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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 Nine
Deluge (continued)

 

You Should be Told What This All Means

John Brown's 17 October 1859 raid into Harpers Ferry, Virginia shocked the residents of Harrisburg, central Pennsylvania, and the nation, not so much for the deaths that resulted, but because of the potential violence and social upheaval that many saw as its intent. Even though some African American leaders had known of Brown's plans and some, like Frederick Douglass, had dismissed them as foolhardy, Northern blacks generally hailed the raid as a bold blow against slavery, to the shock of much of the white community.

In response to these sympathies for the condemned anti-slavery leader—Brown had already been tried and found guilty at this point—the Harrisburg Patriot and Union, a Democratic newspaper, ran an editorial two weeks after the raid that was directed at Harrisburg's African American residents. The editorial took a very patronizing attitude toward local African Americans, explaining, "You should be told what this all means, and what you should do under such circumstances.” It further assumed the relative passivity of local black residents by declaring, "If left alone, you would not encourage such wicked efforts to excite the black race against the white race," but blamed the Republican Party and abolition leaders for "goading you on.” Slavery and Southern blacks, it argued, are not the concern of Harrisburg's African American community, which it believed must "attend strictly to yourselves and your own homes.”

To the Colored People of Harrisburg.

You form a large portion of our population; you are supposed to sympathise with the recent attempt at insurrection in Harper’s Ferry. It is, therefore, proper that you should be told what this all means, and what you should always do under such circumstances. We speak to you on the subject because there are among you honest and intelligent men, who deserve to have these things explained to them. If left alone, you would not encourage such wicked efforts to excite the black race against the white race, and the white race against the black race, as a short time ago resulted in the death of over a score of persons of both colors, but the Republican party has been so long preaching to you, and Abolitionists have been so long goading you on, that you have commenced to think it your duty to interfere with slavery in the southern States.

But so soon as a deed is done, you see how these very men turn against you; how Republican newspapers denounced John Brown for attempting to put their preaching's into practice. The reason of this is here: You are of a different race from the great bulk of the people of America; your race is enslaved for the most part in this country, and the comparative few who are in the northern States have no part in the Government. You have rights which we will all defend: but as belonging to another race, there are laws against you in every northern State. Those laws are made for the purpose of keeping the races separate. If you improve yourselves, gain wealth and knowledge, we will be very much pleased: and we have provided laws according to which you may have every comfort and happiness which the whites have, and may improve your minds in every way. When you have shown yourselves to the whites, we think it just that you should have the political rights which the whites have. Before that you should not have them. And those who pretend to be your friends are not showing you the way to better your condition: for they are talking to you about negroes in the South, with whom you have nothing to do, when you should be attending strictly to yourselves and your own homes. By not minding your own business, or permitting the Abolitionists to pretend to be doing your business in the South, a great injury results to you.

It is this. All this preaching of the Abolitionists must terminate in a terrible insurrection in the South, where many black men and many white men and women and children must be killed. That will excite the white race against the black race. You have seen how this Harper’s Ferry affair has made all the white people angry, and you must have observed that not one white man in Harrisburg says it was right. Well, then if it had been a serious affair, and if it had lasted months, while white women and white girls were being butchered in the South, what do you think would have happened here? This white race would have become more and more bitter, until they would have taken away some of the rights which you now have.

Brown Republicans may talk very much, but they are white: and when the horrible result of their writing and speaking should be seen they would all sympathise with their white brethren. All the whites here would be against you, and no man can tell what they would do in their fury. You see, then, that the Abolitionists are giving you bad advice, which may injure you very much.26

The editorial concluded with the threat that local white fury would be visited upon Harrisburg’s African American residents should they continue to applaud such actions. Despite the threat, Harrisburg blacks, like Northern blacks in general, did indeed continue to uphold John Brown and his men as heroes. Public demonstrations of support for the jailed Brown, and for his family, were held in many Northern towns and cities. The second day of December 1859—the day of Brown's execution—was called Martyr Day by black abolitionists, and was marked by somber prayer meetings, the wearing of black crepe armbands, and the closing of many black businesses.27

In Harrisburg, other activities were occurring as well, some public and some very covert. The Telegraph, in its 25 October edition, referred to the existence of the Henry Highland Garnet Guards, the African American militia unit that had debuted at the First of August festivities that year. The martial demonstrations of this armed unit, with its new muskets, had alarmed more than a few white citizens back in August. When news of the raid on Harpers Ferry began arriving in town over the telegraph wires, many whites immediately voiced their opposition to the unit.

