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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)


More Than Ordinary Vigilance

On Thursday, 18 April, Harrisburg police officers began moving the crowds of would-be soldiers out Ridge Road toward the camp, a mile distant, and probably breathed a sigh of relief as the wide-eyed volunteers, many of them just teenagers, shuffled along the dirt road and gradually disappeared over the ridge for which the road was named.115 The excitement, however, was just beginning.

“Business” for the Harrisburg police began to increase immediately. One day after the opening of Camp Curtin, six persons were confined in the city lock-up awaiting a hearing before Mayor Kepner. The mayor subsequently dismissed charges against four of them “without the usual penalty.” Apparently, he was feeling somewhat generous, considering the large number of strangers in town. A local newspaper had editorialized just that morning on the hospitality of local residents, noting, “With thousands of strangers and soldiers in our midst, every one of whom is attracted hither in some manner connected with their duty to the Government, the people of Harrisburg are affording them all the facilities and accommodations in their power.” Kepner was less lenient with African American troublemakers, though, committing to prison another black man arrested by Officer Fleck for fighting in Tanner’s Alley.

Despite the relative lack of violent incidents so far, Mayor Kepner took the precaution of issuing a proclamation calling for restraint and common sense among the population. He issued his proclamation on Saturday morning, in possible anticipation of an unsettled weekend, cautioning purveyors of strong drink to use good judgment when serving their patrons:

As Mayor of the city of Harrisburg, I feel it to be my duty, in the present critical condition of public events, to impress upon all loyal citizens the importance of observing moderation in their speech and actions. In the inflammatory state of the popular mind, all exciting topics should be suppressed as far as practicable. An ill-advised word may prove the unfortunate cause of much trouble to our community. The baleful cloud which now hangs over us ought not to be blackened by any rashness on the part of any class of our people. Let quietness prevail, and let every effort be made to restrain and direct into a proper channel the enthusiasm which glows in every patriotic heart.

To this end, I urge upon all who are engaged in the sale of liquors to be exceedingly cautious to whom they sell. Whilst it is at all times against the law to furnish intoxicating drink to a minor, or to any one who may already be under its influence, it would be now doubly criminal, because of the serious and disastrous consequences it might lead to. Let those concerned in this traffic exercise a proper care in this particular, in order to preserve the community from riot, bloodshed and confusion.

The citizens may feel assured that more than ordinary vigilance shall be exerted to prevent any encroachments upon the public during the present exciting period.116

The mayor’s appeal to “Let quietness prevail” was in deference to the strong attachment that Harrisburgers had for their peace and quiet, a theme that he returned to with his concluding sentence promising to “prevent any encroachment upon the public during the present exciting period.”

In hindsight, this attitude seems incredibly naïve, but many Northerners truly expected to subdue the rebellion within a month. In that context, the invasion by thousands of highly excited teenaged boys and young men could be considered a brief “exciting period” that Harrisburg had to endure before things could return to normal. But despite the exercising of “more than ordinary vigilance,” it was only days until the first death associated with the influx of troops occurred, and it did not happen at camp or in the field. Private Robert McCall, from Delaware County, was accidentally shot by a Lieutenant Blakely in the Jones House in town. Immediate help was summoned and McCall was treated by Doctor Charlton of Harrisburg, but the wounded man died before the end of the day.

The next day, another incident occurred that almost resulted in the dreaded “riot, bloodshed and confusion.” A Virginian named George M. Meriem was arrested for threatening the barkeep at the Franklin House with a pistol. Mayor Kepner, perhaps blaming the incident on the “inflammatory state of the popular mind,” allowed the man to go free, provided he left town within two hours. Meriem, however, headed straight out Ridge Road to Camp Curtin where he promptly got into a dispute with some Bucks County volunteers. Again he pulled his pistol, but the boys from Bucks overpowered him before he could fire any shots. Kepner had no choice when Meriem appeared before him for a second time later that day; he committed him to thirty days in prison.117

