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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)

 

11 June 1863: Wars and Rumors of Wars

Two days later, the invasion rumors began. Much of the gossip was generated over a comment, mostly unsubstantiated at the time, made by Union Cavalry General Alfred Pleasonton on the day after the large cavalry clash at Brandy Station, Virginia. The battle on the grassy plains of Culpeper County, Virginia began about dawn, a few scant hours after the northbound train carrying one hundred and thirty anxious African American men and boys pulled out of the Market Street station in Harrisburg, one hundred and fifty miles to the north. The distance between the two points would prove to be much less reassuring than it might have seemed at the time.

Within hours, nearly 19,000 horse soldiers would clash in the mightiest cavalry battle of the war. When the smoke cleared at the end of the day, the Confederate forces still held the field, but the Union cavalrymen, who up to that point in the war had been judged as vastly inferior soldiers on horseback, brutally demonstrated to their Southern foemen how much they had learned over the winter.

On Wednesday, 10 June, the day after the battle, a jubilant and confident Major General Pleasonton declared that Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry “was intended for Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh.”100 Although Pleasonton’s information was hearsay—intelligence taken from the captured slave to an officer in one of Stuart’s artillery companies—it was enough to convince the Union Cavalry commander that Lee was headed north, and it was enough to panic the peace-loving citizens of Harrisburg.

General Alfred Pleasonton dispatched his assessment of the situation to General Seth Williams in the War Department in Washington at four-thirty p.m. on Wednesday afternoon. General Williams was reading it by nine o’clock that evening. News of the threatened invasion reached Harrisburg overnight and was buzzing in the ears of Harrisburg residents by daylight on Thursday.

The situation seemingly grew direr with each passing hour, as the rumors were passed from one person to the next, or shared among fretful knots of men standing on the street corners. “The air of the city was full of portents,” reported one newspaper, “and rumors flitted about like flies in twilight.”101 An initial story had “four thousand rebels…within four days’ march” of the Pennsylvania State Capital. Within a few retellings, the size of the enemy force had increased tenfold to forty thousand soldiers under the direct command of General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, and they were “within ten miles of the city.”102

That the enemy could not only traverse four days’ worth of countryside in a few hours, but do so under a resurrected general who had been dead for a month illustrates the terror that gripped many of Harrisburg’s residents at just the hint of a Southern invasion. A number of local men were in a “stage of demoralization” at hearing the stories, and more than a few took comfort at the corner of local beer shop.103

Although the stories about an imminent invasion were all discounted as dangerous rumors by the city editors, alert citizens noticed the arrival that evening of a military man, former Second Corps commander Darius N. Couch, at the Pennsylvania Railroad Depot. Couch had just accepted command of the recently created Department of the Susquehanna, and he intended to manage it from an office in the Capitol.

Arriving at seven-thirty p.m. on a connection with the Northern Central Railroad, Major General Couch was met on the platform along Market Street by Simon Cameron, the influential Harrisburg politician who was temporarily between political assignments, having just resigned his post as Minister to Russia. Couch’s welcoming committee also included Colonel Thomas A. Scott, Vice-President of the Pennsylvania Railroad, former Assistant Secretary of War, and a close friend of Cameron, and John A Wright, another well-connected railroad man.

Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Gregg Curtin had arrived in Harrisburg the previous night, from an extended stay in Philadelphia, and military authorities had secured permission from him for Major General Couch to establish his headquarters in the Executive wing of the Capitol. The four men—Couch, Cameron, Scott, and Wright—climbed into a waiting carriage as railroad porters loaded the general’s baggage, and they drove the few blocks to the Capitol, from which Darius Couch would manage the defense of Central Pennsylvania from fast approaching Confederate troops.104

The next morning, General Couch was informed that there were no troops available for the defense of the midstate. It was an incredible situation, considering that Harrisburg was the location of the North’s largest military camp of rendezvous, at Camp Curtin, yet it was all too true. Most of the thousands of soldiers who had enriched Harrisburg’s merchants and plagued its African American residents a few weeks earlier had been returning Nine-Months men who were now long since mustered out and returned home. Any other active units in camp had since shipped out to join the rest of the Army of the Potomac as it tried to outmaneuver the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and stay between it and the national capital at Washington.

The problem, though, was that Confederate commander Robert E. Lee had shifted his sights northward, eyeing the fertile farmlands and pastures of Pennsylvania. The farmers of Virginia, after two years of brutal war, had suffered terribly. Their fields had been trampled down by troop movements and scorched by battles, their livestock had been appropriated by hungry soldiers, and their fence rails burned for campfire fuel. If they were to harvest anything this fall, it was imperative that they be spared another summer of constant warfare. Pennsylvania’s farmlands, on the other hand, were fertile, lush, heavy with crops, and untouched by war. General Lee felt it was about time the people of the Keystone State experienced the effects of the war on their own soil.

More importantly, an invasion of Pennsylvania represented an important strategic objective. The factories and foundries of its large cities, the coal from its anthracite and bituminous ranges, and the lumber of its northern forests all supported the Northern war effort. A quick strike into the heartland of the state would paralyze the vital transportation network that was the State Works, and leave the invader poised to move west to Pittsburgh, and thereby threaten Ohio, or east to Philadelphia, and threaten both New York and Washington. Either one of these moves would panic the Pennsylvania gentry and strengthen the peace Democrats throughout the North, possibly forcing Washington to negotiate for a truce. A bold move into Pennsylvania, as envisioned by the Confederate high command, might just bring a quick end to the war.

Harrisburg, with its rail and canal connections, military camp and stores, bridges and turnpikes, as well as its distinction of being the capital of a key Northern state, was a tempting target, something recognized by General Couch as well as by Governor Curtin. With Confederate troops known to be moving north along the western side of the South Mountain Range, Couch knew that he had precious little time, should they cross the Potomac River, as the Rebels had a good two days’ start over the pursuing Union army. It was then that he was told that the only available troops were two companies of the Invalid Corps at York.105 The crisis was now on Harrisburg’s doorstep.

 

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Notes

100. The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies vol. 27, pt. 3 (Washington: GPO, 1889), 48.

101. “Wars and Rumors of Wars,” Patriot and Union, 12 June 1863.

102. Ibid.

103. Ibid. The newspaper editor may not have been exaggerating when he reported that local rumors had Stonewall Jackson at the head of an enemy column headed for Harrisburg. The legendary Southern general commanded so much respect during his lifetime that he remained a figure of dread to Northerners even after his death. Harrisburg residents learned of the death of Stonewall Jackson from newspapers published in town on the evening of 13 May 1863. A week later, on 21 May, the Patriot and Union published a humorous but revealing story from a Washington, D.C. trade paper under the title “Another Jackson Raid.” Upon hearing a newsboy crying out the headlines of “’Nother raid by Stonewall Jackson,” an excited passer-by exclaimed, “I thought Jackson was dead!” “Well, so he is; but his ghost is makin’ this ‘ere raid,” retorted the newsboy. “Another Jackson Raid,” Patriot and Union, 21 May 1863; Evening Telegraph, 13 May 1863.

104. Official Records, vol. 27, pt. 3, 55, 66, 68-69; Wilbur Sturtevant Nye, Here Come the Rebels! (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1965; repr., Dayton, OH: Morningside, 1988), 65; “Returned,” Daily Telegraph, 11 June 1863; Railroad timetables, Daily Telegraph, 11 June 1863.

105. Official Records, vol. 27, pt. 2, 211; Miller, Training of an Army, 157; Nye, Here Come the Rebels!, 151.

 

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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