a book about Harrisburg...
by George F. Nagle
The defenders of Pennsylvania’s capital were not aware, on Monday night, that a Confederate movement away from Harrisburg had been ordered earlier that day. They fully expected to be attacked no later than Tuesday with the full fury of a Rebel division, backed by artillery. Tuesday morning brought no major attack, however, and news that the Confederate divisions were again on the move, away from Harrisburg, Carlisle, and York, slowly drifted in.2
At ten o’clock a.m., Tuesday morning, the Twenty-Second and Thirty-Seventh New York militia units began scouting the roads west of the fortifications, in the direction of Oyster Point, for Confederate troops. They eventually found rearguard elements of Jenkins horse troopers near Sporting Hill, and advanced a skirmish line. The Confederate soldiers, men of the Sixteenth Virginia Cavalry, took refuge in the barn of a local farmer, then sent out a flanking party.
A full-scale battle soon developed, with both sides taking casualties as the New York and Virginia men tried to outmaneuver each other in the wheat and cornfields around Sporting Hill. By five o’clock p.m., a federal artillery unit from Philadelphia, the Landis Battery, began a destructive duel with the Confederate Charlottesville Battery, inflicting some casualties. The Battle of Sporting Hill ended with the withdrawal by Jenkins of his Virginia troopers to Carlisle, leaving sixteen dead on the field of battle.3 The hills around Harrisburg were finally quiet.
The African American companies played no role in the Battle of Sporting Hill. They continued to drill and train through Tuesday and for the several days following, taking advantage of the quiet situation to become more efficient soldiers.
Days passed, and rumors of the Union victory at Gettysburg began to be passed around, with confirmation later reported in the pages of the local newspapers. Soon the full story of that battle became known, and news of the Confederate retreat back across the Potomac River was reported.
The African American defenders of Harrisburg must have felt relief akin to that expressed by Thomas Wentworth Higginson in February 1860, when, at a secret meeting in a small Harrisburg tavern, a suicidal mission to rescue some of the Harpers Ferry raiders from the gallows was scrubbed as impractical. Higginson and his fellow plotters fully realized that their chances of success were very slim and that they would have been executed in the likely event they were captured in the mountains of Virginia, but they had committed themselves to the plan out of a sense of fraternity with Captain Brown’s men.
The black men of Harrisburg had similarly volunteered to fight the Southern invaders in what was essentially a suicide mission, and like Higginson, who quoted the Dickens’ character Dr. Manette in “A Tale of Two Cities,”—who was rescued after eighteen years of imprisonment in the Bastille—when the expected Confederate attack never materialized, they could only have felt that they, too, were “recalled to life.”
Their initial enlistment, coming at the height of the crisis, had elicited praise from almost all quarters. No less a nemesis than Oromel Barrett, the editor of the Democratic Patriot and Union newspaper had complimented the two company captains, upon the arming of the black troops by the State, by writing “The names of Captains Bradley and Chester will stand connected with this event in after times.”4 Their presence in Harrisburg, fully armed and equipped, was indeed historic, and the source of a tremendous sense of pride to the city’s African American residents.
White residents suddenly tolerated their presence as well, which was noted by the New York Times reporter as a surprising turn of events. He attributed the change of heart toward the use of armed black troops to the exigencies of the crisis. Instead of black skin, he reasoned, whites now saw only “bone and muscle” carrying a gun for their defense. It was a perceptive statement. Once the enemy was no longer at the gates, however, the situational enlightenment expressed by Harrisburg whites toward their African American defenders quickly evaporated.
The first sharp criticism of the arming of the African American companies came from the same editor who had initially remarked on its historic nature. In an editorial published on the morning of 2 July, even as the two opposing armies prepared for a second day of bloody combat on the fields surrounding the town of Gettysburg, the Patriot and Union lambasted Governor Andrew G. Curtin for his presumed complicity in arming and equipping the black men of Harrisburg “in clear violation of the usage and laws of the State.” Barrett charged that issuing rifles to the men was “impolitic and unwise”:
The editorial called for local authorities to immediately seize the weapons from the black troops, allowing them only to continue service “with pick and shovel,” for which their previous backbreaking work was commended. But Barrett allowed that as the limit of their participation, not only in the defense of Harrisburg, but in Harrisburg society as well, writing “We have every kindly consideration for the negroes in their proper places, but cannot consent to have them, under any circumstances, placed upon an equality with white men, whether in civil or military capacity, and, we doubt not, that is the feeling of a large majority of the soldiers as well as citizens.”6
These charges were answered that evening by the editors of the Telegraph, in a rebuttal so weak that Harrisburg’s African American community must have been stung as much if not more by the barely perceptible praise offered in their defense. The Telegraph disputed the charge that the black troops had taken their weapons to their homes when not on duty, noting “the arms for negroes have been and are in the hands of men who are entirely responsible for their safety, and that at no time has any negro been suffered to carry a musket unless while on parade.” The brief response also opined, “The negroes of Harrisburg have been humbly striving to do their duty as far as they know how. They do not want to play soldiers. They simply ask to be placed where they can act like men.”7 It was a terrible, paternalistic response that revealed the persistence of the same racial class structure that had existed before the war.
