Persons of Color
The Bridge (continued)
is entirely possible that one of the “contrabands” who
labored so diligently on the defenses at Bridgeport was actually
a thirty-three-year-old adventurer from Afghanistan named Mohammed
Khan. Two years earlier, Khan, fresh from Afghanistan, had been in
New York City when recruiters for the Forty-Third New York Volunteer
Infantry enticed him into the service with promises of adventure
enlisted willingly, but due to a severe language barrier, he was unable
to understand the questions about his nationality and place of birth.
Faced with an inability to get the required information from his new
enlistee, the recruiting sergeant efficiently cut through the red tape
by making up what he did not know. He guessed that Khan, because of
his dark skin tone, was Native American, and he marked him down in
his paperwork as a member of the Blackfoot Indian tribe.
was mustered in as Private John Amamahe, in Company H, and accompanied
his regiment through the first bloody campaigns of the war. He was
wounded in the face at the Battle of Malvern Hill, on 1 July 1862,
when an enemy soldier clubbed him with the butt of a musket. He apparently
served through the Antietam campaign and was afterward assigned to
detached duty, possibly at the Union army hospital in that town.
remained at Frederick for some time, until a case of mistaken identity
caused his military career to take a considerable detour. Somehow,
he was accused of being an escaped slave and was confined to a contraband
camp. Many escaped slaves were dressed in discarded and surplus Union
Army uniforms, and Khan’s dark complexion may have given local
authorities reason to assume that he was just another refugee from
a Southern plantation. He attempted to explain the mix-up to the guards,
but his lack of fluency in English hindered these attempts.
passed, and in time, he was “sent” with a group of contrabands
to Harrisburg, where he again attempted to get someone to believe his
story. He probably felt that officials in Harrisburg, because it was
teeming with a huge variety of soldiers and army equipment, would be
more likely to understand his plight, but Harrisburg was not nearly
as cosmopolitan as New York, and his story of being an Afghani soldier
in the Union Army, who had been shanghaied as a fugitive slave, was
just too spectacular for even a Harrisburger’s active imagination.
With no other options, Khan lived with the contrabands that continued
to pour into the city, and, given his history of service, probably
joined the ranks of the strong-backed African American men who dug
the entrenchments in late June on Hummel Hill.214
Night: Like So Many Burning Ships
sundown, just as the cannonading from the direction of Oyster’s
Point was fading, another phenomenon attracted the attention of local
residents, soldiers, refugees, and the workers on the heights. A
fiery glow could be distinctly observed downriver. As the sun continued
to set and the night sky darkened, the glow became more prominent.
People moved to vantage points at the tops of buildings and on local
hillsides in at attempt to view the source of the infernal light,
but it remained hidden just beyond their range of vision.
had been common all during the day, rumors were passed from person
to person when facts were missing. The most alarming story told of
the appearance of a large force of enemy troops on the riverbank opposite
Bainbridge, a mere twelve miles downstream, with a train of pontoon
equipment “sufficiently large enough to cross the river.” Army
intelligence gatherers, at six o’clock p.m., had telegraphed
to General Couch that these were forces of General Ambrose P. Hill.215 This
was not true, but the alarm shook military authorities in Harrisburg
and terrified local residents because it meant that Confederate forces
had the means to bypass the extensive defenses protecting the bridges
across the Susquehanna.
reacted to the sudden threat with several measures. An order was issued
to army quartermaster E. C. Wilson to have “sufficient combustible
materials taken over to the west end of the public bridge, and there
placed, under the direction of General [William F.] Smith, in such
places that the bridge, if necessary, can be fired at a moment’s
notice.” The orders even suggested, “Combustible materials
of any kind can be used. Turpentine, tar, shavings, &c, would be
the best.” It urged that such action be taken “without
decision to burn the Camel Back Bridge, to prevent it from falling
into the hands of advancing enemy troops, was an extreme measure that
was probably only made after consulting with Governor Curtin. The delicacy
of this decision, which indicated that the top military commanders
at Harrisburg had no confidence in the ability of local defenders to
stop the Rebels in front of the fortifications, was shown by the “confidential” instructions
that preceded the telegram text. 216
order was given, probably in consequence of the feared imminent crossing
of the river by Confederate troops at Bainbridge, which had huge significance
for the African American community in Harrisburg. For the first time,
black troops in Harrisburg were summoned to the state arsenal on Walnut
Street to be issued weapons. All during the previous week, local militia
and emergency troops, and even unorganized able-bodied white men, had
been given rifled muskets and ammunition while the two African American
companies of Captains Henry Bradley and T. Morris Chester looked on.
approximately one hundred and fifty men of the two “colored companies,” who
had been consistently denied weapons, remained steadfast in their outlook,
however, and continued to drill without weapons, confident that their
time would come. When it did, they received the weapons eagerly, and
proudly marched to available open spaces in order to drill more efficiently
and allow the men to get used to the heft of their new rifles.
