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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)

 

Sunday, 28 June 1863: “We…are even now ready to give them a wrestle for the bridge”

True to its name, the Lord’s Day dawned bright and sunny, the second beautiful morning of a weekend that followed days of heavy rain. The warm sun was a welcome sight to the men who had to occupy muddy, water-filled entrenchments, but it also reminded them that the flooded river would soon subside, making the fords and crossings again useful to the enemy. In the city, churches opened their doors to the faithful as scheduled, as the crisis had not yet generated casualties on a scale necessary for their use as temporary hospitals.

The Reverend Charles J. Carter, pastor of the rebuilding Wesley Church, at Tanner’s Alley and South Street, and the Reverend Mifflin Gibbs, at Bethel A.M.E. Church, on Short Street, held services for their regular congregants and welcomed as many of their western and southern county neighbors as could be accommodated. It is likely that the Reverend Dennis Davis and his small flock from the Hagerstown A.M.E. Church took advantage of Sabbath services offered by their hosts, as they did not know when, if ever, they would be able to return to their modest Maryland church.

It is not known if the African American refugees still working on the fortifications at Forts Washington and Couch observed morning services in their work camps or crossed the bridge into Harrisburg to worship. Regardless of where the faithful found their church, whether in a cramped weather-boarded structure, a temporary hall, or a muddy field, everyone got back to the business of defending the commonwealth after the final earnest prayer was offered.

Further west, as the sun rose higher in the sky, the defense of the commonwealth fell further into jeopardy as two more major towns fell to Confederate occupiers. In Mechanicsburg, residents watched in alarm as Union cavalrymen moved quickly out of town and headed east. Minutes later the military telegraph operators also retreated, cradling their precious equipment in their arms as they ran. A terrible sense of abandonment must have spread through the town’s residents as they watched the federal horse troopers disappear down the Trindle Road toward the defenses of Harrisburg.

Citizens lowered the United States flag from a flagpole near the town square, took it to the home of town burgess George Hummel on Main Street for safekeeping, and awaited the inevitable approach of the enemy. The impending dread they felt could only have multiplied when, just before nine o’clock a.m., the first Confederate cavalrymen under the command of General Albert Jenkins cautiously approached the town.

The scouts were covered by two captured Parrott cannons that Jenkins had deployed at the intersection of Trindle Road and Simpson Ferry Road, just west of town. Unknown to the residents of Mechanicsburg, another Confederate battery, supported by the Thirty-Sixth Virginia Cavalry, was just reaching Salem Church on the Carlisle Pike. All major roads to Harrisburg were now under the muzzles of Southern cannons.210

A few Virginians soon rode into the center of town holding sticks with white cloths tied to the ends as a sign of truce. They proceeded cautiously but purposefully down the dirt street and were soon met by several local men who had mustered enough courage to venture forth and negotiate with the hard looking Southerners to see what they wanted. It turned out they wanted information, asking if there were any Union troops still in town, and inquiring as to the location of the town mayor, alderman, or other official.

The townsmen answered truthfully, telling the soldiers that the Union cavalrymen had disappeared just before their arrival, and telling them how to find the home of Burgess Hummel. With that information, the scouts rode further on, straight to the house of the Mechanicsburg official and pounded on his front door.

When George Hummel opened the door, the troopers demanded the United States flag, which they noticed was no longer flying on the pole near the square. Hummel pretended ignorance, but in a very matter-of-fact tone, his uninvited guests informed him that his town would be shelled if the flag was not immediately surrendered to them. He produced the flag without delay. They then took the mayor back through town to meet their commander, who waited near the triangle west of town where Trindle and Simpson Ferry roads diverged.

To the citizens of Mechanicsburg, who watched this drama from behind window curtains, or stood as silent witnesses on the street corners, the sight of their elected town leader being led by enemy soldiers through their streets as a prisoner was undeniable proof that the war had finally come to their hometown. Unfortunately for them, the parading of Burgess Hummel through the streets was just the beginning of the enemy occupation.

General Jenkins questioned the captured leader about the presence of Union troops. Assured that they had retreated from town toward the Harrisburg defenses, the Southern general then told Hummel to have the citizens of Mechanicsburg bring fifteen hundred rations for his eight hundred cavalrymen, along with ample forage for their mounts, to the town square by noon.

