a book about Harrisburg...
by George F. Nagle
Image from the collection of Robin Lighty.
The Bridge ~ Thursday, 25 June 1863
Here they were confronted by a bustle of activity as men uniformed in Union blue marched by, passing in the direction from which they had just come, and wagons filled with barrels and crates and loads hidden beneath canvas tarpaulins drove off of the stone ramp from the huge bridge onto the muddy road, forcing them to crowd along the side and into the weedy gutters of the thoroughfare to avoid being trampled.
This frantic buzz of activity probably did not impress them nearly as much as the sight of the magnificent bridge itself. By now, they were accustomed to the mad scramble of people in the path of an invading army, having witnessed it in Chambersburg, in Carlisle, and in Gettysburg. It was as if the entire ordered world was suddenly plunged into chaos, like a large anthill smashed open under the iron shoe of a mule. People ran in all directions, some fleeing in abject terror, wailing with grief and worry as they gathered stray children and bundled them, along with some blankets and extra clothing, on the back of a skittish horse, while others hurried toward the threat with ancient fowling pieces at their sides, mustering whatever misguided notions of patriotism and heroism they could conjure up to mask their fear. Some ran toward the foe for entirely different reasons, driven by an insatiable desire to get a glimpse of the infamous “Rebs,” despite, or perhaps because of, the palpable threat to their liberty and even their lives. There was no order to this sudden release of energy. People ran in opposite directions, all intent upon their own purposes; but whether fleeing, fighting, or gawking, the effect was that of an entire town that had lost its senses to the panic of the hour.
Indeed, the refugees who now found themselves at the side of a wide river, surrounded by hurrying troops and careening wagons, were victims of that same panic. They had been aroused by the shouts and ravings of frantic friends and neighbors in those towns, routed from their homes, hurried onto the turnpike roads with what few possessions they could carry, their children in their arms or hurrying alongside, toward the supposed safety of Harrisburg, whose church spires and capitol dome they could now see on the opposite riverbank, at the end of that long bridge.
It was a flight born of decades of fear. Awakened in the middle of the night by hysterical shouts and rumors of the imminent arrival of southern soldiers, they had hurriedly bundled together a lifetime of memories into a quilt tied at the ends, frantically choosing between the most irreplaceable treasures and the most necessary supplies. Some were luckier than others, having a wagon and a mule onto which they loaded furniture, tools, cook pots, clothing, and bedding. Others carried everything on their shoulders, loaded down with packs that nearly touched the ground. All, initially, hurried as fast as their encumbrances would allow. Men and women drove dangerously overloaded wagons as family members scurried behind. Children ran, fell down, cried, and were picked up. People shouted at each other in irritation and excitement, jockeying for position on the main road out of town, each convinced that enemy riders would shortly thunder over the hills behind them with revolvers blazing and chains at the ready to kidnap and carry them into Maryland and Virginia, all because of the darkness of their skin.
Politics had little to do with it, although there was probably not a Copperhead, as the Republican press had dubbed those who opposed the war, among them. They were Unionists, but their motives for supporting the war effort had less to do with preserving the Union and more to do with destroying the hated institution that had once enslaved many of them and continued to enslave their brethren. Many knew personally the cruel bite of the lash, and the unbearable pain of seeing family forcibly taken away—sold downriver—never to be seen again.
For some, these memories were as fresh as the previous month, while others had been breathing the free air of Pennsylvania for many years. Still others had never known bound servitude, having been born proudly free in the Keystone State, of free parents. Yet all were now mixed together, sharing a common desperate plight, keeping a wary eye on the last ridge that they had just crossed, listening fearfully for the sudden thundering of army-shod war horses galloping down upon them. But as mile after mile passed with no signs of riders, their panic ebbed and their pace slowed. Fatigue began to set in after a few hours of tramping along the turnpike, and most assumed a slower but still steady gait. Night’s darkness gradually yielded to the creeping light of dawn. Irritated speech gave way to occasional conversation, which was in turn replaced by the simple act of placing one foot ahead of the other.
For those that did not travel much, the transition from town to countryside was as interesting as it was gradual. The familiar houses built with their front doors along the main road thinned out, as warehouses and factory buildings, and then stables and mills, took their place. The acrid smell of coal oil smoke from the streetlamps gave way to the distinctive stench of the tan yards, and then mellowed into the mildewed and musky aromas of sawdust, hay, lumber, and manure. The turnpike became narrower and more uneven as it began to thread through a countryside filled with fields of ripening grain and white bank barns.
The road that was hard-packed and smooth from frequent travel close to town soon became muddy and rutted. Here it descended through stands of sweet-smelling honeysuckle to cross a brook, shaded by groves of tall maple trees, then climbed back into the sun, past thickets of green canes heavy with raspberries. There it wound around an outcropping of gray fieldstone, damp with soft, green moss on the side that did not see the sun. At another point, dogs barked in farmyards and cows moved leisurely in green fields that were well defined by a peculiar construction of rails and posts known locally as “cattle high and hog tight.”