Part of the Mayor’s problem with keeping order was illustrated by Meriem’s easy access to Camp Curtin. Strangers could walk in and out of the camp during the day with little trouble, being only infrequently challenged by sentries. That same lax attitude in security allowed the enlisted men to sneak out of camp by the dozens every night. They invariably headed for Harrisburg’s drinking and gambling establishments, many of which were located in Tanner’s Alley, less than a mile distant. Everyone who went into or out of camp was supposed to have a pass, but the pass system was easy to manipulate, as shown by the reminiscences of Henry Fitzgerald Charles, a private in the 172nd regiment:

Before we got our blues I went to the city. We always had to have a pass or have an officer pass us out. I went to the Provost Marshal’s office, who was there but Charles Kleckner, then a clerk for the Marshal, wrote me a pass for three days. I told him I was a canal boatman and I expected to be in Harrisburg 10 or 12 days and I said, “give me a pass for a longer time.” So he gave me a pass until further orders. I knew this man personally for years. He was a produce huckster and used to stop overnight where I was employed. I bedded his team down many a night and many was the half dollar he gave me.118

Soldiers without a pass, or the inside connections to get one, merely knocked out a fence board behind the numerous sheds on the camp’s eastern and southern perimeters and crawled through the hole to temporary freedom. Camp Curtin historian William J. Miller wrote, “The guards had a tendency to congregate near the front gate and neglect the other portions of the boundary.” Even while on duty, they often looked the other way, knowing that in their off-duty hours they themselves might be tempted to take an unofficial leave.119

Citizens in camp, even those without a political grudge to argue, posed considerable problems. Meriem was a prime example, but others found trouble as well, especially those who were involved in shady business practices or had other evil purposes. A man was arrested by city police for luring soldiers into paying five cents each to have a look into his box of “cosmoramic views.” The views were obscene images, and the man did a brisk business until a military officer managed to have a look and subsequently turned him in to local authorities.

Two other men began appearing in camp to buy the used coffee grounds from soldiers, which they then dried and resold in town for twenty-five cents per pound. These same “businessmen” also smuggled whiskey into camp, which they sometimes used as payment for the old coffee grounds. Soldiers and civilians alike were plagued by pickpockets, who occasionally appeared in camp, but more often plied their skills at the train station among crowds of arriving and departing soldiers and well-wishers.120 It seems that the light-fingered thieves had marked Harrisburg as a rich territory after experiencing considerable success picking the pockets of citizens in town to celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s visit two months earlier.

Scam artists, attracted by the large number of soldiers and government workers, and playing on patriotic fervor, operated freely in Harrisburg. Some posed as agents for the Volunteer Relief Fund and falsely collected money for this legitimate organization that supported the families of men in the service. They operated much like the “scamp” from the previous winter who claimed to be raising funds to free the slave in Maryland: After collecting considerable sums of money, they left town with the funds. Another man was in town selling “certificates of the Orphans’ School Fund Association” for fifty cents each, ostensibly to raise funds for this cause. The Mayor’s Office noted that large numbers of the certificates had been sold in the city, and that they were “entirely worthless.”121


Tanners Alley Operations

As vexing as these shady operators were to the authorities, they were still only minor headaches in comparison to the chaos of having scores of bored, young soldiers looking for excitement in the town’s speakeasies and gambling dens. Historian Miller identified two favorite taverns as the Fifth Ward House and the State Capital Brewery, the latter operated by Henry Frisch, a German-born brewer, whose liquid refreshments proved irresistible to the thirsty recruits. Of all the less-than-reputable destinations in town, however, none equaled the drawing power of the establishments located just east of the Capitol in the vicinity of Tanner’s Alley and along East State Street and Canal Street. Writing in 1912 about these infamous places, local newspaper columnist J. Howard Wert said:

