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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)


Thursday, 25 June: The Bridge

Four days later, lines of footsore and weary travelers from the Cumberland Valley stood at the western entrance to Mister Burr’s Camel Back Bridge, waiting for a chance to cross over into the safe haven that was Harrisburg. Their long nightmare of flight through the countryside was almost finished. Along the way, they had been joined by others in the same plight, and their numbers now reached into the hundreds. Additional refugees made their way to the bridge from York County along the turnpike from New Cumberland. These were the black refugees who had been roused from their daily labors, their dinners, and even their sleep by panicked shouts from neighbors, warning of the approach of Confederate raiders.

Most had little time to prepare for a headlong flight, and they took with them whatever possessions and whatever necessaries they could quickly gather and load into a wagon, or pack on the back of a mule, or simply carry. Some of them left lifetimes of work behind; homes, gardens, livestock, and furniture were all left to be picked over by invading Rebels, or by whoever happened upon them. They fled their homes reluctantly but resolutely, knowing that lost possessions could be replaced, but lost freedom could not. Few had money or other valuables to pay or barter for food and shelter along the way, not because of the hastiness of their flight, but because they simply had no wealth to gather.

Many, particularly those new to Pennsylvania, lived daily lives of hardship and meager rewards, but it was a life of their choosing, in a land of their choosing, doing work for themselves, and being paid for their labors. Some people had opined that there was little practical difference between an impoverished slave in the South and an impoverished free person in the North, but those people had never been enslaved. The refugees who now began to bunch up on the turnpike, crowding at the side of the road to let military wagons pass, had no doubt which situation they preferred. That was why they had undertaken the sudden, difficult, and dangerous journey to Harrisburg, often with only the clothes on their backs.

For many, the most valuable treasures they bore from the heart of the valley to the shores of the Susquehanna River were the children. The next generation, after all, was the reason many of them had risked death to run away. If they could raise their children in freedom, the daily struggle as a poor laborer might be endured. But that dream was now in danger from an advancing wave of gray. Therefore, the tide of refugees this time included hundreds of children, from infants to teenagers, which was a marked difference from the makeup of the crowds that had crossed the bridge during the first ten days of the crisis.

With the exception of the children of the wagon train, who had been lucky enough to escape the fast-riding Confederate cavalry through the compassion of the black teamsters who loaded them into their army wagons, most of the earlier African American refugees who arrived by turnpike were adult men and older boys. White citizens in Franklin County who witnessed the chase, capture and re-enslavement of the local African American women and children left behind, speculated that the African American men folk who skedaddled assumed women and children would not be bothered. If true, it turned out to be a horrible miscalculation. They knew better this time. This was a flight to save their most valuable possession: a free future generation.

In Harrisburg, a jaded correspondent for the New York Herald noticed the difference in the refugees who began pouring into the city on the morning of the twenty-fifth. He wrote “Vast numbers of ebony colored children are daily arriving in the city—some destitute, others again more fortunate. Their rendezvous is in a section of the city denominated ‘Smoky Hollow.’ I have not visited it, and therefore can give you no idea of the scenes being enacted there.”167

Harrisburg had no neighborhood commonly known as “Smoky Hollow.” The out-of-town reporter may have overheard the appellation applied by a local person with a derogatory sneer toward one of the African American neighborhoods that was receiving large numbers of black refugees. It may also have been briefly used to identify Allison’s Hollow, the undeveloped flat land between the canal and Allison’s hill that was utilized as a camp by the army wagons that entered the city a week earlier. Refugees may have gravitated toward that area as well, drawn by the presence of several hundred blacks who had been picked up by the wagon train.

Regardless of which area the Herald reporter meant, he never did visit. Had he gone, he would have met free people from Maryland and former slaves from Virginia, farmers from Gettysburg and carpenters from Greencastle, railroad laborers from Chambersburg, and waiters from Carlisle. He could have talked with people who had just fled their homes the evening before, and people who had been on the road for more than a week. He would have observed people who were physically exhausted from more than twenty-four hours on the run, and people who were mentally exhausted from hiding for days on end in the hills.


Pastor Davis Leads His Flock

Had he ventured into “Smoky Hollow,” the New York reporter might have encountered the Reverend Dennis Davis, the aged pastor of a small A.M.E. church in Hagerstown. The Reverend Davis was not in good health, but he had somehow weathered the journey from Hagerstown to Harrisburg, possibly because he was used to being out on the road in all types of weather.