It was truly beautiful countryside, and most of the travelers might have appreciated it more had they been passing through it under different circumstances. But today they were footsore and bone weary. They passed through a series of small towns along the way, some of which were little more than a handful of houses and outbuildings sitting astride a crossroad. After a while, they all began to blend together in the sameness of their weatherboard-clad walls pierced by a few undecorated windows, well-tended kitchen gardens surrounded by whitewashed pickets to keep the chickens out, and lines of newly washed clothes and linens strung out behind the house to whiten in the sun.
Occasionally they observed a stylish home constructed of locally produced brick, painted to match the owner’s fancy and pierced with windows that were pointed at the top, like a cathedral. Even more impressive were the large fieldstone mansions of two stories, studded with multi-paned windows, with smaller windows around the doorway, columns of contrasting quoins at each corner and a portico in the front. But most of these houses did not sit with their grand front doors on the turnpike, inviting inspection like an honest working man’s home, but were set back from the road at the end of long lanes flanked by columns of trees and rubble walls, defying anyone who dared to walk up the long formal lane and knock on the large entrance door to disturb the owner’s repose. Many of them ensured their solitude with threatening dogs that sometimes chased the travelers and made sure that they stayed in the road.
They passed many people. At first, in the morning, the people on the farms and in the small crossroads towns took great interest in them, asking them where they were from and where they were headed and why they were on the road with all their possessions. Some of the weary refugees welcomed the excuse to stop for a while and trade their stories for some water from these folks.
A few of the country dwellers were very alarmed to hear the stories of marauding rebels, but most took the news easily, either believing it to be a false alarm—similar news had caused such uproar in previous months, and nothing had come of it—or confident of protection in their status as simple farmers with no interest in the war. Very few expressed any sympathy for the travelers, although some would part with some bread and apple butter if the travelers happened to have a few coins to spare, and most only grudgingly allowed the use of their wells, particularly as the day wore on and the novelty of seeing a family of blacks in flight wore off.
More than a few of the farmers blamed the refugees for their plight, for the war, and for the general inconvenience and misfortune that was sure to come. Wasn’t the entire war, the farmers argued, about freedom for the black man? Why should a Pennsylvania farmer care if Southern farmers wanted to keep their slaves? What was the sense of all this death and destruction for such a frivolous crusade? More than a few times the farmers punctuated their debate with curses and profane talk, much to the distress of the travelers. Today, however, was not the time to argue the value of freedom, particularly with people who took no pains to hide the scorn that they felt for this rising tide of humanity. Besides, the travelers sensed that these people were not expecting an answer, as they did not see a rational, intelligent human being under the layers of dust-caked clothing. They saw only a stream of weary men, women, and children that was increasing by the hour and would surely bring trouble in their wake.
Already there were many hundreds of frightened refugees on the road, and all were headed in the same direction: toward Harrisburg. They passed slower family groups, helping some that were in distress, and joined with others if for no other reason than to increase the safety that is found in numbers. They learned to ignore the stares, the jokes, the curses, and the insults that they heard in the towns, and in time the townspeople, too, simply ignored them as they tramped on by. They simply kept moving on, intent upon reaching a safe place. The miles passed slowly.
To some of them it was a familiar trek. They knew the land, the fields, and the barns, having journeyed this way previously on business or errands. Some regularly sold produce, meat, or game to the vendors in the old market sheds that stood on the square in Harrisburg. A man could make a tidy profit if he got his cabbages to the greengrocer or his fresh fish to the fishmonger before everyone else got there and the price fell. Some visited the town regularly, to buy nails, or bolts of cloth, or a pair of shoes, and they admired its tall church steeples, its impressive courthouse and state government buildings, and its bustling rail yards.
They knew the towns along the way; they even knew the long bridge that would take them over the river, having crossed it numerous times, and most importantly, they knew the people that lived a few blocks away from the markets in Harrisburg. Good people lived in the densely settled neighborhood that they called Tanner’s Alley. They would find help there, among the fine souls that attended the Wesley church at the end of the street, and the Bethel church around the corner, and among the sturdy men that populated the Masonic lodge there. That was their hope.
So when the long journey ended, and they finally arrived at the river and found themselves engulfed in a whirlwind of activity, with soldiers hurrying to ascend the muddy cut to get to the top of the bluff, men shouting at each other, steam engines chuffing, locomotives whistling, and wagons driving fast and bumping hard along the road, they probably took little notice of the din. In front of them was the bridge that seemed to stretch forever as it undulated as if alive, uncoiling snake-like, across the wide river. It rose from the massive stone piers and then fell in the middle, as if the span was too much to bear, yet it spewed forth columns of armed men, officers on horses, wagons of supplies, all without creaks and groans or swaying corridors or collapsing beams. It certainly seemed safe enough. If the bridge, with its truss-and-beam, wavelike construction, inspired these refugees to see it as a living thing, they would only be following tradition. The citizens of Harrisburg had long ago imagined an exotic beast in its numerous humps, nicknaming this vital link to the west shore of the Susquehanna River the “Camel Back” Bridge.
