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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 Ten
The Bridge (continued)

 

May 1863: Blood is Cheap and Courage is at a Discount

First came the hot weather. “July heat,” complained the locals, who, having shivered through an unseasonably cold March, were never quite satisfied that they were being given a fair shake from Mother Nature. “The weather yesterday and Monday,” commented a local news editor, “would have done credit to July. The consequence was that ice cream and cobblers were in demand.”59 At least the city’s sweetshop vendors were happy, as they busily fulfilled the sudden cravings of Harrisburgers for a variety of summer treats. Soldiers, too, eagerly plunked down coins for the goodies available in town, and by mid-May, there were again plenty of men in blue to be seen on the streets of Harrisburg.

Although previous troop surges in town and camp had been caused by the need to muster in additional troops, often in a hurry, this month the occasion was exactly the opposite. Thousands of men, having been mustered into emergency service on nine-month terms of enlistment back in September 1862 to meet the threat of invasion, were now due to be mustered out, their terms of enlistment having been fulfilled. A number of Pennsylvania Regiments were now returning to the Keystone State from the battlefields of Maryland and Virginia, and reporting to Camp Curtin to resume their lives once again as civilians.

By the time that the heat wave struck, the 122nd and 123rd regiments were already in town and additional regiments were arriving daily.60 The return of the Nine Month men was greatly anticipated in the city, and preparations to welcome them had been ongoing for some time. Parades had been planned, speeches had been written, and decorations had been hung throughout town.

Merchants were sprucing up their storefronts, and not just because they anticipated a few extra customers. One of the most important duties that the state performed, in mustering its loyal sons out of service, was to pay them off. Most of the men were due a considerable amount of back pay, and the town would soon be overrun with tens of thousands of young men, free of military obligations and flush with cash. Local vendors and shopkeepers were salivating at the prospect of welcoming so many prospective customers and their families, who were also flocking to town to cheer and embrace the soldiers as they returned home. They were confident that the jubilant crowds would be buying much more than ice cream and cobblers.

There was another class of entrepreneur in town for the homecoming, who, like the merchants, beer shop owners, and dance house operators, was looking to cash in on the soldier’s payday. Pickpockets had again made their appearance in large numbers, according to the police. Although these “slick scoundrels” were always present, particularly around the very busy train depot on Market Street, where the tight press of people and confusion caused by a hectic arrival and departure schedule made for easy pickings, the impending large military payday had drawn more of these miscreants “from the eastern cities” to await their prey.61 They would not be disappointed.

Traffic at the train stations picked up considerably during this time. The trains from the south and east, in addition to disgorging carloads of the friends and family of returning soldiers, also brought the wounded and ill members of the nine-month regiments from the military hospitals closer to the battlefields. All of these men, victims of disease as well as bullets and shrapnel, would be mustered out in Harrisburg with their respective regiments. Rows of ambulances lined up near the depot’s passenger platforms, waiting to load their patients from the arriving trains and transport them to the hospital at Camp Curtin, which had been recently cleaned and refurbished in anticipation of their arrival.

The daily trains also brought another class of passengers greatly in need of care, but who would be regarded with little sympathy, and even outright scorn, by most of the people they met upon stepping onto the passenger platform from the arriving train. By mid-May, a witness reported that nearly every train arriving in Harrisburg from the Cumberland Valley and points south contained a number of African Americans who were fleeing the war. Whether these May arrivals included numbers of Pennsylvania-born free African Americans is not known, but the newspaper lumped them all into one category that it disparagingly termed “contrabands,” and declared them a public nuisance and a dangerous drain on local resources.

Throughout history, war refugees have nearly always been a burden to the residents of the area in which they sought refuge because they seldom arrived with much more than the clothes on their backs. Food, shelter, sanitary arrangements, medical care, additional clothing, employment, and childcare were all necessities that had to be scrounged up, usually on short notice. Although these arrivals were described as “tolerably well clad,” the local newspaper writer added that “the colored population here, as a general thing, look with distrust upon these importations, as they naturally feel that their influx is seriously detrimental to their own interests.”62 That bit of editorializing, however, was completely wrong.

The care of war refugees presented many of the same logistical problems as the care of fugitive slaves, but without the necessity of providing all of the aid in secret, although the much larger number of persons in need probably erased any advantage of openly caring for them. Only one segment of Harrisburg’s population had both the experience and the willingness to provide for these incoming refugees, and that was the same community that had been consistently sheltering fugitive slaves through the decades: the African American community.

Far from regarding the new arrivals with distrust, the local black community accepted them with open arms, providing not only for their basic needs, but also providing for their mental health by offering a sense of community. The Wesley Union congregation, now under the charge of Reverend Charles J. Carter, invited newcomers not only to its services, but also to its Sabbath School, held in the oft-used Masonic Hall, in Tanner’s Alley. That same hall was then utilized for adult reading classes in the afternoons,63 and continued its tradition of holding a “lecture or discussion on Wednesday of each week.”64

Finding housing for the new arrivals was a little more difficult. Harrisburg, even in the middle of the war, was experiencing a building boom in new residences. “Already upwards of an hundred…frame houses have been built,” remarked the local newspaper, “and hundreds more have been contracted for.” In addition to the rather plain, unornamented wooden houses, which the editor reasoned would “accommodate to a great extent the vast influx of population,” quite a number of fine brick buildings are going up.”65 These new houses were informally earmarked for white residents, however, and would not benefit the city’s African American residents, the majority of whom remained squeezed into the decaying Judy’s Town, or the cramped Tanner’s Alley neighborhoods.66 The refugees would simply have to be shoehorned into whatever existing space was available in these areas.

