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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 Six
No Haven on Free Soil


I must also further inform you that the ffive Nations have agreed in the same Treaty, that neither they nor you shall receive or harbor any Negroes on any accot. whatsoever, but if any of them be found by the Indians in the woods, they shall be taken up and brought to the Governour that they may be returned to their masters, for you know the Negroes are Slaves.
Message from Pennsylvania Governor William Keith to the Indians at Conestogo. 11 October 1722 1

Be it remembered that on the fourteenth day of June eighteen hundred and twenty-eight Singleton Burgee, of Frederick County in the state of Maryland brought before the subscriber one of the judges of the court of Common Pleas for said county a dark mulatto man called James Campbell, 5 ft 6 in high, 30 years old, has a scar on his hand and acknowledged himself to be the slave of said Burgess-To whom an order was granted on the same day for his removal according to law Given my hand and seal this 16th day of June 1828. M McClean
Warrant for the removal of fugitive slave James Campbell from Gettysburg back to slavery in Frederick County, Maryland 2


On a cold early spring day in April 1863, the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac, in camp near Fredericksburg, Virginia, assembled in review for several distinguished guests. It had been a grim winter. Their beloved General McClellan had been replaced in November by the spectacularly bewhiskered Ambrose Burnside, who in December led them into bloody disaster and defeat on the frozen fields around Fredericksburg. Burnside followed that debacle in January with the ignominious and poorly timed “mud march.” Morale among the soldiers plummeted, and rose again only when Burnside was in turn replaced by Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker, who, while not as popular with the men as their “Young Napoleon” McClellan, at least had a reputation for taking the fight to the enemy.

Hooker had faith in his men and bragged that he now commanded “the finest army on the planet.” His optimistic view that we would soon handily defeat his opponent was primarily founded on simple arithmetic: he commanded 130,000 ostensibly able-bodied men against Robert E. Lee’s 61,000 poorly fed men. Hooker’s numerical advantage, however, existed only on paper. Many thousands of men, discouraged by the strategic blunders and military mismanagement of Burnside, had deserted, and many thousands more were in the hospitals recovering from wounds or the ravaging health effects of a long and brutal winter.

Conversely, Lee’s men, although lacking regular rations, were in good spirits, and the smaller numbers were only temporary. Two entire divisions had been sent to the southeast portion of Virginia under General Longstreet’s command, and were due to return in the coming weeks. Nevertheless, spirits soared that spring among the Northern soldiers when they learned of Fighting Joe’s reported words to his generals: “May God have mercy on General Lee, for I will have none.”3

The proximity to Washington of the Union army’s winter quarters meant that visitors from the capital in the winter and spring of 1863 were frequent. The visitors seated on the reviewing stand on this particular day, however, were special enough to warrant a turnout of all the infantry, cavalry, and artillery units under General Hooker’s command. No less than the president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, his wife Mary Todd Lincoln, and son Tad were seated next to the general and his staff on the wooden platform. Newspaper artists preserved the event in sketches and lithographs, and reporters jotted down that the first lady wore “a rich black dress,” with a velvet trimmed cape and simple black hat, while the president warded off the cold with in a dark overcoat and fur muffler. Tad, who had just turned ten years old, sported a miniature uniform with a gray cloak.

Seated near the president was the commander of the crack Second Corps, Darius N. Couch, who, in two short months would be sent to Harrisburg to take charge of the Department of the Susquehanna. In that new post, Darius Couch would be the hard-pressed man responsible for the defense of Pennsylvania against a gray onslaught, but on this day he was no doubt enjoying dreams of defeating Robert E. Lee in Virginia as General Hooker’s right-hand man.

It was to General Couch that the president confided his thoughts this day, as they observed for hours the thousands of splendidly arrayed men before them. Couch later wrote of the day, writing how Lincoln, “hat off, head bent,” appeared to be meditating at one point, when he suddenly leaned toward the Second Corps commander and asked, “General Couch, what do you suppose will become of all these men when the war is over?” Couch recalled, “It struck me as very pleasant that somebody had an idea that the war would sometime end.”4

To that end, the president, who was as weary of timid, slow-moving generals as he was of the war itself, was far ahead of Couch and the rest of his generals in his strategic thinking. Nearly a half year before, he had taken the highly controversial and bold step of officially declaring the conflict a war against slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation, issued the previous September and taking effect with the New Year, only stated what abolitionists and free blacks had known all along. Yet now the president had clarified the war effort, drew strict moral boundaries, and had laid the foundation to bring to a conclusion that which until now had been a bloody test of wills between North and South that could have stretched on indefinitely.