They did not stand out among the increasing tide of persons, mostly white merchants and farmers, who were beginning to appear in town with droves of horses, the entire stock of their business in their wagons, and with rumors of invasion on their lips. But as those dread rumors turned into sensational headlines in the local newspapers, the tide of humanity that was being disgorged from the bridge onto the capital city’s Front Street began to include more and more African Americans whose motivation to flee had nothing to do with protecting possessions and everything to do with preserving their freedom.
The bridge itself represented more than just a means of crossing a wide but shallow river. It was a link to a safe haven. As the refugees ascended the well worn stone ramp that led to the entrance of the first part of the bridge—architect and accomplished bridge builder Theodore Burr had designed it in two sections, each crossing from an opposite shore to meet on Forster’s Island, in the middle of the river—their attention was probably riveted upon completing their long and tiring journey in the perceived safety of Pennsylvania’s capital city. That feeling of safety may have been bolstered by the sight of so many armed troops, cannons and impressive looking rifle pits that they had passed along the road that circumvented Hummel Hill, the heights that towered over the bridge, and on which was situated the newly designated Fort Washington, the destination for those same soldiers and cannons.
Even if they knew nothing of cannons and rifle pits, they may have taken comfort in the wide expanse of the Susquehanna River flowing between them and any invading Confederates. It was about three quarters of a mile wide at this point, and to civilians it seemed to constitute a formidable water obstacle to any military maneuvering. But what they might not have known was how shallow this river was. The western side was so low that rocks could be observed sticking out of the water, and the eastern side was not much more than two feet in depth.2
If the safety aspect proved to be illusory, the symbolism of the Camel Back Bridge as a means to gain and keep freedom was very real, especially to African Americans. Fugitive slaves had been crossing this same bridge for decades in their flight from bondage. One of many routes of the Underground Railroad—the surreptitious network of anti-slavery activists that helped fugitive slaves gain their freedom—ran from Carlisle to Harrisburg along the turnpike road and across the bridge. Slave catchers often stationed themselves near the bridge to observe the comings and goings of African Americans, and used the bridge as an escape route to hustle captured blacks to the west shore side, where they were removed from the easy reach of those in Harrisburg’s African American community—and there were many in that community—who would come to their aid.
One such attempted kidnapping occurred in September 1849 when some fugitives, a family of five, arrived in Harrisburg after a long flight out of bondage. They succeeded in passing safely into the city, where they found refuge, but several days later one of the men in the family was observed by two slave catchers who were scouting out the neighborhoods near the bridge. The North Star, a newspaper published in Rochester, New York by escaped slave turned abolition activist Frederick Douglass, picked up the story and reported what happened next: “On Saturday the 29th, inst, as one of their number was passing along Front street on the river bank, he was pursued by two men, and after a considerable chase they overtook him, and endeavored to get him to the bridge. Fortunately, two colored men observing the chase, joined the parties, and effected the release of the fugitive, his pursuers making good their escape across the river.”3 Had the Harrisburg men not come to the aid of this fugitive in such a timely manner, he would have been quickly carried by his captors through the dark bridge to the other side of the river, probably to a waiting carriage for a ride back to enslavement. In this incident, the bridge marked a clear division between freedom and a return to slavery.
That distinction was not always so tangible, particularly in the decades when slavery was common throughout the commonwealth, a period that ran from colonial times through the 1830s. Locally, slaves could be found in Dauphin, Cumberland, York, Lebanon, Lancaster, Adams, and Perry counties some fifty years after the commonwealth passed legislation to end it. Slavery was coming to an end by that time, though, and slaves mixed freely with free blacks in the larger towns of all these counties.
Toward the end of that era, Harrisburg was beginning to gain a sizable free black community, and only then could be seen as a possible destination for freedom seekers. Fugitives knew that they could count on their free brethren to provide food, shelter, new clothes, and most of all the anonymity that a large town could offer by allowing new arrivals to blend in with the African American populace. The local black community also secured housing and jobs with local employers for these new arrivals, and many persons who were formerly enslaved settled down in this welcoming town, to a new found life of freedom.
Pennsylvania laws, expressly written to be friendly to fugitive slaves, provided a degree of comfort, and the Mason-Dixon Line came to represent, to many freedom seekers, the line between freedom and bondage. The intervening counties of York, Adams, and Cumberland provided an extra buffer zone bordered by the Susquehanna River. That line of safety, delineated by the river, was temporarily erased, however, after the passage of the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, when most of the guarantees against kidnapping and assurances of personal liberty were taken away by Congress. Liberty’s border was again in flux. Sometimes freedom and the lines that defined it were as difficult to see as the tiny dot of light at the end of Theodore Burr’s long wooden bridge.
