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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)


Men of Muscle

The few hardy men still at work carving out entrenchments from the clay and shale substratum of Hummel’s Heights welcomed an early dawn on Tuesday morning. Soft rosy light began to filter up from the edges of the eastern sky as early as four o’clock a.m., forcing an imminent end to the eight brief hours of darkness that cloaked this midsummer night. The railroad crews who had been feeding logs to dozens of fires in order to provide ample work light on the hilltop allowed the bonfires to subside to glowing embers, and by four-thirty the first rays of sunshine were glinting from the flowing waters of the Susquehanna River below.

Eight hours earlier, several hundred jovial workers stood thick around the stakes that marked where rifle pits and artillery lunettes were to be located, and as many shovels and pickaxes reflected the fading rays of sunshine from the west as they bit enthusiastically into the earth. As darkness took over and the hours passed, though, spirits began to fade and fatigue began to set in. Fresh workers arrived from time to time, but each hour the flames of the bonfires illuminated fewer and fewer faces at work, still swinging digging implements.

The railroad work foremen who had accompanied engineer John A. Wilson to the site to supervise the construction were seriously concerned. They knew exactly how much work was required to complete the planned fortifications, and they had witnessed the alarming flight of workers and diminishing pace of progress through the night. The light of dawn was now exposing the sum total of work that had been accomplished by Harrisburg’s civilian pick and shovel brigades, and it was seriously deficient. They could do little more than hope for a large replacement force to show up once the sun was up, as the night workers one by one put down their shovels and headed for the bridge, breakfast, and bed.

Upon crossing the Camel Back Bridge back into Harrisburg, the tired and hungry overnight laborers found that the city presented a much busier appearance from ground level than it had projected when viewed from the heights across the river. On a normal day at this early morning hour, the chief source of activity on city streets would have been coming from sleepy clerks opening up their stores, drivers unloading stacks of produce on sidewalks, and groups of men walking to their shift at the Car Works. It would have been a casual, even sedate level of activity, with little sense of urgency.

Today however, even with the sun barely up beyond the eastern hills, the level of activity was already as frantic as the market before a holiday. Large numbers of people were already about, either rushing from one location to the next, or standing in knots on the sidewalk, talking and gesturing excitedly. It was as if the town had never gone to sleep at all during the night, which was probably not far from the truth. All through the evening and into the night, telegraphic communications poured into the capital from across the state, from the southern battlefields, and from the national capital. Men, boys, and a few women stood outside the telegraph offices, waiting to read the next dispatch, eager to be the first with the latest news.

There was a noticeable difference in the town, though, described by one eyewitness familiar with Harrisburg’s usual demeanor, as having “the unusual appearance of one deserted by residents and filled with strangers.” In looking around, the returning laborers would have been able to see the truth in that observation. For one thing, almost all the shops were closed.132 The intense commotion they were seeing had nothing to do with commerce, and everything to do with a mass evacuation of residents and their possessions. The Patriot and Union noted that “all along the streets were omnibuses, wagons and wheelbarrows, taking in trunks and valuables and rushing them down to the depot, to be shipped out of rebel range…Every horse was impressed into the service, and every porter groaned beneath the weight of responsibilities.”133 Only one or two shops remained open for business, and they were begging for customers.

The usual crowd of market bound shoppers had been replaced by depot bound African American porters, all loaded down with bags, boxes, and trunks containing the treasured possessions of their white neighbors and employers. It seemed that, even in the defense of Harrisburg, the only role white residents would allow blacks to fill was one of labor and servitude.

But today that would change. When the morning edition of the Patriot and Union hit the streets, it contained the following advertisement, placed by William T. Hildrup:


We want men of muscle, and men who are ready and willing to work on our entrenchments.—We have such white men already. But colored men can help in this common cause also, and colored men are needed at this crisis.—Liberal inducements are offered to such of those as assist us, and their pay will $1.25 per day as long as they work. The night laborers will receive the same compensation.—Turn out then men of all classes and colors, if for nothing more, to the assistance of your country, and the capital of the old Keystone State.134

Hildrup had placed the ad as the acting superintendent of the fortifications being constructed on Hummel’s Heights, possibly after viewing the work completed by Harrisburg’s white residents during the night. Although a similar ad targeting white workers had also been published in the same edition of the paper, this particular ad was more than a mere plea for additional workers. It represented a real change in the attitude of some city authorities regarding what types of roles African Americans would be allowed to play in the defense of Harrisburg.

