, stopping them from charging the bridge. Union Colonel Jacob C. Frick and his soldiers received orders to protect the bridge by Union General Darius N. Crouch, but the Rebels persisted. The local militia began to blow up several spans of the bridge to prevent the Rebels from crossing. This ended up failing, so as a last resort a fire was set to destroy the entire span of the bridge. Due to the windy night, the fires spread to parts of Wrightsville, burning farms and homes. In the end, Frick saved the town by stopping the Confederates, but lost the bridge he was to protect. Frick discusses his feelings on his orders from Couch:

“My duty in the premises was plain. Gen. Couch plainly indicated my duty in his orders, wherein he said: “When you find it necessary to withdraw your command from Wrightsville leave a proper number on the other side to destroy the bridge; keep it open as long as possible with prudence and exercise your own discretion in doing so.”

Google Books provide resources such as Donald Jackson’s Great American Bridges and Dams, giving a brief history of the bridge before the burning in 1863. The United States of American Congressional Record also has an article with a small summary on the burning of the bridge and the history of the bridge’s structure.

Location – Columbia and Wrightsville, PA

John Cantilion

“Southern Sentiments: A Look at Attitudes of Civil War Soldiers” (1990)
Patricia Coolmeyer’s essay explores the different ways that soldiers and residents of southern Pennsylvania saw the South during the Civil War. Coolmeyer uses a wide variety of sources in her account, including letters, diaries, local newspapers, and other nineteenth-century publications.

“From Carlisle and Fort Couch: The War of Corporal John Cantilion” (1993)
James A. Holechek’s article focuses on Corporal John Cantilion’s experiences in central Pennsylvania during the summer of 1863. Cantilion served in the 4th United States Cavalry and was stationed at Carlisle Barracks in early June 1863. This essay includes transcripts of letters that Cantilion wrote from Carlisle Barracks on June 19 and from Fort Couch on June 23. Holechek also provides the transcript of a letter that Cantilion’s wife, Sarah, wrote in early November 1863. However, Cantilion died on November 12, 1863 and never received that letter. In addition, photographs of John and Sarah Cantilion are reproduced in this essay.

This article has been posted online with permission from the Cumberland County Historical Society.


“Shippensburg’s Locust Grove African-American Cemetery” (2009)

Professor Stephen Burg explores the history of the Locust Grove African-American Cemetery in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania in this article. The grandson of Shippensburg’s founder gave the land, which had been used as a slave burial ground, to the town’s black residents in 1842. Burg also provides details on some of the individuals buried in this cemetery (also known as North Queen Street Cemetery), including several of the twenty six United States Colored Troops veterans. In addition, Burg includes an index of the headstones in this cemetery.

This article has been posted online with permission from the Cumberland County Historical Society.

James Smith Colwell, who worked as a lawyer in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, was one of the men who answered President Abraham Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers after Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. Colwell joined the Carlisle Fencibles, a local volunteer company under the command of Robert Henderson, as a first lieutenant. Six weeks later the Fencibles left Carlisle for Camp Wayne in West Chester, Pennsylvania, where they received training and were designated Company A of the 7th Regiment, Pennsylvania Reserve Corps. His wife, Ann, had not been happy with that decision. “You left me without talking about it,” as Ann reminded him. While James admitted that “[he] err[ed] frequently,” he observed that “it [was] nearly always an error of the judgment & not of the heart.” Yet in this case he argued that it was impossible to get out of the army. “I do not see how I could get out of the service without bring[ing] disgrace and dishonour on myself & my little family,” as Colwell explained. Colwell had in mind his four children – two sons and two daughters. Colwell’s oldest daughter, Nannie, was about six years old in December 1861 when she announced in her “first letter” that she “[could] read” and “[sent him] a big kiss.” Colwell was able to return to Carlisle on furlough, but on September 17, 1862 he died during the Battle of Antietam. Local newspapers published obituaries, including the Carlisle (PA) American, which noted that “[Colwell’s] high moral character and exemplary life had made him a bright example in our midst.”When Civil War veterans in Carlisle established a local chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic in February 1881, they decided to call it the Captain Colwell Post.

