Persons of Color
The Bridge (continued)
residents got a good look at the enemy on Monday morning.
For several days, Union troops had been bringing in groups of Southern
soldiers captured in the skirmishing that was occurring with increasing
frequency throughout the Cumberland Valley. The prisoners were brought
to Harrisburg and turned over to the office of the Provost Marshall,
which held them in secure areas in the city. This was far from an
unusual occurrence, as Confederate prisoners were being brought through
Harrisburg for just over a year now, the first group of several hundred
arriving by train on Sunday afternoon, 15 June 1862.
that instance, their entrance into town was treated like the arrival
of a visiting king, with curious Harrisburg residents lining the railroad
tracks all along the route from the western edge of the Cumberland
Valley Railroad Bridge, in Bridgeport, down Mulberry Street, through
Judy’s Town, all the way out to the railroad siding at Camp Curtin.
who went out as far as Camp Curtin got a close-up look at the prisoners
when they were unloaded next to the siding and marched into the camp.
The Telegraph reported, “Both sides of the road between
the crossing and the camp were lined with men, women and children,
who viewed the passing, captured ‘secesh’ with silent curiosity.” After
they passed, no one was permitted into the camp to gawk, and within
a few days the men were sent to a prison camp at Fort Delaware, near
more were brought to the city in the coming months, again mostly by
train, and held at Camp Curtin until transportation and a military
escort could be arranged to a more permanent prison camp. Contact with
civilians was kept to a minimum, as the prisoners were usually transported
by train directly to the siding at Camp Curtin. One notable exception
was in September 1862, when hundreds of Confederate prisoners, including
sixty African American Rebel prisoners, were marched from the camp
into Harrisburg to be loaded on railroad cars in the Harrisburg station.
prisoners brought into Harrisburg in late June of 1863 were viewed
differently than the earlier groups, though. While the townspeople
treated the prisoners of 1862 as curiosities and living relics brought
back from the war in the South, the forty-two prisoners that were lined
up in the yard behind the Court House early Monday morning were taken
much more seriously.
by one, they were taken out of the yard that connected the Court House
with the prison and marched to the office of the Provost Marshal, where
they were “examined,” before being returned to the yard
with their comrades. This lengthy procedure allowed the citizens of
Harrisburg plenty of time to interact with, and get a good look at,
the type of men who were believed to be on the verge of capturing their
city. They did not like what they saw.
were not the defeated, sullen men of 1862 who trudged sadly from a
prison train, through a corridor of gawking locals, toward a prison
camp. These men were the cocky and self-assured soldiers of a triumphant
army that had spent that last two weeks criss-crossing the rich Cumberland
Valley, scattering local militia units, and which was even now within
striking distance of the capital of Pennsylvania. They boasted that
their invading force was 100,000 men strong, and that they had brought
along one hundred and sixty-three cannons and four siege guns.
town doctor was involved with the physical examination of the soldiers.
Dduring his examinations, several told him “that it was Ewell’s
intention to take the capital and destroy it, and they felt certain
that it could be easily accomplished.”227
braggadocios, although looking every bit as worn and weather-beaten
as their comrades a year earlier, were not ridiculed in the local Republican
press as being “dusty, musty and crusty” this time. Fate
had now brought the war to Harrisburg’s threshold, and these
were the very men threatening to beat down the front door. Harrisburgers
regarded them this time with caution and timidity, the way one might
treat ensnared wolves.
black troops under the command of Captains Henry Bradley and T. Morris
Chester might have happened by the Court House yard to get a look at
the men that they expected to face shortly. If they did, they did not
tarry long in that spot. There was still much drilling and marching
to do, and they lost no time to sightseeing. Both captains kept their
men constantly busy and under tight control, marching through the streets
of Harrisburg, trying to master the art of moving in formation. They
were observed by everyone, including out of town journalists.
correspondent for the New York Times thought it was peculiar
that, in contrast to previous weeks and months, they could now march
through the streets “without being insulted.” This apparent
change in attitude by Harrisburg’s white citizens toward its
newly-armed African American soldiers would prove to be superficial,
a point that even the Times reporter understood, noting that,
in the present crisis, “there was bone and muscle even if the
skin was black.”
