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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 Eight
Backlash, Violence and Fear: The Violent Decade

     Since the people of the northern borders will not obey or respect the common law of the United States, the people of the neighboring southern States should make them know and respect the law of the sword, the rifle, the tar barrel, and the grape vine. A fierce border war is evidently to be the only protection and hope of the southern states.
     Excerpt from a fiery editorial piece published in the Richmond Enquirer, 1850.1

If the 1840s were a decade in which Harrisburg anti-slavery advocates could boast, in the words of activist John C. Bowers, that “the cause has been onward,” such forward momentum on behalf of “the downtrodden and oppressed” was brought to an abrupt halt early in the next decade by passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, in late 1850.

Even as the African American residents of Short Street were gathering in a public show of defiance to protect a family of fugitive slaves secreted in their midst from the clutches of Southern slave catchers, larger events were playing out on the national stage that would radically change the methods that they and other Harrisburg Underground Railroad activists had employed with success for decades. The large public turnout of African American citizens in support of captured fugitives, and the employment of talented local lawyers to argue the cause of human rights on behalf of accused slaves before impartial judges was about to be severely stifled by the new legislation. Although these tactics would later return and would again become valuable and effective weapons in the abolitionist arsenal, their temporary loss was keenly felt by those activists who, at the start of the decade, had still been publicly defiant, and who had been emboldened by the state’s endorsement of the Personal Liberty Laws.

Ironically, it was the bold and defiant actions of Pennsylvania’s anti-slavery activists that triggered a Southern push to incorporate the most severe provisions into the new law. By the time, in 1847, that Dickinson languages professor John McClintock had vehemently voiced his opposition to the use of the Carlisle jail and deputies to detain Lloyd Brown, Ann Brown, and Hester Norman as escaped slaves, thus setting in motion events that would culminate with Hagerstown slave owner James Hugh Kennedy lying in Liberty Alley with fatal injuries, Southern slave holders had already long been expressing outrage at the complicity of some Pennsylvanians in abetting the escape of their slaves. Kennedy’s death gave the slave owners a new cause and new impetus to renew their lobbying for protection of their rights under the Constitution—rights that had been affirmed, they pointed out, by the United States Supreme Court in Prigg v. Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania’s anti-slavery advocates did not see it that way, and because they had the momentum of public opinion on their side due to the notorious abuses of kidnappers like Thomas Finnegan, they could hold back the tide of pro-Southern sympathies through the 1840s with their Personal Liberty Laws.2 Nationally, though, the slavery question remained a thorny issue, spurring a furious national debate over the real reasons for the 1846 War with Mexico. William Lloyd Garrison published a guest editorial in the Liberator that summarized the war from the abolitionist point of view. It railed, “Our readers will perceive that hostilities have actually commenced between Mexico and the United States. This is no more than war anticipated at the commencement of the efforts to rob Mexico of her territory. This is clearly a war for slavery! The Seminole war was a war to break up the refuge of the fleeing slaves in the everglades of Florida. The present war is a war for the extension of territory for the accommodation of Slavery.”3

Abolitionists generally remained openly opposed to the war through most of its prosecution and had sympathetic representatives in Congress offer resolutions to end the war and begin peace negotiations with Mexico. Supporters of the war, including President James K. Polk, accused those who spoke out against the hostilities of giving aid and comfort to the enemy. Such charges were based on the steady drumbeat of anti-war reporting in abolitionist newspapers like the Liberator, which called the war “the most atheistical and impious war ever recorded on the gory page of History.”4 Garrison, in typical style, was not gun-shy about promoting the inglorious side of war and thereby placing himself and his newspaper on the unpopular side of public opinion. In his 30 July 1847 edition, he reprinted a story from the Tennessee Whig on the losses of just two local regiments:

Col. W.P. Campbell's first regiment of Tennessee volunteers numbered 1,000 brave men on their march to Mexico. Only 350, rank and file, of this gallant regiment, returned with their Colonel to their homes.
Col. Wm. T. Haskell's 2d regiment of Tennessee volunteers numbered 1,040, on their march to Mexico. Only 360 of these gallant men, rank and file, returned with Col. Haskell, to their homes and friends—their wives and children—their fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, and other relatives and friends.

The rest of them—thirteen hundred and thirty —sickness and bullets, disease end shot and swords, have consigned to an early grave in a foreign land, far from their native homes, without coffins and winding sheets, or head-stones to tell who they are or where they are.

