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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)


Spring 1863: Instruments in the Hands of God

On Thursday, 9 April, the weeks of dreary, gray winter weather gave way to a brilliant morning sun that warmed the streets of Harrisburg and cheered local residents, who took advantage of the “balmy atmosphere and genial temperatures” to promenade along the wooden sidewalks, presenting “an unusually gay and lively appearance.” Citizens strolled the city streets, perusing goods on display in the windows of the shops that lined every street. The tailor J. Cook displayed the latest cloths, cassimeres and vestings “just returned from the city” in the window of his shop in the first block of Chestnut Street, while Jackson’s shoe store on Market Street displayed a wide assortment of boots and shoes of “all kinds and varieties, in the neatest and most fashionable styles, and at satisfactory prices.”

Merchant William Dock, as usual, tempted window-shoppers with nearly every type of fancy food available at the time, including Charter Oak brand flour, 100 boxes of prime cheese, Havana oranges, Boston crackers, claret wine, smoked halibut, French mustard, sweet cider, dried peaches, white brandy, Japanese tea, Winslow’s fresh green corn, and hermetically sealed peaches, tomatoes, lobster, salmon, and spiced oysters. He had also just received a large supply of sugar-cured hams, said to be “the best in the market.” Fish merchant John Wise, whose shop sat on the corner of Third and Walnut streets, advised his customers that he was expecting a shipment of freshly caught seafood on Friday.

Brant’s Hall, in the second block of Market Street, displayed posters inviting patrons to view, for twenty-five cents (children only ten cents) “The Great Historic Mirror of the War,” a huge traveling panoramic painting by New York artists Robert and William Pearson, depicting all the major events of the war. At the competing Gaiety Music Hall, on Walnut Street, huge bills advertised the Great Gaiety Troupe of Stars, featuring Miss Annie Rush, the Harrisburg favorite queen of songs, Miss Rose LaForest, the female champion jig dancer, Miss Laura Bernard, nicknamed the Great American Nightingale, “whose bird-like warblings entrance all,” Professor G. W. Kirbye and Son, with a new and original act, J. G. H. Shorey, the world-renowned Ethiopian comedian, Charlie Rivers, the celebrated clog dancer and champion bone soloist, J. H. Young, the great plantation orator and contraband jester, Harry Wharfe, the favorite banjoist and king of songs and dance, J. Andria Iardella, a pianist, William Brownell, a solo violinist and interlocutor, and Bob Edwards, the comedian and dancer.

This huge show would conclude with a performance entitled “The black Shoemaker,” or “The Contraband in Trouble,” featuring “characterizations by the entire company,” all for the paltry admission price of twenty cents.51 The city, held too long under the thumb of unseasonably persistent winter temperatures and cold precipitation, emerged from the months of darkness like a black bear crawling from a winter den, shaking off its grogginess and reveling in the warm, bright sunshine.

The African American community of Harrisburg also shook off the effects of its long slumber and, as if in response to the regular taunting of the Patriot and Union staff, took up support for the war effort with a renewed sense of purpose. Men finally began to volunteer for service with the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts in significant numbers.

On Saturday, 11 April, the newspaper reported, “Middletown is doing its share towards filling up the Massachusetts negro regiment. Some twenty-five sable recruits were forwarded from that place during the past week.”52 A few days later the Telegraph gave extra details, as the arrival of the Dauphin County soldiers at Boston, en route for Camp Meigs in nearby Readville, was noted in the Boston papers:

Middletown Men of Color in Boston

The Boston Journal of the 9th inst. thus refers to a party of recruits who went from Middletown recently, to enter one of the Massachusetts colored regiment:
Recruits for the Fifty-fourth Regiment—A party of nineteen colored men just arrived from Middletown, Pa, for the purpose of joining the 54th regiment, were at the State House yesterday, and attracted considerable attention. Many of them were fine looking fellows, and appeared to possess genuine fighting pluck. They had a guitar and violin, with which to while away the leisure hours of life in camp.

One of the Middletown men who was with the first group in Boston mentioned above was Horace B. Bennett, a twenty-five-year-old farmer. Bennett enlisted on 8 April, along with several of his neighbors from Middletown, and was mustered into Company F of the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Volunteers. Bennett had quite a few fellow central Pennsylvania men in his company, including Charles Bowser, brothers Philip and William Cole, Charles Cunningham, Samuel Moles, Thomas Sheldon, Joseph Stilles, Andrew Thomas, and Peter Washington from Portsmouth and Middletown, William Carroll of Harrisburg, Samuel Kenny and James Nelson from Lancaster, Charles Snowden of Lewistown, and Thomas Rice, from Mercersburg. Others in Bennett’s company included Charles R. Douglass, the nineteen-year-old youngest son of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and a large number of men from the abolition hotspots of Elmira, New York and Oberlin, Ohio.

A number of Harrisburg men were already in camp by the time Bennett and his fellow Middletown residents arrived, having mustered in a few weeks earlier through the efforts of T. Morris Chester. Joseph Butler, Frank Green, John MacPherson, and George Scott of Harrisburg had enlisted in March and were placed in Company D. Edward Webster was enrolled in Company E.54 In the coming weeks, many more men from Harrisburg, Carlisle, Chambersburg, Columbia, Reading, Shippensburg, and York would arrive to finally fill the ranks of the first black regiment to be formed as a result of Lincoln’s Proclamation.