Bradley marched his full strength company just north to the Capitol
grounds for instruction in the manual of arms. His choice of this spot
for a drilling ground was probably not by happenstance. Prior to this,
his recruits had trained in the wider streets of the city, probably
using the avenues directly behind the Capitol. Now that he had a full
company, however, he had no need to find more volunteers and could
afford to move his men out of their neighborhood. The grounds of the
Capitol were not only spacious and convenient to the arsenal and the
Tanner’s Alley neighborhood; they were also highly public.
would have remembered the magnificent sight that the Henry Highland
Garnet Guards made on Emancipation Day, four years earlier, when they
marched through the streets of Harrisburg, glorious in their new gray
uniforms, spotless white belts, with brand new muskets at the shoulder.
He also would have remembered the humiliation of having to defend their
right to organize and march, as the local white populace, in a wave
of paranoia following John Brown’s Harpers Ferry raid, demanded
that they be immediately disarmed and disbanded. The arms that his
soldiers now carried, issued by the State of Pennsylvania, were the
penultimate answer to that racist backlash.
is probable that Captain Bradley wanted his men to be seen by as many
people as possible, not only to repudiate those who opposed their participation
in the war, but to validate the stirring words spoken by Jacob C. White,
Jr. in Harrisburg at that 1859 Emancipation Day event. Black men had
never hesitated to fight and die defending the United States, he had
argued, but their motivations were as much fraternal as patriotic.
Four years earlier, White had described his dream of blacks throughout
the United States coming together and forcefully throwing off the “weight
of oppression we are obliged to sustain.” Now, under the command
of two black commanders, the African American men of Harrisburg had
come together to do just that.
as Jacob White had drawn an admiring and enthusiastic crowd with his
vision, the African American company of Captain Henry Bradley also
drew an admiring crowd with their fulfillment of that vision. A local
newsman reported that “the men looked strong and determined,” and
added that “a large crowd, both of white people, and of the sweethearts
and dulcineas of the departing soldiers were on the ground, attracted
thither to witness the parade of the first company of blacks ever armed
by the State of Pennsylvania.”217 If
this parade and drill with muskets was the penultimate answer to their
critics, the firing of those muskets in defense of Harrisburg, but
more certainly in defense of their freedoms, their brothers, their
homes, and their families, would be the ultimate reply.
two companies drilled with their weapons until sundown, then joined
the rest of the soldiers hurrying to the fortifications on the heights
across from Harrisburg. There, they could more easily see the ominous
orange glow emanating from the southeastern horizon. They may have
overheard stories that York itself was burning to the ground, and they
probably speculated among themselves about the source of the mysterious
glow, adding more horrific rumors to the swirl of fearful stories that
already circulated, stories that, ironically, had contributed to their
acquisition of weapons.
ten o’clock p.m., the light was brighter than ever, and news
came that York was in possession of the enemy. A little later, a dispatch
arrived, announcing that Confederate soldiers were at Wrightsville
and that Union troops had destroyed the bridge between that place and
Columbia. The black troops of Harrisburg probably gazed solemnly downriver,
watching the flickering reflection of flames on the clouds in the night
sky and thinking about the battle they were sure was coming the next
day. Perhaps they wondered if they would be strong enough to stand
up against an enemy assault and do credit to their brothers in arms.
