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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)

 

War Meeting

It was a little more than thirty-eight years earlier, on 21 April 1825, that the African American residents of Harrisburg had first organized in response to a threat to their community. On that day, “a large crowd of colored men and boys” stepped into the path of several Maryland slave catchers and a handful of Harrisburg deputies as they exited the County Courthouse on Market Street and attempted to free by force the lone black man bound with ropes and claimed by one of the Southerners as his property.

It had been a hastily planned operation, given that the appearance of the Marylanders and their captured victim on the streets of Harrisburg had come without warning, and in the end, it had failed as a rescue, but it had succeeded in showing local blacks that they could mobilize at a moment’s notice for an emergency. Moreover, it brought the realization that they not only could provide for their own defense, as least as much as the extremely tight legal and social constraints imposed upon them would allow, but that they had to provide their own defense, if they were to survive as a distinct community within Harrisburg, because no one else would step up to publicly defend them.

A corollary to this realization was that they now had something to defend. They were no longer a motley assemblage of men and women dependent upon white employers for sustenance and protection; they were now families, property holders, business people, entrepreneurs, and people with dreams and aspirations. They had formed alliances, marriages, businesses, churches, and schools. They were now a community, and the men and boys, armed with clubs and cudgels, who responded to the clarion call on that Thursday in April 1825, were Minutemen, although they may not have realized it yet.

They had been called together by community leaders to resist, and led by those leaders in the fray. When Sheriff Thomas Walker arrested those leaders and charged them with a disruption of the peace, it was other members of the community who came into court and stood by them, unselfishly pledging their homes and businesses for bail.

That was the year that an epidemic of kidnappings plagued Pennsylvania’s African American communities, with more than twenty children disappearing from the streets of Philadelphia alone. Across the state, black communities stood up to say “this will not continue,” and informal militias sprang up to take to the streets at a moment’s notice, to challenge every slaveholder who rode into town looking for anyone who had been bold enough to claim his or her freedom.

In the coming years, the scene would repeat itself in Lancaster, York, Columbia, and Carlisle. In time, enough of these confrontations brought violence to otherwise quiet streets that local whites demanded laws to keep the slaveholders out. The strategy of unrelenting resistance was proving effective.

Mass meetings were held for other reasons. Pastor Jacob Richardson called Harrisburg blacks to his church, Wesley Union, in 1831 to craft a united response in opposition to local colonizationist plans. For this politically marginalized population, it was a bold and revolutionary move, and it succeeded in gaining national recognition in the pages of the Liberator, although it did little to chill the aspirations of local whites who wanted to send all free blacks away forever. But just as the 1825 mobilization spawned a new spirit of resistance, the 1831 meeting initiated a fledgling political mechanism that was nurtured by men like George Chester, William Whipper, and Junius Morel, and brought to maturity by John Wolf, T. Morris Chester, John F. and Hannah Williams, and Stephen Smith.

Political efforts on the part of local blacks reached a climax in December 1848 when Harrisburg's African American community hosted an informal state convention to actively campaign to regain the vote for black men in the commonwealth. Among those in attendance on the floor of the convention, held at Shakespeare Hall, were Charles Lenox Remond, Martin Delany, Robert Purvis, Stephen Smith, Abraham Shadd, John B. Vashon, Reverend Mifflin Gibbs, and John Peck.

Following the convention, Purvis and Vashon led a delegation to present the Harrisburg Resolutions to Gov. William F. Johnston. Despite a dynamic start that included plans for a state organization, a political newspaper, traveling lecturers, petition drives and more, the effort fizzled after several months. Still, the audience with the Governor showed just how much a determined, united community, even one politically disenfranchised, could achieve when it worked together.

It took the violent decade of the 1850s to drive the lesson home, when the Minutemen were again called upon at the beginning of the decade to form a neighborhood watch, and a year later responded in force, led by Joseph Popel, against an incursion of slave hunters. The unity was seriously disrupted when Federal Slave Commissioner Richard McAllister began a twenty-nine-month reign of fear, enforced by henchmen, spies, and crooked lawmen.

The damage to Harrisburg’s unity was so severe that it was not until the arrival of Joseph Bustill, in January 1856, that Harrisburg blacks would again organize to oppose the slave powers. Once reorganized, however, the local African American community never again lost its focus through the antebellum era, despite social and political setbacks. It rallied for the defense of Daniel Dangerfield, taking its fight to the sacred pavement of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, and it marched proudly through the streets of Harrisburg, armed with gleaming muskets and resplendent in the uniform of the Garnet Guards.

