Persons of Color
The Bridge (continued)
1863: Instruments in the Hands of God
Thursday, 9 April, the weeks of dreary, gray winter weather gave way
to a brilliant morning sun that warmed the streets of Harrisburg and
cheered local residents, who took advantage of the “balmy atmosphere
and genial temperatures” to promenade along the wooden sidewalks,
presenting “an unusually gay and lively appearance.” Citizens
strolled the city streets, perusing goods on display in the windows
of the shops that lined every street. The tailor J. Cook displayed
the latest cloths, cassimeres and vestings “just returned from
the city” in the window of his shop in the first block of Chestnut
Street, while Jackson’s shoe store on Market Street displayed
a wide assortment of boots and shoes of “all kinds and varieties,
in the neatest and most fashionable styles, and at satisfactory prices.”
William Dock, as usual, tempted window-shoppers with nearly every type
of fancy food available at the time, including Charter Oak brand flour,
100 boxes of prime cheese, Havana oranges, Boston crackers, claret
wine, smoked halibut, French mustard, sweet cider, dried peaches, white
brandy, Japanese tea, Winslow’s fresh green corn, and hermetically
sealed peaches, tomatoes, lobster, salmon, and spiced oysters. He had
also just received a large supply of sugar-cured hams, said to be “the
best in the market.” Fish merchant John Wise, whose shop sat
on the corner of Third and Walnut streets, advised his customers that
he was expecting a shipment of freshly caught seafood on Friday.
Hall, in the second block of Market Street, displayed posters inviting
patrons to view, for twenty-five cents (children only ten cents) “The
Great Historic Mirror of the War,” a huge traveling panoramic
painting by New York artists Robert and William Pearson, depicting
all the major events of the war. At the competing Gaiety Music Hall,
on Walnut Street, huge bills advertised the Great Gaiety Troupe of
Stars, featuring Miss Annie Rush, the Harrisburg favorite queen of
songs, Miss Rose LaForest, the female champion jig dancer, Miss Laura
Bernard, nicknamed the Great American Nightingale, “whose bird-like
warblings entrance all,” Professor G. W. Kirbye and Son, with
a new and original act, J. G. H. Shorey, the world-renowned Ethiopian
comedian, Charlie Rivers, the celebrated clog dancer and champion bone
soloist, J. H. Young, the great plantation orator and contraband jester,
Harry Wharfe, the favorite banjoist and king of songs and dance, J.
Andria Iardella, a pianist, William Brownell, a solo violinist and
interlocutor, and Bob Edwards, the comedian and dancer.
huge show would conclude with a performance entitled “The black
Shoemaker,” or “The Contraband in Trouble,” featuring “characterizations
by the entire company,” all for the paltry admission price of
twenty cents.51 The city,
held too long under the thumb of unseasonably persistent winter temperatures
and cold precipitation, emerged from the months of darkness like a
black bear crawling from a winter den, shaking off its grogginess and
reveling in the warm, bright sunshine.
African American community of Harrisburg also shook off the effects
of its long slumber and, as if in response to the regular taunting
of the Patriot and Union staff, took up support for the war
effort with a renewed sense of purpose. Men finally began to volunteer
for service with the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts in significant numbers.
Saturday, 11 April, the newspaper reported, “Middletown is doing
its share towards filling up the Massachusetts negro regiment. Some
twenty-five sable recruits were forwarded from that place during the
past week.”52 A
few days later the Telegraph gave extra details, as the arrival
of the Dauphin County soldiers at Boston, en route for Camp Meigs in
nearby Readville, was noted in the Boston papers:
Men of Color in Boston
The Boston Journal
of the 9th inst. thus refers to a party of recruits who went from
Middletown recently, to enter one of the Massachusetts colored
Recruits for the Fifty-fourth Regiment—A party of nineteen colored
men just arrived from Middletown, Pa, for the purpose of joining the
54th regiment, were at the State House yesterday, and attracted considerable
attention. Many of them were fine looking fellows, and appeared to
possess genuine fighting pluck. They had a guitar and violin, with
which to while away the leisure hours of life in camp.53
One of the
Middletown men who was with the first group in Boston mentioned above
was Horace B. Bennett, a twenty-five-year-old farmer. Bennett enlisted
on 8 April, along with several of his neighbors from Middletown, and
was mustered into Company F of the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Volunteers.
