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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 (continued)


The Master Spirit of the Negro War Element

At nine o’clock p.m. on Monday, 9 March, the evening mail train from Pittsburgh pulled into the ornate brick and stone Pennsylvania Railroad depot on Market Street in Harrisburg. The engine sat steaming in the cool March temperatures as the crew of the train worked to take in more fuel and water for the next leg of the trip. Railroad employees unloaded the sacks of mail that originated in the west, and loaded sacks bound for destinations to the east.

Among the passengers that climbed down from the cars onto the passenger platform were fourteen African American men, a few wearing the blue wool army uniform of the North. They stood out among the other travelers by their demeanor and build, not to mention their uniforms, which were easily distinguishable even in the dim light from the gas lamps that illuminate the platform and lined Market Street.

A considerable stir began among the depot workers, some of whom were African American locals, and word quickly spread through the city of the arrival of a number of black troops. One of the men wore the insignia of an officer, and after inquiring about local accommodations, led his men across the street to a hotel whose owner was affable to providing black men with a little something to wash the taste of locomotive soot from their throats.

They were greeted in the street and in the hotel, during their brief stay, by local black residents, for whom the appearance of the Pittsburgh volunteers was an unexpected and welcome sight. Here the Patriot and Union picked up the story:

Quite a number of “American citizens of African descent” belonging to this city paid their respects to the distinguished visitors, and gave them a warm and hearty greeting. We learn that the effort making here to secure negro recruits is not meeting with that success our Abolition friends desire, and the probabilities are that the whole thing will fizzle out. In Pittsburgh the greatest exertions are being made to raise a regiment of sable soldiers, but so far their efforts have only secured the paltry fourteen that passed through this city on Monday evening.32

Although the Democratic editor of the Patriot and Union was being heavily sarcastic by referring to the fourteen African American soldiers as “distinguished visitors,” the appellation was particularly apt as far as local blacks were concerned. This was the first time during the war that the city had seen uniformed African American recruits, and not just army drovers, wagoners and other workers who wore the Union blue.

Although local whites may have been dismayed to see these men marching from the depot to the local restaurant for refreshments while the train was readied for its run east, the sight was a perfect sensation for Harrisburg’s African American residents. Here was the living, breathing, beer-drinking embodiment of everything they had imagined when the idea of African American troops was first advanced in the early years of the war. For a few glorious moments, they could talk to them, clap them on the back and wish them well, sit down with them, and maybe even buy a drink for them before they walked back to their eastbound train.

By the end of the next week, though, Harrisburg’s African American community could proudly boast that it, too, was sending its sons and husbands to Boston to join the Fifty-Fourth regiment. The appearance of the Pittsburgh men must have finally sparked an outcry to establish a recruiting station in the capital city, and once that happened, it drew an immediate response. A number of Harrisburg men came forward to speak with T. Morris Chester, who took the lead in the local recruiting effort, about the Massachusetts regiment, and of those whose spirit was willing, Chester and his co-recruiter John Wolf found their first recruits:

On Saturday morning Sergeant Thomas M. Chester, the master spirit of the negro war element in our midst, left here with six or eight stalwart “American citizens of African descent,” recruited for a Massachusetts regiment. He left a sable sergeant in charge of the recruiting station during his absence, who has succeeded in enlisting more negroes for the same regiment, and they will also be sent forward in the course of a few days.33

On Tuesday, 17 March, a local newspaper reported, “Another squad of negro soldiers, recruited in the western section of the State for a Massachusetts regiment, passed through this city yesterday. The sable sons of Mars were in full uniform and looked quite ferocious.” Whether this group of recruits aroused the same interest among the city’s black residents, as did the first group, is not mentioned. The newspaper did credit the work of T. Morris Chester in the local recruitment work, noting: “The zealous and ambitious Tom Chester, of this city, is working hard to get up a company, with the view of being commissioned as captain, and no doubt he will succeed.” 34

