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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)


The First Hot Breath of War

Clearly, the situation in Harrisburg had deteriorated significantly from the weekend, when the papers had reported little of interest in invasion news. Even the New York Times reporter in town had been lulled into a false sense of security by the inactivity coming from the areas south of Chambersburg, closing his Sunday evening report with the observation, “The story of 40,000 rebels between Williamsport and Hagerstown is believed to be a gross exaggeration.”

Monday the twenty-second began as a normal day in Harrisburg, if normal included significant military activity. A large train of newly arrived government horses tied up Third Street in the morning as they were driven north to Camp Curtin. At other periods throughout the day, large numbers of army wagons slowed traffic to a crawl along the city’s main streets. Very often, the military wagons were simply transporting squads of soldiers from one side of town to the other.

The Soldier’s Retreat building, near the railroad depot, prepared to re-open its doors to troops. Managers John B. Simon and Eby Byers, who was one of the rescuers of James Phillips more than ten year earlier, boasted to the newspaper that with their expanded on-site kitchen and dining facilities, the Retreat could now feed an entire regiment at one time.

Considerable interest was generated by the appearance of four ten-inch columbiad cannon tubes seen lying at the railroad depot on heavy-duty dollies, marked for delivery to the fortifications in New York Harbor. They attracted a crowd of amateur inspectors, both military and civilian, to measure their bore and guess at their weight.176

By Monday, Harrisburgers felt that the city had dodged a minie ball. Traffic jams of troop-filled wagons, large-scale soldier lodges, herds of fresh army horses, and huge seacoast guns made the city feel impregnable. They began to put considerably stock in the opinions of those who called the Confederate movement to Chambersburg nothing more than a feint to draw Hooker out of Virginia.


A Deceptive Calm

By eleven p.m., the telegraph wires gave a hint that not all was as secure as hoped. General Couch received a dispatch that put Rebel scouts in Greencastle once more. The news was not particularly alarming at the time, as Confederate cavalry had been foraging in the southern tier counties all along. On Monday, Couch had sent a dispatch to his advance forces in Chambersburg, under Brigadier General Joseph F. Knipe, alerting the commander that “fifty rebel cavalry were stealing horses near Maria Furnace, Caledonia Springs, and Millerstown.”177

Maria Furnace, once owned by Thaddeus Stevens, had been abandoned since 1837 in favor of his newer furnace at Caledonia, which employed a considerable number of African American workers who lived in a nearby village then known as Africa, or Little Africa. Most of those persons had probably fled the advancing Confederate soldiers by this time, with some of them very possibly ending up in Harrisburg where they helped dig trenches on Hummel Hill. The raiders, probably men of Jenkins’ Fourteenth Virginia Cavalry, Company D, apparently were scouring the lonely countryside around Maria Furnace looking for horses believed to be hidden in the thickly forested hills that surrounded the old furnace.178

The telegram did not bring news to General Knipe that he did not already know. Some of his cavalry troopers had already engaged in a skirmish with men of Company I of the same Fourteenth Virginia Cavalry, at the William Fleming farm south of Chambersburg near Greencastle. The cavalry unit, under the command of Captain William H. Boyd, was the same unit that had shepherded Milroy’s wagon train to Harrisburg.

Just before the skirmish with the Confederate cavalry troopers, Boyd had observed infantrymen from the division of General Robert E. Rodes going into position on the distant ridge. Before Boyd could decide what to do his men received a volley of fire from dismounted Confederate cavalrymen hidden in the tall wheat that was growing down the road from the farm. The bullets immediately killed one man and severely wounded another. Boyd’s troopers retreated to Chambersburg, leaving their casualties. With Boyd’s report of the deadly skirmish confirming that large numbers of enemy troops were indeed moving closer, Knipe loaded his brigade on a train and fell back to Carlisle.179

Joseph Farmer Knipe was a native of Lancaster County who, as a young man, left an apprenticeship in shoemaking to join the army. After service in the Mexican War, he settled in Harrisburg, where he eventually ended up working with the Pennsylvania Railroad and raising a family. In April 1861, he had been the center of attention at the opening of Camp Curtin when, standing on the roof of one of the camp buildings, he raised the national flag over the newly established camp for the first time. As the assembled crowd of civilians and military men cheered, Knipe loudly proposed that they name the camp after Pennsylvania’s popular war governor, Andrew G. Curtin.180

