a book about Harrisburg...
by George F. Nagle
Although the rapid onrush of events threatened to overwhelm them, they were far from being unprepared; they knew it was coming. They could tick off each fierce storm that had heralded the deluge: Stono, Southampton, Christiana, Harpers Ferry, and Sumter. They had listened attentively to those who, with eyes cast toward gospel-gray skies, predicted calamity. John Brown, his dream of an African American homeland shattered, had warned everyone. From his Charles Town jail cell, on the day he would die, he wrote, “The crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with Blood.”1
While most people observed a ranting madman on his way to the gallows, African Americans perceived a prophecy of doom for the country. Brown’s prediction carried special weight with them because they trusted him. This trust had not been placed blindly, nor had it been given freely. Too many others, men of high principles with dreams of moral righteousness, had taken this trust lightly and broken with it when the weather got rough, abandoning their African American friends to the storm. Brown’s impatience with lofty ideals kept him from such infidelity. He believed himself to be “an instrument in the hands of Providence,” and with such humbling responsibility came a solitary sense of purpose. The destruction of slavery was as much his responsibility as anyone’s. He believed it.2 He had faith in that vision. He was also similarly parsimonious with his trust, working mostly with African Americans, reasoning that white people would rather go home and read their Bibles than commit themselves to the bloody work of revolution.3 Captain Brown understood the nature of the evil that had infested his country, their country, so when his final words reached them, they listened.
|Library of Congress.||
Even as they mourned, though, they prepared. They could not vote, but they could petition. They could not fight, but they could work. They could not openly aid the weary fugitives from bondage that crossed the Susquehanna into their town, but they could quietly hurry them into their homes and churches, change their clothes, feed them, and discreetly send them or guide them on their way. All of this took faith, and it took a tremendous amount of patience. Fortunately, their faith taught patience. They had learned the lessons of Job, and so they persevered, forever preparing, forever agitating, and paddling steadily through the rising tide of history.
Then it came, the thunderhead harbinger of change. Out of “the City of Washington, this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty three,” President Abraham Lincoln, citing military necessity, issued the document for which they had been praying. Freedom! Lincoln’s Proclamation made the long-awaited promise of freedom a reality, but not just freedom. It proclaimed slaves to be “forever free,” making it a covenant with destiny, restoring a right unlawfully deferred by American founding fathers for eighty-seven years. In this “Proclamation of Freedom,” imperfect and filled with limitations though it was, African Americans saw a familiar “instrument of Providence:” the ghost of old John Brown. It was a document every bit as revolutionary as Old Osawatomie himself, and with its release the waters surged and the ancient order began to erode.
It was appropriate that they gathered, at the start of this year of the Lord, one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, in a church to respond to this momentous event. Faith had gotten them this far and it was faith again that allowed them to recognize the hand of God in the document. The Bethel A.M.E. building on Short Street was humble in size, but it occupied a major role in the salvation of local souls. The Reverend Mifflin Gibbs oversaw an active congregation that included many of those who did man’s work by day and the Lord’s work by night, maintaining an active presence in that shadowy operation known as the Underground Railroad. It was work at which they and others in the city had labored long and patiently, Job-like, and the good reverend might have made reference to the long-suffering Old Testament patriarch as he offered a prayer to begin the meeting. Then the choir began to sing the old Charles Wesley hymn, “Blow Ye the Trumpet, Blow,” and the congregation joined in to make the words reverberate throughout the cold, dark alleys around Short Street:
H. Mattison, ed., Sacred Melodies for Social Worship, New York, 1859.
ye the trumpet, blow!
It was a particularly appropriate choice, imbued with new meaning, and it set not only the mood for the evening’s work, but also the tone for the coming months. That night, three Harrisburg men, chosen for their erudition and piety, hammered out a soaring response to Mr. Lincoln’s proclamation of freedom, beginning with the bold statement “Resolved, That we, the colored citizens of the city of Harrisburg, hail the 1st day of January, 1863, as a new era in our country’s history.”5 From that brash beginning, they continued to write, very aware that they were documenting much more than mere approval of their president’s actions. Their words also had to reflect the anger and frustration of their community with more than two centuries of abuse and torment. It had to warn of the imminent end of their willingness to abide such injustices. The task was great, but these men were well suited to it. Amid the congregational celebrations around them, they labored into the night to finish the document.
