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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)


Friday, 26 June: The Colored Troops of Harrisburg

Rain pelted the streets of Harrisburg, turning them into obstacle courses of sucking mud and deep puddles for the hundreds of refugees who continued to pour out of the eastern mouth of the Camel Back Bridge. Also churning up the streets were hundreds of horses, driven from nearly every farm and small town between Carlisle and Harrisburg by young boys entrusted with shepherding the valuable farm animals to safety in Dauphin County.

On Hummel Hill, black laborers continued to dig the fortifications that nearly everyone saw as key to the defense of Harrisburg, and, by extension, the entire state. When the fight came, most correspondents wrote, it would be fought on the hills opposite Harrisburg, and “should the enemy presume to come he will meet with a severe check.”200 Perhaps such bravado cheered the African American laborers, some of whom were city residents, some railroad laborers, and some of whom were displaced Cumberland Valley residents, all of whom continued to swing their pickaxes in the unremitting rain while water pooled at their feet. The ground grew slippery and treacherous, but still they pressed on with their important work. Although the rain made life miserable for those working on the fortifications in Fort Washington and Fort Couch, it cheered many military and civilian observers, who believed that it would raise the level of the Susquehanna River so that “no rebel force can ford it even if we had no defences here.”201

Despite the rain, Captain Bradley continued to drill his men in the streets of Harrisburg. Their numbers had increased from Thursday night as men observing them from the street corners had felt inspired enough to join the ranks. His company was very nearly full, and T. Morris Chester had begun organizing a second company, which he intended to command. Even more significant, Harrisburg military authorities seemed agreeable to outfitting the unit with uniforms, and equipment, but no guns, at least not yet.

The decision to enlist the black men of Harrisburg had been made easier by the Governor’s General Orders No. 44, issued just that day, which called for “sixty thousand men for the defense of the State, to be mustered into the service of the State, for the period of ninety days, unless sooner discharged.” The emergency was clearly accelerating. Reports began drifting in of a cavalry skirmish just beyond Carlisle that resulted in a number of casualties and Union men being taken prisoner. Confederate troops were reported in Gettysburg. All the while, Captain Bradley continued to run his men through the manual of arms. By evening, his men were joined by a second company, proudly led by T. Morris Chester. Harrisburg’s two black companies now numbered about one hundred and twenty strong.202 For the African American men of Harrisburg, the time to put down the shovel and take up arms had arrived. All that they needed now were rifles.



Saturday, 27 June: “The whole south had broke loose & are coming into Pa.”

In Chambersburg, young Rachel Cormany, holding her infant daughter in her arms, watched from the safety of an upstairs bedroom window as a nearly endless column of Confederate soldiers marched past her house on their way to Harrisburg. At twenty-seven years of age, Rachel was a lone parent caring for her infant daughter, Cora, while her husband Samuel was off fighting with the Sixteenth Pennsylvania Cavalry. The presence of enemy troops in town was not new to her. More than a week earlier, elements of General Jenkins’ cavalry brigade had entered town, scattered local defenders and began rounding up horses and, to her horror, any black persons they could find. It was a sight she described as “brutal,” in her diary entries, but she did not fear for the safety of herself or her baby at that time.

She did worry constantly about her husband, however, and lamented the disruption of mail and lack of reliable news that the invasion caused. Although the rebel cavalrymen left town soon after their initial incursion, they were never far away and the threat of a reoccupation of town kept residents on edge for days, until Tuesday the twenty-third, when they returned for the duration. For the next several days, Rachel Cormany became used to the sight of “graybacks about” and nonchalantly continued with her daily routine, trying her best to ignore them.

By Friday, however, the passage of large numbers of cannons and ammunition wagons began to wear on her nerves. She recorded “Cannon-waggons and men have been passing since between nine and ten this morning—forty-two cannon and as many ammunition wagons have passed—so now there are sixty-two pieces of artillery between us and Harrisburg.” She fully expected a major battle to be fought near the Pennsylvania capital, as a day earlier she had written that eighty thousand Union troops were reported to be at Harrisburg under the command of General George B. McClellan.

On Saturday, she watched as more Southern soldiers “poured in,” and she estimated that another thirty to forty cannons rolled through with “an almost endless trail of wagons.” Then came the infantry, numbering in the thousands. The reality of the invasion seemed to hit her at that point, and she retreated to an upstairs bedroom where she could observe the passage of the troops in relative safety. The sheer number of men marching briskly past the house in which she was staying overwhelmed her; her diary entry for that day records “A body would think the whole south had broke loose and are coming into Pa. It makes me feel too badly to see so many men and cannon going through, knowing that they have come to kill our men.”203

Few African American residents were still in Chambersburg or the vicinity by this time. Any blacks that had not been captured by Southern soldiers the previous week had either taken to remote hiding places in the surrounding hills, where they would remain hidden until the danger had passed, or they had joined the steady stream of refugees on the roads to Harrisburg. Only those who had gotten at least as far as Mechanicsburg by now were still safe, however, as the prongs of the rebel advance had now reached Carlisle and Gettysburg, and were threatening York.

Jenkins himself entered Carlisle before noon in the vanguard of his forces, and two divisions of Ewell’s corps were not long behind. General Ewell soon entered Carlisle and reacquainted himself with the town and a few of its residents. He had been stationed at the United States Army Barracks, which were located in that town, before the war. He was treated civilly by the town’s burgess and leading residents, who reluctantly provided the food and supplies demanded earlier in the day by Jenkins. Residents stoically endured the house-to-house searches conducted by southern soldiers in search of hidden food and weapons.