It was a day to remember, full of hope and patriotic fervor. Now, a little more than two years later, he found himself with a small brigade of New York and Pennsylvania troops in the Cumberland Valley attempting to defend his adopted hometown and native state from what might very well be the entire Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia. On top of that, he was not in good physical condition, having returned to Harrisburg just before the present crisis to recover from battle wounds and a nasty case of malaria.181

When he reached Carlisle, Knipe directed his tired and disorganized soldiers to camp in the borough fairgrounds for the night. After Knipe had looked after his troops, Borough officials came to him and informed him that they had raised two companies of local men for the defense. They also told him about a line of fortifications they had prepared a mile west of town along a north to south limestone outcropping known as Rocky Ridge. The defensive works consisted of lines of rifle pits dug on either side of the Chambersburg turnpike and the Walnut Bottom Road.

As in Harrisburg, the white men of the town would not dig entrenchments in the rocky soil, and local officials ended up recruiting, or impressing, dozens of local African American men to dig the lines of rifle pits. Knipe was hesitant about posting his men in static entrenchments that could be easily flanked by a mobile enemy force, and he allowed them to remain in the campgrounds all day Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Jenkins had entered Chambersburg and was advancing on Shippensburg, which he reached on Wednesday, the twenty-fourth. That day, Captain Boyd’s cavalry troopers ranged along the Newville and Chambersburg roads, attempting to monitor and slow the enemy advance, and Knipe finally moved his men into the fortifications that Carlisle’s blacks had labored so hard to construct. As the two regiments of New York troops were occupying the rifle pits, General Rodes’ division marched into Chambersburg. The situation on Wednesday remained tense but relatively quiet for the entire day.182

All the while, the Confederate forces crept closer. General Edward Johnson’s Division of Ewell’s Corps advanced to Shippensburg on Wednesday, while Jenkins reached Stoughstown about four-thirty p.m. Constant skirmishing between the rebel scouts and Captain Boyd’s troopers occupied the entire day Thursday, the twenty-fifth, with telegraph reports keeping the Union commanders apprised of the situation.

The military telegraph operators working for Thomas Scott used portable machines that they could easily hook up to a line from any point, enabling them to keep one town ahead of the slow moving Confederates. One of the last dispatches that General Knipe received while in Carlisle was from a tenacious telegraph operator working for Scott known only as W. Johnson. This operator had been tracking the enemy troop movements from Newville, but on Thursday morning moved his operation to Greason, just a few miles from Carlisle. He sent the quiet news, “Enemy have not moved this a.m.; are as reported last night.”183

Affairs suddenly heated up in the afternoon when Union cavalry had another bloody dust-up with Jenkins’ cavalry at a place called Stone Tavern, along Walnut Bottom Road. By four o’clock p.m. Knipe was preparing to fall back from the entrenchments west of Carlisle. He telegraphed to General Couch, “I have the most positive info. of the enemy’s advance. I shall fall back to Kingstown tonight. They are on the Pike and Walnut Bottom Rds.”184

By twenty minutes past nine that night, he had his men preparing to pull out of Carlisle for new delaying positions in New Kingston, and he sent his artillery pieces by railcar to Bridgeport. It was getting too dangerous to risk having the cannons fall into the hands of the Rebels, should they flank him on one of the parallel roads.185

In Harrisburg, the crowd that constantly hung around the telegraph office waiting for news learned at noon on Tuesday that the Confederates had retaken Chambersburg. No additional news reached Harrisburg after that, and rumors multiplied as fast as the refugees who again began arriving in town on the last train out of Chambersburg. On Wednesday, news of the Rebel advance to Shippensburg and General Knipe’s retreat to Carlisle arrived, as did three hundred African American refugees from that town, among others, fleeing the invading forces.

