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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)


15 June 1863: Vignettes for an Approaching Crisis

The Telegrapher

Early Monday morning, before the rays of the sun brightened the eastern sky, the sounder of the telegraph machine in the Pennsylvania Railroad Station on Market Street began to click with an incoming message. The telegrapher seated at the high desk that held the apparatus, a thirty-year-old woman named Elizabeth Cogley, tapped lightly on her key to acknowledge that she was ready to receive a message, and then instinctively began to transcribe the incoming clicking dots and dashes of Morse code into words and sentences.

Cogley had learned the telegraphic operator trade in Lewistown, Pennsylvania, after working as a telegraphic messenger for the Atlantic and Ohio Telegraphic Company as early as 1852. The local A&OTC operator, Charles Spottswood, boarded with her family in Lewistown, and he taught the craft of transcribing Morse code to the pretty, young daughter of his host. She, in turn, began working for Spottswood’s company at age twenty-two, as an operator, a few years later.

When the Pennsylvania Railroad consolidated operations at Lewistown, Cogley became the first female telegraphic operator to work for an American railroad. It was a highly competitive field that required smart, technologically savvy people. Not only did you have to be literate and a good speller, but you had to be able to learn Morse code and have a working knowledge of electricity and telegraphy. Cogley moved to Harrisburg in 1862 to work in the Pennsylvania Railroad telegraphic offices, located in the relatively new Italianate Revival station on Market Street.117 In this position, Elizabeth Cogley had become accustomed to sending and receiving military telegraphic messages, some quite urgent.

This morning, as the letters became words, and the words formed sentences, Cogley’s heart may have begun to race as she realized the importance of the message that was being transmitted by the telegrapher at the Cumberland Valley Railroad office in Chambersburg, some fifty miles southwest of Harrisburg. To most people, the rhythmic clicking of the telegraph machine was incomprehensible industrial gibberish, and the idea that it represented a live message, transmitted instantly over the same distance that required several hours of travel time, did not rest comfortably in minds better attuned to horse travel and letter writing.

To Elizabeth Cogley, though, the chattering apparatus spoke a language as clear to her as her native English, and the message from the Chambersburg operator was just as immediate as if he had spoken to her from across the room. It was also startling and chilling. She finished transcribing the urgent message in a practiced, legible hand, then made arrangements to send it by messenger to General Couch’s office on the second floor of the Capitol, all the while realizing that she was apparently the first, and for a short while, the only person in Harrisburg to know about the coming Confederate invasion. Turning back to her desk, she waited for the next message, which would not be long in coming.


The Pianist

Ninety miles north, at a different train station along the Susquehanna, Louis Moreau Gottschalk detrained onto a station platform in Williamsport and stretched his legs after a seven-hour journey from Elmira, New York. The thirty-four-year-old pianist had just finished a whirlwind tour of ten performances in ten different towns, all in the space of six days. Despite the fatigue of touring, the New Orleans born and European trained musician was happy to be in the heartland of Pennsylvania, in a “very pretty town.”

Gottschalk was charmed by the practical nature of the populace, whose penchant for any business opportunity led to rather eccentric hybrids in which a main street milliner also advertised ice cream for sale, and “the music seller is a clock maker.” Looking in through the windows of the milliner’s shop, he observed baskets of strawberries lined up next to fashionable straw hats, wryly noting “the former looking like bonnets full, and the latter like baskets empty.”

Although he had not performed on Sunday, the day of rest in Elmira had frustrated the continental performer by its lack of activity. “No one will ever make me believe,” he had written in his journal on the previous day, “that Sunday at Elmira is composed of twelve such hours as the other days of the week.” Looking around his hotel lobby for someone to talk to after Sunday breakfast, Gottschalk found only two women “with their Sunday faces on—that is, looking as dismal as possible.” He soon found that the rest of the town had little more to offer on the Sabbath.

“Everyone knows how strictly Sunday is observed in all puritanical countries. To judge from appearances, it is a day devoted to lamenting the irreparable affliction which God has inflicted on us with the gift of existence.” The only reading matter he could find nearby was a Bible of “colossal proportions,” which he read out of boredom until it put him to sleep. “What could I do”? He lamented in the pages of his diary. “No stores open, no carriages in the streets, not the least noise, not the least sign of life, except a few passers-by, who, gliding along rather like shadows than living beings, were going to, or returning from church, which makes it all dull, silent, desolate. The town appears as if it had been visited by the plague or cholera.”118 Williamsport, by contrast, was quaint but at least had activity. Gottschalk planned to give one concert here this evening, before traveling on to the more exciting Harrisburg for a concert on Tuesday.