 

Mayor Roumfort's "Special Police" Force

To help control this large influx of soldiers, war refugees, and strangers to the city, Mayor Augustus Roumfort appointed a number of “special policemen to preserve order and the public peace of the city.” Roumfort’s deputized citizens had full arrest powers as if they were regular police officers, and they were immediately put on the streets to watch for “disorderly persons.” This move pleased those who had been calling for regular patrols in the areas behind the Capitol—East South Street, Short Street and Tanner’s Alley—whose gambling dens, dance halls, beer saloons, houses of prostitution, and large numbers of underemployed residents daily yielded cases for Alderman William Kline.

This action by the mayor would prove to be prescient, as the unseasonable heat and lack of regular rain persisted through the third week in May, resulting in a second major environmental nuisance that easily rivaled the hot temperatures as a source of irritation to Harrisburg residents: clouds of dust. Harrisburg had no paved or macadamized streets in 1863, which was not a major problem as long as the thoroughfares were regularly cleaned and scraped to even out the ridges and depressions that developed with normal traffic.

Mud was a nuisance when the rains came, but most people quickly learned to dodge puddles and to stay on the sidewalks until things dried out. Summer brought drier weather and dusty conditions, which were usually mitigated by the use of a street sprinkler wagon, the cost of which was borne through voluntary subscriptions from the merchants and wealthier citizens whose businesses and homes lined the most congested streets.

The prolonged hot, dry spell that gripped Harrisburg in May 1863, however, functioned like the summer months of July and August in drying the street surfaces to a hard crust. Unlike the summer months, though, during which business slacked off and Harrisburgers stayed off the streets and out of the sun when possible, the events of May brought an unprecedented number of people to town to pound the hard-baked surface of the streets into a fine dust an inch or more deep in most places. The street sprinkler was not yet in operation, and the dust, unopposed by moisture of any kind, just kept increasing in quantity.67

By 14 May, six regiments of state infantry had returned to Camp Curtin, with eight regiments expected in the near future, including the 127th Pennsylvania Volunteers, commanded by the dashing and youthful Colonel William Wesley Jennings, a native of Harrisburg. The One Twenty-Seventh was a Dauphin County regiment, and Company A was the original First City Zouaves of Harrisburg, formed at the beginning of the war.68

The arrival of all these men rejuvenated the hack carriage business between Harrisburg and Camp Curtin, a mile north of town. For a modest cost, these fast driving carriages, which congregated along Third Street awaiting fares, carried passengers to and from the camp. The cabman’s call of “Going right up,” advertising his availability for fares, became a familiar sound around Third and Market. They frequently piled in as many persons as would fit inside the carriage and allowed one person to ride up front with the driver, then raced at dangerous speeds up Third Street to careen east on North Street for Ridge Road, the main road leading out to the military camp. Returning cabs sped “at a killing pace” back into town by the same route, to the constant peril of pedestrians, stray dogs, and family cats.

Harrisburg residents complained about the fast driving, but generally accepted the cabs as a necessary evil of being a war town, and even greeted the return of the cabs, or “pelters,” as they were called, as a sign of vitality and a source of entertainment.69 The effect of the horses’ hooves and the carriage wheels on the dry soil of the roadways, however, was not a welcome development. Deprived of any moisture to damp it down, the dust, now ground “fine as flour,” was whirled aloft by the almost constant agitation of the wheels and iron-shod hooves of the horses into an omnipresent haze that hung over the town. The dust clouds quickly became the chief weather-related nuisance, eclipsing the heat as a source of irritation, “introducing themselves into dry goods stores, and forcing themselves down the throats of the loyal inhabitants of this loyal city,” complained a newspaper account of the phenomenon.70

The choking dust and the stifling heat was not enough to forestall a parade thrown in honor of the returning 127th Regiment, though. On Saturday, 16 May, Harrisburg put on its best patriotic attire to welcome home the Dauphin County soldiers. Flags and bunting were in evidence on almost every home, and some businesses spared little expense to put on a grand display of patriotism. The proprietors of Brant’s Hall hung a huge national flag across Market Street, in front of the hall, and large flags were draped from the facades of the Jones House and the Herr House hotels. Nearly all the homes along Market Street, from the train depot to the square, were “handsomely decorated” to appropriately greet the troops when they passed by in the parade.

When word arrived about ten o’clock that morning that the train carrying the home regiment had left York on its final leg of the journey to Harrisburg, a cannon was fired as a prearranged signal, and all the church and factory bells in the city began ringing for five minutes. This was an alert to citizens that the soldiers would be arriving within two hours. It also signaled the various organizations that were taking part in the parade to begin to assemble on Market Street.

By noon, the train carrying the regiment reached the western end of the Cumberland Valley Railroad Bridge, and a booming salute fired from twenty-four cannons rocked the town. The scene from Front Street at the railroad bridge, all along the tracks through Mulberry Street and Judy’s Town, to the station at Market Street, was complete and joyous pandemonium as thousands of citizens crowded the route to greet the returning heroes. The train was forced to slow to a crawl to avoid crushing overjoyed residents that ran up to the cars and shook the hands of the soldiers who were hanging halfway out of the windows. Cheers, huzzahs and shouting greeted the men when the train finally reached the Market Street depot, and all the bells in the town again rang in a blissful welcome as they jumped out onto the platform, many into the tearful embrace of wives and children.

The parade that formed, after the emotional reunions had abated, was led by the aged veterans of the War of 1812, a number of whom still lived in the city. A few of the old soldiers, who were in their seventies or older, proudly walked if they were able, while those who were ailing rode in a horse-drawn omnibus. They were followed by handpicked detachments of soldiers from regiments currently at Camp Curtin, then by an open carriage carrying Governor Andrew Gregg Curtin and members of his State Cabinet. More carriages followed with members of the Town Council, county judges, locally prominent clergymen, Mayor Augustus Roumfort, a military brass band, and finally, carrying their shot-torn regimental colors, the survivors of the One Hundred and Twenty-Seventh Pennsylvania Volunteers.

