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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)


16 June 1863: The “Hegira”

After the elation of the weekend, in which Governor Curtin announced that African Americans would be enrolled into state regiments, local blacks found themselves suddenly shut out of the defense of Harrisburg. The fast developing emergency, culminating with the emotional war meeting in the court house and the call for laborers to build fortifications on the heights across the river from Harrisburg, had brought together feuding political groups and had placed leaders of industry next to hod carriers, with both swinging pickaxes and sweating together for a common patriotic cause. But black leaders were excluded from the war meeting, and few black laborers, other than those already working for the railroad, were put to work building the entrenchments that Monday.

The Court House bell had rung several times that day after the initial meeting, and each time a large crowd of citizens rushed to the site for the latest developments. A sundown meeting was again chaired by Simon Cameron, who stated that the rebels were indeed on the march toward Pennsylvania—this update coming before Harrisburg received news that Confederate cavalry under General A. G. Jenkins had entered Chambersburg—and he again urged everyone to “rush to the protection of the capital” by helping out in the trenches.

Attorney Robert A. Lamberton, who had just been at the Capitol, said that Governor Curtin had just received word that heavy ordnance was on its way to Harrisburg from Philadelphia, and would arrive sometime during the night for use behind the fortifications currently being constructed. Mayor Augustus Roumfort then took charge of the meeting, announcing the unsettling but still unconfirmed report that Confederate pickets were within a mile of Greencastle, which would have put them a little more than sixty miles southwest of Harrisburg. Previous rumors had placed Confederate raiders much closer, but this was the first time most citizens heard such alarming news from an authoritative source.

The Mayor told the astonished crowd that he believed the Southerners would be in Harrisburg by Wednesday or Thursday, and, switching to his old military commander voice, ordered all volunteers to immediately fall into line. The meeting promptly adjourned as the Mayor called out “Forward, march,” and trooped the white civilian volunteers out of the Court House and down Market Street to the Camel Back Bridge. Again, African American residents were left wondering what they should, or could, do.

The bell rang again at ten p.m., waking any Harrisburgers still composed enough to fall asleep during the present crisis. The crowd was much more agitated now, and General Cameron was not present at this meeting to reassure them. Mayor Roumfort, back from the Bridgeport works, settled everyone down with the promise of urgent news, and when the room quieted he read the ominous telegraphic dispatches that had been received in the last few hours from Chambersburg, including one that suggested the burning of the town of Greencastle.130 The first refugees from Chambersburg had begun to arrive at the rail depot by now. Among them were a few terrified African Americans fortunate enough to have secured a spot on the train. Few Harrisburg residents slept that night.

Those who did find sleep that night awoke Tuesday morning to find that the Confederates had occupied Chambersburg Monday night, arriving in that town after eleven o’clock p.m. with a considerable force of cavalry and mounted infantry under General Jenkins. The town’s telegraph operator, W. Blair Gilmore, took his apparatus and left town as the Confederate arrival was imminent, knowing that they would destroy the telegraph station and equipment.

Gilmore traveled north in the darkness along the now quiet Cumberland Valley Railroad tracks, until he reached the bridge that carried the rail line over the Conococheague Creek, near the town of Scotland, about five miles from Chambersburg. Gilmore crossed the bridge and set up his magnet on the other side. His messages to Harrisburg were received after midnight, and were the first confirmed reports received in the capital that a Pennsylvania town had been captured by a rebel force. The telegrapher in Harrisburg continued to receive messages from that remote location until about two o’clock a.m., when a rebel cavalry detachment arrived at the bridge with explosive charges. The line from Scotland fell suddenly and ominously silent.131

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130. “Another Evening Call,” Philadelphia Press, 17 June 1863.

131. “The Rebels at Chambersburg,” Philadelphia Press, 16 June 1863. Initial reports had the Confederate cavalry arriving in Chambersburg about nine o’clock p.m., but eyewitness and diarist Rachel Cormany fixes the time at about half past eleven p.m. James C. Mohr and Richard E. Winslow, III, eds, The Cormany Diaries: A Northern Family in the Civil War (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1982), 328-341. The telegraph operator, W. Blair Gilmore, is reported to have left Chambersburg with the telegraph equipment hidden in his boot, in case he was captured. The Philadelphia Press wrote that he used a railroad handcar to escape Chambersburg and reach the bridge at Scotland. This is likely, as he was a railroad agent and would have had access to railroad equipment. It also fits with the timetable of traveling five miles, setting up a temporary telegraphic station and broadcasting the first messages, all within the space of about forty-five minutes to one hour. “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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