The momentum of support for the war effort among the African American population of Pennsylvania increased noticeably in mid-April 1863, although the Democratic press in Harrisburg refused to recognize the shift. In response to the arrival of the Middletown men in Boston, the Patriot and Union belittled the efforts of T. Morris Chester to enlist men in Harrisburg, asking, “Why don’t Tom Chester continue the recruiting business in this place [?] Our citizens are anxious to get rid of the whole worthless negro population.” A few days later it commented upon a letter received in Harrisburg from one of the local men in Camp Meigs, near Readville, Massachusetts:

We have seen a letter written by one of Tom Chester’s sable recruits, now in camp at Boston, from which it appears that the filling up of the negro regiment is progressing very slowly…The company to which the Harrisburg recruits are attached numbers twenty-seven, and the letter-writer says, “a lot of bad boys we have.” This is not very complimentary to the sable sons of Mars, but we have no doubt of its truth. From present indications the effort to recruit even one full negro regiment in all the free States is likely to prove a total failure. The black Abolitionists, like their white-skinned brethren, have no stomach for the fight, and prefer skulking at home.55

In fact, the mustering for the regiment had increased considerably by this time. Company F, which contained the Middletown men, was already full, and recruiters in Readville were receiving men at the rate of one hundred per week through the month of April. The regiment completed its muster by 11 May, at which point recruiters began organizing a second regiment, the Fifty-Fifth Massachusetts Volunteers.56 Some of the men who followed the Middletown contingent that April were a number of men from Carlisle, who passed through Harrisburg on their way to Boston and eventually ended up in Companies H and I, and another group of men from Harrisburg, who were mostly placed in Company I. Among the latter was George Jackson, a nineteen-year-old laborer from the city.57


Support for "Our Colored Regiment"

The enlistment of teenagers and men like Jackson, Bennett, the Cole brothers, and so many others brought the war home to Pennsylvania’s African American families, and interest in the progress of the war, and of the training and deployment of the black regiments received increased coverage in the pages of the African American press.

Local residents sought out copies of the Christian Recorder, a four-page Philadelphia weekly newspaper that had begun publishing in 1861, and which, under editor Elisha Weaver, gave close coverage to the African American regiments. In Harrisburg, copies of this newspaper could be found with barber Samuel Stanton, Bethel A.M.E. minister Joseph E. Nelson, or in the saloon of William Toop, on Short Street.

In its pages could be found the latest news from the camp of “Our Colored Regiment.” The 18 April issue published the preamble and resolutions of a recent meeting in Philadelphia’s Oak Street Baptist Church in support of the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts, which must have mirrored the feelings and emotions of the African American residents of Harrisburg as well, now that their own sons, husbands, and fathers were leaving the hearth for the campfire. The preamble and first resolution stated, in part:

Whereas, it can no longer be doubted or denied, but on the contrary, is admitted by all rational and unprejudiced minds, that the principles involved in the present war for an against the Union, are, Freedom vs. Slavery, Right vs. Wrong, Light vs. Darkness, Truth vs. Error, and the immutability of God, against the subtlety and unholy ambition of the Devil: and whereas, men are but instruments in the hands of God,…and whereas, we believe there can be no neutrals in such a contest…Therefore,
Resolved, that it is the duty of colored men everywhere to respond to the efforts of the present administration in endeavoring by every possible means to wrest from the hands of rebellious slaveholders a full, complete, and gloriously triumphant victory.

The war had now been embraced by the black churches, just as they had embraced the anti-slavery activism of the Underground Railroad. Significantly, the Philadelphia Baptist church resolutions, printed in an A.M.E. publication, closely echoed the Harrisburg Watch Night proclamation, not only in viewing the war now as a holy struggle of light versus darkness and God versus Satan, but in confirming the hand of God in the signal events of the past few months. Furthermore, it gave further credence to the December 1862 exhortations of T. Morris Chester to link true religion to the equality of men. A particular verse of Charles Wesley’s hymn took on new meaning as it aptly linked the destruction of slavery to the new martial spirit of the African American churches:
Ye slaves of sin and hell,
Your liberty receive,
And safe in Jesus dwell,
And blest in Jesus live.



And then things got ugly.


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51. Patriot and Union, 9, 10 April 1863.

52. Patriot and Union, 11 April 1863.

53. Pennsylvania Daily Telegraph, 13 April 1863.

54. Thomas L. Doughton, Afroyankees, "Pennsylvania Men in Massachusetts Colored Infantry Units--Enlistees Arranged by Pennsylvania Town Residence," 1999, (accessed 24 October 2003); Bureau of the Census, 1850 Census of the United States, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania.

55. Patriot and Union, 11, 15 April 1863.

56. Luis Fenollosa Emilio, History of the Fifty-Fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (Boston: Boston Book Company, 1894) 20, 24.

57. Doughton, “Pennsylvania Men”; Patriot and Union, 16 April 1863.

58. Christian Recorder, 18 April 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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