On Friday, 3 July, the Patriot and Union pegged the number of African American refugees quartered in Harrisburg at eighteen hundred, most of whom, it said, were women and children. Many of the male African American refugees were quartered by military authorities at Fort Washington and in Bridgeport, so that they could be employed on the earthworks and in pumping water to the forts.8
Within a week, even the “faithful and efficient” service of these laborers was being called into question by City Council, which was presented petitions received by the mayor from city residents complaining about the numbers of refugees quartered in Tanner’s Alley. Citing the threat from disease, specifically smallpox, and other ills, Council appointed three members to look into the process of promptly stopping aid and removing all “contrabands” from the city.
At the same meeting, Mayor Augustus Roumfort complained that the two companies of African American troops had not yet turned in their weapons, but had “retained them and had them stacked in a building in Tanner’s Alley.” He felt that the situation presented a significant risk to public safety, particularly as he originally had “remonstrated with the heads of departments, urging them not to arm these negroes, but they were armed regardless of his wished.”9
Mayor Roumfort was not the only person concerned over the status of the African American companies. The captains of those companies, Henry Bradley and T. Morris Chester also wanted a clear answer regarding their status as army officers. To this point, their units were still independent “emergency” companies. They petitioned General Couch, probably through Adjutant General Russell, to be mustered into State service with African American officers.
On 2 July, Couch telegraphed Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas, in Washington, for guidance, asking, “The colored company recruited in this city for six months' service refused by unanimous vote to be mustered in with white officers. Is it not the understanding that they should have white officers? It would certainly make them far more efficient.”
Thomas, two days later, went to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton for instructions, cautioning that Harrisburg could be a test case: “There are two companies of blacks here, who desire to enter the service with their own officers. I do not know whether you have authorized the muster of any back officers. I have been opposed to it, and I find General Couch also objects. Please let me know your decision, to cover this and similar cases in the free States.”
While General Thomas was seeking an answer for General Couch about African American enlistments from Secretary of War Stanton, General Robert C. Schenck, in Baltimore, had been seeking his own answers from military authorities in the national capital, as he had enough African American volunteers in his city to form an entire regiment. Schenck, in frustration at getting the run-around, finally telegraphed Abraham Lincoln directly. Lincoln, who was obviously preoccupied with the military situation at Gettysburg, was not unaware of the muddled situation regarding African American enlistments. He telegraphed a terse reply to Schenck on 4 July, saying, “Your dispatches about negro regiments are not uninteresting or unnoticed by us; but we have not been quite ready to respond. You will have an answer to-morrow.”10
In fact, General Thomas had been working on a solution suitable to all. Even before General Couch had telegraphed him for instructions regarding the two African American companies, Thomas had been in Philadelphia consulting with a committee of the Union League, urging them to “raise troops as soon as possible.”11 The answer sought by all soon came with the news that African American men who wished to be mustered into service should be sent to LaMott, near Philadelphia, where Camp William Penn had just opened to receive African American men into the ranks of the newly established United States Colored Troops. Their service would not be attributed to any individual state, as they would be enlisted as part of the United States Army.
Some of the first men to report to Camp William Penn, on the day it opened, were the men and boys from Philadelphia recruited by Octavius Valentine Catto, who had reported to Harrisburg but were rejected for service by General Couch. The men serving under Captains Bradley and Thomas now had this same option, which many of them accepted, but without African American commanders as they had hoped, as initially only white officers would be allowed to lead black troops.
A solution to the large numbers of African American refugees who remained in town appeared easier. On 9 July, City Council members got authorization to move them by train back into the Cumberland Valley. The Telegraph reported on the removal:
The Patriot and Union provided extra details of the removal, which may not have been as voluntary and as neat as reported in the Telegraph. The Democratic newspaper reported, “They were collected from their various quarters in the city by the police, under the direction of Mayor Roumfort, who ordered the entire force of colored refugees to rendezvous at the police headquarters by two o’clock p.m.” It described the corner of Third and Walnut Streets, the location of the police office, as a “mass of colored men, women and children,” who milled around in various states of stress and confusion, waiting to be told what would happen to them.
