Afrolumens Project logo
 
Share |
 
Year of Jubilee title logo

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)

 

17-18 June: It is Well to Avoid all Controversy

Large groups of tired, sweat-stained men trudged east across the Camel Back Bridge, returning to Harrisburg from a long night of digging rifle pits and building artillery emplacements on Hummel Hill. They emerged from the rather plain eastern span of the bridge—a far less imaginative replacement for the half of Theodore Burr’s elaborate span that was carried away seventeen years earlier by one of Harrisburg’s frequent floods—and squinted their eyes against the bright morning sun that streamed out of the eastern sky to hit them full in the face.

Their walk home took them east on Market Street, past the oddly deserted produce and butcher stalls in the normally bustling market sheds on the square, to Third Street, where some turned left toward Tanner’s Alley and the other laboring class streets behind the Capitol, some turned right toward Judy’s Town, and some continued on toward the small bridge over the canal, to the newly established wagon train camp.

Those workers who were city natives may have remarked on how few familiar faces they could spot among the thousands of people out and about on Wednesday morning. Harrisburg was brimming over with strangers: journalists, soldiers, government men, railroad workers, pickpockets, politicians, and adventurers. Missing were large numbers of local citizens, particularly the women and children, and in their place were strange men, young and old, most attracted to town by the emergency.

There were also a large number of men in town to conduct the business of the Democratic Party, whose state convention was set to convene today in the Capitol. Many of these men were just now walking down to their hotel dining rooms for breakfast, in preparation for a busy day ahead, and probably took little notice of the knots of African American laborers, whose work clothes were coated with the orange-brown soil of Hummel Hill.

At ten o’clock a.m., the triennial convention of the Democratic Party of Pennsylvania began in the House of Representatives, for the purpose of nominating a candidate for Governor, and one for Judge of the Supreme Court. Dr. George W. Nebinger, a representative delegate from Philadelphia, was elected to preside over the convention. After some organizing work, the assembled delegates began to work on resolutions pledging fidelity to the Constitution and the Union and on securing the nomination for their chosen candidates.147

Although the delegates had arrived in town on Tuesday amid great chaos, panic, and confusion, things had quieted down during the night, and an eerie calm had now settled over the city. Most of those who intended upon leaving the city by now had successfully made their escape, and the mood of those still entering the city from the Cumberland Valley by train and turnpike, which remained a considerable number, was more one of determination than fear.

Regular telegraph dispatches into the city enabled General Couch to determine that the rebels were not moving toward the state capital with the same rapidity with which they had earlier advanced as far as Scotland. The fortifications on Hummel Hill were now quite extensive, thanks largely to the nearly one thousand African American railroad laborers brought in for the job. These crews, supplemented by civilian workers from Harrisburg, who by now were almost all African American men, had been laboring night and day under the direction of the railroad and military engineers.

Some artillery had even been put in place, woodlots had been cut down to clear a line of fire, and abatis was being placed in front of the earthworks. No troops from New York or New Jersey had yet arrived in the city, but the counties north and east of Harrisburg had begun sending companies of men. Large numbers of soldiers again filled city streets. Troops crossed the river to man the rifle pits. A general feeling of satisfaction with the fortifications, even a feeling of security, began to emerge.

 

Drillmaster Octavius Valentine Catto

In Philadelphia, schoolteacher and school administrator Octavius Valentine Catto had been publicly drilling a company of would-be recruits in the streets outside of Philadelphia’s Institute for Colored Youth since Monday evening. Many of the recruits who performed the repetitious military drills, calisthenics, and marching, in temperatures that reached near eighty degrees by late afternoon, were students at the Institute, and their drillmaster, Catto, taught English and mathematics to many of them in its classrooms.

At twenty-four years of age, Catto was one of the youngest teachers at the academy, which gave young African American men of Philadelphia a classical education, including Latin, Greek, Philosophy, Geometry, and Trigonometry. Catto himself had graduated from the Institute in 1858 and had distinguished himself as class valedictorian. He returned the following year to teach mathematics at the school, and was soon appointed by the school board as assistant to Principal Ebenezer Don Carlos Bassett.

When, at the beginning of the Confederate invasion, Governor Andrew G. Curtin issued orders to enlist all available “colored men who may be mustered into the United States service as Pennsylvania troops,” Catto consulted with Principal Bassett, who provided his support for the raising of troops from the male students then enrolled at the Institute. The young men began drilling in the streets almost immediately, and within twelve hours, other men, both young and old, had joined their ranks, all eager to report to Harrisburg in Pennsylvania’s time of crisis.148

On Tuesday, United States Army Lieutenant Colonel Charles F. Ruff issued an urgent call to the citizens of Philadelphia for volunteers to be sent to Harrisburg for the duration of the emergency, to serve as militia troops. “Troops, then, will be received,” he directed, “only in Companies of Eighty Men.” The notice was issued from the Office of the Mayor of Philadelphia.