It was with the opening of Camp Curtin that gambling and other evil resorts of the Eighth Ward section blossomed out into their full career of crime, just as similar places became more active in other portions of Harrisburg. The East State Street places, however, seemed to sound a profounder depth of depravity…With the influx of thousands and the lavish payments of money connected with military matters, all that Harrisburg had known of gambling was eclipsed. The faro banks were worked overtime and new ones sprang up. But the low haunts generally connected with a disreputable drinking place (for almost anyone could get a license then for almost any kind of a place) acquired increased vitality. Those of the State and Canal Street sections hummed with life. A man had little chance in the faro rooms: in the lower dens he had none.122

Wert wrote about the experiences of an adventuresome soldier from the mountainous regions of the State named William, who had a fondness for draw poker, the preferred game in the lower dens of East State Street and Tanner’s Alley. Somewhere between Camp Curtin and the city limits, William was intercepted by an observer who recognized the swagger of a man bound for glory at the gaming table. Of course this observer, who quickly made friends with William by offering to buy him a drink, was a scout working for a specific gambling establishment, to which he eventually steered the unsuspecting soldier of fortune. William sat down at the table with one hundred dollars, which was the remainder of his bounty money after he had, wisely, sent four hundred dollars home. He was allowed to win several hands, increasing his worth by several dollars. Wert tells the rest of the story best:

Then things happened, but how, William never exactly knew: and in about ten seconds his $100 was gone. The mountaineer leaped three feet in the air, cracked his army brogans together, shook his brawny fists at the other players and inquired, by the great horn spoon, what they supposed he was there for? He had been “hornswoggled” (whatever that is) and he could thrash the “hornswogglers” and a ton of wild cats beside.123

A Tanner’s Alley gambling den was not the place for such bravado, however. Wert recorded, “What was done to William in the next few minutes is painful to contemplate. It was also very painful to William.”
William survived his encounter, and when he dragged himself back to camp and complained to his company officers about his treatment, they simply told him to “stay away from such places." Such advice would have been well heeded by thousands of soldiers during the four years of the war, but it was not.

If gambling was not a big enough draw for the soldiers, the “houses of ill-repute” that already existed in town, and many more that were established during the war, were. Harrisburg’s citizens, while publicly decrying the existence of such houses, put little real pressure on the Mayor to shut them down. Action was seldom taken against them, though, and the women openly plied their trade. Part of the reason Harrisburg tolerated the brothels as necessary evils was that prominent local citizens owned the houses in which the businesses operated and profited by renting them to their madams.

This tolerance continued despite the existence of diseases, including smallpox, at the brothels. The houses also made money by selling liquor, usually foul and occasionally lethal, to their customers. Sometime later in the war, Mayor Kepner took action and closed a few notorious houses, but the rest, most hidden deep within the narrow, winding alleys between Tanner’s Alley and Filbert Street, in the shadow of the State Capitol, continued to operate.124

Of all the stories of soldierly excursions into Harrisburg, none approach the legacy of the Bucktails—the Thirteenth Pennsylvania Reserves—five hundred men drawn from the mountains and woodlands of Pennsylvania. A single Bucktail, alone and intoxicated in the city streets, should have been an easy arrest for one of Harrisburg’s finest, but when a policeman tried to apprehend a boisterous recruit, he attracted the attention of a half-dozen of the man’s comrades.

The encounter turned into a skirmish, as about forty more Bucktails arrived, and crowds gathered to watch the show. Several more policemen arrived to back up the first, and soon Mayor Kepner himself came to the rescue with a company of newly appointed “special police.” The skirmish became a standoff, as both sides stood their ground. It took the arrival of three companies of soldiers from Camp Curtin to weigh the argument heavily in favor of Kepner and the Home Guard, and the Bucktails were forced to return to camp.125

The next day, Mayor Kepner issued his strongest proclamation yet, vowing a strict enforcement of the Sunday ban on alcohol sales. Beginning, “Within the last few days it had been clearly shown that the peace of this community has been greatly disturbed by the disorderly and riotous conduct of drunken men,” Kepner therefore warned, “I hereby notify all persons engaged in the sale of intoxicating drink, that from henceforth there will be no leniency displayed toward them, but on the contrary, a rigid enforcement of the penalties of the law.”126