The coming of the war did not change the focus; it merely sharpened it. Denied a vote in the pre-war election, Harrisburg blacks discussed how best to show their patriotism and their solidarity with the Wide Awakes. Denied the chance to serve in the armed forces, Harrisburg’s blacks met to raise money for the troops. When the chance to enlist in the regiments being formed in Massachusetts arrived, Harrisburg blacks held enlistment meetings, staged rallies, and manned enlistment stations.

Through all this, while their efforts were publicly applauded by pro-Unionists, their neighborhoods were ravaged and their citizens beaten by mobs of toughs and ruffians. But it was no longer 1851. They had taken to heart the lessons of the previous decade, and they understood that they were fighting for a much larger issue. They would not be easily divided by those who advocated defeat, nor would they be deterred by bullies.

Their resolve had been thoroughly tested just a few weeks earlier when, in the sad wreckage of the assaulted Masonic Hall, the Reverend David Stevens had called upon them to ignore the wrongs done to their neighborhood by the white mob and collectively damn their neighbors who would ignore the call to duty. In essence, he was asking them to do something very different from what they had always done. He was asking them to resist the urge to pull in and defend themselves from a surrounding hostile white community, and instead help this larger community defend itself from a more deadly foe. He was asking them to put aside more than a century of mistreatment in Harrisburg and throw their lot in with those who had, only weeks before, trampled through their homes and busted up their furniture.

It was an audacious appeal, but Reverend Stevens trusted that his neighbors, his community, understood what they were up against this time, and he had faith that they would make the right choice. He trusted that they could see that they were now a part of the Harrisburg community. They understood. The community held together.

It needed all the strength it could muster to weather the next twenty-five days of invasion scares, but even in this crisis, the community held together. Hundreds upon hundreds of refugees flooded into Judy’s Town and Tanners Alley, begging for shelter, food and, most of all, protection from the marauding Confederate cavalrymen who had chased them from their homes.

Harrisburg city officials constantly exhorted them to cross the bridge to labor in the muddy entrenchments of Fort Washington and Fort Couch, and to man the pumps on the riverbank that forced river water up the cliff to the fortifications. But when a company of eager black men from Philadelphia reported to General Couch to bear arms defending those same entrenchments, they had been ignobly sent home without being mustered in. Even the current invasion crisis was not enough to end the insults. Still, the words of Reverend Stevens resonated with them, even after witnessing that slap in the face, and the community held together.

And so once again the scarred and pitted walls of the Masonic Hall in Tanner’s Alley bore witness to the mass meeting of Harrisburg’s African American community, as it met to decide on how to respond to news that advancing Rebel forces had just this evening forced General Knipe to retreat from Carlisle, leaving that neighboring town, and the road to Harrisburg, vulnerable. Unlike the late May war meeting, no reporters from either the Patriot and Union or the Telegraph were on hand to record the proceedings, so we do not know who attended, who spoke or what was said.

It appears, however, that the African American community of Harrisburg had settled upon one decisive course of action, and it was directly related to the earlier rejection of the black Philadelphia companies. The refusal of General Couch to accept those men for the defense of the state was probably based upon his belief that black men had been authorized for service only in three-year regiments, whereas he was seeking to fill the ranks of short-term emergency regiments.

The general was also highly cognizant of the presence of Democratic representatives in town for the annual state convention. Couch’s statement to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton that the enlistment of black troops was likely to be “bitterly opposed” was an acknowledgment of that party’s strong stance against using African American men as soldiers. During the Harrisburg Democratic State Convention held the previous July, the delegates had approved a platform that decried the use of such troops as a “waste of clothes, arms, and other supplies.”

Stanton, however, took considerable grief from influential abolitionist George L. Stearns over the rejection. He also knew that the situation was now vastly different than it had been in July 1862. The Pennsylvania heartland, with its rail network and rich coalmines, was being threatened, and Harrisburg could use all the troops it could find. He wired back to Couch, “You are authorized to receive into the service any volunteer troops…without regard to color.” But privately, to Stearns, who had offered to send the Philadelphia companies back to Harrisburg if Stanton would overrule Couch, the Secretary of War requested that such outside troops be kept away from the State Capital to avoid controversy. It appears, though, that Stanton’s decision left open the door for local African American troops to be used in Harrisburg, and this is exactly what local black citizens intended to meet about.