In front of the marauding Southerners were Union soldiers in full retreat. On Monday, 15 June, fifty army wagons under the command of Colonel A. T. McReynolds rolled through Greencastle, in Franklin County, a vestige of the scattered garrison of Brigadier General Robert Milroy in Winchester, Virginia. Milroy’s command, consisting of about 7,000 men, had been overrun by a Confederate force of more than 12,000 soldiers under the command of Lieutenant General Richard S. Ewell. Ewell’s Second Corps had been ordered to clear the Shenandoah Valley of all Union troops, which they did easily, in preparation for Lee’s planned invasion of Pennsylvania. Milroy’s garrison was outnumbered and in full retreat, attempting to reach Charles Town, Virginia, when a night flanking maneuver by Major General Edward Johnson’s division cut them off on the morning of 15 June. Union losses were more than 4400, including 2400 who surrendered, while the Confederates lost less than 300 men.4
McReynolds’ wagon train, the remnants of his garrison at Berrysburg, was driven by tired, battle-shocked men who had just barely escaped from Ewell’s encirclement, and who were desperately trying to reach Harrisburg. General Milroy had also escaped, and passed with some other survivors through Carlisle a week after the fiasco on the fifteenth, arriving in the county seat of Cumberland on Tuesday the twenty-third, just two days before this group of refugees reached the bridge. Their headlong and breathless flight had been triggered by the reports from the military men that Confederate troops were not far behind.5
While most African American communities across the countryside could and did work to foil slave catchers, usually with subterfuge and not infrequently with outright violent confrontation, resistance against armed soldiers was another matter altogether. Faced with an advancing army that, according to reports, was rounding up African Americans with little regard for whether they were Pennsylvania-born residents or long escaped slaves, immediate flight became the only rational option. You simply could not oppose veteran soldiers the same way you could face down the occasional Maryland or Virginia farmer who came looking for people who “stole themselves,” or even the professional slave catchers who were disparagingly referred to as “bloodhounds.”
Most acts of aggression by blacks against slave holders who appeared in their communities, claiming one or more persons as property to be taken south, involved intimidation by large crowds, kicks and punches, thrown rocks and bricks, and assaults with clubs or sticks. Lethal weapons, by comparison, appeared only rarely. However, in sharp contrast to the protesters, when local authorities attempted to restore order by dispersing the crowd—for the slaveholders often had a legal if not moral right to their claims and could appeal to the sheriff or constable for help—they effectively employed armed deputies or local militia, a tactic that almost always stopped the fighting. Even the most violent and notorious example of resistance against slave catchers, which occurred in Christiana, Pennsylvania on 11 September 1851, was quieted with the appearance of an armed fifty-man posse and a party of United States Marines.
The resistance, which was incorrectly described as a “riot” by early historians, shocked the nation not because of the casualties—slaveholder Edward Gorsuch was killed and five others in his party, including his son and two nephews, were wounded—but because of the boldness of the resistance itself. This was not a confrontation with an angry crowd throwing brickbats and tussling with fists. This was a shootout between nine well-armed men and about fifty highly defiant African Americans, and a few whites, armed with shotguns, pistols, pitchforks, axes and clubs. Nor was it a riot caused by inflamed tempers and high emotions. This was an organized defense summoned by an agreed-upon signal.
The resistance was led by a twenty-nine-year-old former slave named William Parker, who had organized an informal black militia and fortified his two-story stone farmhouse against attack. When slave holder Gorsuch’s party showed up at Parker’s door before dawn and demanded that he turn over the men that were hiding inside, Parker’s wife Eliza summoned the defenders by blowing on a horn from the second story window, sounding a pre-arranged signal that quickly brought help.
Despite the threat by the slave catchers that they would bring 100 men from Lancaster to put down the resistance, Parker held firm, telling U.S. Deputy Marshal Henry H. Kline, “Don't bring a hundred men, bring five hundred. It will take all the men in Lancaster to change our purpose or take us alive.” The taunt by Parker was not an idle threat. He had dedicated himself to resisting the slave powers in the country and had a strong following, telling a neighbor that whites should keep away when the fight comes because “They have a country and must obey the laws. But we have no country.”6
When the fight was over, slaveholder Edward Gorsuch lay dead and his son Dickinson was severely, although not mortally, wounded. Four more men in his party, all Marylanders, were also wounded. Deputy Marshal Kline and his men escaped injury and possible death by retreating from the thick of the fight. Two of Parker’s men were slightly wounded. Parker knew that when word of the resistance got back to Lancaster that more government men in greater numbers—numbers too large to resist—would arrive to arrest him and his defenders. Although he had initially vowed not to be taken alive by them, he thought better of what he knew would be futile resistance, and when word that a fifty-man posse was approaching his house, he made an escape northward, eventually arriving in Canada.7
To African Americans it was a clear lesson: even noble William Parker, whose bravery in defying an immoral law led to what some consider the opening shots of the Civil War, knew enough not to face off against armed soldiers, no matter how righteous the cause. He and his men saw no advantage in being martyrs. What chance, then, did simple farmers and laborers have against seasoned enemy troops, when they wanted only to be left alone?
