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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 Nine
Deluge (continued)


The Harrisburg-Harpers Ferry Connections

Events in Harrisburg during this time were scarcely less dramatic than those that engulfed the hotspots of Chambersburg, Carlisle, and Mont Alto. The town was abounding with rumors of escape plots, rescue plots, and the massing of armies ready to march against Virginia. At no time prior did the prospect of a bloody border war, as foreseen by the editor of the Richmond Enquirer, whose 1850 threat of “a foray into Pennsylvania…with burnings to the ground of a few such towns as Harrisburg,” seem to be more within the realm of possibilities considering the highly agitated and fearful state of Pennsylvania’s Southern neighbors in the wake of John Brown’s raid.

The fears might have been easier to dismiss, had there not been actual plots afoot, such as those by a well-known abolitionist and Republican state senator and his wife. To fuel the rumor furnace even more, one of John Brown’s raiders, Shields Green—the young man who had accompanied Frederick Douglass to Chambersburg to meet Brown in an abandoned stone quarry—told his captors that he was from Harrisburg. The Valley Spirit newspaper then connected Green to other violence, reporting, “A negro named Green, who was conspicuous in the fugitive slave riot at Harrisburg some years ago, was among the insurgents.”36 That news article had appeared only a day after the Harrisburg Telegraph reported that the local black militia unit, the Garnet Guards, was to be disarmed, and questioned how they had acquired muskets in the first place.

More Harrisburg connections soon became known. On the Monday after Albert Hazlett appeared in Chambersburg, John Edwin Cook’s wife and child, who had been staying at the Widow Ritner’s boarding house, packed their belongings and left town on the early morning train for Harrisburg. Cook's wife supposedly found lodging in the same hotel in Harrisburg at which Martha Brown, the sixteen-year-old daughter-in-law of John Brown, was staying.

While he was supervising affairs in Chambersburg, John Kagi had occasional communications with Harrisburg, and several of John Brown’s men occasionally passed through town on their way to Harrisburg. Indeed, the last time that John Brown saw his daughter Anne and daughter-in-law Martha (wife of his son Oliver) was at the train station on Market Street in Harrisburg, on 30 September, when the girls parted ways with their father, he traveling to the Kennedy farm in Maryland, and they returning home to the family farm in New York.37 From the circumstantial evidence that began turning up in the weeks after the ill-fated raid, Harrisburg appeared to have played a key role in the planning and staging of the raid, even if the details of that role were not fully known.


Rumors of Desperadoes

In Harpers Ferry, the rumors of a rescue attempt by rabid abolitionists seemed very real. On 26 October, Superintendent of the Federal Arsenal Alfred M. Barbour telegraphed an urgent message to the president of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, warning, “I have received a letter from a reliable friend in New York city, in which he says the abolitionists speak openly of the rescue of Brown and his party. He thinks a large band of desperadoes will make the effort. It is my duty to inform you that your property here may be destroyed. You had better take measures to protect it at once—the effort may be made to-night. I have telegraphed the Secretary of War and Gov. Wise. You should act at once."38

The rumors were taken very seriously, and Harrisburg gradually emerged as the place from which a rescue attempt would be launched. In Virginia, the Staunton Vindicator printed information from a correspondent in Harrisburg who overheard men on a train discussing the imminent rescue of John Brown.39 A letter that came to the attention of Virginia Governor Henry A. Wise, postmarked from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, warned that the Pennsylvania capital harbored a unit of armed men preparing to leave in time to free John Brown by force on the day of his scheduled execution.40

Although these supposed rescue attempts never materialized, there is reason to believe that they were possibly more than just figments of paranoid imagination. There was indeed talk of rescuing John Brown, although the speed with which his trial was conducted, and the swiftness of and security surrounding his execution on 2 December 1859 made it obvious that any attempt would have been futile. The gathering of intelligence and logistical planning alone would have taken many more weeks than were available before the date of his execution. But that is not to say that these did not occur.


Rendezvous at Harrisburg

When it became apparent that there was no possible way to save John Brown, or any of the men who were hung during the two weeks following his execution, those who were actually plotting a rescue attempt turned their attention to saving Albert Hazlett and Aaron Dwight Stevens, whose trial would not occur until 2 February 1860, which left plenty of time for plotting.