Word spread throughout the community that the meeting on Thursday night was “for the purpose of organizing and offering their services to the Governor.” This obviously meant more than just digging rifle pits. Such service was already ongoing, and no one needed a meeting to confirm it. No, this meeting was understood by all to be an invitation for “the black men of Harrisburg” to organize into military companies. Furthermore, these were to be troops officially uniformed and equipped by the State to serve in its defense, unlike the privately equipped Garnet Guards who had marched in 1859. It was going to be an historic event, and the old Masonic Hall was probably packed wall to wall with local residents.

In all likelihood, a number of people from the Cumberland Valley were in attendance as well. The town now held hundreds, if not thousands, of black refugees from Franklin, Adams, York, and Cumberland Counties, clustered in various locations throughout the city. The local newspaper commented, “The city is at present full of negro refugees who, we understand, are anxious to render some sort of service in the emergency; and, therefore, we trust that the meeting will be a success.”190

It was.

 

Henry Bradley's Company

By late evening, the first African American company ever raised in Harrisburg for the defense of the city was on the streets. It was not quite a full company, consisting of fifty-four men and a captain, but that did not diminish its importance. They lined up in the streets outside of the hall, possibly right there in the narrow confines of Tanner’s Alley, and prepared to march to the Capitol to offer their services to General Couch.191

It was an act of courage on several levels. Many of the men in the ragged but resolute ranks had been witnesses to the failure of the smartly uniformed Philadelphia African American company to enlist for the emergency only days earlier, and had watched as their dejected brethren headed back to the train station to return to their home city. Now they were attempting to do exactly the same thing, although they lacked many of the advantages held by the Philadelphians that should have made their acceptance a cinch.

Where the Philadelphia company detrained in new army uniforms, the Harrisburg men lined up in civilian habiliment, which ran the gamut from fine suits to sweat-stained work overalls. Where the Philadelphia complement numbered a full company of eighty men, the Harrisburg unit was shy of company strength by about twenty-five men. Where the Philadelphia soldiers were led by experienced white commanders, Harrisburg’s company of African American volunteers was commanded by local barber Henry Bradley.192

At forty-one years of age, Henry Bradley could count himself as one of the city’s most successful barbers. He enjoyed considerable respect not only in the black community, but in the white business community as well. The Telegraph had commented on his tonsorial skills some thirteen years earlier, while he was still in his twenties, saying, “We believe our town can boast of as good barbers as any other in the State. Such men as Bradley and Dorris handle a razor with a skill and facility that would challenge comparison with their city brethren of the profession, and compare favorably with them. In fact we do not believe they can be excelled anywhere for the neatness and dexterity which they ever exhibit."193

Such praise worked in his favor a few months after that article was published, when Bradley was arrested along with several other prominent African American men for complicity in the August 1850 runaway slave riots. Bradley, Doctor William Jones, Thomas Early, James Williams, Joseph Popel, and several others were charged with directing the riot against the nine Virginia slave catchers. The local African American men were able to avoid prison due to the support of more than fifty local white businessmen and borough leaders who petitioned Judge John J. Pearson for their release.

Bradley continued to build his reputation and his business through the next decade. A property owner in 1850, Bradley and his wife Susan raised a family in the city’s North Ward, and his son William followed him into the family business. In 1860, his home was about one block east of Tanner’s Alley, and his next-door neighbors were oyster restaurant owners James and Matilda Greenley. One door further down lived schoolteacher John Wolf and his wife Mary, with the Reverend David Stevens just one door beyond the Wolf residence.194 It was a lively, spirited neighborhood.

As Captain Henry Bradley marched his ragtag column through the narrow dirt streets toward the Capitol, to the delight and intense pride of the African American residents who had gathered around to cheer, and to the amazement of the local white residents, who merely gawked, the enormity of their decision to volunteer may not yet have begun to settle on them, but it soon would.

Their decision to enlist was not only audacious because they risked public humiliation, should General Couch again reject their offer of service, but it was courageous because of the intense danger they were sure to face when they eventually came face to face with Confederate troops. Beyond the expected hazards of combat, there were unique dangers that African American Union troops faced. It was widely believed that the 24 December 1862 Proclamation issued by Confederate President Jefferson Davis authorized the enslavement of captured African American men serving in the Union Army, and the trial of their officers for inciting “servile insurrection,” which carried a possible death penalty in most Southern States.195

The capture and enslavement of free African American civilians in Franklin County by the troops of General Jenkins just days earlier appeared to underscore this threat. If the Confederate raiders would heartlessly carry away infants and mothers, what would those same Southern troops do to black men that they found bearing arms against them in the trenches of Hummel Hill?