White fear and hostility toward the presence of an armed black military unit in Harrisburg grew in the week following the raid, particularly in light of the many rumors that spread from Virginia about slave insurrections, armed abolitionist mobs, and forces of rescuers who were supposedly well armed and ready to descend upon Charlestown to free John Brown from prison.

The Telegraph, seeking to reassure jittery whites, reported, “It is rumored that the colored military company in our town will shortly be disbanded by Adjutant General Willson. –How or where they obtained the muskets in their possession we do not know.”28 The report and rumors proved to be unfounded however, to the continuing concern of Harrisburg’s white residents, and to the relief of the African American residents. The Patriot and Union, in a somewhat disappointed tone, reported, “The Garnet Guards own their arms and equipment; we believe they bought them, or were presented them by a benevolent colored individual in New York.”29

Rumors of rescue attempts, however, were not just flights of fancy. The speed with which John Brown was tried and hung, and the intense security surrounding his execution site, prevented his allies from even briefly considering a rescue attempt, but Harrisburg, Carlisle, York, and Chambersburg all played major roles in the various attempts to rescue survivors of Brown’s doomed raiding party.

 

Flight into Central Pennsylvania

Just before and immediately after a company of United States Marines, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee, assaulted and captured Brown’s men and freed his hostages in the Engine House at Harpers Ferry on 18 October, a few of Brown’s men, those who were not barricaded in the Engine House, managed to escape from the town and cross the border back into Pennsylvania.

Osborne Perry Anderson, the Pennsylvania-born, Oberlin College-educated printer from Chatham, and Albert Hazlett, a Pennsylvanian who had gone to Kansas to bolster the Free State forces, had been stationed at the federal arsenal building at Harpers Ferry and witnessed the surrounding of the Engine House by the Marines. Realizing that there was no way the plan could now succeed, or that anyone in the Engine House could escape, they silently made their own escape from town on the evening of the seventeenth, while all attention was focused on the Engine House, crossed the Potomac River, and stealthily and slowly journeyed back to Pennsylvania.

They separated about ten miles south of Chambersburg when Hazlett stopped to tend to some severe blisters on his feet, making a pact to meet up in Chambersburg. Anderson continued on his way, eventually making contact with local Underground Railroad activist Henry Watson in Chambersburg. Watson sent Anderson to William Goodridge, in York, who sheltered him in his Center Square home for several weeks until he was able to forward the raider safely by train on to William Still in Philadelphia.

Hazlett continued walking north after bandaging his blistered feet, taking to the main road from Waynesboro to Chambersburg (modern Route 316). Early on Friday morning, 21 October, Hiram Wertz, the Underground Railroad agent from nearby Quincy, was driving his buggy into Chambersburg. He recalled, “After I had passed the Grindstone Hill Church, I saw a gentleman walking ahead of me, dressed rather ordinary, who had a white blanket, rolled up lengthwise, the ends tied together and hung on his shoulders. When I overtook him, I asked if he wished to ride with me in the buggy. He accepted my invitation and we conversed about different subjects.”

This early morning traveler was Albert Hazlett. Hazlett asked Wertz if he had heard any news from Harpers Ferry, but Wertz, who received newspapers only once per week in rural Quincy, had not. At the village of New Franklin, a few miles south of Chambersburg, Hazlett asked to be let out so he could “take the road leading to the right toward the [South] mountains.” As Hazlett climbed out of the buggy, Wertz was “somewhat surprised” to see a nice revolver slip from Hazlett’s pocket. Hazlett quickly recovered his sidearm and went on his way, expressing his thanks for the ride.30

Unknown to Wertz, though, Hazlett merely waited for him to drive on, and he then continued walking north along the road to Chambersburg. Unlike Osborne Anderson, who had arrived in town a day or two earlier and had gone straight to Henry Watson for help, Hazlett decided to go straight through town directly to his old place of lodging, the boarding house of Mary Ritner, where the young wife and child of another of the conspirators, Kansas veteran John Edwin Cook, were still staying.