Behind the heroes of the hour were more bands, more soldiers, and bringing up the rear were all the city fire companies, with their engines and hose carriages brightly polished and decorated.71 The triumphal parade stirred up the ever-present dust to an even greater degree, but this time, no one complained.

The celebration continued for days, and Harrisburg took on a carnival atmosphere by day as groups of soldiers, by now rich with months of back pay, sought outlets for the pent up frustrations brought on by nine months of duty on the front lines. A local ordinance prohibited the sale of intoxicating beverages after six p.m., putting somewhat of a damper on after-hours celebrations, but most resourceful soldiers soon discovered which saloonkeepers exercised a relaxed view of the law.

A few bad-tempered soldiers, though, when faced with a barkeep reluctant to ignore the prohibition on after-hours sales, became truculent rather than seeking out other sources. On the evening of Monday the eighteenth, a group of discharged soldiers entered Theodore George’s saloon at the corner of Market Street and Raspberry Alley (now Court Street) and ordered glasses of beer. The outside of the business was probably still festooned with red, white and blue bunting from Saturday’s parade, and probably appeared to be the ideal spot to cool off from the day’s sun with a few beers.

George told the men that, because it was after six p.m., he could no longer serve beer to them, a reply that suited neither their thirsts nor their overheated temperaments. The soldiers then “began an assault upon the saloon and its proprietor, breaking glass and doing considerable damage,”72 and in the process gave Mayor Roumfort’s special policemen their first bit of real commotion since the Nine Month Men began returning.

Two days later, on Wednesday the twentieth, a more serious affair broke the afternoon peace when a large number of men from the One Hundred and Thirty-Fourth regiment, Western Pennsylvania men from Lawrence, Butler and Beaver Counties, got into a disagreement with a butcher on East State Street. This regiment, which had just returned to Harrisburg that Monday, had experienced heavy losses at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, and had returned too late to partake in the celebrations on the weekend. As a result, their collective mood was not good, and a number of men were blowing off steam with a few glasses of beer that Wednesday in town as they awaited their mustering out.

Some of them, in walking past the butcher shop of John Casey, for some reason stopped and exchanged angry words with the butcher, indignantly telling him that they had been fighting “for the Constitution and the old Union.” Casey retorted that they “would a damned sight rather fight for the niggers than the Irish,” which was not an intelligent reply, since the Irishman was by now surrounded by several dozen agitated and insulted war veterans. A general melee ensued in which Casey somehow managed to get hold of a cleaver from his shop. Flailing wildly at the soldiers pressing in on him, the Fenian warrior managed to wound eight of his assailants, some seriously.

A large group of neighborhood women pushed their way through the mass of soldiers and interposed themselves between the local butcher and the soldiers, at which Casey took advantage of the lull in the fighting to duck back into his shop and yell for his son Michael, who promptly came to his father’s defense. The soldiers outside began pelting the besieged shop with stones, and a number of them armed themselves with makeshift clubs in order to storm the premises and drag the occupants out, but Police Chief Barney Campbell and his men arrived just as they were organizing for their charge on the breastworks.73 The well-timed appearance of the policemen prevented an ugly scene from becoming a potentially fatal clash, and things quieted down again.

By the third full week in May, the unseasonable heat and accompanying humidity intensified, making everyone in town miserable. Temperatures hit ninety degrees, and the landscape around Harrisburg was described as “dusty” and “parched.” Local boys stripped off their clothing and spent the days skinny-dipping in the Susquehanna, to the red-faced consternation of those who lived along Front Street. Civilians put away their heavy clothing and began appearing in “the light toggery of the dog-days,”74 but the thousands of soldiers in camp still awaiting their mustering out did not yet have the luxury of shedding their heavy wool uniforms for cooler linen or cotton suits; they had to sweat out the heat wave.

An unfortunate by-product of the heat was the dust, which was by now lying “shoe-mouth deep in the streets,” reported the Patriot and Union, and the constant churning of animal hooves and wagon wheels kept it constantly suspended in the air, where it colored the sky amber in a “mellow light, like that of Indian summer.” In the evening, the dust cloud obscured even the setting sun, putting it into “partial eclipse,” and plunging the city into early darkness. The newspaper editor compared it to a biblical plague, writing “It is a darkness which, like that of Egypt, may be felt—felt in grinding particles between the teeth, and in suffocating inhalations in nostrils, throat and lungs.” A few days later he wrote:

The air is murky with dust, which the wind vigorously chases through streets and alleys, whirling it in eddies around corners, and peppering the eyes of the pedestrian. At times, when the dustiness reaches its climax, everybody you meet has his fists in his eyes and a goodly stratum of pulverized earth on his garments.75

Everyone seemed conscious of the potential volatility of the mixture: unrelenting heat and humidity, choking dust, bored soldiers, and alcohol. The editor of the Patriot and Union, in acknowledging that Harrisburg was suddenly overrun with “men who have long been restrained by the rigorous discipline of camp life, and who now suddenly find those restraints thrown off,” cautiously remarked on the relative absence of major incidents in the city, noting that the police blotter of late was “meager and dry even to dullness.”

This observation was published one day after the trouble at John Casey’s butcher shop, an incident that apparently could have ended badly but for the quick action of city policemen. Beyond that brief brouhaha in which no arrests were made, only one or two drunk or disorderly soldiers per day had to be carted off to the Exchange Building for a hearing before Alderman Kline for a breach of the peace. “Such a record,” marveled the newspaper, “redounds to the honor of the soldier, and challenges the admiration of every friend of the great cause which he has labored to advance in the tented field.”76

As if to reward the soldiers for their forbearance and Harrisburg’s residents for their tolerance of the heat and dust, Mother Nature brought in a cold front on Monday the twenty-fifth. Coincidentally, the long awaited street sprinkler made its first appearance on the dusty streets of Harrisburg that same morning and “brought the dust down a peg or two.”77 Harrisburgers began to relax a little, which is why the events of Monday evening caught everyone by surprise.