A plan to rescue the last two captives of the Harpers Ferry raid was devised by two of John Brown’s New England backers, Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, and a Kansas associate, Richard J. Hinton. The three men began rounding up personnel and funds, with Higginson taking the lead.

In January 1860, Higginson dispatched Hinton to Kansas to enlist Captain James Montgomery, one of the few men Higginson trusted to lead a daring winter rescue raid into the mountains of western Virginia. While Hinton was hunting down Montgomery, Higginson began scraping together money, beginning with some of his own, and getting permission from Mary Day Brown, John Brown’s widow, to use some of the funds that he had collected for the family. Publishers William W. Thayer and Charles Eldridge, who had rushed into print a wildly successful fundraising biography of the martyred Brown, written by New York Tribune reporter James Redpath, contributed eight hundred dollars. Thayer brought half of the money to Harrisburg as seed money for the operation. Other contributions were collected from various sources, all quite quietly, until Higginson had cash or pledges for nearly $1800.41

“ It was decided,” wrote Higginson, “that an attempt at rescue could best be made from a rendezvous at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.” It made sense. Harrisburg had been a safe fallback point for Brown and his men as they organized the operation, and it was already serving as a rendezvous for members of Brown’s family after the raid failed. It was a major transportation center on a nearly direct line south, along the mountain ridges, to Charles Town, Virginia.

Once Hinton secured the cooperation of Captain Montgomery “and eight or ten tried and trusty men,” Higginson was to meet all the rescuers at Harrisburg. The plans were necessarily kept very quiet. “Only one man in Harrisburg, an active Abolitionist,” knew of our purpose,” recalled Higginson.42 That man was Dr. William Wilson Rutherford.


The Underground Railroad Network Deploys into Action

As a well-known abolitionist leader, Rutherford was probably known to Higginson prior to the development of this plot, but he actually was already hip deep in the John Brown affair before Higginson and the others proposed their rescue. In November, he had been enlisted to help several raiders who were stranded in the wooded mountains of Franklin County. When John Cook was captured by Daniel Logan and Claggett Fitzhugh in Mont Alto, the rest of Cook’s traveling companions, Barclay Coppoc, Francis Merriam, Charles Tidd, and Owen Brown, were left in the woods. The hungry men walked eight miles to a quiet area on the edge of Chambersburg, which by now was a very dangerous location for them.

Hunger got the better of Coppoc and Tidd, and before dawn on 26 October, they snuck up to the familiar boarding house, confident that Mary Ritner would at least feed and perhaps even shelter them. From the backyard garden, they took a beanpole and tapped it against the pane of Mary Ritner’s upstairs window. Ritner opened the window to see the two raiders in her garden, looking up expectantly at her. She waved them away from the house, but they begged her for some food. “I can’t help you, if you were starving,” she told them. “The house is guarded by armed men.”43

Between that encounter and the interview that Senator Alexander McClure had with John Cook in the Chambersburg jail the previous night, word got out to the underground anti-slavery network that some of John Brown’s men were in dire need of help. Hunger and exposure were their chief enemies now. The nighttime temperatures were dipping to near freezing regularly, and the men could not risk campfires for fear of discovery.44 To make their situation even more precarious, a brisk and unseasonably early snowfall began on 26 October and continued through the night and into the next day, increasing the danger of hypothermia and frostbite for the three men.

One of the fugitives, Francis Merriam, was not well enough to stand the continued exposure to the elements, and Owen Brown decided that they must take a greater risk in order to get him quickly to safety. Brown took Merriam, at night, in the heavy snow, to the tracks of the Cumberland Valley Railroad, north of Chambersburg, and told him to follow the rails to the next town, which was Scotland. The risk paid off. Merriam followed the tracks through the heavy snow, and at Scotland was able to get on an eastbound train, eventually making his way to Philadelphia, where he was taken in by the Vigilance Committee.45

Plans were quickly devised, on the part of the Vigilance Committee, to locate and get help to the three remaining men. Activists in Philadelphia relayed to important contacts in their network, “We have this p.m., heard news, which seems to demand instant action. It has been explained by Mr. McKim to Mr. Webb. There are three refugees now in the mountains. They must be Tidd, Owen Brown, and Coppoc.” This urgent information about Brown and company’s predicament must have come to J. Miller McKim from Francis Merriam after he arrived in Philadelphia, as the only other activists who had knowledge of the location of the last group of raiders were Senator McClure and Mary Ritner, neither of whom were aware that Merriam had separated from the group.