But that was no longer the reality of the struggle. The document was written for friend and foe, and for allies and enemies abroad; Old Abe had “Let all the nations know, To earth’s remotest bound.” His proclamation, which was hailed that late winter night in Harrisburg by the eloquent Wolf, Bennett and Stevens as “a new era in our country’s history,” had changed the outward face of the war, and whether white soldiers in the ranks hated or hailed the change, it was done, and mentally the combatants would soon be ready to end the thing.

But the high-sounding rhetoric and the hoped for new era changed little of the gritty reality for escaped slaves in Harrisburg. Danger still lurked behind every stranger’s face and every lawman’s badge. It did not matter that the town was teeming with soldiers uniformed in blue and sworn to defend the union. Even though the North and South, by the spring of 1863, were now fighting over the issue of slavery, fugitive slaves still could not feel totally safe just because they crossed over the Mason-Dixon Line. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was still the law, and even after the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, was still applicable for certain situations. So it happened that, at the same time that the man whose signature on a document had turned the conflict into a struggle to abolish slavery was musing to General Couch about the end of the war, a federal deputy was legally hauling an African American man through the streets of Harrisburg to haul him back to chattel slavery in the South. The incident angered local residents, and was described in the pages of the Harrisburg Daily Telegraph under the headline, “A Fugitive Slave:”

An officer passed through this city at noon today, taking the cars for Baltimore, in charge of a fugitive slave, whom he was conveying to his "master" in Maryland. The party had traveled all the way from Michigan, and the "slave" seemed to submit to his fate with apparent indifference. Who will say that the laws are not respected and maintained in the loyal States?5

The Emancipation Proclamation declared that all slaves held in states "in rebellion against the United States" were free as of 1 January 1863. Maryland, a slave state, had never left the Union and was therefore not in rebellion. The Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to it, and the lawman mentioned in the article above was within the law in returning the captured fugitive slave to bondage in Baltimore. It was newsworthy more for its editorial merit—Telegraph editor George Bergner used it to counter southern charges that northern abolitionists were flouting national law by harboring fugitive slaves--not because it was an unusual event.

If anything, this incident, though it epitomized a horrible reality for blacks in America, represented the norm in Harrisburg. Slave owners, professional slave catchers, local sheriffs, and federal lawmen had been pursuing fugitive slaves down streets, over fences and through fields around Harrisburg since before the town was founded. The case of Scipio, described earlier, who escaped from Captain Thomas Prather in Prince George’s County, Maryland and was later spotted near Harris’ Ferry in 1749, is the earliest documented example. Although he was not actively pursued through the backcountry, an advertisement in a widely circulated newspaper betrayed him, and if he had attempted to stay in these parts, he would not have been safe. No escaped slaves were safe here, prior to the early decades of the nineteenth century, and relatively few found more than temporary safety after that. There were no guarantees of protection, and “settled” freedom seekers always had to look over their shoulders.

We have seen how, in the late 1700s and early 1800s, local citizens cooperated with county jailors to imprison suspected fugitive slaves until such time as their owner could be located to claim them. The rewards offered by slaveholders were an incentive, but it was also often done both as a matter of keeping public order, as strangers passing through were usually looked upon with suspicion, and as a matter of respect for property rights. Suspected runaway slaves were captured and detained by white citizens in much the same way and for the same reason that a wayward steer was rounded up and returned to its owner: it was simply viewed as the neighborly thing to do.

Finding refuge in such a hostile land meant avoiding detection by local farmers and townspeople. This was no easy task in the decades when everyone know everyone else, and farmers easily recognized and often knew by name the slaves and servants of their neighbors. Finding temporary haven usually meant hiding in remote outdoor locations, where freedom seekers were subject to the dangers of extreme weather, insects, hunger, lack of medical care for injuries and illness, and even attacks by wild predatory animals.

Successfully recovering a lost slave, in the eighteenth century, often depended upon making everyone the slave might encounter aware of his escape. Local handbills and word-of-mouth worked fine when the search centered on the local county. But when it became apparent that the slave was headed further a field, advertisements in the local and neighboring newspapers served to spread the word more effectively. Early runaway slave ads frequently included a plea for editors of neighboring newspapers to copy the ad as a public service. Later ads found it necessary to include the phrase “and charge the subscriber,” a sign that such advertisements were increasingly viewed less as a public service than as a good source of advertising revenue, especially in border state newspapers. Editors of newspapers in places such as Lancaster, Gettysburg, York, Harrisburg, and Carlisle regularly inserted runaway slave advertisements in their columns from local slaveholders, but soon found those ads eclipsed in number by ads from slaveholders in Maryland and Virginia.