of the opinion of their white neighbors, the African American companies
carried out their public drills and made the most of the precious few
hours that they had left learning how to be good soldiers. They had
not volunteered to fight in order to impress or annoy their neighbors,
particularly those who felt that black men had no business carrying
weapons in the war. And although the Proclamation that the assembled
black citizens of Harrisburg had issued in the A.M.E. Church last January
promised that “if called upon we feel bound as citizens to maintain” the
supremacy of the national flag, this was not really about duty to country
anymore. They had volunteered for each other.
they would soon be defending Harrisburg from the Southern invasion,
in their eyes they were really striking a blow against slavery, which,
at its heart, was nothing more than a defense of their homes, their
wives, and their children. To that end, they devoted themselves to
their training with a zeal that the Times reporter mischaracterized
as a childlike simplicity toward the grim business ahead: “The
darkies themselves are highly delighted. They polish up their muskets
and stuff their cartridge boxes full, laughing and chatting all the
time as merrily as possible—tickled as a child with a new toy.”228
he witnessed in this exuberant activity, but failed to recognize, was
the release of decades of frustration at having built this nation,
and then being beaten, cheated, raped, and ignored for their efforts.
The sight of the arrogant Confederate prisoners being led to and from
the Provost Marshal’s office had made them realize that the coming
fight was to be a fight of retribution.
as the defenders of Harrisburg got a good look at their
opponent on this Monday morning, their foes were also getting a good
look at them. About midmorning, a skirmish along the Union line caused
quite a bit of commotion and noise, but few casualties. The Seventy-First
New York had moved quietly back to their old line near Oyster’s
Point late Sunday night, after it was abandoned by the Southerners.
They paid the price for their advance on Monday morning, however,
as their line was continuously shelled by Confederate artillery units
located further west on the Trindle Road.
about eleven o’clock, two companies of Jenkins’ Sixteenth
Virginia Cavalry charged the Union line. The attackers drew a lot of
fire from the militiamen there and eventually retreated back down the
Trindle Road to the safety of their own line, leaving a cannon and
one wounded man behind. Although this limited attack and retreat gave
the Union militia troops a considerable adrenaline rush and boosted
their morale by the ease with which it was repelled, they could see
no potential gain or reason for it.
proved to be very valuable, however, to the Southern cavalrymen, and
very disadvantageous for Harrisburg’s defenders. While everyone’s
attention was drawn to the attack on the Union line, General Jenkins,
with a scouting party consisting of about sixty men, rode quickly south
through Shiremanstown to Slate Hill, and scouted the land considerably
eastward, entirely unmolested by the distracted Union troops, to a
vantage point along Lisburn Road, from where he intended to get a better
look at Pennsylvania’s capital.
his advance position, Jenkins could clearly see the capital city, the
bridges, and the fortifications. He studied the area for nearly a quarter
of an hour, comparing what he saw through his field glasses with the
detailed descriptions of the forts that he had read about yesterday
in Mechanicsburg on the front pages of some eastern newspapers. When
he was satisfied that the published accounts were accurate, he turned
his scouting party back toward their line near Peace Church. The results
of the reconnaissance were then quickly transmitted to General Ewell,
in Carlisle, who reviewed them that afternoon and subsequently ordered
General Robert E. Rodes to attack and capture Harrisburg with his division
on Tuesday the thirtieth.229
which had long anticipated an attack, now had less than fifteen hours
of freedom remaining. Although the city’s residents and defenders
had no way of knowing that Ewell had just sealed their fate with his
orders to General Rodes, the atmosphere around town, in sharp contrast
to the chaos of all previous invasion emergencies, was subdued and
quiet. The shops and factories were all closed and shuttered, not because
the owners had left town, although some had, but more particularly
to allow all able-bodied men to “assist in driving the rebels
from this city.” Even the loyally Democratic editor of the Patriot
and Union, Oromel Barrett, though a sharp critic of the war, felt
the need to pick up a gun and join in the defense of his native city.
gentle reader will please excuse our meager local report this morning,
as we have “gone a sojering,” and are now a militiaman “all
so bold.” Carrying a musket in one hand and taking notes
with the other is not a state of affairs favorable to news-gathering,
and “eyes fifteen paces to the front” can hardly be
expected to wander at the same time through street and camp in
quest of items. The pleasant humbug that “the pen is mightier
than the sword” is played out now-a-days, and finds a lodgment
only in the breasts of Quakers and blow-hards. It does well enough
to write high sounding philippics against treason and traitors,
bit it ain’t just what the Governor’s proclamation
to arrive via the still undisrupted train lines and marched briskly
through the city streets to report for duty in the fortifications.