Unfortunately for him, the town of Chambersburg was already buzzing with news of the violence in Virginia, and many men in the town were excited about the news that one thousand dollars had been posted as reward money for the capture of John E. Cook, who was identified as one of the leaders of the violence. Hazlett passed Hiram Wertz while walking north on Second Street, and Wertz, who by now had heard of the insurrection at Harpers Ferry and of the reward for Cook, assumed that the armed man he had picked up in his buggy an hour earlier was the fugitive Cook. Wertz alerted a local constable, Michael W. Houser, to Hazlett’s presence, and the constable followed Hazlett to the boarding house on King Street.

Believing Hazlett to be the notorious “Captain Cook,” Houser enlisted the help of Sheriff Jacob S. Brown and Mexican War veteran Charles T. Campbell to arrest their man at the boarding house. Hazlett was either aware that he had been followed, or was tipped off to their coming and after warning Mary Cook not to attempt to go to Harpers Ferry, he fled from the back of the house and into the alleys, ditching his Sharps carbine, which had been rolled in the white blanket, in the backyard garden as he escaped.31

He walked north outside of town, following the tracks of the Cumberland Valley Railroad, and made it as far as Newville, where, on Saturday, 22 October, he was captured by some Chambersburg lawmen who had taken the train to Carlisle and were walking back, correctly guessing that Hazlett (who they still thought was John Cook) would be found on his way to Carlisle. The Chambersburg lawmen took Hazlett, who identified himself as William Harrison, to Carlisle and placed him in the county prison. He remained the prison’s most famous prisoner for two weeks, until he was correctly identified and extradited to Virginia on November 4th.32

 

Cook's Luck Runs Out

The actual capture of John E. Cook occurred shortly after Hazlett was taken. Cook was traveling with Owen Brown, one of John Brown’s sons, Barclay Coppoc, Francis Jackson Merriam, and Charles Plummer Tidd, and all took a circuitous route to get back to Chambersburg, following the mountain ridges and staying to heavily forested areas for cover. Their journey kept them out in the elements much longer, and food became scarce. The band made their way out of South Mountain, west of Chambersburg, to a location near Mont Alto, at Hughes’ Furnace. There, on 25 October, Cook left the group to approach the furnace to try to purchase some food.

Captain Cook’s luck had run out, however, as the manager of the furnace, Claggett Fitzhugh, a notorious Franklin County slave catcher, was on the watch for him. It happened that Fitzhugh was outside of the furnace buildings talking to another local slave catcher, Daniel Logan, when John Cook emerged from the woods and approached the group. Logan, who lived on Slabtown Road, immediately recognized the bedraggled raider and whispered to Fitzhugh, “That’s Captain Cook; we must arrest him; the reward is $1,000.”33

When Cook approached, he gave the story that he was hunting in the mountain and had run out of food. Logan told Cook that if he would walk with him, he would take him to his store and give him all the food he needed. The three men started walking, with Cook between the two slave catchers, and after a minute both men grabbed him by the wrists and held him captive. Cook struggled briefly, but weakened by hunger, he soon gave in. Logan put him in a carriage and drove to Chambersburg to turn him in for the reward money.

While in the carriage talking to Logan, Cook determined that the man was actually interested only in the reward, so he asked Logan to contact State Senator Alexander K. McClure, a vocal abolitionist, in town, who could arrange for payment of more than the reward money in exchange for Cook’s release. Daniel Logan agreed to this, but upon arriving in Chambersburg late that afternoon, was unable to locate McClure in his office. He searched around town for the lawyer without luck. As it was now getting dark and McClure had not yet shown up, Logan decided to go for the sure reward and turned Cook over to the sheriff, who promptly locked the raider up.34

 

Wildly Scheming

When McClure finally returned to the center of town and found out about the events of the afternoon, he immediately went to the District Justice to see Cook. Incredibly, Senator McClure began planning ways to spring Cook from the jail on King Street, going so far as to visit County Commissioner J. Allison Eyster to ask who had originally built the jail and whether that person was still around. They found that person and together went to see him. McClure told the builder they “wanted to know where a prisoner should be placed to best get out of jail.”