The School Teacher

One hundred miles east of Harrisburg, Octavius Valentine Catto was energetically organizing young black men in Philadelphia in response to Governor Curtin’s weekend-issued General Orders Number Forty-Two, to volunteer for service in the Pennsylvania Militia. Catto, an administrator and teacher in the city’s Institute for Colored Youth, sensed the urgency of the situation long before it hit the general population, and he wanted to be ready to report to Harrisburg with the first company of African American soldiers to defend the State Capital.

His enthusiasm was bolstered by a blurb in Monday’s Press, which stated simply “Governor Curtin, in agreement with the Secretary of War, has ordered the enlistment of colored troops, such enlistments to relieve the draft.” In another column, under the headline “The State Defence,” was another blurb that must have appeared to Catto to be the blueprint for putting his plan into action. It told him that General Couch had established his headquarters “in the State Capitol building, second story,” and further urged, “all interested in the organization of troops under the order just issued should report to him.” That was all he needed to know. Within hours, he was enjoying considerable success, having recruited a large number of students from his school, and he began drilling them in the street, to the delight or amazement of his neighbors and passers-by.119


The Editor

In the Third Street offices of the Harrisburg Telegraph newspaper, editor George Bergner supervised as typesetters quickly and skillfully laid out the page one headlines that no one and everyone wanted to read: “To Arms! To Arms! The Invasion of the Northern States. The Entire Rebel Army in Motion, Menacing Pennsylvania.” It was both exciting and chilling news, and it was made all the more ominous by President Abraham Lincoln’s call for one hundred thousand volunteers to respond to the Confederate march north. Pennsylvania was expected to raise fifty-thousand men, and Governor Andrew Curtin, in his early morning proclamation, appealed to all Pennsylvanians to be “mindful of the history and traditions of their Revolutionary fathers…and to rush to the rescue in this hour of imminent peril.”

The cause of all these alarming headlines, and the necessity of the call for troops, was a military disaster at the fortified town of Winchester, Virginia. Rumors to that effect had reached Harrisburg late on Sunday night, and by morning, the worst of the rumors appeared to be true. Much of the news had come from “large bodies of negroes, the avant couriers of disaster to our arms, [who] were pouring into Hagerstown… [with news that] the rebels had crossed the river at different points.”

Such was the substance of the telegraph messages from Chambersburg decoded by Elizabeth Cogley earlier. The columns of the Telegraph reported that General Robert H. Milroy’s command at Winchester had been defeated on Sunday and that the Confederates were in possession of that town. No one seemed to know for sure what Milroy’s status was at the time, but the newspaper reported “from semi-official sources we learn that the entire rebel army is moving northward, and that Lee is at the head of the forces. The indications are that the rebels contemplate the invasion at least of Maryland and Pennsylvania, and if possible the entire North. It is certain that the great crisis has come, and the people must be prepared for any emergency—prepared to defend their homes from the incursions of a bloody and a desperate foe.”120

It sounded bad. Editor Bergner ordered his staff to begin printing the grim Monday edition.


The Commanders

In fact, it was every bit as bad as all that. Late Sunday evening, just as a torchlight parade staged by fifteen or twenty of Harrisburg’s surviving veterans of the War of 1812 marched to the music of a fife and drum up Third Street to the Capitol, where they volunteered their services to Governor Curtin in defense of the state, General Milroy was meeting with his commanders in the besieged town of Winchester to decide upon a plan of withdrawal to Harpers Ferry. His forces could no longer hold the strategic town at the head of the Shenandoah Valley against the Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by Lieutenant General Richard S. Ewell.

Meanwhile, Harrisburgers were amused and charmed as the “hale and hearty old men, a little feeble and tottering in their walk” announced they were prepared to go and fight.121 Then, the war still seemed far away, despite the rumors that had circulated through town a few days before and despite the establishment of a new department of military operations in the Capitol. The aged veterans, with their fowling muskets and tattered flag, almost seemed to be an adequate defense for now.

