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a book about Harrisburg...

by George F. Nagle

 

Table of Contents

Study Areas:

Slavery

Anti-Slavery

Free Persons of Color

Underground Railroad

The Violent Decade

US Colored Troops

Civil War

 

Chapter Eight
Backlash, Violence and Fear:
The Violent Decade (continued)

 

Standing Up Like Men

The fugitive slave now known as Joshua Kite was the first person in the Parker house to rise and depart for his home in the early morning hours. It was still quite dark as he descended to the first floor of the fieldstone house and then stepped out of the front door into the front clearing. Moonlight flooded the yard with a thin, silvery light. If anything was amiss, he did not immediately notice it as he walked through the yard, past a peach tree, toward the small farm lane that ran alongside the cornfield.

As he reached the edge of the clearing, several men emerged out of the shadows of the orchard on one side and the cornfield on the other, and two men, probably Kline and Gorsuch, blocked his path to the lane. They grabbed at Kite but, startled, he jumped back, eluding their grasp. The great sense of alarm for which he had come to the house the previous evening flooded back into him as he recognized the moonlit face of Edward Gorsuch. He dashed back into the farmhouse, shouting as loud as he could, “Kidnappers! Kidnappers!” Edward Gorsuch, realizing they had to act quickly, ordered his men to follow him.

William Parker was still upstairs, having risen a few moments before, and was near the top of the stairs when Joshua Kite burst back in, shouting for him. Kite barely had time to tell his host that there were men in the yard before the Southerners were at the doorway, and then just as quickly were inside the house. Kite dashed up the stairs to the sleeping quarters and some of the men ran across the room to follow, with Marshal Kline in the lead. Parker stood defiantly at the top of the stairs and confronted Kline as he was ascending the stairs. He immediately challenged the lawman, demanding, “Who are you?”

“ I am the United States Marshal,” Kline snapped back. Parker told the marshal if he took another step up the stairs that he would break his neck. This was not the reaction that Kline was expecting, but after another angry exchange with Parker, the lawman, finding himself to be in a vulnerable position on the stairs, carefully backed down to the first floor.

On his way down, Kline overhead Alexander Pinkney beginning to panic, asking Parker what the use was in opposing the lawmen, because “they will take us.” Kline, seeing an opening and hoping to break up their unity, called to Pinkney, “Yes, we can and will take you.” But William Parker quieted his brother-in-law and the others, who were hunkered down and trapped with him on the second floor, rebuking them for wanting to give in so easily. “Fight until death,” he told them. The Philadelphia lawman, hearing the exhortation to remain stalwart, taunted them, bragging, “I have heard many a negro talk as big as you, and then have taken him.”

Edward Gorsuch, meanwhile, was becoming impatient with the banter and exhorted Marshal Kline to do his duty and stand up to what he considered insolent and illegal behavior. “Follow me,” he told him, starting up the staircase. “I’ll go up and get my property. The law is in my favor.”

Parker, sizing up the man who claimed two of his guests as property, addressed the slaveholder for the first time. In a disdainful voice he warned him, “See here, old man, once up here you are mine.”

Something in Parker’s voice caused Gorsuch to pause. Perhaps he detected in Parker’s tone a burning hatred, born of two centuries of chains, whips, iron collars, rapes, murders and kidnappings, all now directed straight toward him, toward the man who had invaded his home and was now climbing brazenly and defiantly up his staircase with the intent to trespass in his bedroom.

“ Stop, Mr. Gorsuch.” The voice was Kline’s. Now William Parker had a name to put with the hatred. Unfolding a document, the lawman said, “I will read the warrant, and then, I think, they will give up.” At that point, the bloodshed that was about to occur was inevitable. Nothing either party could do or say would stop it, because each was incapable of comprehending the other’s position.

Edward Gorsuch glared at the man blocking the top of the stairs, standing between him and his living, breathing, thinking property. The Maryland slaveholder was considered a pillar of his community, a church leader who was looked upon as possessing high moral standards, and a benevolent master of slaves. In fact, he prided himself on his kindness toward the people he kept as property, and he could not understand why they would have run away, except through a misunderstanding. He felt that they really wanted to go home and would do so if they only knew that he did not intend to punish them much, and he intended to tell them so. He really had no idea why this black man was being so stubborn, and ignoring his right to drag his slaves off the property and back home to Retreat Farm, as was his legal right.

Henry H. Kline, too, could not comprehend the will that was sustaining William Parker in his defiance. He had clearly identified himself as a federal marshal, twice, and had demanded the surrender of the fugitives. In his experience, it was natural for fugitive slaves to put up a fight. They were acting out of fear and anger at being caught. He understood that. It was also expected that anti-slavery men would act disgruntled and protest when he forcibly entered their property, bearing a warrant, but the word of the law always served to cow them into sullen silence.