 

Flourish


Saloon owner William Toop was tending to the customers in his shop on Short Street when a small group of soldiers came in and ordered glasses of beer. If the beer house proprietor viewed the appearance of these military men in his establishment with some trepidation, it would have been for good reasons. The cooler temperatures had reinvigorated the heat-dampened spirit of many of the soldiers at Camp Curtin, and toward the end of the day, they began streaming into town in a celebratory mood.

More than a few of the soldiers got carried away in their youthful high-spiritedness and began engaging in darker, more mischievous behavior, often unleashing their long pent-up energies on the first vulnerable person they met along the way. In many cases, their victims were the hapless residents of the poor neighborhoods that bordered Ridge Road, the main route from camp, where it entered the northern limits of Harrisburg.

Their obnoxious behavior did not end at the city line, however. Once past the reservoir, the soldiers quickly skirted the Capitol and entered the playground of beer halls and gambling dens that lay to its east. Toop was no doubt aware of the scuffles that had been occurring the past hour in his neighborhood between groups of rowdy, boisterous soldiers and the local black residents who could not or would not move off the sidewalks fast enough when the soldiers approached. A few brief fights had broken out already, but mostly the men in Union blue were simply knocking down whoever stood between them and their evening entertainments.78

This particular bunch of men seemed equally loud and brash as they called for a round of lager, and William Toop brought out glasses filled with the aged brew that was so popular among Pennsylvania Germans. The serving of alcohol to belligerent young soldiers might have seemed risky, but Toop was a businessman and a sale was a sale. Besides, keeping a bar was not the pursuit of a timid man, and William Toop certainly was not a timid man.

William Toop was one of the second generation of local African American entrepreneurs, following in the footsteps of Zeke Carter and George Chester, arriving in Harrisburg from Maryland and somehow gaining a solid foothold in the local catering and provisions business. By 1850, he was married and supporting a wife and two young daughters by selling oysters to his Harrisburg customers. Ten years later, he had expanded his family slightly, with the addition of another daughter, and his business greatly, with the addition of a storefront.

His success had also allowed him to purchase a modest wood frame house for his growing family on Short Street. Recognizing that education was a key to escaping the harsh life of Harrisburg’s poor, William and Elizabeth Toop saw to it that their teenaged daughters, Clara and Matilda, attended school in the North Ward Colored School House, on West Alley near East State Street. Although the one story brick building had seen much use as a temporary hospital for the wounded and sick soldiers brought to Harrisburg from the battlefields of Virginia and Maryland during the past two years, the building principal, William J. Lawrence, had taken advantage of the lull in casualties during the early months of 1863 to open the building so local black children could finish their Spring term.79

As the soldiers sat at his tables and drank their beers, Toop asked for payment, but was either ignored or rebuffed. When he persisted with his request, the soldiers responded with insults and threats. Years of serving alcohol to strangers had taught the veteran barkeep how to gauge the bellicosity of his customers, and he therefore knew when to press his demands and when to back off and send for a constable.

Today was different, however. Although he could physically handle most belligerent drunks, the soldiers had the advantage both of numbers and youth on the nearly fifty-year-old shopkeeper, and without warning they rose from their chairs, pushed him aside and two of them grabbed a number of glasses from Toop’s bar. The entire group then, without paying a cent, started for the door. When William Toop chased after them, they knocked over furniture, smashing some of it, and staggered into the street, with their stolen beer glasses still in hand.

The soldiers made such a commotion upon coming out of the beer hall that they attracted the attention of a city policeman who just happened to be walking by, and who, at the urging of the distressed barkeep who was crying foul, nabbed the nearest two soldiers. The others, including the two men carrying Toop’s beer glasses, ran down the street and disappeared. The police officer, after getting William Toop’s story, manhandled his two prisoners straight down Walnut Street toward the Exchange Building to cool off.

 

An Unfinished Affair

The sun was low in the Western sky when city Alderman William Kline sat at his bench and eyed the two rumpled soldiers that stood before him. The previous week and weekend had been relatively quiet, despite the presence of thousands of returning soldiers and an almost equal number of strangers on the city streets. Saturday had been his busiest day recently, starting with the woman arrested for a drunken window-breaking rampage at the railroad depot late Friday night, and then on Saturday afternoon, he had issued a warrant for the arrest of a man who had stabbed his boarding house host during the early morning hours. Fortunately, the wounds did not appear to be fatal, but the assailant was still at large in the city and no one knew if he might return to finish the job.

Then, the Irishman from a small neighborhood behind the reservoir had been brought in for beating his child, and late in the afternoon, he had to deal with another drunken woman arrested by Officer Fry for hanging around the Walnut Street canal bridge only half dressed. The combination of heat and liquor had kept his weekend interesting. The cool-down Monday morning should have indicated a quiet start to the workweek, but the two young soldiers before him had managed to stir up a bit of mischief.

Upon getting the story of the stolen beer and glasses from his police officer, Kline asked the two men what they had to say in their own defense. The men protested the charge of theft, telling the alderman that they had laid a five-dollar bill on the bar in payment, but the black bartender had refused to make change for them. Kline had a long history of listening to the stories of men and women brought before him for various offenses against the peace and quiet of the town, and these men, like most, presented a most earnest case for their innocence, but he was having none of it.

Alderman William Kline lived in a modest West Ward neighborhood and knew most of the local residents. He also knew the reputation of longtime businessman William Toop. The soldiers’ story was obviously a lie, but because they were not the men who had stolen the beer glasses, he had no really good reason to keep them in custody, so he collected money for the stolen beer from them and sent them back out onto the city streets just as the sun was dipping below the horizon, sending long, ominous shadows across the town.80

Back in Tanner’s Alley, African American residents gathered on the street corners to swap stories and survey the damage done to the interior of William Toop’s saloon. Unlike previous incidents in which a soldier or two had tangled with local residents, this affair did not appear to be finished. The streets and sidewalks of Harrisburg were still thick with soldiers and civilians, large numbers of whom had assembled on the corners of the main thoroughfares of the town, but none of the soldiers were presently in the African American neighborhood bounded by Tanner’s Alley, East South Street, Short Street, and East Walnut Street.