In moving toward the river, they passed weary refugees still coming
into town over the Camel Back Bridge, although the number of those
immigrants were much reduced now as the enemy was in control of the
major roads coming into Harrisburg from York and Cumberland Counties,
except for the stretches of road that were within a mile or two of
the Union forts on the West Shore.
units continued to drill in the open parks and the wider streets in
the city. The Telegraph took a count of local volunteers and
reported “over five hundred men are now in the militia companies
of Harrisburg.”231 More
than a quarter of those volunteers were the African American men in
the two companies commanded by Bradley and Chester.
those involved with military affairs, few other people were about.
The normally boisterous beer halls were dark. The theaters had closed.
Even the notoriously unruly back alleys around Tanner’s Alley
and East South Street were quiet. For once, the local papers had no
arrests “of consequence” to report, remarking instead “The
town, although much excited, was never less riotous or dissolute than
The one notable
arrest had a very sinister aspect related to the expected invasion.
Late in the day, a man crept up to the riverbank near the Half Way
House on the Middletown turnpike. The river was still running high
and swift from last week’s frequent downpours, and presented
a considerable barrier to crossing by any means but a bridge. The river
at this specific location, however, which was about half the distance
between Harrisburg and Middletown, was more hospitable to a fording
or crossing than most, it being just south of the old Chambers Ferry
The man launched
a small boat from this point and began making for the center of the
river. At least one person observed him after he was out in the river,
and, perhaps curious as to why anyone would be out in a small boat
in high water at this late hour of the day, watched his actions. The
witness soon believed that the strange man was taking soundings of
the river, an alarming prospect considering the current crisis. He
alerted local authorities, who confirmed that the man appeared to be
sounding the river at various points from shore. The man was quickly
apprehended, and when questioned, could give no good reason for his
actions. He identified himself only as Thomas Wilson. He was placed
in the local jail and the Provost Marshal in Harrisburg was summoned
to come pick him up.233
News of Wilson’s
arrest generated a fresh set of rumors that the Confederates were on
the West Shore of the river opposite Middletown, preparing to cross
just below Harrisburg, since the Wrightsville crossing had been denied
to them. This story capped an entire day of rumors; and although Harrisburg
usually thrived on rumors, the effect of all these unsubstantiated
stories only served to raise the stress level of the capital city’s
residents and defenders almost to the breaking point.
began the grim task of preparing for the worst. Emergency hospitals
were opened up in accessible, commodious buildings to treat the large
numbers of wounded soldiers that were sure to come when the fighting
commenced. In addition to the established hospitals at Camp Curtin
and the cotton factory, a military hospital was already functioning
in a brick building below the railroad bridge at Bridgeport. All these
locations already had plenty of patients. Others were readied in the
Lancasterian school house, on Walnut Street, the female academy at
Walnut Street and River Alley, the African American Presbyterian church
at the same intersection, the boys academy on Mulberry Street, and
the Sunday School room of the German Reformed church. Between all eight
hospitals, local military authorities hoped to accommodate up to seven
hundred wounded soldiers.234 Everyone
prayed that they would not reach capacity.
General Couch issued an order forbidding all newspaper correspondents
from crossing the Camel Back Bridge, effectively denying them access
to the fortifications on the west bank of the river.235 To
residents and defenders, this order must have seemed like the final
bit of preparation before the fighting began in earnest. The general,
who was not on good terms with the press, must have had his reasons.
Perhaps it was the suspicion, correctly surmised, that the enemy had
gained valuable intelligence on the Bridgeport fortifications from
the newspapers. Perhaps it was the deleterious effect many of their
situation reports had on local residents.
