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a book about Harrisburg...

by George F. Nagle


Table of Contents

Study Areas:



Free Persons of Color

Underground Railroad

The Violent Decade

US Colored Troops

Civil War


Chapter Nine
Deluge (continued)


Flags, Streamers and Banners 91

“The morning of the 22d was a lively one in the town of Harrisburg,” reported the Baltimore correspondent for the Charleston Mercury, “The Legislature had adjourned for the day, and from every prominent point was displayed flags, streamers and banners. During the morning, long trains of cars came in from every direction.”92 Tens of thousands of persons were swarming into the state capital, gathering in boisterous crowds in the streets and gawking at the impressive lines of state militia forming up near the Pennsylvania Railroad Station.

Although 22 February 1861 was indeed a patriotic holiday marking the anniversary of the birth of George Washington, the nearly palpable air of excitement that hung over the town was not in anticipation of the usual parade of militia, to be followed in every local tavern by patriotic toasts to the Union. On this day, Harrisburg was to welcome Abraham Lincoln, the new president-elect of the United States, on his way to Washington for his 4 March inauguration.

Lincoln was to arrive in the early afternoon from Philadelphia, where, in the early morning he was given the privilege of raising the American flag over Independence Hall. That had been an impressive event, punctuated by cannon volleys at dawn and the cheers of an enthusiastic crowd that overflowed the revered building to listen to this man tell them that he would do everything in his power to keep the Union together because it embodied the principles of equality set forth in the Declaration of Independence. It was a stirring speech that contained the basic philosophy that would sustain Lincoln over the next four years as he fought against secession. It is chiefly remembered, however, for the ominous line “But if this country can not be saved without giving up that principle, I was about to say I would rather be assassinated on this spot than surrender it.”

In Harrisburg, Lincoln was to address the legislature in a formal session after delivering a short speech to the assembled crowd at the Jones House, his lodging place for the evening, before continuing on to Baltimore on the twenty-third. In total, he would deliver five speeches this day, including brief remarks to a whistle stop crowd in Downingtown, and an equally brief speech to supporters and the curious in Lancaster’s Caldwell House, out of respect to the hometown of outgoing president James Buchanan. There were other quick stops at towns along the route from Philadelphia to Harrisburg, with “Old Abe” appearing on the rear platform of his car to wave to the cheering crowds, asking to be excused from another speech. Harrisburg would be the final stop for the day.

Among those traveling with the president-elect were his wife Mary, son Robert, Colonel Edwin Vose Sumner, Judge David Davis, secretaries John Nicolay, Ward Hill Lamon and John Hay, Chicago railroad man Norman B. Judd, and Zouave Colonel Elmer E. Ellsworth. Awaiting his arrival at the Pennsylvania depot was an impressive display of Pennsylvania’s militia, estimated by visiting reporters at thirty thousand—a number very much exaggerated but in any case showing the huge scale of the operation—and at their head, Pennsylvania’s newly-elected Governor Andrew Gregg Curtin.

The much-awaited train finally pulled into the station at two o’clock, an hour behind schedule. Behind the gaily-decorated locomotive was a baggage car followed by two passenger cars. Red white and blue bunting hung from the sides of all three cars and from the rear car’s platform. Each car shone with freshly polished mahogany, still distinguishable beneath the accumulating soot and dust that it gathered along the route. The press and military escorts emerged from the front car while the president-elect, his family, and close associates descended from the second car to the waiting carriages. The carriage in which Lincoln rode was a barouche drawn by six white horses. It was preceded in the procession by a troop of cavalry, followed by more carriages, with line after line of militia bringing up the rear. The procession itself was nearly as long as the distance to its destination, the Jones House on Market Square, but it did not take the direct route west on Market Street. Instead, as the Mercury reporter wrote, “the man of Pennsylvania’s choice [was] conducted all over town.”93

At least five thousand spectators had gathered in front of the Jones House, fully filling Market Square by the time the procession arrived. Among them were hundreds of the town’s African American residents, who, like everyone else, had gathered to hear and see the man whose election now threatened to break up the Union. Governor Curtin joined the president-elect on the hotel balcony and, as reported by the New York Herald, welcomed him with wishes that “amity and good feeling” could be restored throughout the country. “But if reconciliation should fail, [Pennsylvania] would be ready and willing to aid, by men and money, in the maintenance of our glorious constitution.”

Lincoln replied with thanks, hoping that “a resort to arms would never become necessary.” However, the Harrisburg crowd, unlike those at previous stops along the route from Springfield, was not overly enthusiastic. “Not one man in a hundred cheered,” noted the Herald. This ominous trend had started in Lancaster and was noted by Lincoln’s secretaries and by Norman Judd, who was largely responsible for the traveling arrangements. The procession then reformed for the short journey to the Capitol, where the legislature had reassembled to welcome the future president.


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91. Article excerpted from George F. Nagle, “Abraham Lincoln in Harrisburg—1861 and 1865,” The Bugle, 12, no. 2 (April-June 2002): 8-9, 12-13.

92. Charleston Mercury, 28 February 1861.

93. Ibid. Harrisburg’s total population was just over thirteen thousand. The Telegraph estimated the number of visiting military men present at “between four and five thousand.” The Patriot and Union estimated the total number of visitors, of all types, in the city as about forty thousand. “The military display,” it reported, “was the finest ever witnessed in the State, outside of Philadelphia.” However, the editor of this Democratic newspaper would attribute the large patriotic display only to the citywide celebration of Washington’s Birthday, with no hint that any of it was intended to welcome Abraham Lincoln. Pennsylvania Daily Telegraph, 22 February 1861; Patriot and Union, 23 February 1861.


Caution: Copyrighted material. Published September 2010.

© 2010 George F. Nagle



This is the first in a series of books from the Afrolumens Project. Drawing on a large number of sources, and making good use of the treasure trove of information on the pages of the Afrolumens Project, this is the first truly comprehensive history of Harrisburg's African American community.

Pick up your copies at the Mid-Town Scholar Bookstore, Civil War and More Books, the National Civil War Museum,
or at the 2010 Harrisburg History Center.

Both volumes also available on Amazon.

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