The letter from Philadelphia also mentioned the collection of funds to aid the stranded fugitives, saying, “We telegraphed for [reporter James] Redpath. It is important that funds should be placed in Mr. McKim’s hands to assist them—poor fellows!”46 Not mentioned in the letter were the urgent contacts that were being made with Underground Railroad agents across central Pennsylvania. The network that had sheltered and forwarded fugitive slaves was now mobilized to locate, shelter, and send to safety the last survivors of John Brown’s shattered military force.

It appears that Alexander McClure and his local agents were the first to find them. After being turned away from the boarding house, the raiders ditched their rifles and excess gear in the woods, keeping only their sidearm and spare clothing and blankets. Some Chambersburg boys found the discarded arms and gear while on a hunting expedition, and reported the find to the sheriff, who recovered the items. Law enforcement men in the town went out in search of the fugitives, but so did local Underground Railroad activists. Apparently, the Underground Railroad men found them first. McClure reported, “They had gotten into the mountain, and were hidden for several days in a forest near town, where they were fed and had medical assistance.”47

Once the three fugitives were located, one of McClure’s associates, a manager with the Cumberland Valley Railroad named John W. Deal, made contact with Dr. Rutherford in Harrisburg, and arrangements were quickly worked out to move Brown, Coppoc, and Tidd to safer surroundings in the northern tier counties. “As soon as they were able to travel,” recalled McClure, “they moved northward, traveling only at night.”

William Rutherford made plans to move the men “over the mountains to Bells Mills,” a small town on the West Branch Juniata River, near Altoona, “where they were met by some person under the direction of Dr. Rutherford.” That person at Bells Mills was Morrow B. Lowry, an old friend of the John Brown family and a political leader from western Pennsylvania, whom McClure identified as “a very active agent.” From that point, they were “piloted and cared for by the underground railroad agents” to safety. 48


The "Machinist" and the "Cattlemen" Arrive in Harrisburg

Dr. Rutherford scarcely had time to rest up after the rescue of John Brown’s son and his two companions before he was again called upon for another plot. This one, however, was to be much more of a challenge. It would not utilize the traditional network with which he was familiar, but instead would rely on outside agents: handpicked men from Kansas, and a group of German Revolution immigrants now living in New York led by Colonel Richard Metternich.

By January, advance men Thomas Wentworth Higginson and publisher-financier William Thayer had already come to Harrisburg to meet with Rutherford. Everything depended upon Hinton’s successful enlistment of the Kansas warrior James Montgomery, who would in turn draw in the rest of the Kansas veteran guerilla fighters.

On 10 February 1860, Higginson got his nod to proceed: a telegram from Leavenworth, Kansas that read: “I have got eight machines. Leave St. Joseph thirteenth.” It was signed “Henry Martin.” Although the rescue operation was going to be vastly different from an Underground Railroad rescue, the participants were using the same tactic of coded communications. The “eight machines” were eight handpicked fighters, and “Henry Martin” was Captain James Montgomery.49

On Friday, 17 February 1860, Harrisburg residents woke up to a heavy blanket of snow from a winter storm that had dominated much of the region the previous day. The winter weather did not stop the large, coal-burning locomotives from making their scheduled runs into the huge Italianate railroad station on Market Street, though. In fact, the iron engines seemed to be the only moving things not bothered by the frozen mounds of white. They sat steaming at the station, immense mobile furnaces that defiantly hissed and radiated intense heat from glowing fireboxes, nonchalantly releasing huge clouds of steam and disgorging overcoat-enrobed passengers from their carriages onto the frosty wooden platform.