What they did not know was that their brethren from Columbia had already
been tested, and that the orange glow they now saw was a symbolic pyre
for the first African American soldier killed in the defense of central
The Fight at Wrightsville
weeks earlier, the entire Columbia and Wrightsville area had been put
on high alert when news reached them of the Confederate movement in
force across the Potomac River. As in Harrisburg, plans were made to
defend the bridge connecting Wrightsville, in York County, and Columbia,
in Lancaster County, with entrenchments and fortifications. Railroad
topographical engineers staked out rifle pits on the approaches to
Wrightsville and workers were recruited to begin digging.
situation occurred in Wrightsville as occurred in Harrisburg, however,
as the white citizens quickly gave up on the hard, dirty work of excavating
the fortifications and African American workers were brought in to
take their place. The Columbia Spy newspaper reported, “The
working party consisted of over one hundred negroes from Tow Hill,
divided into reliefs.”
was the neighborhood in Columbia that had developed primarily on land
donated specifically for African American residences by William Whipper,
some years before. The residents of Tow Hill bickered almost constantly,
as close neighbors commonly do, but when danger threatened, they closed
ranks. They were fiercely loyal to each other, actively sheltered runaway
slaves, and kept active vigils against slave catchers in the neighborhood.
In 1847, they had chased down a slave catcher and liberated the slave
in his possession. Now, in 1863, they were laboring together to protect
the black citizens of Columbia did “excellent service” and
soon had the Wrightsville trenches ready for use.218 The
works were soon inspected by local military men and pronounced “well
planned and properly constructed.” The editors of the Columbia
Spy felt safe enough to boast, “We have made a fair beginning,
and if the Rebels do not come in overwhelming numbers, are even now
ready to give them a wrestle for the bridge. We will fight for it before
we will burn it.”219
a week later, the Rebels did come in overwhelming numbers. The men
sent from Harrisburg, on Wednesday, 24 June, to defend the Columbia-Wrightsville
Bridge were the Twenty-Seventh Pennsylvania Militia, commanded by Colonel
Jacob G. Frick. The regiment relieved local militia units then defending
the bridge, and took up a position at the west end of Wrightsville,
where things remained relatively calm for several days.
As they established
their position, the men of Frick’s command witnessed a steadily
increasing flow of farmers, livestock, merchants with their goods,
and refugees, streaming from out of York County to cross the bridge
at Wrightsville to safety on the Columbia side. Within days, the situation
mirrored that at Harrisburg as the road leading to the bridge quickly
became clogged with panicked people fleeing from closing enemy forces.
when news reached Wrightsville that Confederate troops were just outside
of York, the scene at the bridge became dangerously chaotic. It took
a concerted effort on the part of local military authorities and the
bridge owners to break up the traffic jam and clear the area so that
the army could prepare an effective defense.
troops closing in, Frick rushed the remainder of his troops across
the bridge and secured four more companies of local militia from Columbia
to bolster his numbers. The local newspaper described the excitement
in Columbia as news of the Rebel advance was received: “About
8 1/2 o’clock on Saturday evening the City Troop dashed into
Columbia and reported that York had surrendered to the enemy. The bells
were rung and the men of the town were ordered to take arms, when several
companies, without distinction of party, crossed over the bridge and
took position at the rifle pits beyond Wrightsville.”
the militia companies were white and one was African American. Working
until well after midnight, Colonel Frick positioned his troops in a
defensive arc around the western approaches to Wrightsville, with the
Twenty-Seventh Regiment at the point, holding the trenches that flanked
the turnpike into town. With entrenchments only partially prepared,
and not sure of the strength of the approaching enemy forces, the Union
defenders passed Saturday night in restless anticipation of the coming
sunrise revealed no threat of immediate attack, allowing Colonel Frick
the opportunity to renew the much-needed work on his fortifications.
He obtained shovels and picks from the railroad and ordered them to
be distributed among the men of his regiment and the four militia companies.
Work began apace, but as the sun rose well above the horizon, the men
of the three white militia companies put down their tools and walked
back across the mile-long wooden bridge to Columbia.
amazed that the men of the town seemed to care so little for its defense,
but noted with satisfaction that the fifty-three men of the African
American company were still hard at work, swinging their picks side-by-side
with his own men. The black minutemen of Columbia and the soldiers
of the Twenty-Seventh Militia labored through the morning, and their
numbers were soon bolstered by some additional troops sent in haste
from Harrisburg. Frick positioned these units on the right and left
of his line to protect the flanks.221
It was a
very tense day for the Union troops who protected the bridge entrance
at Wrightsville. In the early afternoon, some scouts reported that
Confederate troops had entered York in force at eight o’clock
that morning. York was only eleven miles away, making it evident to
Frick and his men that the enemy would very soon be making directly
for the river crossing that they now defended.
knew that his limited number of men lacked battle experience and would
not stand up long against seasoned Rebel infantrymen, so the decision
was made to fight a delaying action while carpenters from Columbia
prepared the Wrightsville-Columbia Bridge for destruction. The plan
was to saw most of the way through the key support timbers of two spans,
place explosives at those spots, and drop the spans by detonating the
explosive charges once friendly troops had cleared the bridge. With
two spans missing, the bridge would be unusable to the invading Confederates,
but still easily repairable after the danger had passed.222
that afternoon, the Confederate troops were reported to be approaching.