All of that would change within hours as Milroy’s command was caught near dawn on the road to Harpers Ferry and was cut to pieces by the Confederates. The general and a small portion of his command made it out of the trap, but most of his troops were lost. General Ewell captured not only about four thousand Union soldiers, but also twenty-three artillery pieces, three hundred horses, a huge wagon train of supplies, and all the quartermaster and commissary supplies abandoned at Winchester. In addition, the Army of Northern Virginia now controlled the Shenandoah Valley, and had cleared the way to the Potomac. General Ewell wasted little time in sending the fast moving horsemen of famed cavalry raider General Albert Gallatin Jenkins across the river to make for the Pennsylvania border.122


The Engineer

Just before the Sunday torchlight parade had gotten underway along Third Street, Pennsylvania Railroad engineer John Allston Wilson had met with General Couch, Thomas Scott, Captain Richard I. Dodge of the Eighth Infantry, and artillery Major James Brady of the Pennsylvania Militia. General Couch had summoned Wilson, a young talented engineer, to Harrisburg in order to establish a line of fortifications across the river on Hummel’s Heights.

Wilson had been trained at Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, worked for two years in Central America as a topographer in surveying a route for the Honduras Inter-Oceanic Railway, then returned to the United States, where he secured a job with, and quickly rose through the ranks of, the Pennsylvania Railroad engineering department.123 Now he found himself, at age twenty-six, attached to the staff of Major General Darius Couch, serving as a military aide and holding the rank of captain.

Upon arriving in Harrisburg late Sunday afternoon, Wilson and his engineering assistants established themselves in a local hotel and then met with the military men in the Capitol, probably just before the aged veterans brought their fife and drum procession to a halt in front of the six massive brownstone columns that adorned the building’s portico.

For John A. Wilson, the work for which he had been summoned had a deeply personal component in addition to the urgent duty to his country. His father, William Hasell Wilson, had been part of the survey team that had laid out the route of the canal, and then the railroad, between Philadelphia and Harrisburg. Later, the elder Wilson had been instrumental in plotting the railroad division from Bridgeport to Pottsville. John had ridden to Harrisburg this afternoon along the very route established by his father more than thirty years before. Even more fittingly to his family history, John’s grandfather and namesake, Major John Wilson, had helped design the fortifications that helped keep the city of Charleston, South Carolina, safe from British attack during the War of 1812.124 Now, General Couch wanted him to help provide Harrisburg, and by extension the infrastructure designed by his father, with the same type of protection.

Early Monday morning, Captain John A. Wilson rode with fellow Department of the Susquehanna staffers Captain Dodge and Major Brady across the river to Bridgeport, to look over the area to determine how best to accomplish the goals set by Couch. As their carriage rattled across the rather boxy and straight replacement span that took Market Street over the rising river to Forster’s Island, and then entered the more imaginative original humped span of Burr’s Camel Back Bridge, they could glimpse the rocky landscape of Hummel’s Heights rising from the western shore of the river. It dominated not just the Market Street Bridge, but also commanded the Cumberland Valley Railroad Bridge, the city of Harrisburg and all the approaches from the Cumberland Valley.

Upon reaching the west shore and the Cumberland Valley Turnpike, they turned their carriage onto the farm lanes that took them to the top of the hill still owned by the family for which it had been named a generation before. There, surrounded by clover fields and woodlots, the military men and the engineer could readily see why General Couch was so anxious to establish fortifications here. The view from the top of the hill was magnificent; from the water gap to the north, where the railroad bridge that crossed the river at Marysville was faintly visible in the morning haze, to the spreading farmland south of Harrisburg, to the turnpike road that wound through the village of White Hall, just past the sloping fields of the Hummel farm, everything was visible.

Sixty feet directly below them, at the base of the bluff, the tracks of the Northern Central Railroad ran north along the riverbank, while the long, thin wooden form of the Camel Back Bridge struck out across the river to its mid-river resting place, then continued over the replacement span, built in 1846 after a disastrous flood, from the river island to Harrisburg’s Front Street. The men quickly began laying out plans for the fortifications in June’s hot morning sun.125


The Politician

Despite the alarming headlines, the obvious quickening of military matters, and the continuing flood of frightening gossip, Harrisburg’s citizenry, white and black, remained at loose ends throughout the morning. Business proceeded apace as normal: hotelier Joseph McClellan received guests at the Jones House on Market Square while his rival, Wells Coverly, did the same at the United States Hotel, across from the train station; wagoner John Alcorn hired out wagons and crews from his Broad Street stable to haul items for customers in the city; forwarding agent Daniel Muench received goods from his Philadelphia agents on the morning train and sorted them for delivery in town while Postmaster George Bergner carefully edited a list of letters still on hand at the post office, crossing off those that had been retrieved, after the payment of one penny postage due, and adding the names of addressees on letters newly received.

