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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 Ten
The Bridge


Harrisburg, Pa, June 25—midnight

A train of cars came down this afternoon. It was filled with people escaping from Carlisle. Among the collection was a large number of contrabands. Throughout the entire day wagons of all descriptions loaded with furniture and other property, have been coming into town. It is enough to touch the most obdurate heart to see the poor blacks as then come to this common asylum. Several of them walked the entire distance from Carlisle, and the feet of many were swollen and bleeding.
  --New York Herald, 25 June 1863

Affairs in Front of Harrisburg.
Fort Washington, West Bank of the Susquehanna, June 29, - Evening.

As the sun goes down in the west it leaves within this fort and within and around Harrisburg an anxious, wondering, guessing, partially fearful and somewhat excited population. The enemy holds a position almost describing an arc of a circle. The extremes rest on two main roads, cross the railroads, and extend through wheat and corn fields and some, small woods. He has pickets out in all valuable positions, and has artillery commanding and intended to sweep the roads and protect his front and flank.

We expect a fight to-morrow, more or less general or serious in its character.
  --New York Gazette, 30 June 1863

Winter cast a gray veil across the skies of central Pennsylvania on the last day of 1862, as if in sympathy with the gloomy outlook of those in the cities and towns below toward the year ahead. Twenty months of brutal war had taken away too many sons and husbands from their homes and returned them crippled shells of men, if they were returned at all. Across the region, sacrifice was a daily practice undertaken to supply troops with needed articles, clothing, and food. In Harrisburg, the schoolhouses, churches, and other available spaces overflowed with horribly maimed and bleeding men after every large battle, and coffins arrived regularly at the train depot. Mourning crape became all too common attire. The dampness in the air during the waning hours of the year carried a morbid chill that seemed to penetrate to the heart of everyone who scurried through the darkened, muddy streets on their way to traditional “Watch Meeting” services in the local churches. The snow that fell sporadically throughout the day only punctuated the anxious feelings of those who congregated in pews to cast off the sins of the old year and bid welcome to a new year of hope.1

Harrisburg’s African American community, however, gathered in their separate churches to celebrate a different type of Watch Night. They were following an ancient tradition of respect and praise for the gift of a new year, blended with a somewhat newer tradition begun by slaves of the Caribbean on the night of 31 July 1834. During that night, the eve of emancipation in the British Empire, slaves throughout the many British controlled colonies in the Caribbean and elsewhere stayed up to witness the coming of freedom by the simple ticking of a clock. By 31 July 1838, when complete emancipation was instituted, the tradition of Watch Night had become a wildly popular, yet solemn event in the Caribbean.

An eyewitness reported from Jamaica, “We had a prayer-meeting and preaching…The prayers were fervent and soul-stirring, while deep humility was their glowing characteristic.”2 The 31 July Watch Night soon became a regular part of First of August celebrations for African Americans in many of the larger cities of the United States, and now, at the end of 1862, it was about to be expanded to include a new date. Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, like the British mandate, was about to bring complete freedom to an entire class of people, but unlike the British version, it chose the first day of the new year to take effect. African Americans, therefore, were gathering in large numbers in churches on the night of 31 December 1862 to witness the first step toward the destruction of slavery in the United States.

There are no accounts of those first Watch Night vigils in the African American churches of Harrisburg. We can speculate that the evening was spent in much the same way as it had been during Watch Night ceremonies in the Caribbean: with hours of fervent praise, followed by reflective silence in the expectant minutes before midnight, at which time the realization that freedom had become the law of the land must have emotionally overwhelmed the assembled members with its implications.

Yes, the new law was imperfect. It had far too many restrictions and exceptions, but the moment that it took effect must have been deeply felt and sincerely celebrated. There was also the realization that something more must be done to mark the moment, something bold, and significant, and public. For now though, the witnesses in Harrisburg’s three African American churches were content to give thanks for the sacrifices that had brought them to this moment, to celebrate and offer praise for the moment, and to pray fiercely for the courage to carry out their duties, whatever they might be, and wherever they might lead, in the New Year.