They were: John Wolf, the schoolteacher who had sheltered the self-emancipated slave turned abolitionist Frederick Douglass on his visit to the town sixteen years earlier; Samuel Bennett, scion of the venerable family known by white townsfolk merely as chimneysweeps and waiters, but who, in their world, were pillars of the African American community; and the Reverend David Stephens of Wesley A.M.E. Zion, whom fate would shortly propel into the vortex of war. When they were done, the words of Wolf, Bennett, and Stephens ascended majestically from the finished resolution, invoking the Goddess of Liberty, the omnipotence of truth, and the fires of freedom. It was work of which they could be justly proud (if pride could be tolerated, just this once, in the Lord’s house).
By the time the final hymn had been sung, their resolution was approved, voted upon, and readied for presentation to the world. It marked an auspicious start to the New Year for Harrisburg’s patient African American community. Business accomplished, their exit into the smoky night air of Short Street was a triumphant one, but pride was tempered by the realization that the wooden threshold of the Bethel church had become a gateway into a new era, as they defined it, and there was much work yet awaiting them. Perhaps some of those congregants, as they pondered the evening’s events on the walk home, thought of the line from the popular song “We Are Coming Father Abraham,” penned by James Sloan Gibbons and published the previous year in the New York Evening Post: “Oh we dare not look behind us, but steadfastly before.”6
More weeks passed and another storm blew in. This was a nor’easter, originating in Massachusetts, and it looked big. It was heralded by earnest men sent out by the Bay State’s honorable governor, John Andrew, in search of volunteers for the first African American regiment from a free state. Finally, black soldiers could and would fight for the Union. News of this development was borne on the wind into the bustling African American neighborhoods known as Tanners Alley and Judy’s Town long before any of these agents actually reached Harrisburg, though some local men had already made the trip to Boston and were mustered into Uncle Sam’s service before any sort of official meeting was planned.
When the recruitment meetings were finally arranged, they created intense excitement, but also a tumult, as long-held grievances were aired. Too dark-complexioned to be considered for military service to the Keystone state, constitutionally disenfranchised, and still generally despised by their European-descended neighbors, African American men in Harrisburg, as well as their brethren in similar meetings elsewhere in the state, paused to speak their minds before plunging into the unknown waters. After all the points were debated, all the arguments were made, and the air was cleared, however, they still volunteered by the score, and if it was not eagerness to prove loyalty to a system that treated them as second-class citizens that stirred them, perhaps then it was a keen desire to demand payment for a two-century-old debt at the tip of a bayonet.
The gales of this latest storm were forcing a change in the Keystone State’s political weather, driven by a torrent of tears for the fallen men of ’61 and ’62, and by the realization that white men alone could not hold back the impending flood. The rising waters were battering against the levee of the old order now. Harrisburg’s blacks sensed that it would not long hold.
No one could remember spring storms as fierce as those of 1863: the draft, Charleston Harbor, Chancellorsville, Brandy Station. The last squall promised dire consequences, as it soon became apparent that a butternut wave was surging north. Ever mindful of the dark clouds, African Americans convened an emergency “War Meeting” in Tanners Alley to prepare. The Reverend David Stevens, one of the three men who had crafted his community’s response to Lincoln’s Proclamation a few months earlier, was there, as were many more who had been at the Bethel Church in January. Unlike the January meeting, however, this gathering included men uniformed in the Union blue of a much-cheered Massachusetts regiment. Speeches were made, cheers were given, and “John Browns’ Body” was sung. A sense of exhilaration permeated the hall until late into the evening, making this meeting palpably different from all the previous recruitment efforts. Even the local newspaper reported it as “one of the most enthusiastic negro meetings we ever saw.”7
It finally broke up one hour short of midnight, with the departing crowd, reminiscent of the Short Street meeting at the beginning of this momentous year, singing, “The year of jubilee is come.”8 Three hours later, the reason for the celebration became apparent as one hundred and thirty African American men boarded railroad cars for Boston, intent upon enlisting in the Fifty-Fifth Massachusetts Infantry regiment. It was an emotional celebration of community and family. Harrisburg’s mothers and fathers bid a bittersweet farewell to their sons, and wives said lingering and tearful goodbyes to their husbands. No one knew who would be returning, or when. With a shrill warning blast from its steam whistle, the train lurched slowly into motion, carrying many of Harrisburg’s young black men away from their families and into the night.9 Just days later, the storm of the year began.