Police Chief Barney Campbell, one of the few local officials still trusted by the local African American community, volunteered to lead the large group to the train station at Fourth and Market Streets, where they boarded railroad cars and were soon on their way back across the Susquehanna.13 The “exodus” proved to be illusory, though. A day later the Patriot and Union complained that those caring for the African American refugees, residents of Tanner’s Alley, Short Street, and East South Street, had drawn one thousand rations from the Quartermaster’s department, leading the newspaper to conclude, “There must be that number remaining.”14
The ebbing of the Confederate tide allowed life to return to normal for Harrisburg’s African American community. Normal, however, was not a particularly desirable situation. In addition to absorbing about one thousand black refugees, large numbers of whom stayed in the city to take advantage of available jobs, schooling, and established social institutions, the community continued to endure the insults and depredations of white soldiers who remained in town. While there were no widespread riots such as occurred in May of that year, there continued to be an abundance of social skirmishes between rowdy soldiers and black residents, with a few serious incidents receiving extensive news coverage.
On Saturday morning, 11 July, sixteen-year-old Edward Walker, an escaped fugitive slave from Winchester, Virginia who had been in the city since the first weeks of the invasion scare, was walking along the long length of the loading platforms at the Pennsylvania Railroad Depot on his way to work at the Quartermaster’s office. He had spent considerable time working on the fortifications on Hummel Heights and had only recently found a job as a servant for a local military officer.
As the boy passed squads of soldiers from the Fifty-First Pennsylvania Emergency Militia regiment, which was waiting at the depot, something apparently provoked one of the soldiers to climb to the top of one of the railroad cars, draw a pistol, and shoot Walker. The ball struck him in the right shoulder and lodged in his spine. Somehow the young man was able to get to the military hospital in the Lancasterian School on Walnut Street, where he was admitted.15 None of the soldiers were arrested for the potentially deadly attack.
As grievous as this incident was to Harrisburg’s African American community because of its cruelty, and as frightening, because of its randomness, it was not nearly as indicative of the prevailing racial tension between the soldiers and the local black population as another attack that occurred at almost the same time.
On Friday afternoon, Henry Bradley was walking along Short Street on the way to his Third Street barbershop. The company of soldiers that he had commanded the previous week had now been disbanded and their weapons returned to the State Arsenal. Not being allowed to enter the State militia as an officer, he had decided to return to his civilian life to catch up on work and tend to the multitude of chores that had been neglected while he drilled his volunteers. The Telegraph reported what occurred next:
There were additional incidents throughout the following months, and the realization set in that the invasion crisis had not altered the inferior social and legal status of Harrisburg’s African American community in the eyes of their white neighbors.
In their own eyes, however, the entire world had changed for African Americans in June 1863. The tide shifted that month, both militarily and socially. The war would drag on for another two bloody years, during which thousands of African American soldiers would be counted among those who sacrificed themselves on the field of battle. Harrisburg blacks would read about the campaigns and battles involving these men in the pages of regional newspapers, and they would join their white neighbors in mourning the deaths of sons, husbands, and brothers.17
More than two-hundred thousand would eventually serve in the United States Colored Troops by 1865, and in November of that year, Harrisburg, with the planning of its African American community, would have the distinct honor to be the only city to stage a welcoming Grand Parade for the nation’s returning Colored Troops.
1. Nye, Here Come the Rebels!, 346.
2. “The Situation,” Evening Telegraph, 1 July 1863.
3. Keener-Farley and Schmick, Civil War Harrisburg, 42-45.
4. “Colored Companies,” Patriot and Union, 29 June 1863.
5. “Arming the Negroes,” Patriot and Union, 2 July 1863.
7. “The Arms for Negroes,” Evening Telegraph, 2 July 1863.
8. “Contrabands in Town,” Patriot and Union, 3 July 1863.
9. “Meeting of City Council,” Patriot and Union, 9 July 1863.
10. Official Records, ser. 1, vol. 27, pt. 3, 496, 525, 528.
11. Ibid, 477.
12. “Sent Up the Valley,” Daily Telegraph, 10 July 1863.
13. “Exodus of the Contrabands,” Patriot and Union, 10 July 1863.
14. “The Contrabands,” Patriot and Union, 11 July 1863.
15. “An Act of Devilish Cruelty,” Patriot and Union, 13 July 1863; “Negro Boy Shot by a Soldier,” Evening Telegraph, 11 July 1863.
16. “Attempted Impressment of a Colored Citizen by a Squad of Soldiers,” Daily Telegraph, 11 July 1863. This story was also reported, with almost exactly the same details, in the 11 July 1863 issue of the Patriot and Union.
17. T. Morris
Chester began reporting on the campaigns of the Army of the James for
John W. Forney’s Philadelphia Press a year after his
stint as a company commander at Harrisburg. The Harrisburg Telegraph also
began reporting about battles and incidents involving United States
Colored Troops, including reporting on the deaths of local men is those
units. An example is from the 1 October 1863 edition, which stated, “Warner
Clarke, a colored man, who is said to have been from Harrisburg, died
at Folly Island, S.C., on the 17th of September, of typhoid fever.
He joined company F, 55th Regiment Massachusetts Infantry, in June
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.