Persons of Color
The Bridge (continued)
25 June: The Bridge
days later, lines of footsore and weary travelers from the
Cumberland Valley stood at the western entrance to Mister Burr’s
Camel Back Bridge, waiting for a chance to cross over into the safe
haven that was Harrisburg. Their long nightmare of flight through
the countryside was almost finished. Along the way, they had been
joined by others in the same plight, and their numbers now reached
into the hundreds. Additional refugees made their way to the bridge
from York County along the turnpike from New Cumberland. These were
the black refugees who had been roused from their daily labors, their
dinners, and even their sleep by panicked shouts from neighbors,
warning of the approach of Confederate raiders.
had little time to prepare for a headlong flight, and they took with
them whatever possessions and whatever necessaries they could quickly
gather and load into a wagon, or pack on the back of a mule, or simply
carry. Some of them left lifetimes of work behind; homes, gardens,
livestock, and furniture were all left to be picked over by invading
Rebels, or by whoever happened upon them. They fled their homes reluctantly
but resolutely, knowing that lost possessions could be replaced, but
lost freedom could not. Few had money or other valuables to pay or
barter for food and shelter along the way, not because of the hastiness
of their flight, but because they simply had no wealth to gather.
particularly those new to Pennsylvania, lived daily lives of hardship
and meager rewards, but it was a life of their choosing, in a land
of their choosing, doing work for themselves, and being paid for their
labors. Some people had opined that there was little practical difference
between an impoverished slave in the South and an impoverished free
person in the North, but those people had never been enslaved. The
refugees who now began to bunch up on the turnpike, crowding at the
side of the road to let military wagons pass, had no doubt which situation
they preferred. That was why they had undertaken the sudden, difficult,
and dangerous journey to Harrisburg, often with only the clothes on
many, the most valuable treasures they bore from the heart of the valley
to the shores of the Susquehanna River were the children. The next
generation, after all, was the reason many of them had risked death
to run away. If they could raise their children in freedom, the daily
struggle as a poor laborer might be endured. But that dream was now
in danger from an advancing wave of gray. Therefore, the tide of refugees
this time included hundreds of children, from infants to teenagers,
which was a marked difference from the makeup of the crowds that had
crossed the bridge during the first ten days of the crisis.
the exception of the children of the wagon train, who had been lucky
enough to escape the fast-riding Confederate cavalry through the compassion
of the black teamsters who loaded them into their army wagons, most
of the earlier African American refugees who arrived by turnpike were
adult men and older boys. White citizens in Franklin County who witnessed
the chase, capture and re-enslavement of the local African American
women and children left behind, speculated that the African American
men folk who skedaddled assumed women and children would not be bothered.
If true, it turned out to be a horrible miscalculation. They knew better
this time. This was a flight to save their most valuable possession:
a free future generation.
Harrisburg, a jaded correspondent for the New York Herald noticed
the difference in the refugees who began pouring into the city on the
morning of the twenty-fifth. He wrote “Vast numbers of ebony
colored children are daily arriving in the city—some destitute,
others again more fortunate. Their rendezvous is in a section of the
city denominated ‘Smoky Hollow.’ I have not visited it,
and therefore can give you no idea of the scenes being enacted there.”167
had no neighborhood commonly known as “Smoky Hollow.” The
out-of-town reporter may have overheard the appellation applied by
a local person with a derogatory sneer toward one of the African American
neighborhoods that was receiving large numbers of black refugees. It
may also have been briefly used to identify Allison’s Hollow,
the undeveloped flat land between the canal and Allison’s hill
that was utilized as a camp by the army wagons that entered the city
a week earlier. Refugees may have gravitated toward that area as well,
drawn by the presence of several hundred blacks who had been picked
up by the wagon train.
of which area the Herald reporter meant, he never did visit.
Had he gone, he would have met free people from Maryland and former
slaves from Virginia, farmers from Gettysburg and carpenters from Greencastle,
railroad laborers from Chambersburg, and waiters from Carlisle. He
could have talked with people who had just fled their homes the evening
before, and people who had been on the road for more than a week. He
would have observed people who were physically exhausted from more
than twenty-four hours on the run, and people who were mentally exhausted
from hiding for days on end in the hills.