Controlling the sale of alcohol to soldiers proved to be much more difficult than simply issuing sternly worded proclamations. Many drinking establishments initially ignored the Mayor’s new warning and the jail remained full of drunkards each day. Fights and public drunkenness remained common occurrences. By July, with a dangerously overcrowded prison and continued sporadic riots, the city authorities understood that even the ban on Sunday sales was not enough. On 26 July 1861, the Mayor banned liquor sales on weekdays from one p.m. until nine a.m,. in response to a general public outcry, and several days later Kepner issued his most severe proclamation yet, closing all liquor shops and stopping all sales of liquor in the city. “The order,” he proclaimed, “will be revoked as soon as the soldiers who now throng our city take their departure.”127

This extreme, perhaps even desperate order was born of an incident a few weeks earlier during the city’s Fourth of July celebration. The “general and indiscriminate sale of beer and liquor” to soldiers allowed a contingent of men to demonstrate outside of Kepner’s office, demanding that he release one of their comrades then incarcerated. The demonstrators threatened to make an assault upon the jail, and only dispersed after the Mayor defiantly stood his ground in front of them.

Although victorious, the experience so unnerved Kepner that he sent to Camp Curtin for assistance in guarding the jail. The new commandant at Camp Curtin, Colonel Charles J. Biddle, sent the Easton Guards. This proved to be a fortunate choice because the Guards tore into their assignment with zeal, not only providing guards for the jail, but also patrolling the streets until four a.m., arresting stragglers and generally keeping the peace as Harrisburg had not known for months. This was a peace that even the fifty-man Home Guard special police force had been unable to secure.128

Mayor Kepner had finally found the key to maintaining law and order.
Colonel Thomas Welsh, who took over command of the camp for Colonel Biddle in August 1861, continued his predecessor’s practice of allowing troops to do provost guard duty in the city. The regular contingent of military policemen numbered thirty men, and in addition to guarding the state arsenal, they also rounded up soldiers who were creating disturbances or becoming visibly intoxicated in town, and escorted them back to camp for punishment. Welsh allowed fewer men out of camp, and by taking responsibility at the camp for the punishment and incarceration of those who got out of hand when they did reach town, the commandant also relieved Mayor Kepner and his police force of a major burden. Local news editors praised the actions as “an excellent arrangement.”129

The careful management of alcohol sales and the presence of soldiers on loan from Camp Curtin kept the peace in Harrisburg in this manner through 1862. In May of that year the newspapers were back to reporting on rather mundane police matters, citing the usual cases of vagrancy and gambling that were before the Mayor. Only one case concerning a soldier was reported in the 3 May 1862 edition of the Telegraph, that of “Phenies Taylor, a recruit in Capt. J. M. Eyster’s Company—[who] was arraigned and charged with selling various articles of his clothing. It seems he has repeatedly committed this offense. The suit was brought at the instance of Capt. Eyster.”

As would be expected, when fewer troops were in camp, Harrisburg experienced quieter days. Major developments at the front that brought large numbers of men temporarily to Camp Curtin precipitated a corresponding increase in criminal activity in Harrisburg. In September 1862, the papers published a warning that pickpockets were again active at the railroad station. In November, deserters from the camp began to plague the town.130

Harrisburg was more than a little uneasy this time, not only because the numbers of desertions had increased from the previous year—it was always higher in the cold months—but this time there were more drafted troops involved, and the general feeling toward conscripted men was much less charitable than it had been toward the volunteers. Two successive commanders had since taken control of the camp, Captain Daniel J. Boynton, of Middletown, and following him in November, Captain James F. Andress. Under Boynton, the Provost Guard became the major military police force at the camp and in town. Captain Andress continued the use of the Provost Guard, and under his command, the protective force swelled to 122 men and 3 officers. Though composed of convalescent, sick, and wounded soldiers, “the services of all others being constantly required in the field,” the guard was an effective force, usually.131


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115. In its 18 April 1861 edition, the Telegraph published a list of military units that had passed through or were expected within the city in a twenty-four-hour period. The list included twenty units, with a total strength of 1800 men. Two days later, it reported the arrival of 800 more men, noting, “There are now about five thousand military in encampment.” Pennsylvania Daily Telegraph, 18, 20 April 1861.