Immediately after the arrest of the two beer hall rioters, a substantial contingent of the Provost Guard had arrived to clear the area of troublemakers, and all was now calm. An officer stationed the Provost Guard around the neighborhood to warn soldiers that the neighborhood was off-limits to them, and for the most part the boys in blue respected the restriction and went elsewhere in search of amusements and refreshments. At one point, a group of soldiers tried to run the blockade to gain access to Toop’s saloon, but the Guard took up a defensive position and the grumbling soldiers retired without further problems.

It was nearly eight o’clock when the officer in command of the Provost Guard decided that the situation had calmed down to the point that the presence of his troops was no longer required. He gave orders to his sergeants, and in the fading twilight the men assembled in a column and marched north out of Tanner’s Alley to return to Camp Curtin.81 Elsewhere in Harrisburg, streetlamps were lit to provide a blaze of comforting light for the safe passage of carriages and pedestrians, but Short Street and Tanner’s Alley were quickly embraced by the evening’s darkness. The departing soldiers, like the fleeing sunlight, left the African American neighborhood once again vulnerable to the mob, which quickly moved in.

It was an angry, purposeful mob that marched down Third Street from Market once its spies reported the departure of the Provost Guard. At least one hundred and fifty of the rioters were soldiers, with an equal number of civilian accomplices. Although the soldiers were not armed with their field weapons, they carried makeshift weapons: bricks, stones, clubs, and sticks of dangerous circumference. Many of the civilian troublemakers were armed to an even more lethal level, carrying as a matter of course such concealed weapons as revolvers, billy clubs and sling shots—a trend that the local newspapers had only recently decried as “alarming” and “a premium on murder.”82

 

Attack on the Colored Masonic Hall

Now, as the mob rounded the corner along Walnut Street and headed for Short Street, it appeared that those alarms were justified. They spotted a group of black men on the corner of Tanner’s Alley and Walnut and headed straight for them, scattering them easily. The mob moved down through the narrow dirt street that was the heart of the African American community, filling the lane from doorstep to doorstep. Frightened Tanner’s Alley residents, such as Charlotte Weaver, a teacher and the oldest sister of T. Morris Chester, stayed away from their windows and doors, and probably more than a few made a hasty exit out of their back door.

Someone in the mob sent a brick or a stone through a window of the Masonic Hall, filling the cramped space with the startling sound of breaking glass, and in an instant a hail of missiles from the crowd took out every window of that building that faced the lane. A few burly rioters forced open the front door of the hall, laying open the building’s interior to the rage of the mob, who rushed in to break furniture and smash the remaining windows and interior doors. In a few minutes, the building that had done yeoman’s duty in hosting black church congregations, fraternal meetings, benevolent society meetings, and community events was in a shambles.

The few African Americans that dared to venture out into the streets to investigate the noise paid a painful price. They were knocked down, beaten, and trampled by the mob, which, instead of slaking its fury with the gutting of the Masonic Hall, seemed to gain energy from trashing the unfortunate structure. Moving north, the rioters left the darkened corners of Tanner’s Alley and emerged into the dim light along East South Street. To their left, the mob was now in full view of the South Executive Office Building in Capital Park, and the dome of architect Stephen Hills’ red brick Capitol was visible over the rooftops of the buildings that lined East South Street. The mob, however, turned right and continued its rampage along South Street.

A crowd of white onlookers numbering in the hundreds was by now attracted to the scene, but they did not interfere with the destruction or interpose themselves between the rioters and their helpless victims. They stayed at a safe distance, doing little more than witnessing the mayhem that was taking place in the street before them.

On the north side of East South Street stood a row of simple but dignified wood frame houses—the homes of several established and successful African American residents of Harrisburg. The closest house sat on the intersection with West Alley, and it was the first house attacked by the roving mob. The rioters broke down the front door as the terrified occupants ran out of the back door, and in a few minutes, the home received the same treatment given to the Masonic Hall. Furniture was smashed to pieces, windows were broken out, and doors were kicked in.

Other rioters moved on to the house next door, and still others invaded the houses next in line, until all six of the homes suffered the same fate. Some of the residents tried to defend their homes and were terribly beaten, while others climbed out of windows in fear for their lives. Some of the houses that were sacked belonged to Doctor William Jones, and one was the home of an A.M.E. minister. Jones, who was by now well into his sixties, and his wife Mary were apparently forced to flee for their lives, as were the families who boarded in his large home.

Although no one was killed, the potential for fatalities increased when one of the rioters at the Jones’ house pulled out a revolver and fired a shot at a threatening dog—the family pet of one of the black families whose home he was wrecking. The shot missed the dog and hit another rioter, a man from Altoona, in the hand.83

One block farther east on South Street were the homes of George Scott and Martin Perry, both young black community leaders, and beyond that, on Filbert Street, lived members of the Pople family. One block north on State Street was the home of teacher John Wolf. Those homes and families, however, were spared from the “systematic” destruction wrought by the rioters. Once the mob was finished destroying the African American homes on East South Street it turned into the wide expanse of Short Street, which was where the problems had begun a few short hours earlier, in Toop’s saloon.

Someone pointed out or led the rioters to the home of the Toop family, which was in Short Street, not far from the saloon, and it became the focus of the most furious assault yet. The family and their boarders immediately fled, leaving the premises and everything in the house to be completely torn out and gutted. As with the other houses, all the windows and doors in the home were smashed, and the furniture was broken up and tossed into the street. The rioters also took all the money, valuables, and jewelry belonging to the occupants, and then proceeded to carry off everything else in the house that had any value at all, including all the clothing.