Trains arrived and departed regularly from the railroad depot. Canal crews loaded and unloaded their freight boats at the wharves east of town. Housewives shopped. Retail clerks made change from sales. Men and boys crowded around the commercial telegraph office and read the postings that the telegrapher put up on the bulletin board at frequent intervals. This last activity was the only daily occurrence that showed a significant change, as the crowd of people had increased noticeably with recent events.

At one hour before noon, the bell on the Court House began to ring, drawing the immediate attention of the telegraph office loiterers, as well as everyone else. People flocked to the public building, driven as much by anxiety as curiosity, to see what was happening. Inside they found most of the town’s public leaders assembled in an impromptu war meeting, and seated at the front were Governor Andrew Curtin and General Darius Couch. It was obvious to everyone that this was a meeting of the gravest importance, and it seemed as if everyone present not only had their own opinion on what needed to be done, but also wanted to publicly express that opinion.

Fortunately, the strong-willed and magnetic Simon Cameron chaired the meeting. The veteran politician, well used to forging the chaos of divergent interests into a focused spear point of action, took charge and briefly explained the situation. He then formed committees to act as liaisons between the citizens and those charged with the defense of the city. George Bergner, Mordecai McKinney, and Dr. Andrew Patterson were assigned to the Governor; William Bostick, Sheriff Boas, and Judge John C. Kunkel were assigned to General Couch; and Colonel Thomas C. MacDowell, David J. Unger, and Weidman Forster were assigned to Mayor Roumfort.

A number of resolutions and pledges came out of the meeting, among them a resolution to send one hundred scouts into the Cumberland Valley to watch for approaching enemy troops, and a pledge of “the last dollar and last men in defence of the State,” which was unanimously adopted. The relief of finally having something concrete to do in response to the crisis was evident in the enthusiastic response of those who crowded into the Court House.

Even Simon Cameron, who was normally able to remain aloof in order to better direct the situation, became swept up in the patriotism of the hour and pledged part of his fortune to fund the defense, noting that he would personally shoulder a musket and go “into the trenches.” George Bergner then introduced Governor Curtin, who rather ineffectively did little more than repeat what his political rival Cameron had already said, adding his own appeal for men to come to the aid of the Keystone State.

The tenor of the meeting changed when General Couch was introduced. He described the fortifications that needed to be built across the river, and “urged every man to go to work immediately” preparing them, “and he had no doubt that the rebels would be driven back.” Here was a task that the men of Harrisburg could eagerly embrace, and they responded enthusiastically when John Kunkel presented rolls to be signed by everyone present “to defend the city to its uttermost.” Simon Cameron stepped to the front of the line and, to cheers and hurrahs, ceremoniously put his name at the top of the list. Men surged forward to add their names.126 The defense of Harrisburg was now in motion.


The Refugees

Even before the jittery residents of Harrisburg were startled by the bells summoning them to an emergency war meeting, the even more jittery residents of Chambersburg were startled and frightened by the large number of army wagons that raced into and through town on Monday morning. The wagoners drove their vehicles as if in fear for their lives, some shouting that “the rebels are behind us.”

The wagon train, which was attached to Milroy’s now non-existent command, had escaped the trap in Virginia and had been retreating in good order until something spooked the teamsters just south of Chambersburg. Perhaps the strain of driving all night with the fear of being caught by Confederate cavalry at any moment was too much for the wagoners, a large number of whom were African American teamsters. Their fear of capture was certainly justified. It was not just government goods that they carried. Most of the mules and horses in the train bore black civilians on their backs, some of whom were family members of the teamsters, some of whom were contraband families picked up on the road from Winchester.

By the time the wagon train reached Chambersburg, it had lost all semblance of military order. Numerous sources reported extreme panic, reporting, “wild and frantic driving,” the death of several horses from collisions in the streets, and cursing, drunken guards. The wagon train finally was slowed in town by the Union commander of a small detachment of troops there. The panic that began south of Chambersburg and ended in town may have been little more than a final mad dash to safety. But it triggered a chain reaction of panic among the residents of the Cumberland Valley town.

The railroad depot suddenly found itself swamped with passengers, many of whom were local businessmen and their families, all carrying bags hastily packed and wanting to be put on the next train to Harrisburg. Railroad employees alerted their bosses, who reported the sudden mass exodus to their bosses, and those bosses in turn sent orders to begin evacuating railroad equipment to the east. “Cars, engines and everything that could be, belonging to the railroad company, was hurried away.”