Harrisburg residents had no trouble deciding how they viewed the war with Mexico. They placed their support squarely behind the Cameron Guards, a company of one hundred local men who volunteered for duty when President Polk asked Pennsylvania for troops to serve in the war. The Harrisburg men were enrolled in late December 1846 and mustered into service at Pittsburgh on 2 January 1847. From Pittsburgh, they traveled south to New Orleans, from where they departed for the battlefields in the west. In Mexico, they saw plenty of action, taking part in many of the major battles, including the climactic storming of Chapultepec Castle and the occupation of Mexico City.

At least nineteen men died in combat or from disease and another fifteen to twenty were missing due to wounds or desertion when the sixty or so survivors returned to Harrisburg in July 1848 to a joyous welcome. Celebrations including the ringing of church bells and the firing of cannons along Market Street. The veterans were then escorted to the public grounds next to the Capitol to listen to patriotic speeches in their honor.5

These public grounds also happened to adjoin Tanner’s Alley, and the excitement doubtless attracted many of the residents of that neighborhood, who would have enjoyed the festivities and temporary holiday to honor the returning war heroes even though many among them were dedicated abolitionists who faithfully read the anti-war stories and editorials in the pages of the Liberator.

One month after the 1848 victory celebration, one of the fruits of that war—Alta California—would seriously unbalance Washington’s never-ending slavery balancing act when it was announced in the New York Herald that settlers had discovered gold on its soil. By December, a full-scale gold rush was on, as tens of thousands of people flocked by land and sea to San Francisco to seek their fortunes.

The influx of “Forty-Niners,” as the prospectors were called, in reference to the year that gold fever enticed huge numbers of people to abandon their homes for the gold fields, included many Southerners and their slaves, but it also included many northeasterners with an anti-slavery bent, and even a few hardcore abolitionists, such as Dr. Lewis C. Gunn, of Philadelphia. Others perceived that they cold reap a tidy profit without ever leaving the east coast.

New England merchant, anti-slavery lecturer, and Underground Railroad activist Arnold Buffum was savvy enough to capitalize on the gold craze among abolitionists, advertising in the National Era that he had for ready sale “All necessary California outfits of the first class, and at the lowest prices including quicksilver gold separators, California blankets - red, blue, green, and brown; California hats, &c.”

The gold rush even held out promise of a new start for some fugitive slaves, who sought not only the possible fortune of a gold strike, but freedom among the multi-ethnic people who were settling there. One man who left central Pennsylvania for San Francisco was escaped slave and Underground Railroad activist James Williams. Williams had escaped from Elkton, Maryland in the late 1830s, met Daniel Gibbons in Lancaster, and later joined the movement, working in partnership with local abolitionists to smuggle fugitive slaves in the Reading, Lancaster, and Pottsville areas.6 Williams was just one of many African Americans, born both free and enslaved, who left Pennsylvania for California.

Pressure to add this new territory, by now referred to simply as California, to the Union became intense as the gold fields continued to attract large numbers of people—about ninety thousand in 1849 alone—overwhelming the capacity of the territorial authorities to effectively govern. But the addition of one more state would upset the precarious balance of fifteen slave states and fifteen free states.
In addition, California presented a particularly thorny problem because its territorial constitution prohibited slavery, a provision that John C. Calhoun asserted was an abolitionist plot to gain free-soil power in the U.S. Senate. In reality, territorial delegates had debated the slavery question fiercely in California’s 1849 Constitutional Convention, and in the end, the pro-slavery advocates failed to get their desired protections written into the final document. It appeared that Congress had to admit California to the Union as a free state, but in order for this to happen, a unique solution to maintain harmony among a dangerously polarized nation was needed.

This solution came from Kentucky Senator Henry Clay in the form of “an amicable arrangement” that would become known as the Compromise of 1850. In his series of bills, known collectively as the Omnibus Bill, California would be admitted to the Union as a free state as stipulated by its constitution, a concession to those who opposed the extension of slavery in the west. Pro-slavery advocates were in turn placated with the provision that popular sovereignty would determine the future of slavery within the Mexican Cession territories of New Mexico and Utah.

Although this still allowed for an imbalance in the U.S. Senate, Clay proposed to protect the interests of slaveholders with a substantial strengthening of the 1793 Fugitive Slave Law, the enforcement of which had been progressively weakened by the patchwork of laws that developed in the Northern states over the decades. This “Fugitive Slave Act of 1850” mollified the slaveholders and the South because it rolled back the protective Personal Liberty Laws passed by Pennsylvania and other Northern states to shield African American residents from kidnappers and slave hunters.

