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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)

 

June 8, 1863: The Gospel Trumpet Hear

The silver-haired man mounted the speaker’s platform in the old hall with the careful, measured steps of one who was wizened by six decades of earthly struggle. It was muggy and close in the meeting room, packed as it was, wall-to-wall, with an eager crowd who had already listened to a number of speakers before him.

The youthful and energetic T. Morris Chester had first engaged the crowd, which consisted of a significant portion of Harrisburg’s African American community, in a one-sided debate on the merits of the present war. Chester had laid out, in lawyerly fashion, the reasons for the conflict and the necessity of supporting it with every resource available to the community.

At only twenty-nine years of age, he was the youngest of the speakers to address the assembled black citizenry of Harrisburg that evening, but he was already very well known to his audience. A local newspaper had branded him “the master spirit of the negro war element” for good reason. For months, he and local preacher and schoolteacher John Wolf had led the effort to recruit men for the Massachusetts African American regiments, an effort that met with initial disappointment but gradually gained in momentum, finally culminating it the grand “War Meeting” at this Tanner’s Alley meeting hall this night. In the flickering light of the coal oil lamps, T. Morris Chester had worked the crowd like a seasoned barrister massaging a sympathetic jury, and he received their enthusiastic applause for his “sensible and patriotic” speech.

Next to take the dais was John H. Dickerson, whose family had come to Harrisburg from Maryland in the first decade of the nineteenth century, exchanging the declining fortunes of free blacks in the South for the slender but hopeful chance for success in the North. They joined a few other African American families here to form the nucleus of Harrisburg’s first free black community, and his was one of the few families to persist through decades of racism, slave hunts, and invasion threats. John Dickerson himself was Maryland born, and though his family had not achieved the same level of success and name recognition as the Battis or the Bennett families, he exuded the pride of an honest and noble history in his carriage and his demeanor.

Taking history for his topic, the speaker regaled his audience with tales of black military prowess, ingenuity, and bravery, discoursing at great length on the well-known, veiled, and suspect feats of long forgotten African American military heroes. Dickerson became quite caught up in his stories, until his presentation gradually lost its thread of progression as one story reminded him of another that needed to be told.

By the time that he had finished telling how African American fighters had provided General Andrew Jackson with the idea to use cotton bales for breastworks in the defense of New Orleans in 1815, the audience was becoming visibly restive. John Dickerson finished his rambling history to polite applause and yielded the platform to the next speaker, the old man who now coolly surveyed the room with the appraising eye of a veteran circuit preacher.91

Exactly two week before, almost to the hour, the building in which they assembled, the black Masonic Hall in the middle of Tanner’s Alley, had been trashed by a mob of soldiers and white civilians, incensed by a perceived slight to one of their number by the African American saloon owner William Toop. The walls, doors, and windows of the meeting room, now packed to overflowing with local black residents, still bore the scars of the mob’s depredations, as did the homes of many of the people sitting or standing here.

Despite the steady work over the past two weeks by local glaziers, carpenters, and masons, the assaulted neighborhood remained in a high state of disrepair, yet its residents were still willing to give up their Monday evening to come together, not to address grievances against the rioters, the camp commanders, or the city, but to rally in support of the war effort. A day after the outrages, a local newspaper had opined, “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.” In fact, that was exactly what was happening here, in the very building first attacked, which bore splintered doorjambs and plaster-patched walls as mute reminders of the forgiveness of its occupants.

As the speaker, a long time man of God, took in all the details of this scene, he undoubtedly thought of Jesus’ exhortation from the Sermon on the Mount, for Christians to turn the other cheek. He resisted, however, the opportunity to launch into a sermon. That was not why he had been called to the platform to provide the keynote speech.

 

A Man of Decision and Action

The Reverend David Stevens was known and respected throughout the city, and he had been active in anti-slavery and civil rights affairs since the 1820s. Born in the last year or two of the eighteenth century, Stevens grew up around educated free blacks, spent a lot of time in Philadelphia, and played a major role in the governance and development of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, claiming to have been present at the 1816 ceremony in which Bishop Richard Allen created the A.M.E. Church.92

In Harrisburg, in 1829, he helped found Wesley Union Church and was appointed the Harrisburg Circuit pastor. It was during his pastorship that the Harrisburg church became active in Underground Railroad activities—an involvement facilitated by his frequent travels between A.M.E. churches in Harrisburg, New Market, Chambersburg, Shippensburg, York, Lower Swatara, and Middletown. David Stevens was the pastor of Wesley Union when it relocated from Judy’s Town to its new location in Tanner’s Alley, a move that not only kept the church vital within the black community, but also placed it geographically in the center of the local Underground Railroad network at the time.

