Share |

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)


Harrisburg as a War Town

On the eve of the Civil War, Harrisburg had not yet experienced the intense growing pains of a large industrialized city. The completion of the Pennsylvania Canal into the city limits in 1834, and the coming of the railroads at about the same time, had heralded a new stage in the town’s development. Small-scale factories and furnaces began to relocate along the transportation corridor created by the railroads and the canal in the valley of Paxton Creek, just east of town. Industrial growth was slow, however, and hindered by the frequent financial panics, particularly the Panic of 1857, as noted earlier.

The town’s population, on the other hand, was growing rapidly. It grew from 7834 persons in 1850, to 13,400 persons in 1860, an increase of 71 percent.109 This growth was fueled, at least for white residents, by sufficient housing and employment. Trouble, in the form of crime and general lawlessness, was minimal. The city’s African American community grew at a correspondingly brisk rate. African Americans generally could find work, but found the available jobs to be those of the lowest pay scale and status.

Similarly, African American neighborhoods seemed to suffer from the occurrence of a disproportionate amount of the crimes reported in the newspapers, which, if accurate, may be attributed to some of the problems endemic to those neighborhoods: overcrowded living conditions, significantly lower income levels, fewer educational opportunities, and a low stability rate of permanent residents. Overall, though, crime does not appear to have seriously disrupted the African American community much more than any other groups in the pre-war years. A sheriff and several constables easily handled the daily cases of assaults, rowdy behavior, and drunkenness that characterized Harrisburg’s antebellum days.

Pennsylvania’s capital, however, would soon find its resources for maintaining the public order stretched beyond capacity, as thousands of young men began streaming into town following Governor Andrew Gregg Curtin’s April 1861 pledge to Abraham Lincoln for manpower to defend the national capital from Confederate attack. The long foreseen war officially began on 12 April, when Confederate artillery began a thirty-four hour bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, forcing the surrender of the Union garrison there.

The bombardment news was a jolt to Harrisburg residents, many of whom had been trying their best to ignore the tense situation in South Carolina, and had eagerly dismissed the latest round of demands from each side as saber rattling. In his office in the Capitol, Secretary of the Commonwealth Eli Slifer almost immediately began receiving telegraphic dispatches from militia units and individuals, all eager to come to the defense of the union and all ready to report wherever they were told.

The decision was quickly made to establish a camp of rendezvous in Harrisburg, and word went out. Within one day, volunteer military units began arriving in town. A more pressing question suddenly arose as Governor Curtin realized that many of these men would need a formal site at which to gather, be issued arms and equipment, and be organized into larger command structures. The first arrivals quickly filled up all available space in the city’s hotels and public halls. Local officials suggested that the county fairgrounds, located less than a mile north of town, might make an acceptable central camp, and after a quick visual inspection military officials took them up on the offer. Camp Curtin, named in honor of the State’s war governor, was established on the site on the eighteenth, and it became the destination for thousands of young soldiers due to arrive in Harrisburg over the next few weeks.110

Camp Curtin was connected to Harrisburg by Ridge Road, which approximates the modern course of Sixth Street. Recruits bound for the camp exited the city limits on the road just past the old reservoir and passed the new neighborhood of Verbeketown. The African American residents of that neighborhood awoke on 18 April to find their quiet, isolated community was now located along one of the busiest highways in town. But few of the newly arrived soldiers, most of them rural farm boys below the age of twenty who had never ventured out of their home county, went straight to the camp. Most could not resist the temptation to linger in town long enough to see the sights. They mingled with canal boatmen, railroad men, factory workers, and teamsters; all men accustomed to making their way in strange towns and possessed of a keen talent for making, or avoiding when necessary, trouble. The new recruits included such men in their ranks, but they also included large numbers of farmhands, mill workers, and laborers. This daily mixture of humanity along Market Street, Second Street, and in the square, all flush with the excitement of going to war, would prove to be an explosive concoction.

Prior to the outbreak of hostilities, a typical day of police activity, as covered in the pages of the Pennsylvania Daily Telegraph or the Patriot and Union, included the arrest of a man for public drunkenness, who was “taken to the Walnut street reformatory institution,” (as the editors playfully referred to the prison), a fight “among some colored people in State street near the railroad,” in which a bystander named O’Rourke was struck on the head, and the escape from custody of a man named Ulrich, who had been charged with stealing some grain.