Regardless of what the old builder thought of the reasons for this request, he happily complied. McClure remembered, “He gave us minute instructions as to the best method of making the escape, and I started for home, confident that on the following night Cook would be free.” Upon returning home, the senator found that his wife Matilda had separately hatched her own escape plan for Captain Cook:

When I reached my residence and entered the library, I found Mrs. McClure and Miss Riley, daughter of the Democratic Congressman of our town,…waiting for me; and both were clad ready for the street with a considerable bundle on the floor beside them. When I asked what it meant, Mrs. McClure informed me that they had decided to visit Captain Cook in the jail, as the sheriff would not refuse Mrs. McClure admittance, and after remaining for some time, they intended to use the contents of their bundle in dressing Cook in female apparel, when one of them would walk out of the jail with him, and the other remain in the cell. Both were women of unusual earnestness of purpose and heartily sympathized with the Free State people in the bloody Kansas struggle, and there was no doubt that they could have carried out their plan, as they would not have been closely scrutinized by the sheriff.35

The senator talked the women out of the incredible scheme, though his own plan of placing John Cook in the weakest part of the jail and providing him with information so that he could easily break out was no less wild and foolhardy. All of their plans and hopes for Cook’s freedom were dashed, however, when his extradition papers arrived a day earlier than expected, and the captured revolutionary was placed on the next train to Richmond. McClure’s only consolation was that, in talking briefly with Cook while the man was in the jail, he had obtained information about the whereabouts of Owen Brown, Coppoc, Merriam, and Tidd. McClure would put that information to good use.

 

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Notes

26. Patriot and Union, 2 November 1859.

27. Quarles, Black Abolitionists, 234-244.

28. Pennsylvania Telegraph, 25 October 1859.

29. Patriot and Union, reprinted under "Miscellaneous News Items" in Douglass’ Monthly 2, no. 7 (December 1859).

30. Hiram E. Wertz, “Reminiscences of Captain Cook and Wm. Hazelett [sic],” Kittochtinny Historical Society Papers, vol. 5, Papers Read Before the Society from March 1905, to February 1908 (Chambersburg, PA: Repository Printing House, 1908), 38-39.
Wertz remembered the date and time that he picked up Hazlett as the morning of 18 October, but that would have been too soon after Hazlett and Anderson left the arsenal. Hazlett was picked up by Wertz about forty miles from his starting point in Harpers Ferry, and he was hobbled by bad blisters by the time he got to the southern border of Pennsylvania. The Valley Spirit reported Hazlett’s presence in town on Friday, 21 October. Valley Spirit, 26 October 1859.

31. Wertz, “Reminiscences,” 39; Valley Spirit, 26 October 1859. See also “The John Brown House,” Franklin County Historical Society, http://johnbrownhouse.tripod.com/id1.html (accessed 28 December 2009); Reynolds, John Brown, 371.
Ironically, Hiram Wertz had no clue regarding Hazlett’s anti-slavery mission with John Brown; he thought he was nothing more than a fugitive wanted for murder at the time he pointed him out to the Chambersburg authorities. Wertz later wrote, “Had I know who Hazlett was…I most assuredly would have seen that he would have gotten a free and speedy passage over the [Underground Railroad] to beyond the Susquehanna River.” (page 40) Werts' comments further prove the involvement of Harrisburg abolitionists in the recovery of John Brown's men. (See the next section).

32. Valley Spirit, 26 October 1859.

33. Reynolds, John Brown, 371-372; McClure, Old Time Notes, 364-365.

34. McClure, Old Time Notes, 365-366.

35. Ibid., 368.



 

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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