He was, in many ways, a man of decision and action, with a firm belief in allowing the church to play an activist role in social change. He could preach, but he could also exhort and persuade. His contemporaries held him to be a “wonderful preacher, generally calm and deliberate.” Those were the qualities that endeared him to his congregants, but when the times demanded it, he “blazed out and carried everything as by storm.”93 That was what made him a leader. That was why he had been called here tonight.

“Damn the niggers,” he abruptly thundered, in his most commanding pulpit voice. The overcrowded room, which had been buzzing with conversation after Mr. Dickerson took his seat, fell suddenly silent. He had hooked them with his first cast. “At every turn,” Reverend Stevens continued, “I hear the execration, ‘Damn the niggers.’” Well, he wanted to announce that he was a full-blooded son of Africa, and he “did not wish to be misunderstood on that point.” Smiles crossed the faces of several in the room. This was to be no homily on patriotism, or litany on the achievements of African American military men. From the ladies in Sunday dresses seated in the front row, to the young boys in mud-caked trousers standing at the back, everyone in the room leaned forward to hear where Reverend Stevens was taking this story.

The charge had long been made, he reminded them, that black men would not volunteer to fight, and would not stand up and be counted in the defense of their country. “Damn the niggers,” their critics intoned, as they pointed to the painfully slow crawl toward reaching recruitment goals. He was tired of it. In January of that year, he, John Wolf, and Samuel Bennett had put their names to a public document that acknowledged Mr. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and they had pledged that Harrisburg’s black community would support it and respond to it. They had written the words “the American flag is now a true emblem of liberty; and if called upon we feel bound as citizens to maintain its supremacy o'er land and sea, against foreign foes or domestic traitors.” Those were not intended as idle, brave sounding words.

They had further resolved, “That we are well aware that freedom and citizenship are attended with responsibilities; and that the success or failure of the proclamation depend entirely upon ourselves, as public sentiment will be influenced for or against that righteous decree by our correct deportment and moral standing in the community.” Five months had now passed since they had published that document. Opportunities to step up had been presented in Massachusetts. The time to uphold those responsibilities, and to demonstrate that correct deportment, had long since arrived. He therefore turned the phrase back to his audience, telling them “Damn the niggers that won’t do their duty in a time like the present; damn the niggers that would wait to be conscripted.”94

Reverend Stevens’ audience could not have responded better had they been seated in the pews of his old church and fervently participating in his call and response. But in many ways, this room was his church. He had helped found the first African American Masonic chapter in Harrisburg twenty years earlier, and this building, although it was known as the Colored Masonic Lodge, had become a major part of the social fabric that made up Harrisburg’s current African American community. It hosted not only lodge meetings, but also social and community events and gatherings, and in doing so, it joined the local black churches in uniting Harrisburg’s disparate elements into a cohesive community.95

It represented, to the black community, social success, and equality. Unlike the black churches, which had been founded with the help of local whites, and which preached equality in the eyes of God, the black fraternal organizations that now flourished in Harrisburg signified equality on a social scale. That bothered Harrisburg’s white residents, and was probably at the heart of the anger directed against the building in the riots two weeks before. To Reverend Stevens, this building represented community, one of the three pillars that supported the struggle for freedom and equality, the other two being God and family. It could no more be separated from the churches than could the families that made up the congregations.

Around the edges of the Masonic Hall meeting room, knots of men, a few in blue wool uniforms, nodded in assent with Reverend Stevens’ curses on their more timid brethren. These fresh recruits, the sons and fathers of many local families, were the true guests of honor, and they received the gratitude of the assembled citizens, as well as the admiring attentions of the young ladies in the front rows. They were there to pledge themselves to the Fifty-Fifth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the next African American regiment to be formed in the Bay State.

The Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts, its ranks entirely filled and its soldiers fully uniformed, departed from Camp Meigs on 28 May and headed for the battlefields of the South after a triumphant march through the streets of Boston, making it possible to begin forming companies for a second black infantry regiment.96 Pennsylvania, as the good Reverend pointed out, had not yet made the commitment to recruit African American men into state regiments. “Governor [Andrew G.] Curtin,” Stevens believed, “would like to call upon the colored element about now,” but dared not do so for fear of dire political repercussions if he put black men “between him and the prejudices of the white element.”

“ Maryland,” he said, “would open a recruiting station for negroes before Pennsylvania.” It was because “Pennsylvania was afraid to allow [blacks] to help her” that the men of Harrisburg, Carlisle, Middletown, Lancaster, York, and many other locations “were forced up into Massachusetts to help fill Gov. Andrew’s quota.” Stevens, and probably every other person in the room, really wanted to see Pennsylvania form her own African American regiments, but because she would not do so, it became necessary to enlist with another state, and so he concluded his speech with an appeal to all his eligible neighbors to do their duty, and he prayed for everyone’s safe return “crowned with the laurels of freedom.”97

 

Three Cheers and a Tiger

The applause for Reverend Stevens was enthusiastic and loud, and despite the lateness of the hour—it was now going on eleven o’clock p.m.—the crowd broke into a rousing rendition of the John Brown song, with the chorus of “Glory, Glory! Hallelujah! His soul is marching on,” echoing down Tanner’s Alley and “fairly lifting the roof” of the battered Masonic Hall.