Among those who disembarked at Harrisburg on a run from Pittsburgh that day were eight men dressed in western garb. They surveyed the recent snowfall disdainfully and, through vaporous clouds of breath, told those who inquired that they were “cattlemen” from the west, in Harrisburg to look for bargains. While seven of the men gathered their luggage, the one they referred to as “the machinist” walked through the deep snow across Market Street to the United States Hotel to inquire for his contact in Harrisburg, a man named Charles P. Carter. Charles Carter greeted the traveler, Henry Martin, warmly, and after seeing to his arrangements and those of his men, took him through the snow to the Front Street home of their host, Dr. William Wilson Rutherford.50


A Grim Plot

There, in the well-appointed parlor of one of Harrisburg’s most respected physicians, with a view of the partially frozen Susquehanna River flowing slowly past the front window, Dr. Rutherford received his visitors, New England militant abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Free State forces leader Captain James Montgomery, lately from Kansas. Their task was to organize a rescue of two men who had just that week been sentenced to death in Charles Town, Virginia for their part in the deadly Harpers Ferry attack.

Higginson was sure that Rutherford was the only man in Harrisburg who knew their true purpose in being there, but he was probably mistaken. Only months before, Rutherford, in partnership with William Still, Alexander McClure, J. Miller McKim, Francis Merriam, Morrow Lowry, and James Redpath, had pulled off an unlikely rescue of the last three John Brown Army fugitives, and had spirited them safely over the mountains to Bellefonte and points north. That operation, in addition to the principle organizers, had also involved a substantial number of the African American activists in and around Chambersburg, and was probably also known to Joseph Bustill and his workers in Harrisburg.

With some of the same persons involved, it is highly unlikely that only Dr. Rutherford was aware of the true reason for this visit. Rutherford relied heavily on his contacts for information, including Joseph Bustill, and Bustill’s agents worked in most of the city’s best hotels, including the United States Hotel, at the railroad station, in barbershops, saloons, and restaurants. They would very likely have been expecting the arrival of the western cattlemen.

In the Rutherford parlor, the plan was sketched out. Thomas Higginson took a sheet of paper and began to list the key points, as they discussed them. He wrote:

This is what is involved—

1. Traverse a mountainous country…at 10 miles a night, carrying arms ammunition & blankets & provisions for a week—with certain necessity of turning round and retreating the instant of discovery, & of such discovery causing death to our friends: and this in a country daily traversed by hunters. Also the certainty of retreat or detection in case of a tracking snow wh. may come any time. Being out 5 nights at mildest, possibly 10. Includ’g crossing Potomac, a rapid stream where there may be no ford or boats.

2. Charge on a build’g defended by 2 sentinels outside & 25 men inside a wall 14 ft. high. Several men inside prison besides, & a determined jailer. Certainty of rousing town & impossibility of having more than 15 men.

3. Retreat with prisoners & wounded probably after daylight--& No. 1. repeated.

T. W. Higginson.51

It was a grim list, but Captain Montgomery told Higginson and Rutherford that it sounded worse than it was. Yet he still wanted to scout the area personally, to determine exactly what type of terrain and conditions they would face. The meeting concluded and Dr. Rutherford’s two visitors took their leave back to the snow blanketed streets of Harrisburg. Montgomery immediately began planning his journey south, while Higginson prepared to leave town on Monday for Chicago, but with a promise to return to Harrisburg in time to receive Montgomery’s assessment of the situation.

The other organizer, Richard Hinton, had already gone on to New York “to cinch the Teutons,” and to see that they were properly equipped with rifles and revolvers. He was also assigned to purchase “rockets and ammunition,” in New York.52 The rescuers of Hazlett and Stevens, if they determined to do this, were going in heavily armed.

“ Montgomery set out by night,” from Harrisburg, “and was gone several days,” recalled Higginson. He traveled through the snow and took only one companion, Silas Soulé, a fearless veteran of numerous Kansas operations. Soulé, as it turned out, provided the most valuable intelligence from the reconnaissance with a daring escapade of his own. The two scouts reached Charles Town with relative ease and without arousing much suspicion.

Once in town, Soulé took on the persona of “a jovial, half-drunken Irishman,” and made such a nuisance of himself that he was arrested and thrown into the jail for the evening to sober up. From his cell inside the jail, Soulé somehow made contact with Hazlett and Stevens, and advised them of the Harrisburg plan.

