John McCaslin

There is an obligation on the part of the federal government, dating back to one of the darkest hours of the Civil War, that remains "unpaid and largely forgotten."

"Over a century ago, on a hot summer day, an event occurred of national significance that by some eyewitness accounts altered history as we know it today," says Rep. Joe Pitts, Pennsylvania Republican. "The event I am referring to is known as the burning of the Columbia Wrightsville Bridge."

The date was June 28, 1863 - 72 hours before the Battle of Gettysburg - and "this catastrophic event did not just destroy an ordinary bridge - it destroyed an extraordinary bridge," the congressman says.

Completed in 1834 at a cost of $129,000, it happened to be the longest covered wooden bridge in the world: 40 feet wide and spanning 5,620 feet across the Susquehanna River, its eastern end emptying into the bustling town of Columbia, Pa.

Historians to this day debate if destroying the bridge, accomplished upon orders from Union Col. Jacob G. Frick, had an impact on the Battle of Gettysburg. But its impact on Columbia is unquestioned.

 "How many of you are aware that the first place to be considered as the nation's capital was Columbia, Pennsylvania?" asks Pitts, who says the town was an important railway artery for westward expansion and shipping destination for iron furnaces, rolling mills, sawmills, flour mills and machine shops.

But Frick, or so he wrote later, was fully convinced "this bridge was General [Robert E.] Lee's objective point, and that it was to become the highway of the Confederate army."

To make a long story short, because the bridge, owned by the Columbia Bank, was destroyed by order of the U.S. military, it made the U.S. government responsible for all loss. In fact, in a letter dated June 29, 1863, the bank's cashier, Samuel Schock, tried to make Uncle Sam cough up restitution, but to no avail:

"Dear Sir - The bridge at this place, owned by the Columbia Bank, was burned by the United States Military authorities to prevent the Rebels from crossing the Susquehanna River."

Columbia Bank no longer exists, and the town of Columbia never quite rebounded and grew like neighboring cities of York and Lancaster. Will Columbia ever get its due? Highly unlikely, although it wouldn't hurt President Bush this election year to finally settle the debt (and no doubt win several thousand votes in the process).

"Let's see, $129,000 at 6 percent interest - wow, that's $424 million today," Derek Karchner, the congressman's spokesman, tells The Beltway Beat.

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John McCaslin

John McCaslin is a contributing columnist on Townhall.com and author of Inside The Beltway: Offbeat Stories, Scoops, and Shenanigans from around the Nation's Capital .

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