Later in the day, the newspapers reported that enemy forces had advanced to within twelve miles of Carlisle. This may have been a reference to the cavalry skirmishing that was occurring on the roads between Shippensburg and Carlisle, but it had a sobering effect on Harrisburgers. It now seemed certain that the on and off invasion was finally coming. The New York Times added dread to the general anxiety by reporting, “General Jenkins told a lady in Chambersburgh that they intended to come to Harrisburgh and stay.”186

This alarming statement again aroused the surviving soldiers of the War of 1812, who once more formed ranks and marched to the Capitol, where they offered their service to Governor Curtin. The captain said that they were prepared to carry their flintlock muskets across the bridge into the entrenchments of Fort Washington.187

As distressing as the news was to the aged veterans, it was doubly upsetting to Harrisburg’s African American community. The Evening Telegraph that day reported, “Ewell has six brigades, and intends marching on Harrisburg.” Any incursion by Southern troops was of concern, but the threat of a prolonged occupation of the town was almost unimaginable.

The growing anxiety was being fed by the steadily increasing supply of “contrabands,” as the newspapers insisted on categorizing all arriving blacks, who flocked across the bridge into town. George Bergner wrote of the hordes of “small children and women huddled together in wagons as they arrive here, with the little household property that they have gathered together in a lifetime. Many of them are carrying everything they possess on their backs or in small bundles.”188 For many Harrisburg blacks, Wednesday night was one of sleeplessness and worry.

Thursday the twenty-fifth was the day that everything broke apart in Harrisburg. With Rebel troops just a few miles from Carlisle, there was not doubt that a battle was brewing, and most people expected it to occur in front of the fortifications on the other side of the Susquehanna. Unlike previous invasion scares, the chaos and panic was mostly confined to the refugees arriving in town from the Cumberland Valley. Harrisburgers, having finally awoken to the reality of the situation, acted with grim determination to defend the city. The Daily Telegraph reported:

Long before the sun rose in splendor this morning, a scene of bustle, excitement and confusion commenced, such as has never before been witnessed in the capital of Pennsylvania. During the night, troops were hurried over the river. Regiment followed regiment, until this morning, when our streets were comparatively cleared of soldiers, except those which reached the city by the regular morning and noon trains. But the excitement, apart from the movement of troops, was that which attended the ingress and egress of people who came from the Cumberland side of the river, and who passed through the city, hurrying to a place of safety with all that was dear and valuable to them. Every machine on wheels capable of hauling a load was brought into requisition. These came wheeling and trundling along, each laden to the top—some with grain, household effects and household goods—others with store goods, machinery, tools, and, in fact, all that was valuable and movable. Following these came other vehicles, filled with women and children—then came men and boys mounted on horses driving before them cows and sheep. The scene was at once exciting and pitiful. It came to us as the first hot breath of war. It admonished us that the foe was indeed approaching.189

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176. Evening Telegraph, 22 June 1863.

177. Pangburn, “Tracking Jenkins,” pt. 1, 13.

178. Ibid., 14. The community of Africa, or "Little Africa," was located near the town of Greenwood, in Green Township, Franklin County. Although not an officially recognized town, it was known to local citizens as a "settlement" of free blacks, and was the largest concentration of African American families in the township. It was also the third largest African American community in the county, with only Mercersburg and the South Ward of Chambersburg having a larger number of families in 1850. Africa did not experience a long life. It probably began about 1837, the year that Thaddeus Stevens established his iron furnace at Caledonia. The furnace employed many African American laborers, and was a refuge for fugitive slaves escaping bondage on the Underground Railroad. Today the area once called Africa is known as Brownsville and Pond Bank. George F. Nagle, “Pennsylvania’s Underground Railroad—Africa Settlement,” Afrolumens Project, (accessed 3 May 2010.

179. Nye, Here Come the Rebels!, 239-247.

180. Miller, Training of an Army, 4, 8.

181. “Joseph Knipe, Hometown Hero,” Bugle 17, no. 2 (Summer 2007): 2.

182. Pangburn, “Tracking Jenkins,” pt. 2, 12; Nye, Here Come the Rebels!, 298-299.

183. Pangburn, “Tracking Jenkins,” pt. 2, 12.

184. Ibid.

185. Nye, Here Come the Rebels!, 299-301.

186. “Our Harrisburgh Correspondence,” New York Times, 26 June 1863; Daily Telegraph, 23 June 1863; “The Rebels in Pennsylvania,” New York Times, 25 June 1863.

187. New York Times, 26 June 1863.

188. “The Situation,” Evening Telegraph, 24 June 1863.

189. “The Situation,” 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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