Bennett had quite a few fellow central Pennsylvania men in his company,
including Charles Bowser, brothers Philip and William Cole, Charles
Cunningham, Samuel Moles, Thomas Sheldon, Joseph Stilles, Andrew Thomas,
and Peter Washington from Portsmouth and Middletown, William Carroll
of Harrisburg, Samuel Kenny and James Nelson from Lancaster, Charles
Snowden of Lewistown, and Thomas Rice, from Mercersburg. Others in
Bennett’s company included Charles R. Douglass, the nineteen-year-old
youngest son of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and a large number
of men from the abolition hotspots of Elmira, New York and Oberlin,
of Harrisburg men were already in camp by the time Bennett and his
fellow Middletown residents arrived, having mustered in a few weeks
earlier through the efforts of T. Morris Chester. Joseph Butler, Frank
Green, John MacPherson, and George Scott of Harrisburg had enlisted
in March and were placed in Company D. Edward Webster was enrolled
in Company E.54 In the
coming weeks, many more men from Harrisburg, Carlisle, Chambersburg,
Columbia, Reading, Shippensburg, and York would arrive to finally fill
the ranks of the first black regiment to be formed as a result of Lincoln’s
of support for the war effort among the African American population
of Pennsylvania increased noticeably in mid-April 1863, although the
Democratic press in Harrisburg refused to recognize the shift. In response
to the arrival of the Middletown men in Boston, the Patriot and
Union belittled the efforts of T. Morris Chester to enlist men
in Harrisburg, asking, “Why don’t Tom Chester continue
the recruiting business in this place [?] Our citizens are anxious
to get rid of the whole worthless negro population.” A few days
later it commented upon a letter received in Harrisburg from one of
the local men in Camp Meigs, near Readville, Massachusetts:
We have seen a letter
written by one of Tom Chester’s sable recruits, now in camp
at Boston, from which it appears that the filling up of the negro
regiment is progressing very slowly…The company to which
the Harrisburg recruits are attached numbers twenty-seven, and
the letter-writer says, “a lot of bad boys we have.” This
is not very complimentary to the sable sons of Mars, but we have
no doubt of its truth. From present indications the effort to recruit
even one full negro regiment in all the free States is likely to
prove a total failure. The black Abolitionists, like their white-skinned
brethren, have no stomach for the fight, and prefer skulking at
In fact, the
mustering for the regiment had increased considerably by this time.
Company F, which contained the Middletown men, was already full, and
recruiters in Readville were receiving men at the rate of one hundred
per week through the month of April. The regiment completed its muster
by 11 May, at which point recruiters began organizing a second regiment,
the Fifty-Fifth Massachusetts Volunteers.56 Some
of the men who followed the Middletown contingent that April were a
number of men from Carlisle, who passed through Harrisburg on their
way to Boston and eventually ended up in Companies H and I, and another
group of men from Harrisburg, who were mostly placed in Company I.
Among the latter was George Jackson, a nineteen-year-old laborer from
Support for "Our Colored Regiment"
of teenagers and men like Jackson, Bennett, the Cole brothers,
and so many others brought the war home to Pennsylvania’s African
American families, and interest in the progress of the war, and
of the training and deployment of the black regiments received increased
coverage in the pages of the African American press.
sought out copies of the Christian Recorder, a four-page Philadelphia
weekly newspaper that had begun publishing in 1861, and which, under
editor Elisha Weaver, gave close coverage to the African American regiments.
In Harrisburg, copies of this newspaper could be found with barber
Samuel Stanton, Bethel A.M.E. minister Joseph E. Nelson, or in the
saloon of William Toop, on Short Street.
In its pages
could be found the latest news from the camp of “Our Colored
Regiment.” The 18 April issue published the preamble and resolutions
of a recent meeting in Philadelphia’s Oak Street Baptist Church
in support of the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts, which must have mirrored
the feelings and emotions of the African American residents of Harrisburg
as well, now that their own sons, husbands, and fathers were leaving
the hearth for the campfire. The preamble and first resolution stated,
Whereas, it can no longer
be doubted or denied, but on the contrary, is admitted by all rational
and unprejudiced minds, that the principles involved in the present
war for an against the Union, are, Freedom vs. Slavery, Right vs.
Wrong, Light vs. Darkness, Truth vs. Error, and the immutability
of God, against the subtlety and unholy ambition of the Devil:
and whereas, men are but instruments in the hands of God,…and
whereas, we believe there can be no neutrals in such a contest…Therefore,
Resolved, that it is the duty of colored men everywhere to respond
to the efforts of the present administration in endeavoring by every
possible means to wrest from the hands of rebellious slaveholders a
full, complete, and gloriously triumphant victory.58
The war had
now been embraced by the black churches, just as they had embraced
the anti-slavery activism of the Underground Railroad. Significantly,
the Philadelphia Baptist church resolutions, printed in an A.M.E. publication,
closely echoed the Harrisburg Watch Night proclamation, not only in
viewing the war now as a holy struggle of light versus darkness and
God versus Satan, but in confirming the hand of God in the signal events
of the past few months. Furthermore, it gave further credence to the
December 1862 exhortations of T. Morris Chester to link true religion
to the equality of men. A particular verse of Charles Wesley’s
hymn took on new meaning as it aptly linked the destruction of slavery
to the new martial spirit of the African American churches:
Ye slaves of sin and hell,
Your liberty receive,
And safe in Jesus dwell,
And blest in Jesus live.
And then things got ugly.
and Union, 9, 10 April 1863.
and Union, 11 April 1863.
Daily Telegraph, 13 April 1863.
54. Thomas L.
Doughton, Afroyankees, "Pennsylvania Men in Massachusetts Colored
Infantry Units--Enlistees Arranged by Pennsylvania Town Residence," 1999,
24 October 2003); Bureau of the Census, 1850 Census of the United States,
Dauphin County, Pennsylvania.
and Union, 11, 15 April 1863.
56. Luis Fenollosa
Emilio, History of the Fifty-Fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer
Infantry (Boston: Boston Book Company, 1894) 20, 24.
57. Doughton, “Pennsylvania
Men”; Patriot and Union, 16 April 1863.
Recorder, 18 April 1863.