Although he no doubt cringed at being identified as “Tom Chester,” the newspaper editor, in his disparagement of Chester’s motivation, was accurate in assessing his ambitions. Thomas Morris Chester indeed had dreams of leading an African American regiment as an officer. Although he knew that the planned Massachusetts regiments were to be led only by white officers, Chester also knew that the inequities in pay and bounty—black soldiers would be paid only ten dollars per month, with a monthly deduction of three dollars for equipment, as compared with the thirteen dollars and no deductions paid monthly to white recruits—were being assailed by the New England abolitionists who backed the regiments, and the pay issue was under review by Governor Andrew. Chester probably also hoped that the ban on black officers would also be reviewed and lifted, and he was working to be in a prime position to be appointed to one of those spots.35

By the end of March, excitement in the city over seeing African American men passing through, or volunteering locally for the Massachusetts regiments was, in the words of the Patriot and Union editor, “played out.” Ever eager to show the folly in enlisting African Americans into the armed forces, the Democratic press happily published articles about the slow recruiting efforts almost weekly. Unfortunately for those seeking to fill the ranks of the Fifty-Fourth regiment, the reports were not substantially exaggerated. On 25 March, the Patriot and Union pronounced the local recruitment push “a failure”:

The effort of the Abolitionists to get up a negro regiment is likely to prove a failure. After all the drumming up that has been done in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and New York, only two hundred and fifty-four recruits have been obtained. Great inducements are offered to negroes to enlist, but they “don’t see it.” Tom Chester, of this city, undertook to raise a company, with the view of being commissioned as captain, but finding that he couldn’t make his point, abandoned the effort. There is no fight in the niggers, and they can’t be got into the ranks of the army except by conscription.36

The next day, the same newspaper reported on the supposed reason that most of Harrisburg’s black men were shunning Chester’s advocacy of the Massachusetts Governor’s opportunity to fight in his regiment. It printed a story it heard about the retort made by one local African American man to the Massachusetts recruiter who tried to enlist him. He supposedly told the recruiter that he, and his fellow Harrisburg blacks, had nothing to do with the war, making the allusion “two dogs fight over a bone—did you ever see the bone fight?”37 The editor clearly wanted to ascribe the same motives to the local black community that matched his political views: that the war was not about slavery, as the President’s Proclamation announced, or even over “social equality doctrines” (as it termed African American rights), but was a basic fight over states rights.

In the view of the Democratic press, blacks were simply being pushed into the fight by desperate abolitionists. To prove its point, the Patriot and Union editor juxtaposed articles about fights between local African American and white citizens with the recruiting articles, to highlight the supposed socially corrosive effects of elevating blacks to the social status of whites by allowing them to enlist in the military. Along with the article on the Pittsburgh recruitment efforts, it ran an article under the headline “Irrepressible Conflict”:

The “Irrepressible Conflict” between whites and blacks still goes on. Yesterday a stalwart “American of African descent,” employed as a porter at the White Hall hotel, was assaulted by a white man who struck him on the head with a solid “dornick,” inflicting an ugly gash from which the blood flowed in such a profuse stream as to completely saturate his clothing. The assault was provoked by alleged insolence on the part of the negro, who “put on airs” and indulged in language that the white man wouldn’t submit to. Scenes of this description, now of frequent occurrence, will become still more numerous in this and other northern cities.38

A day later the Patriot and Union followed with another article about an assault on a local African American citizen who “perambulated the streets, flourishing a loaded cane and insulting “white trash.” When he was challenged and belittled by a group of young white men on Third Street, he “indulged in defiant language and assumed a defensive attitude,” but was chased down into Blackberry Alley, where a white passerby came to his defense, but was subsequently frightened off with threats from the gang of street toughs.