It began with shocking headlines preceded by the dire warning, “Latest by Telegraph. Highly Important!” Then, “Occupation of Hagerstown by the Rebels. The Rebels Advancing on Pennsylvania. To Arms! To Arms!”10 Governor Andrew Curtin, seeing that Pennsylvania was bleeding itself white with the loss of so many able-bodied African American men to Massachusetts, immediately put a stop to the hemorrhaging with General Order Number Forty-Two. It expressly forbade “people of color” from enlisting in “any organization of colored volunteers to be furnished from other states.”11 Though he would not yet give them guns, their service would be required with pickaxes in the defenses being constructed across the wide Susquehanna.
All the while, refugees continued to cross the bridge into town, a trickle at first, in carts loaded with possessions, driving livestock before them. Soon the trickle became a steady stream, with more and more people on foot, carrying packs, leading footsore and weary children. Then the stream became a torrent of humanity of all colors: dazed, lost, suddenly homeless, with neither food nor money, so abrupt was their flight. Harrisburg offered the impression of safety, but many remained panicked, particularly the many African Americans among the throng.
They told stories of neighbors and friends being herded south, into bondage, by gray invaders. Even more frightening was the daily progress of the Rebel tide as it crept closer to Harrisburg, sweeping aside whatever resistance it encountered. By Monday, 29 June, Carlisle was occupied and the authorities had lost communications with York. Suddenly Harrisburg’s promise of safety seemed an illusion. The local newspaper sought to ease worries, but when it quoted “military men of experience” who pronounced the fortifications on the heights at the western end of the Camel Back Bridge “the best and most formidable erected during the present war,” it provided little comfort to those who had experienced the horrors of slavery firsthand.12
At the height of the crisis, permission was finally secured to equip and arm two companies of militia from among the local African American men. Captained by Henry Bradley and Thomas Morris Chester, these recruits drilled at the eastern end of the Camel Back Bridge,13 but they were far too few and the hour was far too late. The floodwaters of history had reached their zenith for these citizens now, and as events thrust them further along they did their best, kicking and paddling, to maneuver, avoid rocks and most of all to keep their heads up, because their faith told them that the waters must eventually recede. This was the year that their unbowed faith and their violent history collided in one awesome series of events that would forever change their world. All that came before seemed to be leading up to it, and all that followed would be influenced by it. It was the year of our Lord, eighteen hundred and sixty-three. It was the Year of Jubilee.
1. David S. Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights (New York: Knopf, 2005), 395.
2. Transcript of trial proceedings, New York Herald, 21 October 1859; W. E. B. DuBois, John Brown (1909; Reprint, New York: Modern Library, 2001), 53, 91.
3. James Redpath, The Public Life of Capt. John Brown (Boston: Thayer and Eldridge, 1860), 383.
Ye the Trumpet, Blow,” Charles Wesley, 1850. From the journal
of Charles Wesley (1707-1788), 1 January 1750: “At four in the
morning our room was excessively crowded, while I proclaimed the Gospel
year of jubilee.” Wesley Center Online, “The Journal of
Charles Wesley,” http://wesley.nnu.edu/ charles_wesley/journal/1750a.htm
(accessed 1 July 2010);
5. Harrisburg Daily Telegraph, 18 January 1863.
6. Ibid.; New York Evening Post, 16 July 1862.
7. “The War Meeting in Tanners Alley,” Harrisburg Daily Telegraph, 9 June 1863.
9. “Departure of More Negro Troops,” Harrisburg Daily Telegraph, 9 June 1863.
10. Harrisburg Daily Telegraph, 15 June 1863.
11. Harrisburg Daily Telegraph, 13 June 1863.
12. Harrisburg Evening Telegraph, 29 June 1863.
13. Harrisburg Daily Telegraph, 26 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.
Both volumes also available on Amazon.