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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)

 

The Negroes Have Become Troublesome

Harrisburg’s African American community responded cautiously to all these major changes in their hometown. Most of them had supported, in spirit if not in votes, the Republican candidates through the elections. They had followed the secession crisis closely in local and national newspapers, and like most people in the country, had hailed the coming of war with naïve élan. Very quickly, though, they saw the need to examine the issues rationally. This was to be a war in which they had much at stake, yet they were to be severely limited in their participation, such that they were little more than bystanders. Many felt confused, frustrated, and angry at being denied the chance to defend their country, while others pointed out that many in the government did not even consider them citizens.

There was also the vague idea that this was the start of the bloodshed predicted by the martyred John Brown—the final battle for freedom—but instead of a sense of glory, they felt only helplessness. They debated, in public halls and private homes, what changes the approaching hostilities would bring, and they turned to their church leaders for guidance and, perhaps, enlightenment.

In a rented room on the second floor of a building at River Alley and Walnut Street, the congregants of the Second Presbyterian Church of Harrisburg gathered at seven p.m. on a Sunday evening in search of answers to those questions. Their pastor, the Reverend Charles W. Gardiner, was now about eighty years old, and this was one of the smallest congregations he had ever led, having been the leader of much larger churches across the East Coast. The good reverend understood, however, that with all congregations, numbers were always secondary to faith. He had prepared a sermon on the “Present Times,”132 and he meant to address their fears and worries. Across the city, other African American congregations were also sitting down to hear their pastors hold forth on the crisis at hand.

Fear was the emotion of the hour, it seemed, and nothing stoked fear like rumors. On the same day that the Reverend Gardiner was preaching to his small Walnut Street congregation about how the coming of civil war to their country might affect them, white folks in Gettysburg were working themselves up over a perennial fear: unruly blacks. Stories that the national emergency had unleashed local communities of African Americans to rise up against local whites swept through many Pennsylvania communities in the border counties.

Gettysburg residents awoke on Monday morning to an issue of the Compiler filled with war news, including detailed accounts of the surrender of Fort Sumter, the burning of the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry by United States troops and their subsequent withdrawal to Carlisle, and the feared capture of the national capital by rebel forces. As if this news was not alarming enough to local residents, the newspaper also reported, “The negroes at Shippensburg and Chambersburg have become troublesome—their object: being plunder—and that several arrests have been made.” Small comfort may have been taken by readers from another blurb that noted, “Steps are being taken here to organize a home guard.”133

The news of potential uprisings grew and reached Harrisburg within a day. Suddenly the same “troublesome Negroes” were imagined to be plotting a violent coup in the streets and alleys of local African American neighborhoods. By Thursday, the paranoia had reached such a level that the Patriot and Union devoted two full columns to the presence of “Secret Organizations of Colored Persons” in the capital city:

The supposed existence of an association of the kind in this city caused an intense excitement a day or two ago. It was alleged that meetings were held nightly in a hall in Tanner’s alley, and that marching could be heard inside. It appears, too, that some one overheard a conversation between two darkies in a bye-place, when one of them remarked “things is working—our time had come at last, and we’ll soon be able to revenge ourselves on some who have been grinding us in the dust.”

The rumor which reached the Mayor in regard to a supposed secret organization among the colored people, induced him to send a police force, who reconnoitered Short street, Tanner’s alley and other places. They thoroughly searched the hall but found no arms in it, save a Tyler’s sword, so that the rumor, so far as Harrisburg is concerned, is probably unfounded. But if true, such arrangements are now made as to give our citizens assurances of safety.134

“Such arrangements” included the organization of a Committee of Public Safety whose duty it was “to adopt such civic and military measures as may appear necessary to insure the safety and well-being of the city of Harrisburg and vicinity.” The organizational meeting was presided over by Judge John J. Pearson, with help from the old campaigner Augustus L. Roumfort.

Ten years prior, as a citizen of Philadelphia, Roumfort had been one of the signers of an open letter to Pennsylvania Governor William F. Johnston protesting the lack of protection from the “insurrectionary movement” of African Americans in Christiana following the death of slave owner Edward Gorsuch. Now he was in Harrisburg, helping to assure that such a possibility could not occur here.