Before being assigned to the Hagerstown Church, Reverend Davis had been in charge of five A.M.E. churches in the Baltimore County Circuit. In 1861, however, ill health forced him to give up his charges to a younger, more robust preacher, and to move west to care for a smaller flock.168 Pastor Davis was not one to complain, and he assumed the responsibility of looking after his new congregants’ spiritual needs. Very soon, though, he would be called to take charge of their physical safety and to safeguard their freedom as well.

If the correspondent for the New York Herald had inquired, he might have heard Rev. Davis’ tell the story of how his charge was “getting along well up to the 15th of June, when a great excitement broke out.” The excitement was caused by the arrival, that morning, of Confederate cavalry troopers under the command of General Albert G. Jenkins. A small force of Union horse soldiers in the area had skirmished with the Confederate horsemen, but they picked up and left town as Jenkins’ force pressed forward from Williamsport, Maryland. By ten a.m., the Union soldiers were nowhere to be seen as a few Southern scouts advanced cautiously into town. The people of Hagerstown put on a show of welcoming the Rebels, waving and cheering as the larger force of raiders rode by.169

Reverend Davis and his congregants were not among the crowd witnessing Jenkins’ triumphant entry into their hometown, though. He reported that, upon hearing the news of the approaching enemy soldiers “my people became panic-stricken and fled to the mountains for refuge.” Although Reverend Davis did not specify in which mountain range they sought refuge, the congregation more than likely headed east for the South Mountain Range, some ten miles distant.

They remained hidden in the mountainous terrain for five or six days, waiting for the Rebels to leave. By 22 June, it became painfully apparent to them that they could not return to Hagerstown. With supplies running out--it is doubtful they had much time to prepare for their flight—and a dread fear that they would soon be discovered by foraging Confederate troops, they struck out to the northeast. It was a long, hazardous journey of nearly sixty miles, and they had to keep a constant watch for cavalry patrols and scouts.

If they were lucky, they encountered some help along the way from Underground Railroad activists now pressed into service hiding free blacks from Confederate raiders. East toward Gettysburg and north through the Quaker Valley would have been the most logical and safest road, but Davis remained quiet about the route they took and any allies they encountered along the way.

After more then two days of playing cat and mouse with enemy cavalrymen, and of tramping the dusty roads east and north, the fortified heights of Hummel Hill came into view, and across the river rose the church spires and Capitol dome of the Canaan that was Harrisburg. After at least nine days in the wilderness, Reverend Dennis Davis, a reluctant Moses, led his small, weary flock across the Camel Back Bridge over the waters of the Susquehanna River into Harrisburg and safety.170



When the refugees from the Cumberland Valley and from York County stepped out of the eastern span of the covered bridge onto muddy Front Street, they were confronted by a city once again in the grip of invasion madness. Panicked citizens again trundled their worldly possessions to the railroad depot to be shipped via Adams Express Company to relatives in a safer location. Besieged express agents, working from their office at Fourth and Chestnut Streets, again built huge stacks of trunks, carpetbags, and crates on the platforms to await the arrival of the next eastbound train. Large numbers of civilians in traveling clothes milled around the station and the platforms, also waiting for trains to carry them away from the advancing foe.

Among the throngs were the actors, stagehands, and musicians of the Carncross and Dixey Minstrel troupe, who had been playing to packed houses in Brant’s Hall before Harrisburg became suddenly too hot for them. John L. Carncross and E. F. Dixey had brought the troupe from their Philadelphia theater to Harrisburg as part of their summer “Irresponsible Conflict” tour. The first few nights in Harrisburg had gone very well, with the large sold out crowds calling out titles of their favorite songs and the troupe obliging them with spirited renditions.171 Their sudden departure from Harrisburg was bad for business, however, and bad for their reputation.

George Bergner reported on the general chaos at the railroad station by describing it as scenes “of interest,” writing:

Each train that arrives from the south on the North Central [sic] or on the Cumberland Valley road, brings its load of fugitives. There are congregated at the depot the old and the young, mistress and maid, strong men and weak children, white and black, all commingled in one common mass, panic stricken, weary, hungry and exhausted. Baggage piled up like huge stacks—trunks and carpet sacks are continually accumulating, while amid the pile which rears its leather and brass nails, we noticed at least a dozen boxes containing coffins with the bodies of those who have already offered themselves sacrifice that freedom might be sustained and the country preserved from utter ruin. The scenes at the railroad depots, if nothing more frightening grows out of the present excitement, will long be remembered by those who daily witness them.172