Davis Leads His Flock
he ventured into “Smoky Hollow,” the New York reporter
might have encountered the Reverend Dennis Davis, the aged pastor of
a small A.M.E. church in Hagerstown. The Reverend Davis was not in
good health, but he had somehow weathered the journey from Hagerstown
to Harrisburg, possibly because he was used to being out on the road
in all types of weather.
being assigned to the Hagerstown Church, Reverend Davis had been in
charge of five A.M.E. churches in the Baltimore County Circuit. In
1861, however, ill health forced him to give up his charges to a younger,
more robust preacher, and to move west to care for a smaller flock.168 Pastor
Davis was not one to complain, and he assumed the responsibility of
looking after his new congregants’ spiritual needs. Very soon,
though, he would be called to take charge of their physical safety
and to safeguard their freedom as well.
the correspondent for the New York Herald had inquired, he
might have heard Rev. Davis’ tell the story of how his charge
was “getting along well up to the 15th of June, when a great
excitement broke out.” The excitement was caused by the arrival,
that morning, of Confederate cavalry troopers under the command of
General Albert G. Jenkins. A small force of Union horse soldiers in
the area had skirmished with the Confederate horsemen, but they picked
up and left town as Jenkins’ force pressed forward from Williamsport,
Maryland. By ten a.m., the Union soldiers were nowhere to be seen as
a few Southern scouts advanced cautiously into town. The people of
Hagerstown put on a show of welcoming the Rebels, waving and cheering
as the larger force of raiders rode by.169
Davis and his congregants were not among the crowd witnessing Jenkins’ triumphant
entry into their hometown, though. He reported that, upon hearing the
news of the approaching enemy soldiers “my people became panic-stricken
and fled to the mountains for refuge.” Although Reverend Davis
did not specify in which mountain range they sought refuge, the congregation
more than likely headed east for the South Mountain Range, some ten
remained hidden in the mountainous terrain for five or six days, waiting
for the Rebels to leave. By 22 June, it became painfully apparent to
them that they could not return to Hagerstown. With supplies running
out--it is doubtful they had much time to prepare for their flight—and
a dread fear that they would soon be discovered by foraging Confederate
troops, they struck out to the northeast. It was a long, hazardous
journey of nearly sixty miles, and they had to keep a constant watch
for cavalry patrols and scouts.
they were lucky, they encountered some help along the way from Underground
Railroad activists now pressed into service hiding free blacks from
Confederate raiders. East toward Gettysburg and north through the Quaker
Valley would have been the most logical and safest road, but Davis
remained quiet about the route they took and any allies they encountered
along the way.
more then two days of playing cat and mouse with enemy cavalrymen,
and of tramping the dusty roads east and north, the fortified heights
of Hummel Hill came into view, and across the river rose the church
spires and Capitol dome of the Canaan that was Harrisburg. After at
least nine days in the wilderness, Reverend Dennis Davis, a reluctant
Moses, led his small, weary flock across the Camel Back Bridge over
the waters of the Susquehanna River into Harrisburg and safety.170
the refugees from the Cumberland Valley and from York County
stepped out of the eastern span of the covered bridge onto muddy
Front Street, they were confronted by a city once again in the grip
of invasion madness. Panicked citizens again trundled their worldly
possessions to the railroad depot to be shipped via Adams Express
Company to relatives in a safer location. Besieged express agents,
working from their office at Fourth and Chestnut Streets, again built
huge stacks of trunks, carpetbags, and crates on the platforms to
await the arrival of the next eastbound train. Large numbers of civilians
in traveling clothes milled around the station and the platforms,
also waiting for trains to carry them away from the advancing foe.
the throngs were the actors, stagehands, and musicians of the Carncross
and Dixey Minstrel troupe, who had been playing to packed houses in
Brant’s Hall before Harrisburg became suddenly too hot for them.
John L. Carncross and E. F. Dixey had brought the troupe from their
Philadelphia theater to Harrisburg as part of their summer “Irresponsible
Conflict” tour. The first few nights in Harrisburg had gone very
well, with the large sold out crowds calling out titles of their favorite
songs and the troupe obliging them with spirited renditions.171 Their
sudden departure from Harrisburg was bad for business, however, and
bad for their reputation.
Bergner reported on the general chaos at the railroad station by describing
it as scenes “of interest,” writing:
Each train that arrives
from the south on the North Central [sic] or on the Cumberland
Valley road, brings its load of fugitives. There are congregated
at the depot the old and the young, mistress and maid, strong men
and weak children, white and black, all commingled in one common
mass, panic stricken, weary, hungry and exhausted. Baggage piled
up like huge stacks—trunks and carpet sacks are continually
accumulating, while amid the pile which rears its leather and brass
nails, we noticed at least a dozen boxes containing coffins with
the bodies of those who have already offered themselves sacrifice
that freedom might be sustained and the country preserved from
utter ruin. The scenes at the railroad depots, if nothing more
frightening grows out of the present excitement, will long be remembered
by those who daily witness them.172
The reporter from the New
York Herald reported a similar arrival of war refugees:
A train of cars came
down this afternoon. It was filled with people escaping from Carlisle.
