Persons of Color
The Bridge (continued)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
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.
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
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
Telegraph, 25 June 1863.
Telegraph, 26 June 1863.
193. “Barbers,” Pennsylvania
Telegraph, 3 July 1850.
of the Census, 1860 Census, Fourth Ward, Harrisburg, Dauphin County,
and Inspector Generals’ Office, CSA, “General Orders, No.
111,” Richmond, Virginia, 24 December 1862.
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.
Negro Our Only Hope,” Patriot and Union, 20 June 1863.
vs White Soldiers,” Patriot and Union, 23 June 1863.
Telegraph, 26 June 1863.