Before going to bed on October 10, 1862, Chambersburg resident William Heyser noted in his diary that he had “secreted some of my most valuable papers.” Confederate cavalry under the command of General J. E. B. Stuart had arrived several hours earlier and forced the town to surrender. Union forces had been caught by surprise and none were available to defend the town. “It would have been an act of madness to have made resistance…and would have involved the total destruction of the town,” as the Chambersburg (PA) Valley Spirit noted. The raid, as the Milwaukee (WI) Sentienel described, “was the most daring adventure of the war” so far. Besides gathering intelligence, one of the Confederate’s other objectives was to take as many supplies as possible. Horses were one key item and Alexander Kelly McClure, an assistant adjutant Union general, later recalled how ten horses were taken from his farm. (You can read McClure’s full account of the Confederate raid – “A Night With Stuart’s Raiders”- here). Yet as one Confederate soldier’s letter revealed, they also seized a number of other supplies. “I got 8 pair of boots, 4 over coats, 5 pair of pantaloons, 2 hats, 6 pair of socks, 6 pr. Draws, 6 over & under shirts, [and] some coffe & sugar” during the raid, as Edward Cottrell told his grandmother. As Confederates left Chambersburg on October 11, they burned warehouses that held government supplies. One contained ammunition and, as Heyser described, “the succeeding explosions of shells and power was tremendous.” While Union forces were dispatched to intercept and capture the raiders, General Stuart evaded them and returned to Virginia without any major engagements. You can read more about the raid in Emory M. Thomas’ Bold Dragoon: The Life of J.E.B. Stuart (1986) and Jeffry D. Wert’s Cavalryman of the Lost Cause: A Biography of J. E. B. Stuart (2008).

The Colwells are important to Carlisle’s Civil War history.  James Colwell joined the Carlisle Fencibles, one of the military units formed in 1861, and was elected as First Lieutenant, despite being the oldest soldier at age 48.  Shortly after leaving home, he wrote to his wife Annie to explain his motives for enlisting, saying, “I did it from a sense of right and duty…[M]y dear wife, the North is right and the South wrong…[P]osterity and the whole civilized world will so decide.  Of this I have no doubt.”[i]  Although Annie, a southerner from Baltimore, was not happy with his decision to join the army because it left her at home with four young children, she supported her husband and often sent him packages containing chicken, butter, jelly, and whiskey while he was away.  Unfortunately, James was killed at Antietam in 1862.  The couple’s nearly two hundred letters from the war were compiled by their great-grandson David Colwell into a book entitled The Bitter Fruits.

The Colwell family’s house can be seen today at 145 South Pitt Street in Carlisle, PA.


[i] David G. Colwell.   The Bitter Fruits: The Civil War Comes to a Small Town in Pennsylvania  (Carlisle, PA: Cumberland County Historical Society, 1998), 48.

Named for General Darius Couch, Fort Couch was one of three forts constructed in an attempt to control the high ground on the West Shore of the Susquehanna River to protect Harrisburg, the capitol of Pennsylvania. It was never finished because it was unneeded after the Confederates left the area.  Fort Couch was built on the higher ground to the west of Fort Washington to protect it.  Fort Washington, the primary fort in the area, was the only one to be brought to completion.  It was located to the west of the Susquehanna River and is today on private property.  The third fort’s location and name are unknown.

The forts primarily consisted of earthen platforms with mounted cannon.  Because they anticipated that the Confederates would march into Harrisburg along the Carlisle Pike and across today’s Market Street Bridge, the cannons were primarily built facing the road.  The forts were quickly constructed by railroad construction gangs.  While some men were constructing the forts, others were busy cutting down trees and clearing the fields with fire in order to clear the line of fire to the road.

Civilians thought the forts were “formidable” and “impregnable” but military men thought they were built too quickly and would have rapidly fallen apart if attacked by cannon.  These theories were not tested because the forts were never attacked.

There are many accounts that the soldiers stationed at Fort Couch did not treat the locals very well.  One man noted that “the New Yorkers were here, and we fed them as long as we had anything.  They turned out to be our worst enemies.  They killed our hogs, chickens and so on.”[i]  Another said that the New York troops were “a bad set of fellows …[who took] everything they could lay their hands on.”[ii]  The men building the forts were not any better.  They purposely went out of their way to antagonize Will Kiester, the only homeowner in the area, by building the fort through his vegetable garden and chopping down the trees in his front yard.

The original breastworks and the monument can be found at the intersection of 8th Street and Indiana Avenue in Lemoyne.


[i] Robert Grant Crist.  Confederate Invasion of the West Shore – 1863.  (Carlisle, PA: Cumberland County Historical Society, 2002), 25.

[ii] Ibid.