Civil War enthusiasts and others commemorated the June 28, 1863 burning of the Wrightsville Bridge with 25 fires along the remains of the bridge 150 years later. Some 12,000 people turned out this year for fireworks and other festivities to remember how the Union soldiers burned the bridge to prevent the Southerners from using it. I doubt many in the weekend crowds realized free Blacks had used the bridge to transport fugitive slaves east across the Susquehanna and into Lancaster County in their journey for freedom, but that's part of the story, too.
As the weekend continued, a Civil Wargasm began in Gettysburg as people journeyed from all over the country -- and probably from overseas as well -- to remember the fierce battle July 1, 2 and 3, 1863. The crowds in Gettysburg will subside in another week, making the trek home at a faster pace than Gen. Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia, who pulled out in the midst of storms and left piles of corpses, animal carrion, a lingering stench and a scarred town, farmland and landscape behind in southern Pennsylvania.
Confederates led by Major Gen. Jubal Early made another stop during the Gettysburg Campaign, in what is today Caledonia State Park. Early's troops went out of their way to burn an iron furnace in Franklin County, Pa. They had a specific reason for torching this particular business: It represented the abolitionist attitudes they hated.
Thaddeus Stevens, an abolitionist member of Congress from Lancaster, owned this iron furnace in what later became the state park. The iron furnace, in operation since 1837, provided jobs to fugitive slaves. Stevens dedicated a great deal of his life to the Civil Rights of the Africans enslaved by plantations in the South, even before the struggle was known as "Civil Rights." Up until his death, Stevens worked for the rights of former slaves with the same devotion he had worked to free them before the war. Unlike some other whites of the time who opposed slavery, Stevens helped to see that former slaves were educated and he wanted them to be able to settle and earn a living like contemporary whites, shown in his ownership of the iron furnace.
That's why Early and the Confederates took a detour just to destroy an iron furnace.
Early was an educated man of his time, a lawyer and convincing writer. He knew the seriousness of the crimes leaders of the Confederacy had committed, and this led him to scurry for the exit as soon as the war ended. He immediately hopped a boat to Cuba and spent five years outside the U.S. In his postwar years, he was an "unreconstructed" rebel, to put it mildly. A staunch white supremacist, he did what he could to keep the former slaves from rising above the social status they held as slaves.
In his writing, Early produced voluminous works to establish The Lost Cause mythology, which tried to hide the pro-slavery motivations that caused the war. Early defended Robert E. Lee vehemently, placing blame on former Confederates like James Longstreet who favored reconciliation after the war ended. Early's efforts helped many Southerners justify the war and ease the burden the resulting cultural and social changes that followed. Unfortunately, they obscured the arguments about slavery behind the Trojan Horse of "states' rights." Sadly, the Lost Cause mythology continues to molest Americans' understanding of the war because it took root so well, and dozens of former Confederates wrote memoirs after the war that spouted the same ideas. Southern historians took up the Lost Cause, sourcing many Confederate-penned accounts, some written years after the war when Reconstruction and Lost Cause ideas tinged memories.
Although movies like "Lincoln," help continue to improve Stevens' legacy, the societal memory of his work on behalf of the enslaved and formerly enslaved painted him in a negative light for decades. The same "scholars" who bemoaned Stevens and the "Radical Republicans" of the 19th Century also took aim at General and President Ulysses Grant. Instead of remembering the general who helped save the Union by relentless pursuit of his enemy, detractors labeled Grant a butcher with far superior resources. As president, Grant made strides for civil rights that should have defined his legacy, and yet we only seem to remember that he was more flawed as a politician than a general, having chosen some corrupt cronies for government appointments.
If you are taking time to remember the three days of unquestionable butchery in Gettysburg as we mark the passage of 150 years, consider how the actions of Confederates who burned an iron furnace shed light on their character and the true character of Thaddeus Stevens. Jubal Early's decision to burn the iron furnace tells us far more than the writings that he intended to cement his legacy. Stevens' decision to employ former slaves adds a lot to historical papers that document his feelings about slavery.
Other things happened on the Gettysburg Campaign. It wasn't simply two armies who bumped into each other because one was looking for shoes. Look for the nuances of history, and you will understand a lot more.