Samuel M. Bennett, who had been chosen to preside over the War Meeting, called for three cheers for the Fifty-Fifth Massachusetts, and the mighty “hurrahs” came forth “with deafening effect.” He then called for “three cheers and a tiger” for Police Chief Barney Campbell, whose efforts to quell the recent unrest between blacks and whites in Harrisburg had been untiring, and the crowd responded vigorously, ending the third cheer with a deep growl that began low and built in volume until it roared through the building and the surrounding neighborhood. After a few more hearty cheers for various people and causes, President Bennett gaveled the meeting to a close, and people began to break into smaller groups to talk politics and to socialize, with everyone still reluctant to let go of the positive energy and good feelings that had been generated this evening.98

Lamps remained lit far into the night, however, in many of the homes in Tanner’s Alley, South Street, Filbert Street, Cherry Alley, and on many of the other Harrisburg streets on which black families lived. About two o’clock in the morning, a significant stirring on the normally sleepy streets became evident as hundreds of people, many of them carrying packs and suitcases, began trekking through their neighborhood toward the railroad depot on Market Street.

The late night travelers and their escorts converged on the wooden railway platform, where, under pools of yellow lamplight, T. Morris Chester organized more than one hundred and thirty young men in preparation for their journey to Readville, Massachusetts. Mothers held on to their sons and wives clung to their husbands as long as they could, while the black steam engine at the head of the waiting train waited, hissing impatiently. Chester checked and double-checked his rosters as railroad employees stowed baggage and checked the train for the next leg of its journey north. “Forty-five of these recruits were from Harrisburg alone, the remainder from neighboring towns in this and Cumberland county,” reported the Telegraph, which had one day earlier reported the departure of thirty recruits over the weekend.99

Harrisburg, along with the entire midstate, was now actively giving its African American sons and brothers to the war effort, with the full knowledge and expectation that some, perhaps many, would never return. The steam whistle on the locomotive, like a gospel war trumpet, sounded for boarding, and all the tearful departures became a reality as Harrisburg let go of the hands of its sons and watched the train chuff slowly out of the station.

 

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Notes

91. “The War Meeting in Tanner’s Alley,” Patriot and Union, 10 June 1863; “The War Meeting in Tanner’s Alley,” Evening Telegraph, 9 June 1863.

92. James Walker Hood, One Hundred Years of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (New York: A.M.E. Zion Book Concern, 1895), 176; Kelker, History of Dauphin County, 1:284; Barton and Dorman, Harrisburg's Old Eight Ward, 36-39.

93. Hood, One Hundred Years, 68.

94. “The War Meeting in Tanner’s Alley,” Patriot and Union, 10 June 1863. All African American men between the ages of twenty and forty-five were registered, along with white men of the same age range, for the military draft as of 3 March 1863. Frederick M. Binder, “Pennsylvania Negro Regiments in the Civil War,” Journal of Negro History, 37, no. 4 (October 1952): 383-384.

95. The reporter for the Patriot and Union wrote that the meeting was attended by a diverse range of persons from the local African American community: “From barber shops and hotels, from Tanners’ alley and South street, from ‘Bull Run’s’ classic ground, from suburban settlements and subterranean ‘dives’ and rookeries…the gay and festive young man was there; and the aged patriarch.” (10 June 1863.)

96. The Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts, with many Harrisburg men in its ranks, was reviewed on Boston Common by Governor Andrew before debarking on the steamer De Malay. The newspaper article noted, “The march of the regiment through the city was attended with the most enthusiastic cheering.” “Departure of the Boston Negro Regiment, Boston, May 28,” Christian Recorder, 30 May 1863. Black leaders in Philadelphia had wanted to bring the Fifty-Fourth through Philadelphia for a parade after it left Boston “that we might have an opportunity of beholding a sight never before witnessed in this country,” but it could not be arranged in time. “Colored Soldiers,” Christian Recorder, 30 May 1863.

97. “The War Meeting in Tanner’s Alley,” Patriot and Union, 10 June 1863.

98. Ibid.; “The War Meeting in Tanner’s Alley,” Evening Telegraph, 9 June 1863.

99. “Departure of Negro Recruits from Harrisburg,” Pennsylvania Daily Telegraph, 8 June 1863; “Departure of More Negro Troops,” Evening Telegraph, 9 June 1863. The Patriot and Union reported that forty-seven of the men departing at 2 a.m. on 9 June were from Harrisburg, “most of whom were recruited at this meeting.” “The War Meeting in Tanner’s Alley,” Patriot and Union, 10 June 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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