Apparently the two prisoners—those who had the most to win and nothing left to lose by the plan—were the only ones who had a realistic assessment of the situation. They thought it was madness, and they told Soulé to forget it, that it would cost too many lives and had very little chance of succeeding. The next morning Soulé, still acting the part of a sobered up but contrite tippler, was given a stern temperance lecture by the district justice and released from the jail. He located Montgomery and they returned to Harrisburg with the sobering advice from Hazlett and Stevens, arriving in town just as another snowstorm was beginning.53

The Harrisburg plot ended “in a second-rate Drover’s Tavern in Harrisburg,” a few days later, where the westerners and the easterners gathered to hear Montgomery’s grim assessment of their chances for success. Higginson, who was chairing the meeting, called the rescue raid off, insisting that “fifteen or twenty lives ought not to be sacrificed in a hopeless attempt to save one or two.”

The Kansas “cattlemen” packed their bags and were last seen in Harrisburg on the snowy railroad depot platform, waiting to board the westbound train to Pittsburgh. The German Revolutionaries, upon getting word that the plan was rejected, cancelled plans to come to Harrisburg.

The Harrisburg Plot, however fanciful, was serious enough that those involved were not only willing to sacrifice their lives in its execution, they expected to do so. Thomas Wentworth Higginson had to keep a speaking engagement in Ohio immediately after he left Harrisburg, but after he returned to his wife and home in Massachusetts on March 1, 1860, he sat down in his study and recorded a single phrase in his journal: “Recalled to Life.”54


In addition to dealing with the Harpers Ferry raid and subsequent rescue plots during the winter of 1859-1860, Underground Railroad activists in south central Pennsylvania were also called upon to cope with a very serious kidnapping and another high profile fugitive slave case.


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36. Valley Spirit, 26 October 1859.
When captured, Green (in the article, his name was misspelled as “Gains”) told his captors that he was from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Elsewhere in the news coverage, he was said to be from Pittsburgh. Because little is known of the life of Shields Green before he began living with Frederick Douglass in Rochester, his statements about living in Harrisburg are plausible. He was accused elsewhere in the coverage as having taken part in the 1850 riot in Harrisburg. Neither name Shields Green nor Esau Brown, his alias, appears in the 1850 census for Harrisburg, but the absence of his name does not prove he was not living in town at that time. Harrisburg’s African American population included a large number of transient persons during these years.

37. Ibid.; Oswald Garrison Villard, John Brown, 1800-1859 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1910), 420; John H. Zittle, A Correct History of the John Brown Invasion at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia (Hagerstown: Mail Publishing, 1905), 163; Shepherdstown Register, 22 October 1859.

38. A. M. Barbour to W. P. Smith, 26 October 1859, in Correspondence relating to the Insurrection at Harper’s Ferry, 17th October, 1859 (Annapolis: Maryland Senate, 1860), 34.

39. Staunton Vindicator, 25 November 1859.

40. Villard, John Brown, 518.

41. Ibid., 572-574.

42. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Cheerful Yesterdays (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1898), 231-232.

43. Reynolds, John Brown, 373.

44. The temperature at 4 a.m. in Harrisburg, on 25 October, was 39 degrees. Pennsylvania Daily Telegraph, 25 October 1859.

45. Reynolds, John Brown, 373; Ben Gelber, The Pennsylvania Weather Book (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002), 73.

46. Richard Hinton was a London-born immigrant who went west to Kansas with the Free State men and helped chronicle the story of Bleeding Kansas. He was a close friend to John Brown and his family. In the days following the Harpers Ferry raid, Hinton tried desperately to make contact with Owen Brown from his base in Harrisburg. He also contacted the African American agents in Chambersburg to try to have them find him, but they, too, were unsuccessful. Richard J. Hinton, John Brown and His Men: With Some Account of the Roads They Traveled to Reach Harper’s Ferry, American Reformers Series, rev. ed. (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1894), 374.

47. McClure, Old Time Notes, 363.

48. Ibid., 364; Alexander K. McClure to J. Howard Wert, 10 December 1904, in Caba, Episodes of Gettysburg, 112.

49. Villard, John Brown, 573-575.

50. Ibid., 576; Higginson, Cheerful Yesterdays, 232.

51. Villard, John Brown, 576-577.

52. Ibid., 575, 577.

53. Ibid., 577-578; Higginson, Cheerful Yesterdays, 233-234.

54. Higginson, Cheerful Yesterdays, 234.


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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