Courage was proving to be a necessary resource for African American residents of Harrisburg as 1862 ground to a bloody close. The invasion scare in September had worn everyone’s nerves thin, and although the city was saved from attack when the Army of the Potomac intercepted the rebel troops in Maryland, the resulting battles had flooded the city with wounded and dying soldiers. Fighting in December brought still more wounded, casting a pall over the holiday season and reminding everyone just how close the front lines had become, and how fragile the Pennsylvania border, as a demarcation line between slavery and freedom, really was.

On Wednesday, 31 December, Harrisburg’s black citizens received the dreaded news that their freedom was again in jeopardy. A report from Washington warned that General J.E.B. Stuart had crossed the Potomac Tuesday night at Point of Rocks and was again headed in their direction with 1500 cavalrymen and a battery of artillery.3

This frightening news, received just three months after the last invasion scare, did not deter them from gathering in their churches to witness history being made, though. Indeed, what they needed most in this time of great danger was the steady reassurance that their faith could provide. Fortunately, this latest story of invasion turned out to be just another rumor, but they did not yet know this when they knelt down in their pews just before five p.m. in the gathering darkness of Wednesday evening.4

It was a very long night. Somehow, they managed to put aside fears of marauding rebel cavalrymen and concentrate on the moment of great social and political import that arrived with the stroke of midnight across the land. Outside, the noise of revelers in the streets increased to a crescendo as local church bells pealed for the New Year.

Inside the small Second Presbyterian Church, in a second floor room on the corner of River Alley and Walnut Street, the Reverend Charles C. Gardiner led his congregation in joyous song and praise for the New Year, and specifically for the attainment of a lifelong dream: the beginning of the abolition of slavery in the United States.

At eighty-one years of age, Brother Gardiner seemed to be an ageless campaigner for abolition, the cause that had propelled him in his faith for most of his long life. But the candlelight of this small one-room church revealed in the face of the staunch freedom fighter the ravages of disease, and his slow, pained movements betrayed the frailty of a failing heart.5 The time was approaching when he would no longer be around to lead the charge, and younger warriors would need to pick up the banner and continue the advance. None of that mattered at this moment in time, however. For now, he was savoring a hard-won victory.

The same expressions of great joy were being repeated in the Bethel Church on Short Street, where the Reverend Mifflin Gibbs led his flock in welcoming the momentous day, and in the cramped space of Aaron Bennett’s “Colored” Masonic Hall on Tanner’s Alley, which was serving as the temporary church for the members of the Wesley Union congregation while their new church was being constructed a hundred yards away. The Reverend Charles J. Carter, a veteran anti-slavery activist and church organizer from Philadelphia, was orchestrating the solemnities, having been newly installed in this Harrisburg post.

Similar scenes were playing out in African American communities across the land, as people anticipated the official enactment of the President’s Emancipation Proclamation. At a “contraband” camp in Washington D.C., hundreds of former slaves gathered just after sundown to hear Camp Superintendent Danforth B. Nichols explain the importance of the hour, and of the document that was about to take effect with the advent of the new year. The evening activities included songs in praise of Abraham Lincoln and in honor of his proclamation, and speeches from elders about the trials and horrors they endured during their long lives in slavery. A reporter from the Philadelphia Press recorded their testimony:

One described his sensations when his youngest child was being sold into slavery. Another saw rebels in all directions but towards Heaven; there he saw a hope of freedom. Another reminded his comrades that, in Dixie, they worked all day and gave no satisfaction, and compared it with their conditions now. He had worked six months, and all he had made was his own, and he would soon be able to educate his children…Another said “I’ve got a right to rejoice; I’m a free man, or will be in five minutes.”

