Persons of Color
The Bridge (continued)
26 June: The Colored Troops of Harrisburg
pelted the streets of Harrisburg, turning them into obstacle
courses of sucking mud and deep puddles for the hundreds of refugees
who continued to pour out of the eastern mouth of the Camel Back
Bridge. Also churning up the streets were hundreds of horses, driven
from nearly every farm and small town between Carlisle and Harrisburg
by young boys entrusted with shepherding the valuable farm animals
to safety in Dauphin County.
Hummel Hill, black laborers continued to dig the fortifications that
nearly everyone saw as key to the defense of Harrisburg, and, by extension,
the entire state. When the fight came, most correspondents wrote, it
would be fought on the hills opposite Harrisburg, and “should
the enemy presume to come he will meet with a severe check.”200 Perhaps
such bravado cheered the African American laborers, some of whom were
city residents, some railroad laborers, and some of whom were displaced
Cumberland Valley residents, all of whom continued to swing their pickaxes
in the unremitting rain while water pooled at their feet. The ground
grew slippery and treacherous, but still they pressed on with their
important work. Although the rain made life miserable for those working
on the fortifications in Fort Washington and Fort Couch, it cheered
many military and civilian observers, who believed that it would raise
the level of the Susquehanna River so that “no rebel force can
ford it even if we had no defences here.”201
the rain, Captain Bradley continued to drill his men in the streets
of Harrisburg. Their numbers had increased from Thursday night as men
observing them from the street corners had felt inspired enough to
join the ranks. His company was very nearly full, and T. Morris Chester
had begun organizing a second company, which he intended to command.
Even more significant, Harrisburg military authorities seemed agreeable
to outfitting the unit with uniforms, and equipment, but no guns, at
least not yet.
decision to enlist the black men of Harrisburg had been made easier
by the Governor’s General Orders No. 44, issued just that day,
which called for “sixty thousand men for the defense of the State,
to be mustered into the service of the State, for the period of ninety
days, unless sooner discharged.” The emergency was clearly accelerating.
Reports began drifting in of a cavalry skirmish just beyond Carlisle
that resulted in a number of casualties and Union men being taken prisoner.
Confederate troops were reported in Gettysburg. All the while, Captain
Bradley continued to run his men through the manual of arms. By evening,
his men were joined by a second company, proudly led by T. Morris Chester.
Harrisburg’s two black companies now numbered about one hundred
and twenty strong.202 For
the African American men of Harrisburg, the time to put down the shovel
and take up arms had arrived. All that they needed now were rifles.
27 June: “The whole south had broke loose & are coming into
Chambersburg, young Rachel Cormany, holding her infant daughter
in her arms, watched from the safety of an upstairs bedroom window
as a nearly endless column of Confederate soldiers marched past her
house on their way to Harrisburg. At twenty-seven years of age, Rachel
was a lone parent caring for her infant daughter, Cora, while her
husband Samuel was off fighting with the Sixteenth Pennsylvania Cavalry.
The presence of enemy troops in town was not new to her. More than
a week earlier, elements of General Jenkins’ cavalry brigade
had entered town, scattered local defenders and began rounding up
horses and, to her horror, any black persons they could find. It
was a sight she described as “brutal,” in her diary entries,
but she did not fear for the safety of herself or her baby at that
did worry constantly about her husband, however, and lamented the disruption
of mail and lack of reliable news that the invasion caused. Although
the rebel cavalrymen left town soon after their initial incursion,
they were never far away and the threat of a reoccupation of town kept
residents on edge for days, until Tuesday the twenty-third, when they
returned for the duration. For the next several days, Rachel Cormany
became used to the sight of “graybacks about” and nonchalantly
continued with her daily routine, trying her best to ignore them.
Friday, however, the passage of large numbers of cannons and ammunition
wagons began to wear on her nerves. She recorded “Cannon-waggons
and men have been passing since between nine and ten this morning—forty-two
cannon and as many ammunition wagons have passed—so now there
are sixty-two pieces of artillery between us and Harrisburg.” She
fully expected a major battle to be fought near the Pennsylvania capital,
as a day earlier she had written that eighty thousand Union troops
were reported to be at Harrisburg under the command of General George
Saturday, she watched as more Southern soldiers “poured in,” and
she estimated that another thirty to forty cannons rolled through with “an
almost endless trail of wagons.” Then came the infantry, numbering
in the thousands. The reality of the invasion seemed to hit her at
that point, and she retreated to an upstairs bedroom where she could
observe the passage of the troops in relative safety. The sheer number
of men marching briskly past the house in which she was staying overwhelmed
her; her diary entry for that day records “A body would think
the whole south had broke loose and are coming into Pa. It makes me
feel too badly to see so many men and cannon going through, knowing
that they have come to kill our men.”203
African American residents were still in Chambersburg or the vicinity
by this time. Any blacks that had not been captured by Southern soldiers
the previous week had either taken to remote hiding places in the surrounding
hills, where they would remain hidden until the danger had passed,
or they had joined the steady stream of refugees on the roads to Harrisburg.