York Times correspondent, just this day, had telegraphed a report
from Harrisburg reporting that General Ewell had bragged that he
would “encamp in front of Harrisburgh to-night.” Ewell
is supposed to have added that he “would have done so last
night, but that he preferred not to travel on Sunday.” Such
reports demoralized soldiers and citizens alike.
part, the residents of Harrisburg looked across the darkening river
to the multitude of campfires that could be seen on Hummel’s
Heights. Over there, around those campfires and in the trenches that
protected them, were their sons and husbands, awaiting the advance
of a far superior foe that could come at any time. What number of them
believed in the impregnability of the fortifications, which was trumpeted
in all the local and regional newspapers, is not known.236 Perhaps,
given that the long-feared crisis had finally arrived, they felt that
they had little choice but to trust the judgment of the military men,
who so confidently bragged to the press that they would surprise the
invaders with a “warm reception” on Harrisburg’s
doorstep. For their part, the soldiers simply hunkered down in the
camps, the trenches, the rifle pits, and at their posts in exposed
positions in front of the works, serving on the picket line. Most could
probably think of little more than the coming attack.
Heritage and Faith
somewhere on the heights, were the one hundred and fifty men of the
two Harrisburg African American companies. This was actually the second
day in which they were called upon to help man the entrenchments. They
had previously been sent there on Sunday when all of Harrisburg thought
the rebels were crossing the river downstream from the capital. That
was the first day in which they actually held weapons in their hands.
Within hours of receiving the new rifled muskets, they had been marched
down to the bridge at the head of Market Street, and, with only a minimum
of training, had been ordered over the bridge to take their places
in line alongside the white home guard units and the Pennsylvania Militia
units that were already there.
Some of them
were probably familiar with a muzzle-loading weapon and a few might
even have been crack shots from years of hunting experience. Many of
them, however, only learned the difference between a cap and a ball
this week, and were struggling to remember how to load their weapon,
how to fire it, and what to do if it misfired. None of them had ever
fought a skirmish, much less taken their place in a firing line in
a major battle as enlisted soldiers.
Now, in the
waning hours of Monday, the twenty-ninth day of June, they found themselves
in the fortifications protecting Harrisburg, awaiting an attack from,
by nearly everyone’s reckoning, 30,000 or more veteran Confederate
infantrymen backed by at least one hundred pieces of artillery. Hummel
Hill was not a good place to be, on this day, for anyone, but especially
for a black Union soldier.
the crowing by local authorities about the soundness of the fortifications
and the patriotism of the people of Harrisburg, the men of the companies
commanded by Henry Bradley and T. Morris Chester could not have been
very optimistic about the expected outcome of a determined Confederate
attack. This would not have been for a lack of confidence in the fortifications.
It is probable that many of them had contributed their own labor and
sweat to dig rifle pits, chop trees, and haul lumber for artillery
platforms. Lacking any battle experience, the fortifications probably
looked very secure to their untrained eyes. They probably also found
little fault with their white brothers-in-arms, many of whom had been
skirmishing with Confederate cavalrymen for days now.
It is more
likely that they simply understood the nature of the gray storm that
was about to break over them. For weeks, the local men among them had
been listening to the stories told by the hundreds of terrified refugees
who, having traveled for ten, twenty, thirty, or more miles, finally
crossed into Harrisburg on the bridge, then simply collapsed on the
riverbank in Harris Park, too exhausted to move into town in search
of aid. They told stories of brutality and ferocity, of children kidnapped,
families separated, and dreams shattered.
of a Southern onslaught that was unstoppable and headed straight for
Harrisburg, and with each passing day, the headlines and news stories
proved the truth of their words. Some of the men in the ranks of the
African American companies were refugees themselves. They had volunteered
their muscle and toil to build the forts, and now, given the chance,
they were volunteering their lives to defend them. They did this fully
aware of the rout at Wrightsville, where determined defenders in rifle
pits were easily outmatched by a small attacking force of experienced
they might have been aware that a black company had been in the front
line there, they certainly did not know that an African American man
had already sacrificed his life in the defense of his town. They volunteered
suspecting, if not knowing, that local military authorities had made
preparations to burn the Camel Back Bridge in the event of an unstoppable
attack, just as had occurred at Wrightsville.