Other African American homes on Short Street were similarly gutted, and the scene from East South Street around the corner to Short Street resembled a free-for-all, with several hundred soldiers and civilian rioters carrying piles of clothing and furniture off into the darkness while others stood in the street and hurled stones at any intact windows in the targeted houses. At the ends of each embattled street stood large crowds of white spectators, none of whom protested or sought to interfere with the mayhem in any way.

Finally, a group of whites pushed their way through the spectators at the Walnut Street end of Short Street and waded into the middle of the fracas, sternly shouting for a stop to the madness. More than a few of the rioters stopped in their tracks and dropped their loot when they saw the uniforms of city policemen appear and heard the booming authoritarian voice of Mayor Augustus Roumfort coming from the center of the street.

The rioters backed away and gradually quieted down as the sixty-year-old Roumfort, his military leadership experience coming to the fore, climbed on top of some debris so that he could be seen, and demanded that they cease their depredations and immediately disperse. The mayor warned that if it was not done quietly and peaceably, that he would resort to stringent measures. More policemen joined the group that surrounded the mayor, to back up his threat, and for a brief moment, the two groups glared at each other in the dim light. Distant sounds of breaking glass and splintering wood punctuated the ominous silence, and then the mob, its energy finally dissipated, began slowly to melt into the dark alleys and side streets. It was a little before eleven o’clock p.m.84

On Tuesday morning the Telegraph reported on the previous night’s destruction:

This morning the scene of operations of the mob bore a sad and disgraceful appearance.—the neighborhood is a favorite negro resort, being almost the prescribed limits of the negro population. Is was a sad and pitiful sight to see old and young negroes, helpless women and children, some bleeding from wounds inflicted, others in despair at the destruction of their property, and all utterly woe-begone and hopeless of protection from the mad fury of the mob which still glared upon them with threatening aspect. Never before was a greater outrage perpetrated on this miserable and defenceless race. The parties assailed were entirely innocent. The humble homes thus desolated sheltered no enemy of the soldiers. Indeed their occupants would have died in defence of the very men who thus ruthlessly mobbed them, had necessity demanded the sacrifice. We venture the assertion that the very men whose passions thus stirred them to excess, now regret the wrong which they have inflicted. If they do not, then, indeed, is Harrisburg at the mercy of the mob, and it is hard to tell against whom the spirit of ruffianism will next be directed.85

While the black community picked through the rubble for salvageable possessions, repaired windows, carried away undamaged furniture, and searched for shelter for those whose homes were too badly damaged to occupy, the rest of the city sat as if on tenterhooks. After the mayor had forced an end to the disorder, scattered incidents of violence marred the remainder of the night and continued into the early part of Tuesday. A white man on his way to work during the night was waylaid and beaten by three black men near the railroad roundhouse, north of the Capitol.

Not long after that, as the city lapsed into an uneasy sleep, the bell of the Hope Fire Company began clanging in response to some screaming coming from the devastated areas, arousing a sudden fear that the rioters had returned and set fire to the African American neighborhood, but the fire alarm turned out to be false. Quiet returned, but only briefly.

In the early morning hours, the peace around Broad Street was shattered by the shouts of a local carter who was being assaulted by a number of soldiers. John Alcorn, who also operated a hack cab between Harrisburg and Camp Curtin, was found lying outside of the Bostgen Tavern on Ridge Road with very serious injuries. Neighbors had no clues as to why Alcorn, who they knew as a “peaceable and inoffensive man,” was beaten by the soldiers.

About noon on Tuesday, George Allwis, an African American blacksmith, was walking to his State Street home from his shift at the Paxton Furnace, south of Harrisburg, when he was attacked by a group of soldiers. Allwis’ injuries were “so severe as to endanger his life,” reported the newspaper.86 By mid day, the general feeling around town was that Harrisburg was caught in the middle of a violent rivalry between two bitter foes, and that neither side considered the score as settled. The editor of the Patriot and Union publicly despaired of the gang-type warfare that had suddenly developed and was effectively holding the town hostage with a spate of vicious attacks and reprisals, by glumly noting, “Blood is cheap and courage is at a discount.”

About sunset on Tuesday, a company of soldiers serving in the Provost Guard marched south from Camp Curtin on Ridge Road and into the shattered neighborhood around Tanner’s Alley. They deployed in the glass and debris strewn streets behind the Capitol with the intent of preventing a repeat of Monday night’s violence. The residents there, who had labored throughout the day to haul away undamaged furniture and repair or board up broken windowpanes, might have wondered what was left to protect. Many of the houses belonging to African Americans had no intact doors or windows, and the furniture and bedsteads inside had been either smashed or stolen, leaving residents to make preparations to sleep on the floors or relocate with friends or relatives.

As the last glimmer of sunshine vanished behind the horizon, local residents braced themselves for an expected repeat of Monday’s attack. When darkness once again covered the city, the dreaded yells of rambunctious soldiers and civilian ruffians again chilled the blood of its citizens and caused the Provost Guardsmen to tighten the grip on their weapons, but this time the commotion came from a block over, in the vicinity of Market Street.

All along the main east-west thoroughfare of the town, groups of soldiers ranged the sidewalks looking for trouble. One newspaper reported, “They had breezy times all along Market street on Tuesday evening. The boys all seemed to be on the rampage. There was crimination and recrimination between members of different regiments, leading to fistic encounters, wool-hauling, and eye blacking.” Serious fights broke out at Third and Market, and then at Fourth and Market.87 Barney Campbell and his men chased groups of soldiers from one alley to another in an effort to quiet things down.