It is certainly true that Pennsylvania became a destination for southern freedom seekers, particularly after 1780 and the passage of the state’s Gradual Abolition law, and the mid-state, and Harrisburg in particular, soon became a popular stop on the path to freedom, if not an objective. As early as 1802, Harrisburg was notorious as a destination for runaway slaves. Virginia slaveholder Levi Martin used printed handbills to offer a reward of one hundred dollars for the return of a long absconded slave, Jerry Arthur. Arthur, who was called Briscoe’s Jerry on the Shepherdstown farm of Martin, had run away in December 1799 with a forged pass. Despite having a wife in Virginia, Martin wrote, “it is expected he has gone towards Harrisburg or Philadelphia.”

Washington County, Maryland slaveholder Thomas B. Williams advertised in the Harrisburg newspaper, Commonwealth, in 1824 for his slave Abraham Johns, who took off from a late summer religious revival camp meeting. Abraham had “said he should go as a preacher to Pennsylvania,” according to Williams.6 This idea that freedom could be obtained by crossing north over the Mason-Dixon line was strong and real among southern slaves, and many talked of the help that was available from sympathetic northerners, especially Quakers and free African Americans. Indeed, southerners frequently complained about the aid that escaped slaves received, and this perceived willingness on the part of residents of the Keystone State to help escaped freedom seekers became a source of great friction as early as the 1780s, and escalated into protective legislation, outright threats, and even open hostility by the 1850s. Pockets of strong anti-slavery sentiment did exist in Pennsylvania, even in the earliest years, but there were few decades or places in the state where a former southern slave could feel safe, and there was no community that was immune from unexpected searches and raids by slave catchers. Even civil war could not stop the capture of slaves on northern soil.

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1. Pennsylvania Archives, Colonial Series, vol. 3, Minutes of the Provincial Council, 211.

2. “Warrants for Slave Removals, Adams County, Pennsylvania,” Microfilm, Adams County Courthouse, Gettysburg, PA, compiled by Deborah McCauslin, For the Cause Productions, (accessed 9 July 2009).

3. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1954), 359-360; Wilmer Jones, Generals in Blue and Gray: Davis’ Generals, vol. 2 (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2004), 81.

4. Sandburg, War Years, 362; Darius N. Couch, “Sumner’s Right Grand Division,” Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, vol. 3 (1884; repr., Secaucus, NJ: Castle, 1987), 119-120.

5. Daily Telegraph, 16 April 1863.

6. John Alburtis, handbill “One Hundred Dollars Reward,” Martinsburg, Virginia, October 27, 1802; Harrisburg Commonwealth, 3 February 1824.
The popularity of Harrisburg as a destination or resting place for runaway slaves is readily attested to by the profusion of runaway slave advertisements that appeared in Harrisburg newspapers from Southern slaveholders. A good example is the following highly descriptive and probably expensive advertisement placed in the Oracle of Dauphin on 23 January 1813. The slave described here, Baker, was quite prepared for his escape, taking a pass and several changes of clothing, including boots and overcoats to survive cold and adverse weather:

“Fifty Dollars reward. Ran away from the subscriber, in April last, a bright mulatto man, named Baker, formerly the property of Charles Lewis, of Rockingham county, Va. He is about thirty years of age; about six feet high, thin visage; walks quick; he is a straight and handsome fellow, speaks quick; I believe he has a considerable scar on one of his shins, perhaps has a pass, which is not good without the county seal; not a doubt but he will change his name. He had on when he left the premises, a wool hat, striped blue and white linsey overalls; he also had a quantity of very good clothing, viz. three great coats, one light blue, one drab made for a low person, one brown rough wool, a superfine black cloth close body coat, covered buttons; two pair of pantaloons of the best kind of dove colored corduroy, a scarlet jacket; two or three white dimity jackets; a bottle green cloth coat and pantaloons; a pair of very good boots, and a number of other clothing that I do not recollect. Baker was raised, I believe, in King George county, Va. The above reward will be given to any person that will deliver him to me and all reasonable charges paid, or confine him in jail so that I can get him again. Adam Shirley. Augusta county, Va. Jan. 13, 1813. N.B. all masters of vessels and others are forbid employing, or harboring said runaway, on their peril.”


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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