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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 Five (continued)
Dogs, War, and Ghosts


Beyond wild and domesticated animals, the single most dangerous animal faced by freedom seekers was man. Some remarked that they would rather face the wild beasts of the woods rather than the actual men who had enslaved them. Fugitive James Curry, who published his escape memoirs in Garrison’s Liberator, related how he was attacked by a wild animal just before crossing the Potomac River. He could not identify the animal, but remembered thinking, “Surely I am beset this day, but unlike the men, more ferocious than wild beasts, I succeeded in driving him away.” The notion that men were by nature more vicious and less trustworthy than animals was reflected in several observations from those who had experienced the fear of a fugitive surrounded by strangers. Frederick Douglass, newly arrived in New York City, wrote that he was “In the midst of human brothers, and yet more fearful of them than of hungry wolves!”38

The violence of which man is capable reaches its apex in time of war, and this violence is not contained to troops on the battlefield. Civilian casualties occur in every war, and some of the most vulnerable people are those caught far from home. Many of these casualties occurred among refugees, but not all. Slaves became casualties of attacks against their master’s home, simply because they were present. It did not matter that they had no choice in that decision. The French and Indian War produced some of the most devastating attacks against civilians living in rural areas ever seen in Pennsylvania. Entire portions of frontier counties emptied out as panicked residents headed for the safety of more populous regions. Attacks often wiped out entire families, and slaves were seldom spared.

In the region known as Lower Turkeyfoot, in Somerset County, John Hyatt and several of his slaves were moving through the heavily wooded mountain land, when a party of Native Americans attacked them. One of his slaves fell, mortally wounded, from the gunfire. Hyatt and his party were forced to retreat to save their lives, leaving the dying man on the mountain. Local lore says that the mountain, later called Negro Mountain, is named for the slave who perished in the attack there.

At Wiconisco, in Dauphin County, settler Andrew Lycan, his sons, some neighbors, and his male slave were attacked by Indians in March 1756. The men took cover when the Indians took positions in a hog house on the Lycan farm, from which they commanded an advantageous field of fire and were able to pin the settlers down. Lycan’s son John and two neighbors crept out to return fire but all were wounded. The fighting became close and fierce, and the two badly wounded settlers were sent to safety in Hanover Township under the care of the slave, who was not named. Gradually, Lycan and the surviving men were able to make a fighting retreat, but at a high cost. The fight left at least two settlers badly wounded, three of the Delaware Indians dead, and the farm was lost. 39

The Revolutionary War brought fighting to many different areas, and to some of the same areas that had experienced hardships during the war with France. Just days before the Battle of Wyoming, in Luzerne County, a party of men, including one black slave named Quocko, was ambushed by Native Americans fighting for the British. Most of the men were killed, except for three that were captured by the Seneca Indians at a nearby tannery. One of those captured was Quocko. The captives, including the slave, were moved two miles upstream and killed later that evening. Another black man, a servant to Captain Robert Durkee named Gershom Prince, also died in the actual battle a few days later.

Males were not the only enslaved casualties of war. Female slaves held by rebel families in the backcountry, facing Indians allied with the British, also perished in the war. In 1779, the Pennsylvania Gazette reported that on the Pennsylvania frontier “Samuel Glasswife and child, a negroe wench, and three children, were likewise killed and scalped by the Indians.” Often enslaved persons seemed to be caught in the middle of hostilities.

If wartime safety was elusive in the home, neither could it be found by running away. Early in the hostilities with Great Britain, the presence of British forces in Norfolk attracted many African American slaves in northern states to flee their bondage on farms and mills in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and New York, and attempt to make it to British lines where they expected to be able to live free in return for providing support to royal troops. Many reached Norfolk and served in some capacity for the British, but many more who attempted the journey were captured en route.

A 1775 report from colonial military authorities in Williamsburg, Virginia included the notice that “rivers will henceforth be strictly watched, and every possible precaution taken” to prevent fugitive slaves from joining the royal army. Some of those slaves headed off included a group of seven men and two women, “who had been endeavoring to get to Norfolk in an open boat.” Colonial patriots intercepted the group at Point Comfort after they came ashore and gave chase, succeeding in wounding two of the men before capturing the entire group. The report noted, “The rest will soon be made examples of.” While the report does not detail how these captured fugitives would be punished, the tone is ominous in light of the fear that a general slave uprising always produced in the white population. That fear, coupled with the heightened anxiety of war, and of the prospect that the enemy was actively encouraging slaves to enter into revolt, could be expected to produce fearful reprisals against captured fugitives who were suspected of planning to aid the king’s troops.