Only those who had gotten at least as far as Mechanicsburg by now were
still safe, however, as the prongs of the rebel advance had now reached
Carlisle and Gettysburg, and were threatening York.
himself entered Carlisle before noon in the vanguard of his forces,
and two divisions of Ewell’s corps were not long behind. General
Ewell soon entered Carlisle and reacquainted himself with the town
and a few of its residents. He had been stationed at the United States
Army Barracks, which were located in that town, before the war. He
was treated civilly by the town’s burgess and leading residents,
who reluctantly provided the food and supplies demanded earlier in
the day by Jenkins. Residents stoically endured the house-to-house
searches conducted by southern soldiers in search of hidden food and
numbers of infantrymen made camp on the grounds of Dickinson College,
where they butchered and barbecued several cattle taken from local
residents. The cavalry, though, could not rest. Late in the day, Ewell
sent Jenkins and his horse soldiers toward Harrisburg to scout out
the roads and bridges leading to the capital, and to check on the river
crossings, which he thought might be a source of trouble with the recent
heavy rains. He told his cavalry commander that the attack on Harrisburg
might commence as early as Monday. Jenkins and his men reached Hickorytown,
about six miles from Mechanicsburg on the Trindle Road, by nightfall,
where they made camp. Pickets were set a little further out, on a ridge
five miles from Mechanicsburg.204
same day, troops of General Jubal A. Early’s division approached
York. Two days earlier, General Early had ordered the firing of Thaddeus
Stevens’ Caledonia Furnace as his troops passed that place. They
had then skirmished with the Twenty-Sixth Regiment of Pennsylvania
Militia north of Gettysburg, easily scattering that inexperienced unit.
Early had also taken control of Gettysburg and searched that town for
supplies, using tactics similar to the house-to-house searches that
Ewell later conducted in Carlisle.
Saturday morning, Early marched on York, by way of Hanover, reaching
Hanover Junction by late afternoon. There, he made plans with Brigadier
General John B. Gordon to take York the next day. If York turned out
to be undefended, as their intelligence indicated, Gordon was instructed
to proceed immediately to Wrightsville to capture the Wrightsville-Columbia
Bridge, in order to affect a crossing of the Susquehanna south of Harrisburg
and march upon the capital from that direction, while the rest of the
corps attacked from the west.205
Cormany’s observation that the whole South was coming
into Pennsylvania was not far off base. The defenders of Harrisburg
were aware by Saturday that Ewell’s divisions were advancing
on the capital from several directions. Reports of General Early’s
presence in Gettysburg were received late Friday evening, and by
morning, General Couch had calculated that a move would be made to
cross the river south of Harrisburg.
he had sent a regiment, the Twenty-Seventh Pennsylvania Militia, commanded
by Colonel Jacob G. Frick, to Columbia late Wednesday afternoon. Frick
would have to mount a defense of the bridge with his regiment and local
general feeling of desperation gripped Harrisburg, and Adjutant General
Alexander L. Russell issued orders that any citizen who reported to
the city arsenal should be supplied with a weapon. More than three
thousand men, by one estimate, flocked to the arsenal on the grounds
of the Capitol, “most of whom on leaving carried a gun away.”
late afternoon General Knipe had pulled his troops back
from Silver Springs all the way to Fort Washington.207 A
New York correspondent observed that “the rebel line seems
to extend from Gettysburgh to Carlisle,” and in the next paragraph
reported, “If the worst should come to worst, the bridges will
be destroyed” to keep the enemy on the west side of the Susquehanna.208
what appeared to be the entire Army of Northern Virginia deploying
between Harrisburg and the Army of the Potomac, Pennsylvania’s
capital was beginning to appear not just vulnerable, but something
like a besieged city. Even if the bridges at Columbia and Harrisburg
were destroyed, the swollen Susquehanna River would only keep the enemy
at bay for as long as the water remained high.
African American residents, along with the thousands of black refugees
who now crowded the city, watched with great alarm as the reports grew
direr throughout the day. Captains Bradley and Chester drilled their
companies on the street, drawing curious and admiring onlookers, both
black and white. To those onlookers, the obvious lack of weapons in
the hands of the black companies was a glaring inconsistency given
both the depth of the emergency and the Adjutant General’s order
to equip all citizens with guns regardless of enlistment status.
inconsistent as it must have seemed to those who watched the men going
through the manual of arms, it had to have been many times more maddening
to those African American volunteers and their captains, who had vowed
to lay their lives on the line in defense of the city, yet were still
denied rifles even at this late hour because they were not deemed trustworthy
enough to bear arms. Despite this latest indignity, they persevered
in their drills and doubtless wondered how many hours they still had
before battle-hardened Confederate troops bore down upon them.
emergency reached even to the African American schoolchildren of Harrisburg.
On Saturday, General Couch ordered that all school buildings be cleared
out so that they could be utilized as makeshift military hospitals.
Schoolteacher John Wolf saw his Cherry Street schoolhouse, along with
all the other city schoolhouses, taken over by military authorities
and outfitted for the expected treatment of wounded and dying soldiers.
Couch also ordered that all city churches be prepared for the same
fate if the numbers of wounded should require it.209 With
the potential military occupation of Wesley Union and Bethel A.M.E,
the city suddenly had no more protected areas for African American
refugees, or even for local residents.
was no longer an African American safe harbor.
Situation,” Evening Telegraph, 26 June 1863.
Colored Troops of Harrisburg,” Daily Telegraph, 27 June
203. Mohr and
Winslow, Cormany Diaries, 334-337.
of Maj. Gen. R. E. Rodes,” Official Records, ser. 1,
vol. 27, pt. 2, 551-552; Nye, Here Come the Rebels!, 303-308.
205. Nye, Here
Come the Rebels!, 272-280.
of Col. Jacob G. Frick,” Official Records, ser. 1, vol.
27, pt. 2, 277.
Very Latest Dispatches,” New York Times, 28 June 1863.
Harrisburg Correspondence,” New York Times, 30 June