The Patriot and Union called upon “good law-abiding citizens to frown upon such lawless proceedings,” even though it laid blame for instigating the incident upon the black man for his “provocation” of the street gang. This led to a bit of editorializing on what the editor saw as the true cause of the trouble, which was abolitionism:

The frequent outrages of this kind occurring here and elsewhere furnish unmistakable evidence of an “irrepressible conflict” between the white and black races, engendered by the Abolition policy of emancipating the negro slaves and elevating the whole African race in this country to social and political equality with white citizens. And if the present policy of the Abolition agents prevails, this “conflict” will go on, just as certainly as effect follows cause, until all negroes shall have been driven beyond the borders of the free States or totally exterminated.39

T. Morris Chester’s job got considerably tougher as March progressed. Republican politician William Henry Seward delivered the phrase “irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces” in an 1858 speech to represent what he viewed as the inevitable economic clash between a slaveholding nation and a free-labor nation. Once war came, the Democratic press gleefully turned the phrase on its head to represent what they viewed as the inevitable violent showdown for dominance between whites and blacks—a showdown that they believed was precipitated by the policies of emancipation and military enlistment.

In Harrisburg, those clashes were of a minor character through the winter months, generally involving isolated fights between a few people, with the African Americans usually ending up as the victims. Such reports were served up as morality tales for the opponents of abolition, supposedly pointing out the evils and pitfalls that awaited any African American residents foolish enough to “put on airs” and act as if they had the same rights as local white residents.

While such incidents were a nuisance, an insult, and even a danger when they left local African American residents with physical injuries, they were still isolated and involved few people. With the coming of spring, however, the potential for violence increased along with the numbers of soldiers who reported for duty at Camp Curtin. Many of those soldiers carried the same views as the editors of the Patriot and Union, and most, when they inevitably encountered Harrisburg’s black residents, kept their views to themselves and avoided trouble. A few, though, were unable to stifle their words or actions, and very soon found their “irrepressible conflict.”

South Street Heats Up

Spring 1863 arrived in Harrisburg in a typically cold and rainy fashion, perhaps even colder and rainier than usual, causing local newspaper editors to comment, at the end of March at the atypical lack of budding evident in area trees. The abundant rains had swelled local streams, which in turn fed the Susquehanna River to the point that, by the last weekend of March, it was threatening to overflow its banks, as was its habit. Driftwood covered the waters that flowed swiftly past the capital city, reminding residents that the large rafts of timber from the northern counties along the West Branch would soon be making an appearance.40

Soldiers were again filtering into Camp Curtin, many of them newly recruited over the winter by agents sent home from their regiments for just such a purpose. One of them, an apparently contentious private named J. M. Sweeny, wandered into the rather rough neighborhood behind the State Capitol building, and got into an argument with local barber Thomas Early.

The cause of their argument is not known, but it was severe enough that it quickly degenerated into a physical confrontation that spilled out onto South Street. A crowd had no sooner gathered around the two feuding men when Sweeney pulled out a billy club and whacked Early hard enough on the head to draw blood. This was a severe mistake for the lone soldier, who was vastly outnumbered by the friends and acquaintances of the forty-five-year-old barber and long time city resident.

Sweeny was quickly overwhelmed by a number of men in the crowd, who beat him with clubs, stones, and whatever was handy and heavy. A number of women in the crowd cheered on the men who were beating the soldier, telling them, “Here’s a razor, cut his damned heart out.” The spectators surrounding the fight rapidly increased to a mob of more than a hundred, as people ran to the scene to see what all the excitement and yelling was about. Within moments the fight between a lone soldier and a lone resident of South Street had escalated to a near riot that quickly drew the attention of the police.

Bernard “Barney” Campbell was in his first day on the job as Harrisburg’s new chief of police, having just been appointed by the newly elected Mayor Augustus L. Roumfort. The new mayor, a Democrat, had taken office only days before and had just finished pledging before City Council to make the city’s safety his top priority. To underscore his sincerity, Roumfort announced the appointment of Campbell, a thirty-one-year-old native of Ireland, to the position of chief of police.

When news of the brawl in South Street reached the Mayor’s office in the Exchange Building on Walnut Street, a distance of only a few city blocks, Campbell dutifully raced to the scene with a handful of officers in support. When Campbell arrived, he found “hundreds of spectators of all colors and ages” surrounding the knot of struggling men, with many of those at the core of the conflict screaming to the fighters to inflict even more damage. The new police chief waded into the fray himself, physically disentangling people in order to get to the center of the fight. His men followed and “with some difficulty” the tumult was finally quieted.