It did not matter that many were Pennsylvania-born of free parents, and indisputably free. It did not matter that some could trace free parentage back beyond the revolution. Those things could be presented in court. The testimony of your neighbors could set you free if slave catchers unjustly hauled you before a local judge. But slaveholders, or even the more mercenary slave hunters—those who made it their business to track fugitives for a price—were very different from battle-hardened soldiers. The war had changed everything because it brought soldiers.
In the decades before the war, slave hunters could be avoided, challenged, tricked, or outrun. African Americans that could prove they were free, either by possessing documents to that effect, or by the testimony of their neighbors, had the least to fear—at least until 1850. Until that year, anyone who seized a free person and took them away from their home could face kidnapping charges, although such legal protections were inconsistent, and did not remove all fears. African Americans, especially those living close to the Maryland border, were still highly vulnerable to slave hunters and kidnappers. These same slave hunters were emboldened by the greater powers allowed them under the Federal Fugitive Slave Act, passed in 1850 as part of the Compromise of 1850.
Before the passage of that hated law, African Americans living in Pennsylvania enjoyed nearly a quarter century of protection under the commonwealth’s Personal Liberty Laws. Those laws forced slaveholders to supply written documentation of ownership and set severe penalties for kidnapping. It was these earlier laws that tripped up the slave catcher Edward Prigg in April 1837 when he took Margaret Morgan and her children from York County back to Maryland as escaped slaves. Prigg was arrested and convicted of kidnapping in Pennsylvania, but the case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where, in 1842, Justice Joseph Story read the opinion that overturned the Pennsylvania ruling and invalidated the 1826 Personal Liberty Laws. In the opinion of the court, the Pennsylvania laws violated the constitution’s fugitive slave clause as well as the 1793 Federal Fugitive Slave Act, which allowed slaveholders to pursue slaves into other states.
Though it ruled in favor of Edward Prigg, the Supreme Court left one big loophole as part of its ruling. It took a strong states’ rights stand by noting that the federal government could authorize state officials to enforce these laws, but it could not compel them to do so.8 Pennsylvania lawmakers seized on this opportunity to rewrite their personal liberty laws, making them stronger and cleverly reworking them to get around Justice Story’s complaints that they were unconstitutional.
The new series of laws, passed from 1842 through 1847, did several important things. They eliminated the sojourner span, which had previously been set at six months, and which had allowed a slaveholder to bring slaves into the state as a visitor without fear that the slaves could claim their freedom. The new laws prohibited unnecessary force in capturing a fugitive slave. They also prohibited the use of Pennsylvania jails to hold fugitives before hearings. The most important law, however, forbade Pennsylvania officials from participating in the capture of fugitives, or from enforcing the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act. This last law effectively denied the use of state courts to slaveholders for hearings, and forced them to travel to federal courts, which were almost always further away and thus more inconvenient.
All these new laws made it harder for slave catchers to find, hold, and prove their claim on those they accused of being fugitive slaves, as they were designed to do. They also made places like Harrisburg, with its burgeoning free black population, a desirable destination for fugitives. Harrisburg contained a cadre of dedicated anti-slavery activists who directed the reception, feeding, clothing, and transportation of fugitives that appeared in town. When slaveholders tracked fugitives to the town, the intricate network of hiding places made locating the fugitives very difficult, particularly when the law prohibited local authorities from participating in the capture.
Harrisburg authorities, however, were not always faithful to the non-compliance provisions of the 1847 act. In September 1849, when the two slave catchers chased and caught one of a family of five fugitives who had made it to Harrisburg and attempted to drag the man to the Camel Back Bridge, where they apparently had reinforcements waiting on the Cumberland County side, the fugitive was rescued by two local black men who sent him and the rest of his family to hide in the Tanners Alley neighborhood until evening, when they could be safely conducted further north. Fearing a raid by the slave catchers on the neighborhood, a watch of twenty-five or thirty black citizens was set up at Short Street to safeguard the fugitives for the night.
County sheriff Jacob Shell, in company with several deputies and at the request of the slave catchers, ordered the men of the watch to disperse. When they refused, a scuffle ensued. The outnumbered sheriff called upon a local militia company for assistance, which assembled at Third and Market streets just before midnight and marched upon the neighborhood. Finding the watch disbanded, the militiamen arrested what few blacks they could find in the vicinity, beating several who resisted, and firing upon at least one who fled. Despite the militia’s success in scattering the watch group, the slave catchers were unable to find the fugitives the next day.9 Shell and his deputies were clearly in violation of the non-compliance portion of the law.