116. Ibid., 20 April 1861.

117. Ibid., 23 April 1861.

118. “The Civil War Diary of Henry Fitzgerald Charles, 1862-1865,” John Neitz, (accessed 28 January 2003). Although Charles was writing about experiences in 1862, it shows that the pass system, easily circumvented in 1861, had changed little a year later.

119. Miller, Training of an Army, 21.

120. Miller, Training of an Army, 30; Pennsylvania Daily Telegraph, 25 April 1861.

121. Miller, Training of an Army, 27-28, 30; Pennsylvania Daily Telegraph, 14 May 1861.

122. Barton and Dorman, Harrisburg’s Old Eighth Ward, 67-70.
A faro bank is a gambling place that specialized in the game of faro, a high stakes game in which players bet against the house. Faro was the preferred game of chance for many in the nineteenth century, and had a respectable reputation, unlike poker, which was played in the “lower dens.” Miller (Training of an Army) discusses the Fifth Ward House on page 22, and mentions the State Capital Brewery on page 287, note 28. Additional information about Henry Frisch is from Bureau of the Census, 1850 Census, East Ward, Harrisburg, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, 95.

123. Barton and Dorman, Harrisburg’s Old Eighth Ward, 68-69.

124. Miller, Training of an Army, 22; Barton and Dorman, Harrisburg’s Old Eighth Ward, 147, 154-155. Harrisburg had been wrestling with such houses since the 1840s. See the discussion on this topic in chapter seven.

125. Miller, Training of an Army, 25.
A story that Mayor Kepner subsequently banned the Bucktails from ever entering Harrisburg again appears to be only legend, but is a persistent part of the lore of this colorful unit. The Bucktails were quite a handful for their commanding officers while in Camp Curtin. Even on the eve of their departure for the front the men threatened to mutiny in the camp because they were given old 1837 Harpers Ferry flintlock smoothbore muskets instead of the modern Springfield rifled muskets they had been promised at enlistment. It took all the persuasive talent of the new camp commandant, Colonel Charles J. Biddle, a Princeton educated lawyer and strict disciplinarian, to convince the disgruntled men to board the trains in this time of crisis. William J. Miller, “Matters of Discipline,” Bugle 1, no.3, (July 1991): 2.

126. Pennsylvania Daily Telegraph, 7 May 1861.

127. Ibid., 26, 31 July 1861.
Even a week after the proclamation enforcing the ban on Sunday sales of alcohol, the Telegraph had reported “a full Lock-up” at the Mayor’s office (14 May 1861). Similar conditions persisted until the outright ban on liquor sales at the end of July. The report on the overcrowded County Prison appeared in the Telegraph’s 2 July1861 edition.

128. Pennsylvania Daily Telegraph, 5 July 1861.
Colonel Biddle took over as camp commandant in June and injected a badly needed dose of military discipline and order in camp, which in turn aided Mayor Kepner’s ability to maintain the domestic peace a mile down the road.

129. Ibid., 12 September 1861.
The ban on liquor sales had been lifted by this time, and soldiers still came to Harrisburg and got drunk. This same edition of the newspaper reported a “disgraceful fight” among intoxicated soldiers in Raspberry Alley, in which one of the men was severely stabbed. No arrests were made by civilian lawmen, however, and it seems that the city police were content to allow Colonel Welsh’s military police detail to deal with such events.

130. Ibid., 3 May, 26 September, 6 November 1862.

131. Ibid., 26 May 1863.


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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