Of all the
defenders in the forts across from Harrisburg on 29 June, the men of
the two black companies had the most defensible reasons for not being
there. Until last week, they had been denied in all their attempts
to fight as enlisted men, and even now were not completely trusted
by their white comrades to bear weapons in defense of their country.
month ago, riotous, hate-filled soldiers had stormed their neighborhoods,
defiled their homes, and trashed their public hall. Four years before
that, they had been looked upon as if they were all potentially murderous
revolutionaries under the control of Osawatomie John Brown.
years ago, Richard McAllister and his gang of henchmen had begun terrorizing
them by authority of the federal Fugitive Slave Law. Three years before
that a vicious mob stoned and egged Frederick Douglass in the Courthouse
because he was a black man who had dared to publicly address a crowd
that included white men and women.
the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania officially removed their right to
vote. This came seven years after the African American residents of
Harrisburg had found it necessary to gather in their church and publicly
declare their opposition to schemes of being forcibly rounded up and
shipped to Liberia as “colonists.”
the Borough of Harrisburg had made it illegal for free African Americans
to live where they pleased and to come and go as they pleased without
first notifying the chief burgess. Those that failed to do so were
subject to imprisonment.
years before African American men volunteered to man Harrisburg’s
fortifications, at least sixteen African Americans were still being
held as slaves by borough residents. This was thirty years after the
Revolutionary Government of Pennsylvania had declared slavery abhorrent
and had affirmed itself duty bound to eventually free all slaves within
its borders. That act, though steeped in the language of morality,
was seriously flawed because its piecemeal approach placed the interests
of white slaveholders above those of the very slaves it sought to elevate.
their historical experiences, the one hundred and fifty black men who
marched to the fortifications on Hummel’s Heights, fully
expecting to meet a foe that would overwhelm and probably kill or enslave
them, should not have been there. They were coming to the defense of
a town that had a long history of enslaving them, physically abusing
them, relegating them to the lowest paying and most demeaning of jobs,
disenfranchising them, and in almost every way possible, denying their
basic human condition. Logic seems to indicate that these men, along
with their families and the rest of the eight hundred or more African
American residents of the state capital should have fled east to Philadelphia
But instead, they chose to
make a stand here.
Given the treatment that they
had endured while under local, state, and federal laws, it had to have
been something other than patriotism that motivated them. Given the
knowledge that military authorities were preparing to destroy the Camel
Back Bridge even as they dispatched men to the West Shore to defend
it indicates that it was not faith in their generals that motivated
them. It had to have been something that trumped love of their country
and trust in their military leaders. The motivation to stand and fight,
in such an extreme and seemingly hopeless crisis, could only have come
from the two constant and reliable things in their lives: heritage
and religious faith. Both had sustained them through periods of slavery,
poverty and the loss of human rights.
in the City—Arrival of Rebel Prisoners,” Morning Telegraph,
16 June 1862; Miller, Training of an Army, 100.
227. “The Situation,” Patriot
and Union, 30 June 1863.
228. “Our Harrisburg Correspondence,” New
York Times, 1 July
229. Nye, Here
Come the Rebels!, 340-342; Crist, Confederate Invasion,
230. “Closing of Places of Business,” Evening
29 June 1863; “Please Excuse,” Patriot and Union,
29 June 1863.
231. “Company Parades,” Evening
Telegraph, 29 June 1863.
232. “Police Affairs,” Patriot
and Union, 29 June 1863.
233. “Committed to Prison,” Evening
Telegraph, 1 July 1863.
234. “Opening of Hospitals,” Daily
Telegraph, 1 July 1863.
235. “Our Harrisburg Correspondence,” New
York Times, 1 July
Telegraph, 29 June 1863. On Monday, the Telegraph reported, “Our
fortifications are finished here, and they are pronounced by military
men of experience the best and most formidable erected during the present
war. Guns are mounted and ready for action.” Similar statements
were carried in the New York Herald and the New
several hundred African Americans did evacuate Harrisburg for Philadelphia,
but these were
refugees who had fled
east from the Cumberland Valley into Harrisburg
and had the means or strength
to keep going. A quote was reprinted locally from
the Philadelphia newspaper North American, dated
1863, which reported, “The morning
train from Harrisburg brought down an enormous load of refugees, and
the freight cars were filled with property removed for safety from the
State capital. Large numbers of negroes are coming into West Philadelphia.
Dozens of them, weary and foot-sore, probably fugitives from slavery,
came into the city during the day and were taken car of by the colored
people here. With such, even the poorest negro shares his crust.” “Still
Flitting,” Patriot and Union, 1 July 1863. The New
York Herald reported that many of the African Americans in Lancaster fled that city
on Monday, 29 June, when an attack on Harrisburg appeared imminent. “Our
Lancaster Correspondence,” New York Herald, 30 June 1863.