The public peace was otherwise fairly secure, with the exception of an attempted jailbreak by Martin Wolf, who had been imprisoned for burning the barn at the State Asylum. Wolf was reported as “pretending to be insane, and annoys the whole neighborhood with his terrific yells, which are repeated at frequent intervals night and day.”

Another concern was with the imminent celebration of Halloween, during which town youths were known to raise the ire of peace-loving Harrisburgers by “throwing corn by the handfuls against windows and thumping doors with cabbage-stalks.”111 Cases such as these, along with the aforementioned “street corner ruffians,” occupied Harrisburg’s constabulary, and provided the local newspapers with relatively harmless entertaining fill for their local news columns.

Yet not all the local crime news was so harmless. At about the same time, a “cowardly assault” upon a woman directly in front of the home of a prominent local politician and lawyer, John Adams Fisher, which resulted in severe wounds to the woman and was the latest of several similar attacks, resulted in a call by local newspapers for a “well organized police force.”112

County residents apparently felt the same way about their law enforcement, because the fall 1860 elections brought to Dauphin County a new sheriff and deputies. Newly elected Sheriff Boas brought in an old hand at law and order, appointing Jacob Shell, the man who in the past had constantly clashed with Harrisburg’s African American community, as one of his deputies. Shell had served Harrisburg and the county as sheriff in the 1840s and was well known and respected, or feared, depending upon the individual’s previous history with the law.113

Apparently, the new sheriff and deputies appointed to work with Harrisburg policemen were effective, because cases reported in the Harrisburg newspapers remained relatively minor through what would prove to be a mild winter. A few cases involving African American residents are worth noting.

In the early part of the winter, an African American man was making rounds through the city, “raising money under the pretense that it was to be used to purchase the freedom of a slave.” The man leaned upon the generous nature of local black residents, urging them to help a brother in bondage, and upon the sympathies of those few whites with strong enough anti-slavery sentiments to put up funds. For proof, the man displayed some official-looking papers supposedly drawn up by John M. Sharpless, of Delaware County, for the slave’s indenture. The man collected money from several residents in the name of this cause before someone thought to check out his story. By the time John Sharpless sent word that he “never gave the fellow papers, and his tale is a fabrication,” the would-be friend of the slave was off to another section of the State.

At another time, the Chester Family received the help of police to stop some harassment from a group of young boys. Police officer Fleck arrested “three colored lads” for “stoning the house of Charlotte E. Weaver in Tanner’s alley, and otherwise annoying her.” The boys’ motive for abusing the eldest daughter of George and Jane Chester was not noted, but Justice Henry Beader threatened them with imprisonment if they did not stop the harassment. This incident caused Telegraph editor George Bergner to call for a regular police presence in Tanner’s Alley, but there is no indication that occurred by the end of winter.

By March, however, local citizens had affairs other than public order on their minds. A good spring planting season was anticipated, following the mild winter, but it was also hard to ignore the talk of impending war. On 5 April 1861, a company of U.S. Regulars passed through town on the Lebanon Valley Railroad, on their way to Fort Hamilton in New York. They were reported to be spoiling for a fight. Things seemed to be just too busy, though, for people to get into much trouble, and the troops departed peacefully. That same week police incidents were few. On 2 April, Mayor William Kepner had just one case before him: a man charged with public drunkenness and disorderly conduct for throwing stones at the windows of a tavern.114 This peace and quiet was destined to be short-lived.


Previous | Next



109. Eggert, Harrisburg Industrializes, 128, 214.

110. William J. Miller, The Training of an Army: Camp Curtin and the North’s Civil War (Shippensburg, PA: White Mane, 1990), 2-8.

111. Pennsylvania Daily Telegraph, 31 October 1860.

112. Ibid., 22 October 1860.

113. Harrisburg’s African American community was not on friendly terms with Jacob Shell. Hard feelings persisted over his heavy-handed use of local militia in keeping the peace in 1849, when several slave catchers visited Harrisburg in search of fugitives. A crowd of Harrisburg blacks had assembled on Short Street as a vigilance committee to protect the runaways, who were secreted somewhere in the Tanner’s Alley neighborhood. Shell allowed the militiamen to run riot through the neighborhood, indiscriminately beating local black residents wherever they caught them. See chapter seven.

114. Pennsylvania Daily Telegraph, 1, 15 November 1860, 2, 6 April 1861.


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.

About the AP | Contact AP | Mission Statement | 20th Century History