Upon seeing the notice in the newspaper, Catto and another man reported to Mayor Alexander Henry, Philadelphia’s strong pro-Union mayor, who quickly took the young schoolteacher and his fellow captain to Colonel Ruff’s office. There, Catto found himself standing before a grizzled army recruiting officer, proudly offering the service of his two companies, which now numbered one hundred and fifty African American men.

The army recruiter, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Frederick Ruff, was a highly experienced soldier, having graduated from West Point a year before Catto was even born. He had later become a lawyer and opened a law office on the often chaotic and violent Missouri frontier. When Congress declared war on Mexico in 1846, Ruff went to fight as Lieutenant Colonel of the First Missouri Mounted Infantry, but soon transferred to a captaincy in the United States Army. By the time that he faced the young Catto in his Philadelphia recruiting office, on 17 June 1863, Ruff had progressed through the ranks of the regular army to the position of Lt. Colonel with the Third United States Cavalry.149

Ruff was not at all taken aback by the request to muster African American troops into the Pennsylvania militia. In fact he embraced the opportunity with enthusiasm, reportedly telling Mayor Henry, Octavius Catto, and the unnamed other man “Certainly. Get your men together, and well-drilled officers will be appointed to take charge of them.”150 This was all that Catto needed to hear. He prepared to get his men to the city arsenal, where they were, without question or hesitation, equipped for service to the Union.

Wednesday afternoon found one full company of African American recruits, consisting of ninety men and officers, marching in full military dress through the streets to the railroad station in West Philadelphia. It was a stirring sight to the many neighbors, friends, and family members who witnessed the procession and gathered at the Pennsylvania Railroad depot in the rural area of West Philadelphia to see them off.

The soldiers and their supporters stood in the hot June sun, listening as speeches were made and cheers were given for Abe Lincoln and Mayor Henry, sweating heavily as the temperatures shot toward ninety degrees just after noon. Commanding the company were three white officers, Captain William Babe, a thirty-six-year-old veteran of the Fourth Pennsylvania Reserves and a Philadelphia police officer, First Lieutenant William Elliott, and Second Lieutenant Thomas Moore.

Babe, like Colonel Ruff, had served in the War with Mexico as a member of a Philadelphia unit, and was an active member of a survivors’ organization known as the Scott Legion. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he enlisted in a Chester County unit and served as Captain of Company K, the Easton Guards, in the Fourth Pennsylvania Reserves, holding that position until February 1862. During the Confederate invasion in the fall of 1862, Babe reenlisted, and served as Captain of Company A of the Sixty-Eighth Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment, serving until January 1863.

Now Captain Babe and his two white lieutenants were in command of a company of black men leaving from West Philadelphia to help defend Harrisburg from the army of Robert E. Lee. The three white officers must have felt the weight of their responsibilities settle in as the train pulled away from the supportive and cheering crowd of white and black well-wishers at two-thirty p.m., and began its crawl through the suburban Philadelphia countryside toward Harrisburg.

Left behind at the depot were the sixty or so recruits of the second company, too few in numbers to qualify as a full company, but with plans to return to Lombard Street to continue their recruitment efforts this afternoon so that they, too, would be sent to Harrisburg to join their comrades.151

Among those now on the train who were accepted for service by Colonel Ruff were many of the male students at the Institute for Colored Youth, and their youthful teacher Octavius Catto. These young men formed the nucleus of the original company, being the first to volunteer. They were intelligent, motivated, and very enthusiastic, and their captain, the veteran of two brutal wars and numerous bloody battles, must have been pondering whether they truly understood the work for which they had volunteered.

 

Captain Babe's Black Company Reports for Duty

After six and one-half hours on the road, the Harrisburg Accommodation train from West Philadelphia pulled into the Pennsylvania Railroad depot along Market Street and slowed to a stop.152 The engine hissed with the release of excess steam, and the train crew jumped down onto the ground to attend to their work. On one of the passenger cars behind the locomotive, ninety travel-weary recruits shook the cinders from their new uniforms and stretched their legs in the narrow aisles before descending onto the lamp lit platform.

The bright afternoon sun by now had set behind the western hills, but the air still held the heat. Captain Babe had his sergeants assemble the men alongside the train while he determined where they should go. The Harrisburg station was quite busy, and the appearance of the Philadelphia “colored” company undoubtedly attracted much interest from other passengers, and particularly from the black station employees, porters, and hack drivers.

This was the first time a large unit of African American soldiers had arrived in Harrisburg with the intention of serving here. Considerable excitement had been generated back in early March when fourteen uniformed blacks stopped in Harrisburg on their way from Pittsburgh to Massachusetts, so word of the arrival of Captain Babe’s Company must have caused a major stir in Harrisburg’s black community.

Per orders, Captain Babe reported to whatever military authorities he could find in the Capitol and presented his company for duty. Eventually he was taken to see General Couch, who had already declined the service of one unit the day before, due to their color. He was now faced with another, with the promise of more African American troops to arrive shortly.