A fugitive slave that was caught up in the impending siege around Yorktown in 1781 wound up in New Jersey, under arrest and under threat of being sold. Bridgetown, New Jersey jailor Nathan Johnson advertised the capture of “One who calls himself Sip [short for Scipio?], and says that he came from York in a refugee boat, and was taken by the militia up [the] Potowmack River.” It is unlikely that Sip’s owner, probably caught in the siege, would have claimed him, so Sip was probably sold back into bondage and possibly a worse situation than the one he had left.

Slaves to British subjects sometimes found their fortunes changing because of the fighting. Two men who had been servants on the British warship General Monk, found themselves in a New Jersey jail while on their way to Pennsylvania. William Brown and Isaac Ball, both wearing sailor jackets, were captured in September 1782 and imprisoned as runaway slaves, under the threat of being sold if not claimed by an owner.

The General Monk was a British sloop of war, with eighteen guns, taken off Cape May by the Pennsylvania warship Hyder Ally, in a desperate and close range battle that killed twenty-three and wounded more than forty sailors. It was brought into Philadelphia on 9 April and the two enslaved sailors, Brown and Ball, apparently escaped and hid in New Jersey until their capture. As slaves serving on a British vessel, it is doubtful that they would have been claimed. Their original owners, however, may not have been the Royal Navy or even Tory citizens from whom the men were hired for naval service. The General Monk began life as a Continental Navy privateer named the George Washington. Upon its capture by Royal Navy warships, it was placed back in service and renamed the General Monk. Brown and Ball, as slaves assigned to the ship, may have originated with a patriot owner and were simply retained by the British as experienced hands.40

In another instance of slaves endangered by Tory owners, the slave of a Bucks Township man was placed in severe danger when the war began because his master stayed loyal to the British crown. Gilbert Hicks, the sheriff of Middletown, Bucks County, refused to recognize the Declaration of Independence as a legitimate document and insisted on opening court, as was his duty, in the name of King George. This angered his patriot neighbors and a dangerous situation developed:

A large number of people assembled at Newtown, then the county-seat, on the first day of the session. Hicks was then living at Four Lanes’ Ends and had sufficient discretion to remain at his home. A number of his friends mingled with the crowd to discover the drift of their deliberations, while a Negro slave was mounted on a fleet horse to apprise him of the result. When it was learned that the popular indignation was such as to endanger his life the Negro started for home with this intelligence as fast as be could go. When his object became apparent several horsemen started in hot pursuit, but failed to overtake him.41

The slave survived to bring the news to Hicks, and the Tory promptly departed for the friendlier shores of Nova Scotia. We can assume Hicks took his slave with him.



American Civil War

No conflict in American history presented greater dangers to bound or fleeing slaves than the Civil War. In previous national conflicts, death often arrived violently and swiftly from the muskets or tomahawks of frontier raiders. Fugitive slaves attempting to reach British lines were shot at by colonial troops. Arrest and imprisonment often awaited frightened refugees who fled besieged towns or captured warships. While fugitive slaves did die from injuries sustained in Civil War battles, bombardments and sieges, and others lost their temporary freedom upon being captured and returned south, a far greater danger lurked in the specters of starvation, exposure, and disease that haunted tens of thousands of refugees. Though it was not a new danger—slaves captured or liberated by British forces during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 faced similar fates—the scale of suffering experienced by runaways during the Civil War was much greater.

Just as slaves escaped the farms and homes of their owners during the Revolutionary War to join the British, so did southern slaves flee the plantations and farms when Union troops drew near during the Civil War. This flight, however, occurred on a much larger scale, and Union commanders soon found their camps flooded with bedraggled and road worn men, women and children, all intent upon keeping their newfound freedom by staying with the northern troops. As in the Revolutionary War, many were immediately put to work in a variety of roles in support of the troops: as laundresses, cooks, nurses, laborers, drovers, teamsters and personal servants. The numbers of incoming people did not diminish, however, and camp commanders soon found themselves unable to provide useful roles for all the arriving fugitives.

In addition, there were legal questions plaguing the commanders, as southern civilian slaveholders, on the legal footing provided by the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, soon began arriving at camp to demand the return of their slaves. Knowing that, in some instances, these slaves were being employed by southern slaveholders in the construction of enemy fortifications, the Union commanders were reluctant to return the fugitives and further bolster the Confederate war effort.