Campbell found the soldier, who was severely beaten and profusely bleeding from deep razor cuts, and immediately had him taken to the office of a nearby doctor. He then ordered his men to arrest the three African American men he had seen beating the soldier. They were taken before Alderman Kline for a hearing, but when Kline heard their stories about how Sweeny had struck first, he decided not to charge them with any crimes and let them go home.

Meanwhile, Campbell and his men had their hands full just keeping order in the neighborhood of South Street, as a large number of soldiers had by now made their appearance, having heard that one of their comrades had gotten himself into considerable trouble.41 Once the sun began to set, however, tempers cooled along with the air temperature, and people turned toward home and camp to nurse wounds and, unfortunately, grudges.

The feud continued on Sunday night, as the bandaged Sweeny, at the behest of a local white man named Adam Kremer, pressed charges against seven African American residents of the South Street area. Charged with riot and assault and battery with intent to kill were Thomas Early, Jacob Lee, Jacob Jones, Boyd Jackson, Zachariah Johnson, Samuel Bennett, and Ann Greenley. Unlike Friday afternoon, the charges were not dismissed this time, and each of the seven accused rioters was forced to post four hundred dollars bail.42

The arrests may have been made in retaliation for a different incident that happened the night of the arrests, when a different drunken soldier ventured onto South Street and ended up being beaten by a number of black men in the neighborhood. From the newspaper report of the second incident in the same location, it appears that the second soldier had come to the African American neighborhood with revenge on his mind, but instead encountered more resistance than he had anticipated.

Unfortunately, a number of the more naive soldiers in camp believed the articles that they read almost daily in their local Democratic newspapers about the supposed cowardice of African Americans, and, after an afternoon of drinking, allowed bravado to overcome reason, and they set out for Harrisburg’s African American neighborhoods to prove their own valor.

After numerous incidents like this, and with few police available in those neighborhoods to intercept the drunken crusaders,43 local residents had finally had enough of the abuse, both verbal and physical, and they simply started giving the uniformed invaders a good drubbing. This defensive action was what the Patriot and Union characterized as “insolence on the part of the negro,” an assessment shared by the newly elected mayor and chief of police, and which resulted in the arrest of community leaders, such as Samuel Bennett, Thomas Early, Zachariah Johnson—all of whom were leaders at the Bethel A.M.E. on Watch Night—because of the misadventures of a few drunken soldiers.


Loss of Two Leaders

The black community suffered another blow on the day after Easter, with the death of the Reverend Charles C. Gardiner, pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church. His health had been failing for some time, but his tireless spirit overcame any limitations, so that his congregation probably thought he would be around almost forever.

At eighty-one years old, his obituary noted, “Brother Gardiner was one of the oldest Presbyterian ministers in this State.” He was born two years after passage of the Gradual Abolition Act in Pennsylvania, but he was born in New Jersey, which would not enact legislation to remove slavery from its borders until 1804. Fortunately, he was born free, and grew up learning the trade of shoemaking, which he abandoned in his mid-twenties to take up the life of an itinerant preacher. He also preached equality and self-respect, and he was a bitter opponent of colonization, which led to his persecution in the South. Gardiner narrowly escaped being jailed and possibly enslaved in Baltimore for his sermons, and sometime after 1830 he came to Philadelphia, where he continued his anti-slavery activities.

He first came to Harrisburg in 1837, to work with other African American leaders and activists to protest African American disenfranchisement, which was then being written into the state Constitution. Although he made other visits and maintained close contact with many Harrisburg black leaders throughout the next two decades, he did not settle in the state capital until 1858.44 In the last months of his life, while serving as pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church in Harrisburg, he witnessed the culmination of his life’s work: the beginning of the end of slavery in the United States.

Even at the time of his death, Gardiner was laboring to ensure that future generations would be provided for. Having lived for many years in poverty, and knowing too well the toll that debt and poverty exacted from the African American community, Reverend Gardiner was clearly pursuing plans to put his church on more sound financial footing.