If things went well for the slave catchers and they succeeded in finding fugitives, the laws prohibited slaveholders from using the local jail to hold their catch. Many had to find shelter with a sympathetic property owner or pay to lodge themselves and their captives in a hotel, a situation that was less than ideal from a security standpoint.
Finally, slave catchers faced a hostile local black population when they attempted to leave town with their prisoners. Harrisburg’s black community quickly learned the value of assembling a large, angry force of citizens to intimidate visiting slaveholders. Local historians chronicled numerous “slave riots” between 1825 and 1850, with various outcomes, but even unsuccessful demonstrations proved to be invaluable learning experiences for those who would stand up against invading slave catchers.
As Harrisburg’s black community grew, it provided additional benefits for fugitives: for those that decided to stay in town for a while—any many did—there was plenty of employment, housing, and perhaps most important, a good chance of remaining undiscovered among the growing population.
With the passage of the federal Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, though, much of that security evaporated. The heart of the new law, passed in September of that year, gave hope to southern slaveholders for the easier recovery of their escaped slaves. In many northern states, the 1793 federal law allowing slaveholders to pursue their slaves into other states was being ignored or defeated by anti-slavery advocates who cited state laws, such as the Personal Liberty laws of the 1840s in Pennsylvania, which effectively obstructed capture. The new law provided sweeping changes in the method of dealing with fugitive slave cases, providing for a specially appointed federal commissioner, instead of state courts, to hear cases.
The process would involve a hearing before the commissioner, instead of a trial, with only the sworn testimony of the slaveholder, or his or her agent, required to secure possession of the slaves. The alleged slaves were not permitted to testify at all, and did not have the right to legal counsel or to call witnesses to testify on their own behalf. An attorney could speak for the defendants, but because no notice of the hearing was required, most accused fugitives had no time to secure help. Indeed some hearings in Harrisburg were held in the pre-dawn darkness and in one instance local attorneys hired to defend the accused slaves rushed almost directly from their beds to the commissioner’s office, only to be refused time to prepare a defense.10
In addition to the hearing changes, the new law mandated that all citizens must help enforce the law and the harboring of fugitives or the obstruction of the law was punishable by a fine or imprisonment. It supported the appointment of armed men to escort slaveholders and their slaves back to the south. Perhaps most controversial was the fee system, which seemed to amount to a federally sanctioned bounty on captured slaves. Federal commissioners who returned alleged slaves to slaveholders received fees of ten dollars per slave returned, but only a five-dollar total fee if he released the captives.
Appointed by U.S. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney on 30 September 1850, Harrisburg’s United States Commissioner was local lawyer Richard McAllister, who approached his new appointment with unabashed pro-southern sympathies. One of his first actions was to issue a warrant to several slave catchers for six fugitives known to be living in Wilkes-Barre. The capture of the slaves, reported in the anti-slavery newspaper the National Era, bemoaned the fact that little could be done on behalf of the slaves owing to “the charter of abominations, The Fugitive Slave Law.”11
In October, in two separate incidents, African American women in Harrisburg were seized by white slave hunters. In both instances the women were not taken south, but only because they could quickly prove their free status. In November, Commissioner McAllister issued a warrant for four alleged fugitives known to be in town. Constable Solomon Snyder and helper John Sanders arrested the men, and, without even bothering with a hearing, took the captives immediately to the professed owner in Baltimore to collect a $1,000 reward. This blatant circumvention of the hearing process brought strong protests from Harrisburg’s black community. Two local citizens brought charges of kidnapping against Snyder and Sanders, but the pair escaped punishment in an April 1851 trial.
McAllister heard numerous cases during the next year, beginning in January with a Virginian who claimed a local young man, David, as his property. David was returned with the slaveholder without protest. In April, however, Constable Snyder and another local man, Michael Shaeffer, arrested an entire family. Daniel Franklin, his wife Abby, daughter Caroline, and an infant were brought before Commissioner McAllister as the property of two separate slaveholders in Maryland. The Franklins had escaped together two years prior and settled in the large African American community at Columbia, Lancaster County, where the infant child was born.
As the family was led through the darkened, pre-dawn streets of Harrisburg to the Commissioner’s office, word of the capture spread quickly through Harrisburg’s black community. In was in this instance that attorneys Mordecai McKinney and Charles Coatesworth Rawn were awakened with the news, and who rushed to McAllister’s office only to be denied time to learn the situation and prepare a defense. A reporter from the Philadelphia Ledger wrote, “The thoroughfares of this usually demure borough were again thronged, early this morning, with an excited and threatening populace—the colored community. From the clenched teeth of one and all was hissing forth the news that a man and wife, and a baby, had arrived in their midst in custody as fugitive slaves, and were about to be remanded by the Commissioner.”