Although the city seemed to be again in the grip of “the spirit of ruffianism,” it was not the wanton destruction of property that had characterized Monday’s disturbances. As city policemen scattered fighting soldiers, Harrisburg’s black residents began to breathe a little easier when it appeared that the boys in blue seemed to be intent only upon brawling with each other. Their relief was short-lived, however.

At about ten o’clock there began “an unearthly shrieking and screaming” in the Judy’s Town neighborhood as large groups of soldiers were busting down doors and routing African American residents from their beds. The frightened people ran from their homes into the night, leaving the soldiers to the same plan of destruction that they had previously inflicted upon the residents of East South and Short streets. The policemen, hearing the screaming and realizing that the fights on Market Street were little more than a diversion, rushed the three blocks over to Third and Mulberry, where they found dozens of soldiers “breaking the windows, doors and furniture” of the houses there.

The orgy of destruction was cut short this night by the prompt arrival of the lawmen, and the soldiers scattered into the myriad alleys, dog runs, and side streets when they heard the police whistles. One of the policemen managed to nab a soldier, and some of the other policemen drew their weapons and began shooting at the fast vanishing rioters.

An eerie silence descended on the neighborhood, and local residents, both black and white, began to gather in the street to survey the damage, which was considerable even with the rapid response of the lawmen. Supposing that the matter was settled, Police Chief Campbell set out with his men and their lone prisoner for the Walnut Street jail and on the way heard the unmistakable sound of more mob mischief coming once again from the vicinity of Tanner’s Alley. They responded quickly and in force, chasing rioters and looters from the scene of the previous night’s mayhem.

The cat and mouse game between soldiers and ruffians on one side, and lawmen and Provost Guard on the other, went on until about midnight. The Guard managed to capture a large group of fourteen soldiers involved in the disturbances as they tried to sneak out of the city along Ridge Road on their way back to camp. The prisoners were marched to the lock up on Walnut Street, but Mayor Roumfort refused to take them into custody, preferring to lecture the soldiers on their unacceptable behavior. He then released them. Although the summary release of their prisoners angered the Provost Guard, it put an effective end to the rioting for the night. By Wednesday morning, the city was again quiet, and African American residents once more gathered in their shattered neighborhoods to resume making repairs.88

Mayor Roumfort appointed extra men to help keep order the remainder of the week, and Dauphin County Sheriff Boas appointed “a large posse, who will respond to his call at a moment’s notice.” Because of the extra law enforcement, the next few nights were quiet, and city residents at last felt that the sudden outbreak of violence by soldiers against Harrisburg’s black community was at an end. Strangely enough, the unseasonable heat returned for the latter part of the week, and the big attraction for the mustered out soldiers and other city residents was the air conditioned interior of the Gaiety Music Hall at Third and Walnut streets, which suddenly found itself turning people away from its sold out performances by female minstrels and the debut of a comedy farce with the particularly apt title “Hole in the Wall.”

By Friday, as African American residents set to patching up the holes in their walls, Aldermen Kline and Peffer were again seeing only mundane cases of public drunkenness, vagrancy, and petty thievery. As the mustered out soldiers gradually left Camp Curtin and returned home, Harrisburg slowly returned to its normal pace and peace. For the African American community, however, the peace that returned was tempered with the bitter realization that none of their white neighbors had come to their aid against the rampaging soldiers, and in fact, a number of white residents had participated in the two days of rioting against them. They were highly cognizant of the fact that, as a correspondent from the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, “No white inhabitant’s residence has been harmed.”89

Mayor Augustus Roumfort received a lot of criticism for his late response to the first night of rioting, as he did not dispatch policemen to the scene until after the violence had engulfed three streets. This caused the Christian Recorder, in an article on the violence in Harrisburg, to remark, “We have been informed that the Mayor of Harrisburg is a great enemy of the colored people, and hence we suppose did not take much interest in the matter.”90 The Telegraph also took Roumfort to task for releasing the fourteen rioters on Tuesday night, but his response in putting more police on the street, and the subsequent end of the unrest allowed him to dodge political trouble. Only Police Chief Barney Campbell, who spent two nights pursuing rioters in the African American neighborhoods, survived the trouble with his reputation intact among Harrisburg’s black residents, who put forth three cheers for his name at a public meeting two weeks later.

 

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Notes

59. “Warm,” Patriot and Union, 13 May 1863.

60. Miller, Training of an Army, 153.

61. “Pickpockets,” Patriot and Union, 13 May 1863.

62. “Arrival of Wounded Soldiers,” Patriot and Union, 13 May 1863; “Arrival of Contrabands,” Patriot and Union, 12 May 1863.

63. Daily Evening Telegraph, 3 October 1863.

64. Morgan, Annals of Harrisburg, 292. One of the persons who benefited from the opportunities for “contrabands” in Harrisburg was a twenty-one year old man from Virginia named Josiah Walls. Walls had been the personal servant to a Confederate artillery officer when he was captured by Union forces the previous year. He eventually ended up at Harrisburg, where he attended local schools for at least several months. After serving in an African American regiment and being discharged in Florida, Walls got involved with local politics and rose in influence until he was elected to the Florida State Senate, and later was elected as the first African American Representative from Florida, serving in the Forty-Third Congress of the United States. Bruce A. Ragsdale and Joel D. Treese, Black Americans In Congress, 1870-1989 (Washington: GPO, 1990), 117.

65. “Improvements,” Patriot and Union, 13 May 1863; “Improving,” Daily Telegraph, 5 June 1863. Most of the new housing was in the area known as West Harrisburg, which was centered along Third Street north of North Street. Much of the building boom in that area was being spurred by the promised completion of the new Market House at Broad Street. The African American residents on Calder Street, who had been resettled there by developer William Verbeke before the war, although given a good deal on their properties by Verbeke, were not able to afford the cost of the new houses, which were priced for buyers of a significantly higher income level. Frew, Building Harrisburg, 46.

