Afrolumens Project logo
Share |
Year of Jubilee title logo

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)


Weekend of 13-14 June: How Many Colored Troops?

Even as General Couch and Governor Curtin sounded the clarion call for white volunteers to defend Pennsylvania hearths and homes, a large number of citizens suddenly began questioning the dramatic emigration of African American men who were making the journey to Boston, effectively abandoning their home state simply because they wanted to fight. Even before the emergency, the editor of the Daily Telegraph published an editorial piece that put Pennsylvania officials on the spot by asking:

How Many Colored Troops Has Pennsylvania Furnished?

This question is asked daily, and we have taken the pains to ascertain the number, as near as possible. Last evening we were reliably informed that the squad of one hundred and thirty-five negro recruits, then leaving, would make a total of one thousand one hundred and fifty five men. Pennsylvania, in all probability, is not credited for a single man of these recruits, and, when the draft comes, we will have to furnish just as many men as though these colored recruits had never left the State.113

The actual number was probably much higher than the estimate provided by the newsman, as many undocumented men, fugitive slaves hiding out in Harrisburg and other central Pennsylvania communities, likely joined the ranks of those reporting to Governor Andrew’s recruiters. The outflow of African American men from Harrisburg became so noticeable that it was even remarked upon by the usually anti-black Democratic newspaper the Patriot and Union. In covering the 8 June War Meeting in Tanner’s Alley, the Patriot and Union repeated the total calculated by the rival Telegraph, noting without additional comment, “Forty-seven recruits, most of whom were recruited at this meeting, left at three o’clock next morning for Boston, in charge of Thomas Chester, making a total of eleven hundred and fifty-five sent from this State to join regiments organized elsewhere.”114

These “regiments organized elsewhere” were now no use to General Couch as he formed a desperate plan for the defense of the Keystone State from his second floor office in the Capitol. When no hordes of local plowmen, mechanics, and merchants came forth to fill the ranks of the Department of the Susquehanna Volunteer Corps, Governor Curtin, acting as “General and Commander-in-Chief” of his state militia, took a bold step to stop the loss of valuable manpower. Late in the day on Saturday, 13 June, he issued “Pennsylvania Militia General Orders Number Forty-Two,” which stated:

Whereas, Information has been received from the War Department, “that the State will receive credit for all enlistments of colored men who may be mustered into the United States service as Pennsylvania troops, under the authority of the War Department, and that no credit can be allowed for individuals who leave the State and are mustered into organizations elsewhere;”
It is ordered—

I. All persons are prohibited from raising colored volunteers in Pennsylvania otherwise than under the authority of the War Department, to recruit in Pennsylvania.

II. The people of color in Pennsylvania are forbidden to enlist in or attach themselves to any organization of colored volunteers to be furnished from other States.

III. All magistrates, district attorneys and officers of the Commonwealth, are required to arrest and prosecute all persons who shall disobey this general order, and particularly all persons, their aiders and abettors, who, under any pretended authority shall enlist colored volunteers for any brigade, regiment, battery or company, to be furnished from other States, or who shall advertise and open or keep recruiting stations for such enlistments, excepting under the authority of the War Department to recruit in Pennsylvania, so that such offenders may be brought to justice.115

So on the weekend of 13-14 June 1863, the great unbarring of the door by Massachusetts, “that black men of the North may on equal turns with white men, strike simultaneously at Slavery and the Rebellion,” was reversed. Not only were the Massachusetts recruiting stations in Harrisburg and throughout the rest of Pennsylvania shut down, and black men expressly “forbidden to enlist in or attach themselves” to a military organization from any other state, but the full weight of local law enforcement was empowered to ensure that these orders were followed. There would be no more trainloads of local African American recruits leaving the Market Street station for Boston. That experiment, which began slow but built steadily to a glorious climax with the triumphant and emotional two a.m. sendoff of one hundred and thirty-five recruits only a few days before, was forever ended.

Harrisburg blacks were not at a loss for options, however. In the words that the poet Miguel de Cervantes placed in the mouth of his hero, Don Quixote, who counseled his servant Sancho Panza to trust in the tried wisdom of the ages, “because they are all sentences drawn from experience itself, the mother of all the sciences; especially that which says ‘Where one door is shut, another is opened.’”116 The Massachusetts door had shut, but Harrisburg’s blacks need not have been familiar with the works of Cervantes to know that another door had just as suddenly and propitiously opened.

On Monday, Governor Curtin issued another more urgent appeal, in response to the deepening crisis, and in response to President Lincoln’s call for fifty thousand Pennsylvanians to oppose Lee’s army. Curtin wrote, “The State of Pennsylvania is again threatened with invasion and an army of rebels are approaching our border.” He appealed to “all the citizens of Pennsylvania who love liberty,” and he did not specify color. The door to Pennsylvania African American troops had just been unbarred.


Previous | Next



113. Daily Telegraph, 9 June 1863.

114. “The War Meeting in Tanner’s Alley,” Patriot and Union, 10 June 1863.

115. “General Orders No. 42,” Daily Telegraph, 15 June 1863.

116. Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote de la Mancha, chapter 21.


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