Perhaps this Parker fellow, Kline must have figured, simply did not understand the full consequences of his actions. Why else would he deliberately stand in the way, barring a federal lawman from carrying out his duties? The deputy marshal’s solution was to fall back on the law, to read the warrant aloud. Surely, that would end it. Unfortunately, he had no idea what he was up against this time.

 

"We Have No Country"

William Parker listened to the reading of the warrant for Noah Buley, Nelson Ford, Joshua Hammond, and George Hammond in stony silence. Buley (Samuel Thompson) and Ford (Joshua Kite) were crouching on the floor a few feet away from him, and the two Hammond men were in a farmhouse a few miles away, probably still unaware of the presence of their former master. Together the four men were guilty of no crime, as Parker saw it, other than having been born on Retreat Farm to a black mother. He recalled hearing an address by Frederick Douglass, who had spoken at an anti-slavery meeting in nearby Smyrna some years earlier, when Parker had first arrived in the free North. The young Parker was enthralled by the truth of his words, and “listened with the intense satisfaction that only a refugee could feel.” From that moment on, he knew that the fight could only truly be carried by African Americans, an epiphany that molded his future plans and deeds.

Only hours before the dawn confrontation, Sarah Pownall, whose husband Levi owned the farm on which the Parkers lived, had come to the farmhouse to share her concerns over the rumors of a raid, and she had urged him not to resist the law. But he no longer had any faith in laws that did not protect people equally, telling her, “If a fight occurs, I want the whites to keep away. They have a country and must obey the laws. But we have no country.”49 The words of the document Marshal Kline was reading did not impress him because he did not recognize the United State of America as his country, and therefore, in his eyes, the laws did not pertain to him or to anyone in his home.

The next few minutes were marked by a tense standoff during which Marshal Kline, having failed to make any headway with the reading of the warrant, threatened to burn the house and all its occupants. Parker turned aside the threat with bravado. One last attempt by the two slave catchers to gain forced access to the second floor was attempted, with Gorsuch calling to “Nelson,” (Joshua Kite), whom he had almost captured outside a few minutes before. The slave holder and the marshal were halfway up the stairs when a fish gig came hurtling down the staircase with murderous velocity, narrowly missing the men, followed by the unmistakably ominous sound of bullets being loaded into guns.

The two men retreated down the stairs and back into the front yard. There, in the south Lancaster County darkness, the confrontation took a sudden turn into surrealism. Heavily armed men were posted around the house, covering it and its equally heavily armed occupants from all sides. One man had climbed a peach tree for a better view of, and to get better aim at, the house’s second story.

The Maryland men outside felt an unpleasant tightening in the gut as they anticipated having to rout out the desperate people inside, just as the besieged occupants, crouched uneasily next to their spouses, relatives, and friends, weighed the prospect of having to defend themselves and their family from a foe who finally had them cornered. They cradled long, murderously sharp, machete-like knives called corn cutters, and loaded guns.

Everyone in this predawn drama was a passenger on a runaway train, eyeing the fast approaching end of the line and bracing for an imminent violent collision. Yet even as the expectation of violence hung in the air, nothing happened to trigger it. Men fidgeted nervously, listening as the night songs of crickets began to give way to the rising morning songs of birds. The comforting smell of damp, fertile Lancaster County soil filled their nostrils. It seemed to be the awakening of a typically beautiful late summer day.

Amid this air of normality, the chief antagonists chose to face off, not with weapons, but with words. Gorsuch and Parker began bantering with each other, citing biblical verses to justify their stances, arguing over the law, and renewing threats. Each countered the other’s arguments, treating the standoff like a grammar school debate, and grudgingly tendering the respect due an academic opponent. For a brief time, slaveholder met slave in an equal contest of wills. But this incongruous juxtaposition of murderous intent with academic testing, of lilting birdsong with the click of a gun’s hammer being drawn back, and of the promise of a normal day with the intense dread of impending mayhem, was about to end.

A gentle twilight from the approaching dawn taunted the slave catchers, who realized that they were quickly losing time. Their pre-dawn raid had bogged down into a philosophical debate and they were becoming frustrated and angry. At that point, both hunter and hunted seemed to come to the same chilling realization that there was going to be no peaceful resolution; that neither side was backing down, neither was going home without a fight.

Then came the trigger.

The stillness of the predawn hour was suddenly pierced by the sound of a fish horn, coming from a window of the farmhouse. The long, low tone of the horn carried loud and far into the quiet valley. Eliza Parker had sounded the blast, after asking William if it was time to do so. This was a warning signal that had been prearranged by Parker among the valley’s African American residents. It meant that some sort of danger threatened, and that they should “proceed to the spot promptly to see what was the matter.”