The men of the Twenty-Seventh Militia and the fifty-three African American
militiamen found their weapons and took their places in the rifle pits
that flanked the toll road down which the Rebels were coming. The two
groups contrasted greatly in appearance: the white regiment was uniformed
in Union blue and equipped with rifled muskets while the African American
company wore civilian clothes, now heavily stained with the sweat and
dirt of more than ten hours of digging, and held antiquated muskets
and fowling pieces.
of uniforms increased the danger to the African American troops, as
it meant they could be identified by enemy troops as partisan fighters,
and therefore subject to execution on the spot if captured. Despite
their contrasting appearances, however, the black minutemen of Columbia
and the white soldiers of the Twenty-Seventh Militia were identically
steadfast as they pointed their weapons down the turnpike in the direction
of York. Both groups probably had more than a few soldiers who held
their weapons with hands that trembled, and not from fatigue.
By six o’clock,
the Union troops could now see the gray-clad soldiers moving into the
fields on either side of the turnpike. The tall grass and crops hid
their movements from sight, causing considerable consternation among
the nervous men in the trenches. These were Georgians from Gordon’s
Brigade in the division of Jubal A. Early, fresh from the capture of
York earlier that day. They took their time getting into position and
soon set up an artillery section on the turnpike road.
battery began firing into the Union position at the approaches to the
town, with many shells landing in the town itself. The defenders held
the Rebels at bay from the rifle pits, gaining valuable time for the
carpenters to complete their work. By seven o’clock, Colonel
Frick observed a flanking movement on either side of his line and knew
that their time was about up. He would have to pull his troops in and
withdraw across the bridge now if he was going to save them.
time, a Confederate shell struck the front rifle pits near where the
African American company was stationed, and fragments took off the
head of one of the black minutemen. Despite the loss of one of their
number, the men of the black company stayed relatively orderly as the
order was given to withdraw. They gave one last volley in the direction
of the enemy and filed quickly back through the town of Wrightsville
along with the other Union troops, making it safely across the long
bridge to Columbia.
Only a small
group of men from the Twentieth Militia regiment did not make it back
across the bridge before the order was given to detonate the charges.
The explosions rocked the structure, but to the chagrin of the carpenters
and the military men alike, the strong timbers held and the spans did
not drop into the river as planned.223 Colonel
Frick was faced with a potential disaster. With the Union defenders
now across the river in Columbia and the bridge intact, the road to
Harrisburg would be completely open if Gordon’s Georgian’s
could seize the bridge.
Union retreat and the failure of the explosive charges to destroy the
spans, the Georgians moved quickly past the Union defenses, past the
body of the dead African American defender, and through Wrightsville
to the bridge entrance. They were slowed at that point by a blockade
of railroad cars placed across the entrance, and had to file through
singly, but they were now within a few minutes of capturing the huge
prize of an intact bridge across the Susquehanna River. The back-door
capture of Harrisburg now seemed assured.
however, had a backup plan. From the Columbia side, Union soldiers
raced with lit torches to a point in the bridge that had previously
been soaked with kerosene. There, they touched the torches to the combustible
liquid. The flames quickly spread across the oil-soaked timbers, forming
a wall of flames that halted the triumphant Confederate soldiers, then
gradually forced them back into the town of Wrightsville. An effort
was made by the Southern troops, with the help of the townspeople in
Wrightsville, to save the bridge by bucket brigade, but in the end,
the crackling flames asserted undisputed control.
and townsfolk on both sides of the river watched the flames gradually
spread toward each end of the bridge in the light of the setting sun.