Another reporter portrayed a sense of desperation on the part of Harrisburg blacks at the dramatic events unfolding before their eyes, naming physician and community leader William Jones and others who “rushed around the corners a little,” unable to help the fugitives. The Franklin’s infant child, being born free in Pennsylvania, was taken by family friends, but the rest of the family was returned south with a young man representing the two slaveholders.12
A man named Bob Sterling was brought before Commissioner McAllister in August 1851 as the property of a female slaveholder, who, upon observing the crowd of blacks who gathered around the office during the hearing, requested that the commissioner assist her in getting her slave back home. Harrisburg’s African American community was quickly learning the value of making public demonstrations, at least in numbers, as a show of protest against the law and of support for the fugitives. In this case, the slaveholder’s fears did not prove groundless. Because she was not taking Sterling home until the next day, she lodged him in a local hotel, Pennsylvania jails still being denied to slaveholders as holding areas, and during the night a fire was set in the hotel, probably as a crude attempt to make a rescue. It failed, however, and the woman returned south with her slave.13
Commissioner Richard McAllister and his constables were roundly hated in African American communities throughout central Pennsylvania and were regularly lambasted in widely distributed anti-slavery newspapers. That unpopularity did not necessarily extend to the white community, though, at least not in the first year after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. But it definitely increased in 1852, when residents witnessed a rising number of fugitive slave incidents, escalating levels of violence, public demonstrations, and accusations of improper and illegal behavior in carrying out the duties of his office.
White dissatisfaction with the way in which borough officials were complying with the federal law manifested itself at the polls the following year. In a March 1853 election that saw an unusually high voter turnout, the three borough constables who had assisted McAllister in catching fugitive slaves were turned out of office. McAllister, as an appointed official, could not be voted out of office, yet he, too, began to feel the heat and looked to newly elected Democratic president Franklin Pierce for a new higher appointment. He was disappointed in his office-seeking trip to Washington, though, and not long after returned to Harrisburg, where he resigned his position as slave commissioner. The vacant post was not refilled, and slave catchers were thenceforth forced to travel to Commissioner Edward Ingraham’s office in Philadelphia, which was the closest federal authority.14
Harrisburg again became a little bit safer for freedom seekers, and the Camel Back Bridge again became the gateway to safe haven, until the war brought enemy soldiers to the shores of the Susquehanna River. The men of Confederate Brigadier General Albert Gallatin Jenkins’ command were the vanguard of a much larger force. Originally under the command of General “Jeb” Stuart, Jenkins’ troopers were now functioning as the eyes and ears of Confederate General Richard Ewell. Reconnoitering the back roads of Franklin and Cumberland Counties, Jenkins’ men advanced steadily from Chambersburg to the railroad bridge at Scotland before falling back to near Greencastle to wait for the infantry to catch up.
These first raids had been the cause of an earlier panic that had sent some Pennsylvania residents fleeing, including many African Americans. But the real invasion awaited the arrival of Ewell’s seasoned infantrymen, and on 22 June, Jenkins’ 1500 cavalrymen, emboldened by any lack of serious resistance and backed by several divisions of infantry, again headed north. Their advance was noted with alarm in Harrisburg, where Major General Darius N. Couch, a seasoned corps commander, now head of the Department of the Susquehanna and charged with protecting the Pennsylvania state capital, telegraphed the following message to Brigadier General Joseph F. Knipe at Shippensburg: “Last night fifty rebel cavalry were stealing horses near Maria Furnace, Caledonia Springs and Millerstown—Gettysburg cavalry pursuing them.”15
Horses were not the only goods that the Southern cavalrymen were rounding up. Accounts exist of the hunting of local black residents by these advancing forces. On the same day that some unknown informant had reported the stealing of horses near Maria Furnace, which is in southwest Adams County, Greencastle resident Charles Hartman recorded in his diary that he had been forced by invading Confederates to help capture black residents of the town. Although Hartman did not note the exact units that were running down African Americans, he did write that Confederate cavalrymen were involved in the often-violent hunt.
This activity, which ostensibly was to find and return fugitive slaves who had taken shelter in Pennsylvania, had been occurring for a good week prior to the advance. Chambersburg residents were shocked by the round up of terrified African Americans on 14 and 15 June by elements of Jenkins’ brigade. Numbers ranged from about 50, reported in the local newspaper, to as many as 250, according to a local diarist. Town resident Rachel Cormany wrote of witnessing women and children hunted and driven off “by droves.” Some, she noted, had been raised in the town and were clearly not “contrabands,” a term used to denote fugitive slaves. Cormany’s observations were backed up by another resident, Jacob Hoke. Hoke termed the hunt “revolting,” and described a scene in which blacks fled the town to hide in local wheat fields, but were captured by cavalrymen riding through the fields and firing at them. He also noted that some of those captured were freeborn Pennsylvania citizens, two of whom were released when Hoke enlisted a friend to plead their case with General Jenkins personally.