It badly startled the jumpy Maryland men, one of whom fired a shot at the window from which Eliza sounded the alarm. She ducked down immediately below the sill of the window and continued to blow blasts on the horn, even as more bullets ricocheted murderously off the stone wall around her. All aspects of the surrealism that had settled briefly on the yard vanished in the puffs of black powder smoke. Reality had returned to demand a ruthless resolution to the standoff. More than a dozen shots were fired at Eliza, but she kept to her post and sounded what would become the clarion call to war.50

In his analysis of the Christiana Resistance, historian Thomas P. Slaughter stated, “In this war against slavery, there were no black noncombatants.” Eliza Parker is the best proof of that statement. She was born into slavery in Maryland as Eliza Ann Howard, and she escaped about 1844 or 1845 with her younger sister Hannah and came north into Pennsylvania. She was barely sixteen at the time of her escape, and Hannah was about twelve.

Somehow, the sisters made it safely to the house of abolitionist Daniel Gibbons, who forwarded them to the farm of Dr. Obadiah Dingee, at which place William Parker was working. Parker and the plucky teenage girl were attracted to each other, were married shortly thereafter, and they eventually settled down on the Levi Pownall farm. There, they were joined by Eliza’s sister Hannah, who was newly married to Alexander Pinkney.

Eliza and Hannah were joined in the area by other family members, all fugitive slaves, including their brother and their mother, Cassandra Harris, in whose care Eliza’s children were placed during this crisis. Now, barely out of childhood, this twenty-one-year-old girl was a partisan in the resistance against slavery, calling in reinforcements as enemy bullets splintered the stones above her head. She would go to battle shortly, as would other women and men of the neighborhood.51

 

Flourish

In Harrisburg, attorney Charles Rawn awoke on the morning of 11 September to the typical sounds of a late summer dawn in the river town: delivery wagons clattering noisily through the hard-packed dirt ruts of Second Street, distant horns and whistles sounding the approach, or departure, of canal boats and trains, the squawking of chickens, barking of dogs, and the ever-present cursing of Pennsylvania-German wagoners who were already ensnared in traffic jams around the busy market houses on the square. Nowhere in this predawn din was there a hint that anything unusual was afoot, anywhere in the land. Another hot day loomed in the sunrise for Harrisburg.

 

Flourish

Fifty-five miles away, in sleepy Christiana, residents were also waking to a hot morning, but it was not heat generated by the early morning rays of a late summer sun that was threatening to scorch the land. It was the white-hot heat of a long simmering hatred. Edward Gorsuch and his men suddenly found themselves surrounded by tens, then dozens, then scores of local residents, all of whom came running at the sound of Eliza Parker’s fish horn.

Most of the assembling men and women were African American farmers and laborers from nearby properties, and most carried farming implements, but it was obvious they were not on their way to work in their fields or workshops. They carried menacing-looking axes, knives, scythes, and clubs, and some of them were openly brandishing guns. A few white men began appearing as well, and Marshal Kline approached them immediately as rescuers, demanding that they aid him, in accordance with the Fugitive Slave Law, in capturing the slaves within the Parker farmhouse. But instead of help, he received warnings to leave the area.

One of the men, Quaker Elijah Lewis, reportedly told him, “Thee has come to the wrong place for assistance.” On his way to investigate the sounding of the horn, Lewis had alerted his neighbor, Castner Hanway, a Quaker community leader, who arrived on horseback shortly after Lewis. Again, Kline appealed for help, telling both men, “You are required to help me,” but he was getting nowhere and could see the situation becoming increasingly unstable as more and more agitated African American minutemen arrived on the scene. The men in Gorsuch’s party had been ordering the local residents away at the point of their guns, but the sheer size of the gathering crowd, many of whom also carried guns, soon took the authority out of those threats.

Hanway told Kline to look around at the gathering threat, and the Philadelphia lawman, realizing that he had lost control of the situation, switched from demanding that the whites obey the law to pleading for their help. It was too late, though. Hanway rode away, Lewis walked away, and a line of African American vigilantes moved in to close off the lane.52

 

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Notes

49. Slaughter, Bloody Dawn, 57.

50. Ibid., 57-62; Rettew, Treason at Christiana, 33-36; Parker, “Freedman’s Story,” pt. 2, 283-284.

51. Slaughter, Bloody Dawn, 60; Hensel, Christiana Riot, 28.

52. Rettew, Treason at Christiana, 36-37; Parker, “Freedman’s Story,” pt. 2, 286.

 

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.

Pick up your copies at the Mid-Town Scholar Bookstore, Civil War and More Books, the National Civil War Museum,
or at the 2010 Harrisburg History Center.

Both volumes also available on Amazon.

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