Two minutes before twelve all knelt in silent prayer. An oppressive stillness continued for four minutes, when a prayer was offered for the preservation of the Union by the speedy overthrow of the rebellion.—They then sang an original “Hallelujah” song.6


Dawn of the Year of Jubilee

The eastern sky began to lighten over Harrisburg at about seven a.m. on Thursday morning, and the jubilant welcoming committees for the new Emancipation Proclamation slowly filtered out of the three churches to their homes. The first bright rays of brilliant morning sunshine began to illuminate the now quiet streets by seven-thirty, and those awake for the dawn eagerly embraced the “bright, bracing and beautiful” New Year’s Day.7

It was observed in Harrisburg as a holiday, with banks closed and citizens holding open houses, eagerly welcoming callers into their homes. A number of inns and hotels put out sumptuous holiday spreads that featured bowls of special New Year’s punch.

While Harrisburg’s white citizens celebrated the coming of a new year with open houses and punch, her black citizens did likewise, but they also spent a portion of the day in reflection on what the Emancipation Proclamation meant for them, and on planning ways to take advantage of the new opportunity. They knew that the proclamation was not being well received by Democrats, who made up a considerable portion of the local white population, and they waited to see what the public response would be, now that it had become law.

They did not have long to wait, and the response was quite predictable. The Republican newspapers hailed the President’s proclamation as a noble and necessary gesture to preserve the Union, while the Democratic newspapers were outraged by it. The Reading Gazette and Democrat prefaced the text of the proclamation with a quote from the President’s Inaugural Address, headlined as “The Solemn Pledge,” in which he recalled his earlier words on the subject of slavery: “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so.” It then printed the “Abolition Proclamation,” under the headline “The Perfidious Violation,”8 neatly ignoring all the revolutionary events that had occurred between Inauguration Day 1861 and New Year’s Day 1863.

The Columbia Spy printed excerpts of the proclamation under its correct title, with the headline “Slaves of Rebels Declared Free.” This central point, which was summed up by the sentence “All persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in a state of rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward and forever free,” was the focus of most of the Democratic vitriol.

But they saw another equally outraging provision embodied in the document. This was the final provision, written near the end, just before the President’s statement that he sincerely believed the act to be “an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity.” It said simply “And I further declare and make known, that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.” The reference “such persons of suitable condition,” although it read rather vaguely in the document, was interpreted to mean, and did mean, African Americans. The Columbia Spy’s second headline was terse: “blacks to be received into the Army and Navy.”9

The Year of Jubilee had dawned.


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1. Reading Gazette and Democrat, 3 January 1863. There are several stories about the origin of Watch Night. In one version, English coal miners were said to have given up their traditional New Years Eve revels to indulge in prayerful gatherings from sunset on 31 December to sunrise on 1 January, after being personally converted by the preaching of John Wesley. National Era, 20 January 1848. An article in the Christian Recorder credits the origin of Watch Night to a folk tradition among the early European settlers of Pennsylvania and Ohio, who believed that miraculous things occurred for those who shunned the merrymaking in favor of “watching the old year out and the new year in.” Gradually, the superstitious practice evolved into “song and praise” sessions in which church members gathered around the church pulpit, falling into a “profound silence” in the few minutes before midnight, praying hard for forgiveness of the sins of the old year. Upon the stroke of midnight, the members broke into songs and shouts of joy, pledging to renew themselves in their faith during the new year. This ceremony caught on with their slaves, and with local free blacks, according to the story. Christian Recorder, 26 December 1901.

2. Liberator, 25 May, 5 October 1838.

3. Washington Chronicle, 31 December 1862 and Washington Star, 31 December 1862, reported in Reading Gazette and Democrat, 3 January 1863.

4. “Sun and Moon Data for One Day,” 31 December 1862, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, U.S. Naval Observatory,

5. “Died,” Christian Recorder, 11 April 1863. The obituary of Charles C. Gardiner identified his cause of death as dropsy, an archaic term for edema, indicating congestive heart failure.

6. “New Year’s at the Contraband Camp,” Philadelphia Press, 2 January 1863, reprinted in Lancaster Intelligencer, 6 January 1863.

7. “Sun and Moon Data for One Day,” 1 January 1863, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, U.S. Naval Observatory,; Reading Gazette and Democrat, 3 January 1863.

8. Reading Gazette and Democrat, 3 January 1863.

9. Columbia Spy, 3 January 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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