The reporter from the New York Herald reported a similar arrival of war refugees:

A train of cars came down this afternoon. It was filled with people escaping from Carlisle. Among the collection was a large number of contrabands. Throughout the entire day wagons of all descriptions loaded with furniture and other property, have been coming into town. It is enough to touch the most obdurate heart to see the poor blacks as then come to this common asylum. Several of them walked the entire distance from Carlisle, and the feet of many were swollen and bleeding.173

Of course, many of the blacks crossing the bridge had walked from much further than Carlisle. The Hagerstown church group was only one example. Again, Bergner’s newspaper gave details about a particularly large group of free blacks from Chambersburg who arrived early in the day:

A Motley Group.—A party of thirty negroes from Chambersburg and vicinity came over the bridge this morning, and stopped to refresh themselves in the Front Street Park, a short distance from the bridge. While there they attracted much attention from passers-by, and many inquiries were made concerning the whereabouts of the rebel army, and their probably strength. The poor negroes, as a matter of course, had never seen the rebel army, or they would not have been here, but they answered the questions as near as they could, the questioners going away evidently satisfied with the information received. Like many of the other refugees from up the valley, they had no place to go to, and appeared lost in this section of the country.174

The Chambersburg refugees were probably also questioned by officers from the regiment stationed in the newly dug rifle pits of Harris Park, where the group collapsed once across the bridge. Military men had learned that fleeing blacks were often the source of valuable intelligence regarding enemy troop movements. Although Bergner discounted the value of any intelligence that might have been gained, the refugees may in fact have yielded useful information.

Gradually, the refugees would have moved to the interior of the city where they would have found support with the African American residents of Judy’s Town or Tanner’s Alley. Some also settled for a while on the grounds of the courthouse, at Court and Market Streets, where they would have been subject to additional scrutiny and questions from passers-by. Such interest was probably short-lived, however, as the bridge continued to pour forth livestock and refugees of all types in increasingly larger numbers as the day progressed. From the Telegraph:

The Harrisburg Bridge.—This outlet for thousands of refugees from up the Cumberland Valley was thronged with a moving mass of beings pouring into this city all day, and new arrivals from up the valley surpassed anything we ever saw. Wagon load after wagon load of men, women and children poured into the city from morning till night, many of them contrabands and free negroes, seeking to escape from the grasp of the Southern rebels. The sight of these defenceless people was truly pitiful, but few of them knowing which way to turn, and all depending on the generosity of the people east of the Susquehanna for support and sustenance. Where many of them go, after reaching this city, we know not, but many remain in our midst, unable to sustain themselves without aid from our citizens, numbers of whom have plenty to give, and will give, willingly, without a murmur or feeling of regret.175

Mayor Roumfort issued a proclamation calling for every citizen to remain “perfectly calm” during the crisis. To facilitate the calm, he ordered the closing of all taverns, retail liquor shops, and lager beer shops, and discontinued the sale of all intoxicating liquors in the city until further notice. The liquor ban and the hordes of refugees got everyone’s attention; things were serious this time. Apparently, the situation on Thursday, June 25th, was the direst yet in this off and on invasion.

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167. New York Herald, 27 June 1863.

168. James A. Handy, Scraps of African Methodist Episcopal History (Philadelphia: A.M.E. Book Concern, 1902), 6-7.

169. Nye, Here Come the Rebels!, 137.

170. Christian Recorder, 12 September 1863. Davis and his congregants stayed in Harrisburg until about 30 June, at which time they left for Baltimore. When the crisis had passed they returned to their church in Hagerstown. Already frail and in ill health, and weakened by the invasion ordeal, Reverend Dennis Davis died six months later. Alexander Walker Wayman, My Recollections of African M. E. Ministers: or Forty Years' Experience in the African Methodist Episcopal Church (Philadelphia: A.M.E. Book Rooms, 1881), 94.

171. “The Carnival of Fun,” Patriot and Union, 24 June 1863; New York Herald, 26 June 1863; William L. Slout, Burnt Cork and Tambourines: A Source Book for Negro Minstrelsy, Clipper Studies in the Theatre, No. 11 (San Bernardino, CA: Borgo Press, 2007), 48-49.

172. Evening Telegraph, 25 June 1863.

173. New York Herald, 26 June 1863.

174. “A Motley Group,” Daily Telegraph, 25 June 1863.

175. “The Harrisburg Bridge,” Daily Telegraph, 25 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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