The vanishing twilight was barely noticed as the entire area was brilliantly
illuminated by the conflagration. A local reporter, watching from the
Columbia side, described the sad and terrible scene aptly, writing, “As
span after span fell into the water, they floated away like so many
bridge burned well into the night, brilliantly illuminating
the Columbia-Wrightsville area and casting its orange glow high into
the late June night sky. In Harrisburg, thousands of people stopped
what they were doing to gather in knots, watch the light show, and
engage in their favorite pastime, which was to gossip about the source
of the glow. They generally grasped the idea that something big was
burning, and speculated that York had been put to the torch by the
invaders. Gradually news began to filter in, from scouts, from the
refugees that continued to flow into town, and from the new telegraph
line that had been installed in the Third Street office of the Patriot
and Union newspaper.
been a dust-up near Wrightsville, they learned, but misinformation
was rife. Again, speculation took over. Perhaps it was Wrightsville
that was burning. By ten o’clock p.m., word finally came that
the light in the eastern sky was from the flames that were consuming
the Columbia Bridge. The news was jarring to those who had assumed
the main threat was coming down the Trindle Road from Carlisle.
It now became
apparent that two large columns were converging on Harrisburg, and
that the capital was about to be caught between the hammer of Early’s
Division, which was assumed to be advancing up the eastern side of
the Susquehanna from Columbia, and the anvil of the remainder of Ewell’s
Corps, which was even now resting in the dark somewhere beyond Oyster
Point, just three miles from the western end of the Camel Back Bridge.
To the soldiers
and citizens in the streets of Harrisburg, it was a sobering eye-opener.
To the black soldiers who slowly began to filter back to their homes
in Tanners Alley and Judy’s Town, or to the refugee camps throughout
town late that night, it laid bare a new terrifying reality. They returned
to their families, children, wives, and sweethearts, not knowing if
this would be the last night that they would ever spend together, for
the dawn was expected to bring a storm of gray that would surely kill
or enslave them all, man, woman and child.
no way of knowing, on this night, that the Confederate tide had been
stopped on the western bank of the river, in York County. They did
not know that the opportunity to move Jubal Early’s division
across the river below Harrisburg had been lost, partially due to the
delaying action fought by an inexperienced militia regiment and a small
company of African American minutemen from Columbia. They also had
no way of knowing that the first African American blood had been spilled
on their behalf in a muddy rifle pit west of the town of Wrightsville.225 Jacob
C. White’s speech at Harrisburg was now more prophetic than provoking.
Kahn,” Index to the Reports of Committees of the House of
Representatives for the First and Second Sessions of the Forty-Sixth
Congress, 1879-80, vol. 3 (Reports 573-981) (Washington, 1880),
832-833. Mohammed Khan’s story is detailed in his claim for an
Invalid Pension in 1880, in which he is identified as Mohommed Kahn,
otherwise John Ammahoe. There are two additional alternate spellings
of his name in his service file, giving credence to his claim of lack
of fluency in English, and probably also indicating a thick accent.
Telegraph, 29 June 1863; Official Records, ser. 1,
vol. 27, pt. 3, 387-388.
Records, ser. 1, vol. 27, pt. 3, 388.
Companies,” Daily Patriot and Union, 29 June 1863; “The
First Colored Troops from Harrisburg,” Evening Telegraph,
29 June 1863.
Invasion of Pennsylvania,” Columbia Spy, 20 June 1863.
Nye, Here Come the Rebels!, 284.
of the Susquehanna,” Columbia Spy, 27 June 1863; “The
Skirmish Beyond Wrightsville,” Columbia Spy, 11 July
1863; Nye, Here Come the Rebels!, 284-288.
of Col. Jacob G. Frick,” 278.
Skirmish Beyond Wrightsville,” Columbia Spy, 11 July
223. Ibid.; “Report
of Col. Jacob G. Frick,” 278.
Skirmish Beyond Wrightsville,” Columbia Spy, 11 July
1863; U.S. Naval Observatory, “Sun and Moon Data for One Day:
June 28, 1863,” http://aa.usno.navy.mil/cgi-bin/aa_pap.pl (accessed
26 May 2010).
Situation,” Patriot and Union, 29 June 1863. The Confederate
attack at Wrightsville actually killed two Union soldiers: one African
American and one white. Nine Union soldiers were wounded and eighteen
white soldiers of the Twentieth Militia were taken prisoner in Wrightsville. “Report
of Col. Jacob G. Frick,” 278; “Telegrams from Columbia,
Penn,” New York Times, 30 June 1863.