Jenkins continued to round up African Americans in the following days, sending successful raiding parties into Mercersburg and McConnellsburg in Fulton County. Soldiers from commands other than Jenkins’ Brigade also participated in capturing black civilians. On 25 June, men of McNeil’s Rangers, part of Brigadier General John Imboden’s cavalry brigade, captured numerous people, including a free man, Sam Brooks and long time residents John Philkill and Findlay Cuff.16
Stories of such atrocities from frightened refugees spread rapidly through African American communities in the Cumberland Valley. Soon all blacks, free and fugitive alike, had their worst fears realized: The advancing Rebel soldiers were actively rounding up all black people and taking them south into slavery. In reality, it was an exaggeration, as most Confederate units were not involved in such “slave hunts,” but in times of war, such stories were accepted as truth. That was all it took to put thousands of blacks throughout the Cumberland Valley on the road to Harrisburg. Most took flight with little more than the clothes on their backs, and others took scarce minutes to pack what few possessions that they could load onto a wagon or mule. On Thursday, 25 June, the Harrisburg Daily Telegraph, in an article entitled “The Harrisburg Bridge,” reported:
The Camel Back Bridge had again become the portal to safety, although for how long, none could say. That same edition of the Telegraph that reported the throngs of refugees crossing into Harrisburg also listed the distances of towns along the Cumberland Valley Railroad, noting, “The rebels appear to have advanced along this line of railroad since they crossed the border.” Occupied towns were listed, one after another, with Harrisburg being the next obvious target. The rail lines themselves were an escape route for those who had the means. Scenes similar to those around the Harrisburg Bridge were reported:
Image from the collection of Robin Lighty.
So it was that the living and the dead crossed the bridge on 25 June, “commingled,” as the newspaper noted, “in one common mass.” Those whose skin was dark had, perhaps, the most to lose, as they were fleeing enslavement, or re-enslavement, and this war was now a struggle to end that hated institution. Many had experienced slavery and all of its horrors, and would do all they could to ensure they never experienced it again. Some would die, rather than return to bondage. But it is worth noting that they now shared a haven with the lifeless bodies of those who had already given all in the fight against that evil. Events were clearly pointing to a climactic fight in which many people, black and white, had already resolved to make a stand here at the bridge. All the while, the bridge kept disgorging frightened masses of people into freedom’s last refuge on the Susquehanna’s eastern shore.19
2. Robert Grant Crist, Confederate Invasion of the West Shore—1863 (1963; repr., Lemoyne, PA: Lemoyne Trust Company, 1995), 7.
3. “Kidnapping in Harrisburg,” North Star, 12 October 1849, http://www.accessible.com/accessible/. The Harrisburg correspondent used the pseudonym “Julius.”
4. National Park Service, “Battle Summary: Winchester, Second VA,” CWSAC Battle Summaries, American Battlefield Protection Program, http://www.cr.nps.gov/hps/abpp/battles/va107.htm (accessed 7 July 1995).
5. James Pangburn, “Tracking Jenkins: Telegraph Dispatches from the Cumberland Valley,” pt. 1, Bugle 9, no. 3 (July – September 1999): 12.
6. W. U. Hensel, The Christiana Riot and the Treason Trials of 1851 (Lancaster, PA: New Era Printing Co., 1911), 109. William Parker’s version of events was published by the Atlantic Monthly in February 1866 under the title “The Freedman’s Story,” by “E.K.” Hensel reprinted the entire story in chapter 12, “Parker’s Own Story.”
7. Fergus M. Bordewich, Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America, Advance Reader’s ed. (New York: Amistad, 2005), 328-332.
8. Prigg v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 41 U.S. 539, (1842).
9. “Kidnapping in Harrisburg,” North Star, 12 October 1849.
10. Gerald G. Eggert, “The Impact of the Fugitive Slave Law on Harrisburg: A Case Study,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 109, no. 4 (October 1985): 540-541.
11. “Fugitive Slave Law,” National Era, 31 October 1850, http://www.accessible.com/accessible/.
12. Eggert, “Impact,” 547.
13. Eggert, “Impact,” 546-547.
14. Eggert, “Impact,” 565-567; National Era, 5 October 1854.
15. Pangburn, “Tracking Jenkins,” pt. 1, 13.
16. James E. Epperson, “Lee’s Slave-Makers,” Civil War Times, August 2002, 44, 47-48.
17. Evening Telegraph, 25 June 1863.
19. Although the Market Street Bridge was repeatedly referred to as the Camel Back Bridge, in reference to its humped spans, only the western span, from Forster’s Island to Bridgeport, remained intact by 1863. The eastern span had been washed away by a flood in 1846 and replaced by a span of more traditional construction. Michael Barton, An Illustrated History of Greater Harrisburg: Life by the Moving Road (Sun Valley, CA: American Historical Press, 1998) 18.
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.