Their march was certainly noticed and documented. Harrisburg by now was filled with correspondents from large Eastern newspapers, including the New York Herald, New York Times, the Philadelphia Press, Pittsburgh Chronicle, and others. The newsmen were staying in various hotels, including the centrally located Jones House, on Market Square, where visiting pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk encountered them.

Local military authorities, in a move that was relatively progressive, considering the bumpy relationship between the government and the press, had given visiting reporters the use of a room in the Capitol. This ostensibly gave them freer access to news coming out of the Department of the Susquehanna, the headquarters of which was located in the same building, although General Couch might merely have been trying to keep them all where he could more easily see and control them.196

Regardless of the government’s intentions, the reporters tended to congregate in the Capitol near the military headquarters, which now had a direct telegraph line to the national capital as well as a line to the fortifications on Hummel Hill. They also hung out at the United States Hotel, near the train depot, which had the double advantage of keeping them not only close to the regional telegraph lines at the train station, but also allowed them to stay within a quick jog to the hotel bar. In coming and going between these locations, the reporters almost certainly encountered the African American volunteers. Some included a brief mention of the unit, as it moved through the city streets while others ignored it.

Only days before, the Philadelphia Press had publicly commented on the need to use black troops in the war effort, saying, “If the Government would speedily and effectually crush the rebellion, it must avail itself of the services of the colored people.”

Oromel Barrett, writing in the Patriot and Union, found this idea horrifying. Accusing the government of being puppets to the abolitionists, Barrett characterized the post Emancipation Proclamation war effort as an attempt “to convert our armies into a bodyguard of ‘John Brown’s soul,’ which, in their opinion is still ‘marching on,’ and carry out their favorite idea of a negro insurrection in the South.” The way the government intended to achieve that, he believed, was to “enlist a sufficient number of negroes to accomplish their fanatical and nefarious purposes…a proposition so monstrous that the whole civilized world must shrink with horror from its contemplation.”197

A few days later, Barrett again railed against government policy by challenging civilian and military authorities who were pushing for the use of black troops to put their words to deeds by ending the conscription of white men and put “black heroes in the field, not by companies and regiments merely, but by brigades, divisions and corps.”198 Sarcasm aside, he probably would have been surprised to learn how quickly he would see local black troops on the streets of Harrisburg.

Interestingly, the Telegraph, in reporting on the formation of the African American company, found little to praise in the public maneuvers and drill of Bradley’s men, which is quite revealing, given George Bergner’s normal pro-government bias. He complained, “It should be borne in mind by these people that the Government will not accept colored troops for a less period than three years. At least two thirds of the fifty-four who were in this procession last night are able to go into the service for that period. Let them do this, and they will establish their devotion to a great cause.”199 Perhaps the Republican editor, who supported the effort to send Harrisburg’s African American men to enlist in Massachusetts regiments, was less than thrilled to see a column of black soldiers marching on the streets of his home town.

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Notes

190. Evening Telegraph, 25 June 1863.

191. Daily Telegraph, 26 June 1863.

192. Ibid.

193. “Barbers,” Pennsylvania Telegraph, 3 July 1850.

194. Bureau of the Census, 1860 Census, Fourth Ward, Harrisburg, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania.

195. Adjutant and Inspector Generals’ Office, CSA, “General Orders, No. 111,” Richmond, Virginia, 24 December 1862.

196. Daily Telegraph, 26 June 1863. Control of the press might have been the intention, as Harrisburg military authorities moved to take over the telegraph lines during the weekend and forced all dispatches to go through an uncooperative and obfuscatory army censor, the newly commissioned Lieutenant Colonel Henry Coppee. Coppee was a forty-one year old Georgia-born, Yale educated, professor of English literature and history from the University of Pennsylvania, a graduate of West Point and a veteran of the Mexican War. He resisted taking an active part in the war because of his extensive family ties to the South, but in late June 1863 felt a need to offer his services to Governor Curtin. Professor Coppee reported to General Couch in Harrisburg on 20 June and was soon commissioned to serve on his staff. It is not likely that he enjoyed his role as army censor, and the reaction of the local and visiting press to his blackouts, blamed by him on army red tape, caused friction with his commander. Complaints from local newsmen forced General Couch to replace Coppee with a more diplomatic censor, Chester County attorney Wayne McVeagh. Evening Telegraph, 29 June 1863; George W. Cullum, Biographical Register of the Officers and Graduates of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York Since its Establishment in 1802, vol. 2 (Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1891), 222-223.

197. “The Negro Our Only Hope,” Patriot and Union, 20 June 1863.

198. “Negro vs White Soldiers,” Patriot and Union, 23 June 1863.

199. Daily Telegraph, 26 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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