Although the city had calmed considerably from the chaos and panic of the sixteenth, the numbers and disposition of the enemy forces was still very much in doubt, and the fortifications, though almost complete, were still not finished. Troops were beginning to arrive in Harrisburg with increasing regularity, but not yet in numbers large enough to justify a sense of true military security. Couch was obviously still in need of troops, yet he was not convinced that he had the authority to accept African American troops for the emergency.

Reluctantly, he repeated to Captain Babe the same words he had wired to Secretary of War Stanton nearly twenty-four hours earlier, telling the Philadelphia commander that he had “no authority” to accept his men for the emergency. Some have blamed the general’s decision on racism, and others on fear of an angry reaction from delegates at the State Democratic Convention, which was then finishing its first day in town. Couch’s decision, however, may have had more to do with his interpretation of Curtin’s General Orders Forty-Two, which might be read to indicate that African American men could only be mustered into three-year regiments.

If Couch had doubts about that provision, though, he does not appear to have asked Governor Curtin for clarification. Regardless of his reasoning, Couch was not going to allow Captain Babe’s company to be mustered-in and draw arms from the arsenal. They would have to return to Philadelphia.

The news hit the would-be soldiers hard, and they returned, demoralized and angry, to the train station. Couch’s decision soon became common knowledge throughout the Harrisburg black community, and men such as T. Morris Chester, John Wolf, and David Stevens must have felt emotions close to despair, as the promise of equality in the Keystone State appeared once again to be broken.

At two o’clock a.m., the eastbound Express train left the Market Street station bearing ninety disappointed men. Its arrival in West Philadelphia at six-ten a.m. on Thursday morning stood in stark contrast to the departure from the same depot some sixteen hours earlier. No crowd of enthusiastic well-wishers greeted them, and no cheers were given upon their arrival. Captain Babe and a few other men of the company, very likely including Octavius Catto, paid a visit to Philadelphia Mayor Henry shortly after their arrival, to inform him of the unwelcome news from Harrisburg.153

When news of the rejection reached the regional advocate for African American troops, George Luther Stearns, the fiery activist within hours shot off a curt telegram to Stanton in Washington, essentially going directly over the head of Couch and Curtin. He wired:

A special dispatch to the Philadelphia North American states that General Couch declined to receive colored troops, alleging that he has no authority to receive such troops for less than three years. Two companies here are ready to go for the emergency. Shall I forward them? Companies from other points can be forwarded. Shall they be sent?154

Catto left the meeting with the Mayor’s promise that they had taken up the matter with the War Department, and had applied for the authority to recruit three regiments of African American men. Mayor Henry told Catto that he had “no doubt that within two days arrangements would be made so that colored men could have an opportunity of serving the country.” The optimistic projection was something at least, and Catto took it back to his young students. It would turn out to be more than two days, but the opportunity was about to present itself to them. However, it would not be in Harrisburg.

 

Flourish

Before noon, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton sent two telegraphic replies: one to Couch in Harrisburg and one to Stearns in Philadelphia. To Couch he wired a simple directive: “You are authorized to receive into the service any volunteer troops that may be offered, without regard to color.” To the angry Stearns, Stanton sent a more ambiguous message, telling him that color would no longer be an issue in Harrisburg, but “if there is likely to be any dispute about the matter, it will be better to send no more. It is well to avoid all controversy in the present juncture, as the troops can be well used elsewhere.”155 Although Stanton’s dithering reply did not change the immediate situation in Harrisburg, as no other African American companies from elsewhere in the state reported for duty and Captain Babe’s company did not return to Harrisburg, it did set the stage for the events of the following week.


Previous | Next

 

Notes

147. Patriot and Union, 18 June 1863.

148. Philadelphia Press, 17 June 1863; Waskie, “Biography of Octavius V. Catto.”

149. “To the Citizens of Philadelphia,” Philadelphia Press, 17 June 1863; Obituary of “Brig-Gen. C. F. Ruff,” New York Times, 2 October 1885.

150. Philadelphia Press, 17 June 1863.

151. Philadelphia Press, 18 June 1863.

152. “Pennsylvania Rail Road Summer Time Table,” Evening Telegraph, 17 June 1863.

153. Philadelphia Press, 19 June 1863.

154. Official Records, ser. 1, vol. 27, pt. 3, 203.

155. Ibid. The two companies of men raised by Octavius Catto did not return to Harrisburg after Stanton authorized the use of African American troops for the emergency. Instead, on 26 June, many of them reported for duty at Camp William Penn where they were mustered into Company A of the Third United States Colored Infantry Regiment. Frank H. Taylor, Philadelphia in the Civil War, 1861-1865 (Philadelphia: City of Philadelphia, 1913), 188.

 

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.

About the AP | Contact AP | Mission Statement | Archives