The fifty men appointed to the Committee were some of the most influential men in town, according to the published roster, which included many family names familiar to modern Harrisburg residents: Forster, Berryhill, Briggs, Dock, Kunkel, Harris, Lingle, Boas, Hummel, Alricks, and Hamilton. No African American residents were appointed to the committee. It is doubtful that any African Americans were present at, or were even made aware of, the organizational meeting in Brant’s Hall.135 Had any sought to participate, they likely would have been barred from entrance.

White paranoia over black retributive violence had risen to such a level in Harrisburg with the start of the war that even those persons normally sympathetic toward the African American community were affected. Telegraph editor George Bergner sought out “an old and respectable colored resident of Harrisburg” in order to question him about the supposed “report of an intended outbreak among the colored population, after the soldiers have left.”

Bergner’s source was unidentified, but the man reportedly reassured the editor that “no such intention could possibly exist without his knowledge.” The description, status, and connections of the editor’s source suggest that it might have been either William Jones, one of the older Bennett men, or possibly even Fleming Mitchell. Bergner tried to comfort his readers by bragging that he “had no fear of the threat,” but betrayed his mistrust by adding, “The home guard will be on duty for any emergency.”136

To add further insult to the local lack of trust, Harrisburg African Americans must have been mortified to see a version of the “troublesome Negroes” story make its way into the national newspapers a few days later. The New York Times, in a story datelined in Harrisburg, printed the sensational headlines, “Stampede of Slaves from Maryland.” The accompanying story reported that “a great stampede of negroes” had descended upon the southern counties of Adams, York, and Franklin, and that the town of Hanover was attacked by a force of Maryland men intent upon recovering some of the fugitive slaves.

The same story was carried in the New York Herald, with the additional alarming news that “fear has become general in the border counties of Maryland that the departure of the whole slave population is imminent.”137 In addition to a general uprising of local blacks, whites in south central Pennsylvania could now also fear an invasion of Southern slaves as well as the prospect of being caught in the crossfire between warring slave catchers and fugitive slaves.

The most disheartening thing about these news stories to the African American residents of Harrisburg, Gettysburg, and Chambersburg was the ease and rapidity with which they made the jump from whispered rumors to newspaper headlines. Although the investigative nature of many small town newspaper editors was low—the need to fill column space often trumped their desire and ability to produce verifiable, interesting local news stories—keen competition and political rivalries generally forced them to give their stories at least a quick scan to ferret out potentially embarrassing or blatantly false material. That meager filter seems to have failed in this case. Events were unfolding so rapidly that many newspapers skipped the journalistic once-over and simply published everything that came their way, regardless of how outlandish it seemed.

Then, too, the idea that local populations of African Americans were secretly scheming to overthrow local order apparently did not seem so outlandish to many whites, and that was the problem. Even though Harrisburg was a Northern town that elected Abraham Lincoln to the presidency and was supposedly in sympathy with Southern slaves, the reality was much different. White Harrisburg residents had always been neutral, at best, if not outright hostile, toward local anti-slavery efforts, and had a similar mindset regarding the African Americans who daily walked local streets. Local Republicans suppressed those feelings, at least publicly, during the election of 1860, partly to support the party platform and partly to taunt Democrats.

But the stress of war brought buried hatreds and long-held fears to the surface, and in no time at all, rumors of race wars were given the appearance of truth when they were printed in black and white for all to read. Little had changed, it seemed, since 1756, when Speaker of the General Assembly, Isaac Norris, warned Lieutenant Governor Robert Morris that “every Slave may be reckoned as a domestic Enemy.” To white Harrisburg residents in the grip of war fever, that warning could have been restated “every black man may be reckoned as a domestic enemy.”

 

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Notes

132. Pennsylvania Daily Telegraph, 20 April 1861.

133. Gettysburg Compiler, 22 April 1861.

134. Patriot and Union, 25 April 1861.

135. Pennsylvania Daily Telegraph, 25 April 1861.

136. Ibid., 23 April 1860.

137. New York Times, 27 April 1861; New York Herald, 27 April 1861.

 

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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