York County History: The Civil War

Hanover Square Cannon • Order A Print

Less than a century after York’s stint as National Capital, Hanover – a borough in the southwestern part of the county – bore witness to a cavalry clash that helped to change the outcome of the battle in Gettysburg.

In 1863, York became the largest town north of the Mason-Dixon Line to be occupied by the Confederate Army. In order to prevent the troops from proceeding deeper into Pennsylvania, Union soldiers retreated across a covered bridge spanning the Susquehanna River, burning it after they reached the Lancaster County side. After the fire spread across the bridge and jumped to buildings in Wrightsville, Confederate soldiers stood alongside residents helping to douse the flames.

The first Civil War battle on Pennsylvania soil, The Battle of Hanover, occurred in southwestern York County on June 30, 1863. The cavalry skirmish played a vital role in the Union’s victory at Gettysburg. Confederate General Robert E. Lee directed his cavalry, led by General J.E.B. Stuart, to converge with Lee’s troops in Pennsylvania, hoping to capture the railroad center at Harrisburg. While passing through the Borough of Hanover, they unexpectedly ran into Union troops under the direction of General Judson Kilpatrick and General George Armstrong Custer. A daylong battle ensued, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of soldiers on both sides and the capture of Confederate Colonel William Payne, commander of the 2nd North Carolina. As the day wore on, Stuart sensed that he was at a disadvantage, and decided to withdrawal his troops toward York. Eventually, he ended up in Carlisle, and learned of the impending battle in Gettysburg. As a result of the Battle of Hanover, General Lee had lost the use of his "eyes and ears," and was forced to being the battle without his cavalry. Many historians believe this is one of the major factors contributing to the Union victory.

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© 2000, 2002 by Scott D. Butcher

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