The situation was particularly critical at Fort Monroe, in Virginia, under the command of General Benjamin F. Butler. In a July 1861 letter to Secretary of War Simon Cameron, Butler reported that he had “nine hundred negroes, three hundred of whom are able-bodied men, thirty of whom are men substantially past hard labor, one hundred and seventy-five women, two hundred and twenty-five children under the age of ten years, and one hundred and seventy between ten and eighteen years, and many more coming in.” Butler asked two questions of Secretary Cameron: What should he do with them, and what was their constitutional status?

Prior to writing this letter, General Butler had dealt with the incoming refugees by putting them to work in the camps and refusing to return them to their southern masters, declaring that the fugitive slaves were “contrabands of war,” and could be confiscated by the army and used as if they were military supplies—a legally unsound, but practical solution that appealed to his abolitionist beliefs. Washington backed him up by allowing this policy, but only as it pertained to slaves that he could prove had been used by the southerners in the building of enemy fortifications. When it came time to move his army, however, Butler found in necessary to press the question with his superiors due to the sudden influx of panicked refugees who feared being left behind. “Are these men, women, and children slaves?” Butler inquired, or “Are they free? Is their condition that of men, women, and children, or of property?”

Sidestepping the “contraband” issue, Butler argued that many of the refugees, children in particular, were encumbrances to the army and had been abandoned by their previous owners to the “winter storm of starvation.” He than inquired, as abandoned property, did the refugees not then become the property of those who salvaged them? Furthermore, Butler argued, as the northern troops refused to own human property and “will assume no such ownership: has not, therefore, all proprietary relation ceased? Have they not become, thereupon, men, women, and children?”42

Butler’s argument against existing policy, and in support of accepting and harboring all incoming fugitive slaves, was emotional and pragmatic, from an abolitionist point of view, and it was also appealing to Secretary of War Cameron, who assented to Butler’s request in the carefully chosen language of an experienced lawyer, noting “It is quite apparent under the laws of the State under which only the services of such fugitives can be claimed must needs be wholly or almost wholly superseded, as to the remedies, by the insurrection and the military measures necessitated by it. And it is equally apparent,” he continued, “that the substitution of military for judicial measures for the enforcement of such claims must be attended by great inconvenience, embarrassments and injuries.”

Cameron concluded that Butler’s policy of accepting and caring for all incoming refugees “as circumstances may suggest or require” was legally defensible, as long as appropriate records were kept for all cases. Congress, Secretary Cameron reasoned, would sort out the necessity for compensation “after tranquility shall have been restored upon the return of peace.”43

Butler received the answer he sought, reinforced with enough legal ambiguity to carry on his policy through the end of the war. He had a political ally in Cameron, if not a philosophical one. Though not an abolitionist, Harrisburg’s Simon Cameron had cast his lot with the free soil Republicans prior to the Civil War. Politically savvy and very ambitious, Cameron, in 1860, declared himself a Republican candidate for president and took an influential delegation to the party convention in Chicago. There, after much political wrangling, Cameron threw his support behind Abraham Lincoln in return for the promise of a Cabinet position. After the election, Lincoln withheld the post of Secretary of the Treasury, a post that Cameron, who counted banking among his many vocations, really wanted, and offered to him instead the appointment as Secretary of War.

It was during Simon Cameron's tenure as Secretary of War that he proposed that slaves freed by Union troops, such as those under the protection of General Butler in Virginia, be immediately emancipated and used in the war effort, either as laborers or as armed troops. In his 1 December 1861 Annual Report, in which he advanced ideas much more radical than he had endorsed to Butler in August, Cameron wrote:

If it shall be found that the men who have been held by the rebels as slaves are capable of bearing arms and performing efficient military service, it is the right, and may become the duty, of this Government to arm and equip them, and employ their services against the rebels, under proper military regulations, discipline and command.

But in whatever manner they may be used by the Government, it is plain that, once liberated by the rebellious act of their masters, they should never again be restored to bondage. By the master's treason and rebellion he forfeits all right to the labor and service of his slave; and the slave of the rebellious master, by his service to the Government, becomes justly entitled to freedom and protection.