After months of bitter debate, Congress passed the compromise legislation, hailing it as a final end to the slavery question, and in September 1850, President Millard Fillmore signed it into law. What resulted from this monumental effort to forestall the threatened breakup of the union was not much of a compromise, and it was anything but a solution to the slavery question that had plagued this country from its birth.

The workhorse of the Compromise was the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, which was intended to soothe the friction between Northern and Southern states by standardizing and codifying the process for hunting, capturing, and returning fugitive slaves to their owners across state lines. Instead of reducing friction, though, the new law hit the gears of sectional relations like a bucket of rocks, and opened the border counties of Pennsylvania to a decade of unprecedented violence.


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1. “Mine Dream,” Daily Ohio State Journal, 19 November 1850.

2. A good example of the pro-southern sympathies held by local citizens is in the prospectus published in 1846 by Carlisle resident G. A. Doyle for a new newspaper to be devoted to the capture of fugitive slaves. The publishing venture, to be named the Pennsylvania News, was “to be devoted to the interests of the people in Maryland and Virginia, to expose those who secrete fugitive negroes from the South.” Furthermore, the publisher of the newspaper proposed “to engage men in all the towns along the Pennsylvania line, to give us the earliest information regarding any runaway negroes who may attempt to pass through Pennsylvania.” That information was to be “put into the hands of our patrons as soon as possible.” The publisher would also solicit “descriptive letters” written by the owners of escaped slaves, publish them in sufficient quantities, and forward them to volunteer pro-South border guards. The proposed publishing venture does not appear to have gone into operation, however. Liberator, 15 May 1846.

3. “War for Slavery,” Utica Liberty Press, republished in Liberator, 5 June 1846.

4. For peace resolutions and anti-war resolutions see Liberator, 25 February 1848. For accusations that peace advocates were giving aid and comfort to the enemy, see Liberator, 12 February 1847.

5. In 1869, the Keystone State’s Mexican War volunteers would be honored by a sixty-four-foot marble and granite monument, erected on the same grounds at which Harrisburg cheered its war survivors on a July day in 1848. Morgan, Annals of Harrisburg, 207-211. Frew, Building Harrisburg, 64.

6. National Era, 18 April 1850; Williams, Life and Adventures, 11-16, 24.
Quaker merchant Arnold Buffum, 1782-1859, was first president of the New England Anti-Slavery Society, and the person who convinced William Lloyd Garrison to go on the lecture circuit in 1832. His sons went west to California, one of whom, Edward Gould Buffum, was elected to the early state legislature from San Francisco. Arnold Buffum, in his role as an entrepreneur, ran frequent advertisements aimed at persons thinking about making their fortunes in California, all attesting to the quality and ingenuity of his unique gold-panning gear. All had a get-rich-quick feel to them, and they no doubt contributed to the national gold fever. In the 22 November 1849 issue of the National Era, Buffum exhibited his flair for salesmanship with this typical ad:

California Gold Hunters no longer have occasion to go without the most perfect gold-gathering apparatus. Arnold Buffum, having received instructions from his sons in California, has constructed a most perfect apparatus for taking up gold from river beds 20 feet under water - price, $15. Also, a wonder-working, gold-saving, triple-rapid separator, for $2. More than 200 of them were sold for the last three steamers, at the California Depot, 11 Park Row, New York. When such an outfit can be had for $17, who will go without it?

Buffum’s choice of the National Era for his advertisements was not incidental. Its editor was anti-slavery lecturer, activist, and Underground Railroad agent William L. Chaplin. Chaplin was a true adventurer who backed his words with action by transporting fugitive slaves from Washington to the Wolf Hill Underground Railroad station of James McAllister, near Gettysburg in Adams County. A McAllister family member who witnessed many of the deliveries estimated that Chaplin brought about twenty fugitives to the farm beginning in 1846. His last trip, in 1850, was observed, and his carriage was pursued and captured in Montgomery County, Maryland by Washington police, who charged him with helping two slaves belonging to U.S. Congressmen Robert Toombs and Alexander Stephens to escape. The slaves were sheltered at McAllister's farm and forwarded to Quaker William Wright at York Springs, and then on to agents in Harrisburg. Caba, Episodes of Gettysburg, 66-74, 81.


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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