66. Although Harrisburg’s African American population made considerable gains in the acquisition of real estate between the years 1850 and 1860, those gains were lost after the war began when numerous long established black residents sold their properties and migrated to cities further north. Eggert, “Two Steps Forward,” 19-25. Although the size of Harrisburg’s African American community grew considerably during this time, the growth rate reflected an influx of Southern fugitives and emancipated slaves that was considerably larger than the outflow of established African American residents. As a result, the African American neighborhoods that were in existence in 1860 did not grow or expand out, but merely became more densely populated, and new African American neighborhoods did not develop because the new arrivals did not yet have the wealth to buy properties in Harrisburg’s developing suburbs.

67. “Where is the Street Sprinkler?,” Patriot and Union, 13 May 1863.

68. Miller, Training of an Army, 102-103. The regiments in camp on 14 May were the 122nd, 123rd, 124th, 125th, 128th and 128th Pennsylvania Volunteers. Expected within days were the 126th, 127th, 130th, 132nd, 133rd, 134th, 135th and 135th Pennsylvania Volunteers. “Arrival of Nine Months’ Regiments at Camp Curtin,” Patriot and Union, 14 May 1863.

69. “Going Right Up,” Patriot and Union, 13 May 1863.

70. “Where is the Street Sprinkler?” Patriot and Union, 13 May 1863.

71. Miller, Training of an Army, 153-154; Patriot and Union, 16 May 1863.

72. Patriot and Union, 16, 19 May 1863.

73. Patriot and Union, 19, 21 May 1863.

74. “The Heated Term,” Patriot and Union, 26 May 1863.

75. “The Universal Howl,” Patriot and Union, 23 May 1863; “The Sprinkler,” Patriot and Union, 19 May 1863.

76. “A Fact That Speaks for Itself,” Patriot and Union, 22 May 1863.

77. “Awnings,” Evening Telegraph, 25 May 1863.

78. “The Disturbances on Short Street and Tanner’s Alley,” Patriot and Union, 27 May 1863.

79. Bureau of the Census, 1850 Census, West Ward, Harrisburg, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania; 1860 Census, Fourth Ward, Harrisburg, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania; Gopsill’s Directory of Harrisburg, 1863-1864; Morgan, Annals of Harrisburg, 295. Of the two schools in Harrisburg for African American children during the Civil War, the West Alley building in the North Ward was the most substantial, being of brick construction and overseen by a white principal, William J. Lawrence. It also had the largest enrollment. The South Ward building, located at the corner of Raspberry and Cherry alleys, served far fewer pupils and was a simple frame building. It was overseen by African American teacher John Wolf. Both buildings were used as temporary military hospitals at various times throughout the war. The Cherry Alley building housed Confederate wounded for a while after the Battle of Gettysburg. Daily Telegraph, 22 July 1863.

80. “Disturbance in a Negro Beer Shop,” Patriot and Union, 26 May 1863; “Police Affairs,” Patriot and Union, 25 May 1863; Bureau of the Census, 1850 Census, West Ward, Harrisburg, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania; “Sun and Moon Data for One Day,” 25 May 1863, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, U.S. Naval Observatory, http://aa.usno.navy.mil/data/docs/RS_OneDay.php.

81. A 26 May news article numbered the Camp Curtin Provost Guard at 122 enlisted men and 3 commissioned officers. Membership in the guard was restricted to soldiers who were “convalescent sick or wounded, the services of all others being constantly required in the field.” “The Provost Guard,” Daily Telegraph, 26 May 1863.

82. “Should Be Stopped,” Patriot and Union, 27 May 1863. This editorial against concealed weapons paints a frightening picture of a town menaced by gangs of armed thugs: “We notice lately as alarming increase in the number of concealed deadly weapons carried about our streets. Almost every desperado or braggart you meet has his revolver, handy billy, or slung shot. These articles are bought at various places in town…There is no real distinction between the use of the murderous ‘knuckler’ or the garroting-noose, which is punishable by fine and long imprisonment, and that of such formidable handy-billies as we see slung around the wrists of numbers that range our pavements.”

83. “The Disturbances on Short Street and Tanners’ Alley,” Patriot and Union, 27 May 1863; “Knows All About It,” Patriot and Union, 30 May 1863; “Disgraceful Riot in East South Street,” Daily Telegraph, 26 May 1863; “Mob in Harrisburg,” Christian Recorder, 30 May 1863. The homes that were wrecked on the north side of East South Street “belonged to Wm. Jones and other colored men,” according to the Patriot and Union accounts. I have been unable to identify the A.M.E. minister whose home was attacked.

84. “Omission,” Patriot and Union, 28 May 1863; “Knows All About It,” Patriot and Union, 30 May 1863; “Disgraceful Riot in East South Street,” Daily Telegraph, 26 May 1863; “Death of General Roumfort,” New York Times, 3 August 1878.

85. “Disgraceful Riot in East South Street,” Daily Telegraph, 26 May 1863.

86. “Assaulted by Negroes,” Patriot and Union, 26 May 1863; “Bloody Assault,” and “A Man Badly Beaten,” Patriot and Union, 27 May 1863.

87. “On the Rampage,” Patriot and Union, 28 May 1863.

88. “On the Rampage,” Patriot and Union, 28 May 1863; “Renewal of Disturbances Between the Soldiers and Negroes,” Evening Telegraph, 27 May 1863.

89. “Order Reigns,” “Police Affairs,” “Amusements,” Patriot and Union, 29 May 1863. The absence of damage to white residences during the two days of rioting is significant, as the neighborhoods involved were composed of houses inhabited by both whites and blacks. The mob targeted only African American residences for destruction, and bypassed the houses inhabited by whites. “A Negro Riot in Harrisburgh,” Philadelphia Inquirer, as printed in New York Times, 31 May 1863.

90. “Mob in Harrisburg,” Christian Recorder, 30 May 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.

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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