Unfortunately for Cameron and the cause of African American liberation, Lincoln felt that the nation was not yet ready for emancipation and arming African Americans as soldiers, and censored Cameron's report, demanding the removal of the portions referring to emancipation and arming former slaves.44 Cameron complied, but sent uncensored copies of the report to the newspapers, infuriating those members of the administration who opposed hard-line dealings with the Southern states. The resulting furor was one of several reasons that Lincoln replaced Cameron with Edwin Stanton, assigning the Pennsylvanian to the recently vacated post of Minister to Russia. Cameron’s proposal to arm fugitive slaves, however, would not die. It would reappear later with increased support as the war took an ever-increasing toll on the nation.

Back in Virginia, Butler’s “contrabands” continued to enter Union lines, and would flock to Union troops and camps long after the abolitionist general left that command. Though it stood on shaky legal ground, the policy gained considerable popular support as the war dragged on, and images of fugitive slave refugees, now all commonly termed “contrabands,” appeared in popular magazines and newspaper accounts. The cover of Harpers’ Weekly, for 21 December 1861, featured a sketch of an idyllic contraband camp. With the title “Work’s Over,” the image showed relaxing, dancing, socializing fugitive slaves in a relatively sanitary and well-kept environment.

Such images spread the idea that life for fugitive slaves behind union lines was easygoing and carefree. This impression only fueled the influx of refugees over the next few months, as warmer weather and Union advances increased the opportunity for escape. Northern newspapers regularly reported large numbers of fugitive slaves headed for the North, as in this “News from Washington,” from the New York Times, which reported, under the subheading “Contrabands,” that a train from Harpers Ferry had just arrived in Baltimore with “a lot of contrabands, estimated at over one hundred in number, en route for the North.”45 The larger question now became how to handle this tide of humanity, most of who were in desperate need of care.

One solution was to create special quarters to house these persons, with associated services such as hospitals, schools, and kitchens. This method was tried on a large scale in Alexandria, Virginia, where the contraband population soared to more than 18,000 in 1863. Refugees were housed in large barracks, built just for this purpose. But like many such arrangements of large numbers of people in cramped living conditions, the logistics of proper hygiene and sanitation proved to be too much for those overseeing the camp. The only freedom that thousands of former slaves found here was that brought by death, as smallpox, typhoid and dysentery ravaged the occupants. The dead soon overwhelmed the spaces provided in existing graveyards, and the government found it necessary to establish a much larger graveyard to handle the needs of the camp. Freedmen’s Cemetery, as it came to be known, became the final resting place of more than 1800 persons, more than half of whom were children.46 For fugitive slaves, disease became a foe more deadly in wartime than reprisals for recapture, or enemy shells and bullets.

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38. James Curry, “Narrative of James Curry, A Fugitive Slave,” in Liberator, 10 January 1840; Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (New York: Miller, Orton & Mulligan, 1855), 339.

39. "History of Lower Turkey-Foot Township," PAGenWeb, (accessed 5 January 2008); Pennsylvania Gazette, 18 March 1756.

40. "Slaves in Lancaster County in 1780.”
For an example of owners leasing slaves for service on navy vessels see the 27 October 1780 registration of slave Jack by Lancaster slaveholder Thomas Parker, who noted that Jack was “now at Sea on board the vessel call'd the Jolly Trooper, Captain Howell, Commander." For military references, see Henry C. Bradsby, History of Luzerne County, Pennsylvania (Chicago: S. B. Nelson, 1893), 371 and Pennsylvania Gazette, 13 December 1775, 12 May 1779, 22 August 1781, 10 April, and 4 September 1782.

41. J. H. Battle, ed., The History of Bucks County, Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: n.p., 1887), 446.

42. Benjamin F. Butler to Simon Cameron, 30 July 1861, in The Rebellion Record: A Diary of American Events, with Documents, Narratives, Illustrative Incidents, Poetry, etc., etc., ed. Frank Moore (New York: Putnam, 1862), 2:437-438.

43. Simon Cameron to Benjamin F. Butler, 8 August 1861, in The Rebellion Record, ed. Moore, 2:493.

44. “Report of the Secretary of War, December 1, 1862,” in Edward McPherson, The Political History of the United States of America, During the Great Rebellion, 4th ed. (Washington, DC: James J. Chapman, 1882), 249.

45. “News from Washington,” New York Times, 29 March 1862, 5.

46. Margaret Richardson, “Alexandria Freedmen’s Cemetery Historical Overview,” City of Alexandria, Virginia, April 2007, (accessed 21 January 2008).


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.

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