Hildrup was a Connecticut master carpenter who had been wooed by Harrisburg entrepreneurs before the war to run the fledgling railroad car manufactory in the city. The new Yankee manager of the works had an egalitarian streak that led him to train poor local men in the skills needed to build railroad cars, rather than seek experienced craftsmen from outside the city. He established and taught courses at a free night school during the slack winter months, and during the intermittent financial panics of the late 1850s, found other work for his crews, rather than let them go payless.135

Now, as Superintendent of Fortifications, William T. Hildrup was staying consistent with his democratic ideals by offering equal pay to African American men for equal work. These “liberal inducements” were genuine, as the offered rate was significantly above what could be earned in the usual jobs—waiters, porters, drivers, unskilled laborers—reserved for African American men at the time. More importantly, it offered African American residents the chance to take an active role in defending their homes, side by side with white residents. Hildrup would get his much-needed “men of muscle” today, as local black men, lured by the ad, volunteered by the dozens to work in the entrenchments.

As the sun rose higher in the sky, the excitement in Harrisburg intensified. Many of the town’s wealthiest citizens hired any hands available to pack up their valuables and haul them to the train station, where they were to be shipped to Philadelphia or to other points east. Wagons, loaded high with boxes, began to line up at the rail depot, awaiting their turn to unload and then return to the most stylish homes along Front Street, Second Street, and Market Square, to load up again.

Few white women or children were in view by midmorning, most having traveled to the homes of relatives or friends living further east or north of the river town—preferably much further east or north—as the approaching rebels were now believed to be planning to march clear to New York State, or further. In addition to piles of household goods being shipped out of town, most local merchants were emptying their stores of valuable stock and sending it out of the reach of Southern soldiers.

Arriving in Harrisburg about this time was respected Franklin County resident and bank president William Heyser, who had fled Chambersburg with his wife at two o’clock p.m. the previous day, just after the more than two hundred army wagons from Milroy’s command had panicked the town. Advised to leave town because of Heyser’s connection to the local bank, the Heysers had hitched up their buggy and struck out for Carlisle, leaving their house in the care of their adult son and two African American servants.

They immediately found the turnpike jammed up from the army wagons, wagonloads of household goods, farmers driving livestock, and hundreds of African American refugees. It took them four hours to drive the twenty miles from Chambersburg to the village of Stoughstown, in Cumberland County, where they stopped for the evening at about six o’clock, thoroughly exhausted from their constant maneuvering around the miles and miles of disabled and jammed up wagons that lined the route.

Their rest was interrupted about midnight by someone spreading the alarm that Confederate troops had entered Shippensburg, so the Heysers hurriedly dressed and again took to the road. The fourteen miles from Stoughstown to Carlisle presented the bank man and wife with such a harrowing journey that he regretted ever leaving home. Traveling in near total darkness, driving around disabled and immobile wagons, dodging people, debris, and animals, they arrived in Carlisle at four o’clock in the morning, just as the eastern sky was getting light. Heyser noted in his journal “Tried to get more sleep, but impossible, excitement here is mounting. We got a bite to eat, the horse fed, and left for Harrisburg. All along the way the news had preceded us, people out securing and leaving with their goods. Driving away their horses, and all shops shut up.”

Leaving Carlisle on the Trindle Road, they encountered a similar panicky situation in Mechanicsburg, which was where they also heard about the fortifications being constructed around Harrisburg. Pressing on along Trindle Road through the village of White Hall, they soon came to Bridgeport and passed the new fortifications on the heights to their left, where they could see “a large number of men working on them.”

Crossing the Camel Back Bridge and emerging onto Front Street the Heysers “found Harrisburg in wildest confusion. Merchants shipping away their goods, families their furniture, and people fleeing in all directions. Almost laughable scenes some created. Stopped at Harris's Hotel. See few females, mostly men moving furniture and stores, the streets are almost impassable. The excitement is greater than Chambersburg.”136

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132. “The Invasion of the State,” Philadelphia Press, 17 June 1863. At least one dry goods store remained open during the early days of the crisis, when all the others had closed. The C. L. Bowman store, in true Harrisburg retailing style, even used the invasion as a marketing ploy, advertising, “The Invasion of Harrisburg—the mind of the peaceful citizen becomes alarmed and pained in entertaining for a moment the bare probability of our fair city being desecrated by the foot-prints of southern freebooters; and we think that we hear Pennsylvania’s brave sons with strong arms and willing hearts say that it shall not be so; and as the Cheap Dry Goods House of C. L. Bowman have no disposition to pack up or send off his goods in view of the rebels coming, therefore buyers will please take notice that this is the time to get bargains, at the southeast corner of Front and Market streets.” Evening Telegraph, 17 June 1863.

133. “The Events of Yesterday—The Hegira,” Patriot and Union, 17 June 1863.

134. Patriot and Union, 16 June 1863.

135. Eggert, Harrisburg Industrializes, 64-66, 265.

136. Jane Dice Stone, ed., “Diary of William Heyser,” The Kittochtinny Historical Society Papers 16 (Mercersburg, PA: Kittochtinny Historical Society, 1978), 64-85.


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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