Among the collection was a large number of contrabands. Throughout
the entire day wagons of all descriptions loaded with furniture
and other property, have been coming into town. It is enough to
touch the most obdurate heart to see the poor blacks as then come
to this common asylum. Several of them walked the entire distance
from Carlisle, and the feet of many were swollen and bleeding.173
many of the blacks crossing the bridge had walked from much further
than Carlisle. The Hagerstown church group was only one example. Again,
Bergner’s newspaper gave details about a particularly large group
of free blacks from Chambersburg who arrived early in the day:
A Motley Group.—A
party of thirty negroes from Chambersburg and vicinity came over
the bridge this morning, and stopped to refresh themselves in the
Front Street Park, a short distance from the bridge. While there
they attracted much attention from passers-by, and many inquiries
were made concerning the whereabouts of the rebel army, and their
probably strength. The poor negroes, as a matter of course, had
never seen the rebel army, or they would not have been here, but
they answered the questions as near as they could, the questioners
going away evidently satisfied with the information received. Like
many of the other refugees from up the valley, they had no place
to go to, and appeared lost in this section of the country.174
refugees were probably also questioned by officers from the regiment
stationed in the newly dug rifle pits of Harris Park, where the group
collapsed once across the bridge. Military men had learned that fleeing
blacks were often the source of valuable intelligence regarding enemy
troop movements. Although Bergner discounted the value of any intelligence
that might have been gained, the refugees may in fact have yielded
the refugees would have moved to the interior of the city where they
would have found support with the African American residents of Judy’s
Town or Tanner’s Alley. Some also settled for a while on the
grounds of the courthouse, at Court and Market Streets, where they
would have been subject to additional scrutiny and questions from passers-by.
Such interest was probably short-lived, however, as the bridge continued
to pour forth livestock and refugees of all types in increasingly larger
numbers as the day progressed. From the Telegraph:
The Harrisburg Bridge.—This
outlet for thousands of refugees from up the Cumberland Valley
was thronged with a moving mass of beings pouring into this city
all day, and new arrivals from up the valley surpassed anything
we ever saw. Wagon load after wagon load of men, women and children
poured into the city from morning till night, many of them contrabands
and free negroes, seeking to escape from the grasp of the Southern
rebels. The sight of these defenceless people was truly pitiful,
but few of them knowing which way to turn, and all depending on
the generosity of the people east of the Susquehanna for support
and sustenance. Where many of them go, after reaching this city,
we know not, but many remain in our midst, unable to sustain themselves
without aid from our citizens, numbers of whom have plenty to give,
and will give, willingly, without a murmur or feeling of regret.175
issued a proclamation calling for every citizen to remain “perfectly
calm” during the crisis. To facilitate the calm, he ordered the
closing of all taverns, retail liquor shops, and lager beer shops,
and discontinued the sale of all intoxicating liquors in the city until
further notice. The liquor ban and the hordes of refugees got everyone’s
attention; things were serious this time. Apparently, the situation
on Thursday, June 25th, was the direst yet in this off and on invasion.
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York Herald, 27 June 1863.
168. James A.
Handy, Scraps of African Methodist Episcopal History (Philadelphia:
A.M.E. Book Concern, 1902), 6-7.
169. Nye, Here
Come the Rebels!, 137.
Recorder, 12 September 1863. Davis and his congregants stayed
in Harrisburg until about 30 June, at which time they left for Baltimore.
When the crisis had passed they returned to their church in Hagerstown.
Already frail and in ill health, and weakened by the invasion ordeal,
Reverend Dennis Davis died six months later. Alexander Walker Wayman, My
Recollections of African M. E. Ministers: or Forty Years' Experience
in the African Methodist Episcopal Church (Philadelphia: A.M.E.
Book Rooms, 1881), 94.
Carnival of Fun,” Patriot and Union, 24 June 1863; New
York Herald, 26 June 1863; William L. Slout, Burnt Cork and
Tambourines: A Source Book for Negro Minstrelsy, Clipper Studies in
the Theatre, No. 11 (San Bernardino, CA: Borgo Press, 2007), 48-49.
Telegraph, 25 June 1863.
York Herald, 26 June 1863.
Motley Group,” Daily Telegraph, 25 June 1863.
Harrisburg Bridge,” Daily Telegraph, 25 June 1863.