Two weeks before he died, members of his congregation held a “fair” to raise funds for the church, and both city newspapers publicized the event on their pages. On 18 March 1863, the Telegraph reported, “The Colored People of Harrisburg held a grand fair last evening, in the old (colored) Presbyterian church, between Second and Front, for the purpose of raising a fund for the benefit of that church. The sum realized was very handsome, and the fair will be continued again this evening.” A few days later the same newspaper again put in a plug for the fair, noting, “This is a commendable enterprise, and as such it has our endorsement.”45 Even the normally anti-black Patriot and Union got behind the event, giving notice of the continued success of the fair, then in its second week:

The Colored Fair at the Walnut street Presbyterian church, commenced last week, will be continued for several days longer. The object is a commendable one, and thus far the exhibition has been quite liberally patronized by white citizens. A great variety of fancy articles are offered for sale, and refreshments are served up in a style to suit the taste of the most fastidious epicure.46

The quality of the foods for sale was no doubt influenced by the contributions of some of the town’s most successful African American caterers: Curry and Elizabeth Taylor, and James and Matilda Greenley. The Taylors and Matilda Greenley were all charter members of the church, having helped in its formation five years earlier. Curry Taylor and his family were still trying to recover from adversity, having lost their bakery and home to the actions of an arsonist during a plague of anti-black violence seven months earlier. Despite the crushing loss of property, he had managed to keep his fresh seafood and vegetable business going at the Market House on the square, and was probably one of the vendors, selling his award winning baked goods, at the Presbyterian Church Fair in March 1863.47

The congregation of the Second Presbyterian Church would not be able to share their fair’s success with their pastor for very long, however. Charles W. Gardiner died on Monday, 6 April 1863, and his body was taken to Philadelphia, where most of his family still lived, for his funeral and burial.48 The pastoral duties in the bereaved Second Presbyterian Church were taken over by charter member and ruling elder Hiram Baker.49

Reverend Gardiner was not the only leading anti-slavery activist that Harrisburg lost during this time, however. Joseph Bustill, having accomplished in Harrisburg what he had been sent to do—repair and reorganize the local Underground Railroad network—returned with his family to Philadelphia, where he immersed himself in political and social activism, as well as new business endeavors in partnership with his wife.50

Although the exact date of his departure from Harrisburg is not definitely known, it appears that he was absent by the time that a fugitive slave was paraded through the streets in April. With Gardiner and Bustill gone, the capital city was again without a central figure to direct its anti-slavery activists. Perhaps the coming of the war and the issuance of the President’s Proclamation caused anti-slavery activists to switch their focus to gaining the right to enlist for African Americans, and fugitive slaves, who still flocked to the north, were assumed to be mostly free from danger.

No crowds assembled in the streets of Harrisburg to protest this outrage, which flew in the face of the spirit of the celebrated Emancipation Proclamation, even though it was entirely legal according to that document because Maryland was not in a state of rebellion against the Union and her slaveholders could still lawfully hunt down their escaped bondsmen. No frantic telegrams passed between Harrisburg and Philadelphia and no riotous mobs stopped the slave hunter at the station; Harrisburg remained sedate and quiet on this beautiful spring day, while one more man lost his freedom.


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32. “The First Installment,” Patriot and Union, 11 March 1863. Unfortunately, the “hotel” next to the station that served the fourteen African American recruits is not identified in the article.

33. “Negro Recruits,” Patriot and Union, 16 March 1863.

34. “More Negro Soldiers,” Patriot and Union, 17 March 1863.

35. Blackett, Thomas Morris Chester, 33-36. Chester was still nursing his ambitions of being appointed to an officer’s post as late as May 1863, when a Harrisburg newspaper reported, “We learn that Tom Chester, having taken an active part in the recruiting of the Massachusetts regiment, is promised an important position.” “Negro Soldiers,” Patriot and Union, 7 May 1863. That appointment to an officership with the Fifty-Fourth or Fifty-Fifth Massachusetts Volunteers would never come, however, as Governor Andrew stood firm in his opposition to African American officers in his state regiments.