Large numbers of infantrymen made camp on the grounds of Dickinson College, where they butchered and barbecued several cattle taken from local residents. The cavalry, though, could not rest. Late in the day, Ewell sent Jenkins and his horse soldiers toward Harrisburg to scout out the roads and bridges leading to the capital, and to check on the river crossings, which he thought might be a source of trouble with the recent heavy rains. He told his cavalry commander that the attack on Harrisburg might commence as early as Monday. Jenkins and his men reached Hickorytown, about six miles from Mechanicsburg on the Trindle Road, by nightfall, where they made camp. Pickets were set a little further out, on a ridge five miles from Mechanicsburg.204

That same day, troops of General Jubal A. Early’s division approached York. Two days earlier, General Early had ordered the firing of Thaddeus Stevens’ Caledonia Furnace as his troops passed that place. They had then skirmished with the Twenty-Sixth Regiment of Pennsylvania Militia north of Gettysburg, easily scattering that inexperienced unit. Early had also taken control of Gettysburg and searched that town for supplies, using tactics similar to the house-to-house searches that Ewell later conducted in Carlisle.

On Saturday morning, Early marched on York, by way of Hanover, reaching Hanover Junction by late afternoon. There, he made plans with Brigadier General John B. Gordon to take York the next day. If York turned out to be undefended, as their intelligence indicated, Gordon was instructed to proceed immediately to Wrightsville to capture the Wrightsville-Columbia Bridge, in order to affect a crossing of the Susquehanna south of Harrisburg and march upon the capital from that direction, while the rest of the corps attacked from the west.205



Rachel Cormany’s observation that the whole South was coming into Pennsylvania was not far off base. The defenders of Harrisburg were aware by Saturday that Ewell’s divisions were advancing on the capital from several directions. Reports of General Early’s presence in Gettysburg were received late Friday evening, and by morning, General Couch had calculated that a move would be made to cross the river south of Harrisburg.

Accordingly, he had sent a regiment, the Twenty-Seventh Pennsylvania Militia, commanded by Colonel Jacob G. Frick, to Columbia late Wednesday afternoon. Frick would have to mount a defense of the bridge with his regiment and local troops.206

A general feeling of desperation gripped Harrisburg, and Adjutant General Alexander L. Russell issued orders that any citizen who reported to the city arsenal should be supplied with a weapon. More than three thousand men, by one estimate, flocked to the arsenal on the grounds of the Capitol, “most of whom on leaving carried a gun away.”



By late afternoon General Knipe had pulled his troops back from Silver Springs all the way to Fort Washington.207 A New York correspondent observed that “the rebel line seems to extend from Gettysburgh to Carlisle,” and in the next paragraph reported, “If the worst should come to worst, the bridges will be destroyed” to keep the enemy on the west side of the Susquehanna.208

With what appeared to be the entire Army of Northern Virginia deploying between Harrisburg and the Army of the Potomac, Pennsylvania’s capital was beginning to appear not just vulnerable, but something like a besieged city. Even if the bridges at Columbia and Harrisburg were destroyed, the swollen Susquehanna River would only keep the enemy at bay for as long as the water remained high.

Harrisburg’s African American residents, along with the thousands of black refugees who now crowded the city, watched with great alarm as the reports grew direr throughout the day. Captains Bradley and Chester drilled their companies on the street, drawing curious and admiring onlookers, both black and white. To those onlookers, the obvious lack of weapons in the hands of the black companies was a glaring inconsistency given both the depth of the emergency and the Adjutant General’s order to equip all citizens with guns regardless of enlistment status.

As inconsistent as it must have seemed to those who watched the men going through the manual of arms, it had to have been many times more maddening to those African American volunteers and their captains, who had vowed to lay their lives on the line in defense of the city, yet were still denied rifles even at this late hour because they were not deemed trustworthy enough to bear arms. Despite this latest indignity, they persevered in their drills and doubtless wondered how many hours they still had before battle-hardened Confederate troops bore down upon them.

The emergency reached even to the African American schoolchildren of Harrisburg. On Saturday, General Couch ordered that all school buildings be cleared out so that they could be utilized as makeshift military hospitals. Schoolteacher John Wolf saw his Cherry Street schoolhouse, along with all the other city schoolhouses, taken over by military authorities and outfitted for the expected treatment of wounded and dying soldiers. Couch also ordered that all city churches be prepared for the same fate if the numbers of wounded should require it.209 With the potential military occupation of Wesley Union and Bethel A.M.E, the city suddenly had no more protected areas for African American refugees, or even for local residents.

Harrisburg was no longer an African American safe harbor.


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200. “The Situation,” Evening Telegraph, 26 June 1863.

201. Ibid.

202. “The Colored Troops of Harrisburg,” Daily Telegraph, 27 June 1863.

203. Mohr and Winslow, Cormany Diaries, 334-337.

204. “Report of Maj. Gen. R. E. Rodes,” Official Records, ser. 1, vol. 27, pt. 2, 551-552; Nye, Here Come the Rebels!, 303-308.

205. Nye, Here Come the Rebels!, 272-280.

206. “Report of Col. Jacob G. Frick,” Official Records, ser. 1, vol. 27, pt. 2, 277.

207. “The Very Latest Dispatches,” New York Times, 28 June 1863.

208. “Our Harrisburg Correspondence,” New York Times, 30 June 1863.

209. Ibid.


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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