In no time, word of the railroad’s actions spread throughout the countryside and farmers took their horses and heavy wagons and “conveyed them to swampy localities,” or hid them “in the midst of thick woods.” Others loaded their wagons and “skedaddled” east. A few farmers and businessmen gave their best horses to their African American neighbors and field hands, knowing that they would head to Harrisburg, and safe haven, with them. Most of the African American residents of the area were not so lucky, however, and “fled to the woods, went off with the horses, secreted themselves in out of the way places, and made good their escape in every way they could.”127 A large number of the latter headed straight for Harrisburg, some by railroad but most by wagon, on horseback, or even on foot.


The Patriots

By mid-afternoon, the committees to organize the defense of Harrisburg had completed their rolls of volunteers, and men were assigned to the urgent task of building fortifications on the West Shore. To the many Harrisburg men wary of signing up to shoulder a rifled musket for three years, or even for six months, the idea of digging entrenchments on a pleasantly sunny afternoon to satisfy their patriotic duty was very appealing. Hundreds of men assembled near the Camel Back Bridge, some with shovels in hand, waiting for someone to direct them to their work site. The committees on defense had recommended that all shops and businesses close immediately, so that all available workers could help dig, but it was not until suppertime that the profit-minded shopkeepers and industry leaders of Harrisburg were able to make this happen. Finally, at five p.m., the first work crews climbed to the top of Hummel’s Heights and, at the direction of John A. Wilson and his foremen, began to dig into the fragrant grass and clover covered hilltop.128

Despite the dire circumstances, a festive atmosphere prevailed on the hill, as many of the workers had been released from work early that day. Neighbors greeted neighbors, co-workers greeted bosses, church members greeted pastors, and all assembled on the lines that had been staked out by the railroad engineers and military men a few hours earlier. So many workers had shown up that they stood nearly shoulder to shoulder in the evening breeze. Shovels, digging irons, and pickaxes were handed out and the white gentry of Harrisburg hoisted their implements and brought them down into the soil of Hummel’s Heights. Within minutes, iron struck shale, and the workers discovered the mineral deposits that lay beneath the green clover and grass. Hummel’s Heights, they realized, was a sixty-foot bluff of unyielding, solid rock.

At seven thirty-nine p.m., the sun dipped behind the western hills, bringing some relief to the sweating laborers, almost all of whom were seriously regretting their decision to build a fort on the West Shore. Railroad workers began lighting the large piles of brush and wood that had been strategically placed around the top of the hill, creating large bonfires, easily visible from Harrisburg, to provide light after sunset for the construction crews. About the time that the men of Harrisburg realized that they were expected to work through the night on the fortifications, which did not sit well with many, news came that jolted them back to the reality of the crisis: Confederate troops were now in Chambersburg.129


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117. Thomas C. Jepsen, My Sisters Telegraphic: Women in the Telegraph Office, 1846-1950 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2000), 2, 6-7, 26, 48; “Noted Woman Telegrapher Dies,” Mutual Magazine 7, no. 11 (May 1922): 26.

118. Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Notes of a Pianist (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1881), 196-198, 200.

119. Andy Waskie, “Biography of Octavius V. Catto, ‘Forgotten Black Hero of Philadelphia,’” Temple University, (accessed 1 April 2010); Philadelphia Press, 15 June 1863.

120. Evening Telegraph, 15 June 1863. The reports of “large bodies” of fleeing African Americans reached Chambersburg on Sunday, 14 June. Military authorities derived considerable intelligence from escaped slaves and African American refugees. In this instance, that intelligence provided advance warning of the Confederate invasion. “Our Chambersburg Correspondence,” New York Herald, 27 June 1863.

121. New York Times, 15 June 1863.

122. Nye, Here Come the Rebels!, 123.

123. John W. Jordan, “Wilson, John Allston, Architect, Civil Engineer,” Encyclopedia of Pennsylvania Biography, vol. 13 (New York: Lewis Historical Publishing, 1921), 11.

124. Ibid, 3-4, 8.

125. Nye, Here Come the Rebels!, 222-224; Crist, Confederate Invasion, 16-17, 22-23. Hummel’s Heights was also locally known as Hummel Hill. It is referred to by both names in this text.

126. “War Meeting,” Evening Telegraph, 15 June 1863; “Meeting of Citizens,” Patriot and Union, 16 June 1863; Crist, Confederate Invasion, 12-13. Nye, Here Come the Rebels!, 224.

127. “The Rebel Invasion,” New York Herald, 20, 27 June 1863.

128. Nye, Here Come the Rebels!, 224.

129. Ibid.; “The Invasion of the State,” Philadelphia Press, 17 June 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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