36. “A Failure,” Patriot and Union, 25 March 1863.

37. “Negro Recruits,” Patriot and Union, 26 March 1863. I have cleaned up the quoted line to be less offensive in its stereotype of African American speech patterns.

38. Patriot and Union, 6 March 1863. The term “dornick,” as used in Pennsylvania, is a Scots-Irish term for a stone or rock too large to leave in a cultivated field, where it might damage a plow, but small enough to be thrown or hurled out of the field.

39. “Another Negro Assaulted,” Patriot and Union, 7 March 1863.

40. Patriot and Union, 28 March 1863.

41. Ibid.

42. “Negro Rioters Arrested,” “Another Row,” Patriot and Union, 31 March 1863. In a jury trial at the Court of Quarter Sessions on 28 April, four of the seven arrested, Thomas Early, Jacob Jones, Boyd Jackson and Anne Greenley, were found guilty of riot. Charges against the other three persons had apparently been dropped. Patriot and Union, 29 April 1863.

43. Patriot and Union, 31 March 1863. The Patriot and Union complained about the lack of police presence in the black neighborhoods, not so much for the lack of protection for the local residents as for the lack of protection for whites who ventured in: “If white men will persist in visiting that dangerous locality after night, when under the influence of alcohol, and ‘kicking up a muss’ with the darkeys who congregate there in large numbers, they must put up with the consequences…the white man who intrudes upon and molests them is certain to be assaulted and roughly used. The disorderly scenes occurring so frequently in that section of the city, show the necessity for an additional police force, and we trust the new Mayor and Council will give [Chief of Police] Barney [Campbell] two or three reliable and efficient assistants.” No mention is made of the need for the Provost Marshal to keep drunken soldiers with riot and mayhem on their minds out of the African American neighborhoods.

44. Christian Recorder, 11 April 1863; Colored American, 10 June 1837; National Era, 27 January 1848.

45. Pennsylvania Daily Telegraph, 18, 21 March 1863.

46. Patriot and Union, 24 March 1863.

47. By mid-1863, Curry Taylor had relocated his bakery and home to Forster Street, near Elder (modern day Capitol Street). This placed him about halfway between his old neighborhood near Tanner’s Alley and the relatively new African American neighborhood centered on Calder Street in Verbeketown. It is possible he was positioning himself to move into a stall in the partially finished West Harrisburg Market House on Broad Street (modern day Broad Street Market on Verbeke Street) upon its completion. Unfortunately, progress on the new market house was impeded by the demands of the war. Gopsill’s 1863-1864 Directory; Roe, Plan of the City of Harrisburg; Frew, Building Harrisburg, 45-48.

48. Christian Recorder, 11 April 1863. According to his obituary, services for Charles W. Gardiner were held at the Seventh Street Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, then under the pastorship of Rev. Mifflin Gibbs. The Reverend William Catto, father of Octavius Catto, delivered the sermon and eulogy, and Gardiner was buried in a vault beside the church.

49. Gopsill’s 1863-1864 Directory. Hiram Baker served as pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church from 1863-1869. During his years of service, the congregation moved from its rented room on Second Street to a permanent home at the southwest corner of Elder and Forster streets, building a wooden church at that location in 1866. It became known as the Elder Street Presbyterian Church after the move. That structure caught fire and burned to the ground in 1880, and the following year the congregation replaced it with a substantial stone church on the same location. Note that this is the approximate location to which church member Curry Taylor had moved in 1863. Stewart, Centennial Memorial, 165-166.

50. The exact date of Joseph Bustill’s removal to Philadelphia is not known, but occurred before the summer of 1863. He does not appear in the city directory, which was compiled by James Gopsill in the summer of 1863, and is listed as a resident of Philadelphia in a news article published in January 1864. By April 1864, he was in business with his wife, Sarah Humphries Bustill, as a hairdresser. The Bustills also made and sold wigs, braided hair and sold hair products. Gopsill’s 1863-1864 Harrisburg Directory; Christian Recorder, 9 January, 9 April 1864.


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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