Hummel protested that his town, which contained only about two thousand residents, could not possibly gather that much food in so short a period, particularly on a Sunday, but his appeal did not faze Jenkins. The commander calmly offered to have his men forage through the neighborhoods for rations on their own, but Hummel, envisioning squads of Rebels rampaging through the parlors and pantries of his citizens’ fine houses, quickly acquiesced to Jenkins’ demands. With the matter settled, Hummel was dismissed, and he walked back to the square to arrange for the food collection.

Mayor Hummel dispatched a boy to range through the streets ringing a bell and spreading the word to bring food quickly to the square. The residents, however, did not need the bell to tell them that something big was happening, as at that time the entire rebel command, with General Jenkins at the head, began moving through town to make camp in a field on the eastern edge of town. Main Street was suddenly filled with army wagons, cannons, and hundreds of the hardest-looking mounted soldiers they had ever seen.

Some of the soldiers wore uniforms of distinctive Southern butternut, but most appeared to be dressed in old and dusty civilian shirts and pants, giving them the appearance of poor local farmers, except for the ubiquitous array of weaponry. By noon, the Confederates had the rations and horse fodder they needed, and the citizens of Mechanicsburg had very sparse pantries.211 As if this was not enough excitement for a Sunday, some of Jenkins’ artillerymen posted near Peace Church on Trindle Road spotted some Union soldiers about a mile away at Oyster Point. They loaded their guns and prepared to fire.


Flourish

The African American troops commanded by captains Henry Bradley and T. Morris Chester were once more drilling and going through their “facings” on one of the wider streets outside of the neighborhood of Tanners’ Alley on Sunday afternoon when the distinctive report of a cannon reached their ears. Occasional practice cannon fire was not unusual in a town surrounded by military encampments, but when the first report was followed by a four gun volley, and shortly thereafter answered by another volley that clearly came from different guns, firing from a different angle and distance, the men of the two African American companies knew this was not routine artillery practice.

Everyone heard the guns. The sound traveled like an electrical current through emergency-weary Harrisburgers who had been attempting to enjoy a sunny and calm Sunday afternoon. Minutes earlier, the city had been bustling as people left church, went calling on acquaintances, and began preparing Sunday dinner. All these attempts by local residents to ignore the drilling soldiers, the army wagons, the visiting reporters, the crowds of homeless black refugees, in order to pretend that it was a typical Sunday afternoon in Harrisburg, came to a jarring halt with the first echoing wave of cannon reports.

People climbed to the tops of buildings, clambered onto rooftops, and clustered on the riverbank in an attempt to see what was happening. The very air felt charged with excitement, and where facts about the situation were absent, rumors quickly filled the void. Newly armed militia companies reported to the Camel Back Bridge, formed ranks, and marched across to take up positions in Fort Washington.212 Many of those who flocked to the city’s riverbank ran right by the companies of Captains Bradley and Chester, who, still without rifles, felt powerless in the face of what was thought to be the beginning of an enemy assault.

The noise was coming from an artillery duel between four rifled Parrott cannons, worked by the Confederates from their position in front of the Peace Church, at St. John’s Church and Trindle Roads, and the cannons of the Philadelphia Home Guard Artillery, situated near the tollhouse at Oyster Point. Both units fired without great effect on the other, stopping for short periods as Confederate cavalrymen advanced toward the federal line and were in turn repulsed by supporting Union infantry. The artillery would then take up the fight again, keeping Harrisburg residents on edge and convinced that the Rebels were finally starting the long anticipated battle for Pennsylvania’s capital.

Those African American refugees who were encamped along the riverbank for lack of any better place to be, somehow found a better place to be, not wishing to be on the front lines when the Confederates tried crossing the river. A large number of the male refugees were hastily formed into labor crews and hustled across the bridge by military authorities for a last minute push to strengthen the fortifications in the railroad cut at Bridgeport.

The ad hoc African American labor crews could distinctly hear the booming cannon fire and crackling rifle fire coming from about two miles down the turnpike as they began working around the Bridgeport engine house. The ominous sound of battle spurred them to work diligently. A New York soldier recalled that the work was “laborious,” and involved “lifting railroad sleepers (railroad ties) and carrying sandbags.”

Despite the backbreaking work, the black laborers kept steadily at it, without complaint. “The white laborers from Harrisburg had long since abandoned the toilsome work; the weary soldiers stopped at nine o’clock, but the negroes kept on until near midnight,” wrote the soldier, whose admiration would have increased even more if he had considered that the black workers were persisting in their labors in the face of imminent enslavement should the sounds of battle draw closer.

They knew that every boom of a cannon potentially heralded an advance that could deprive them of their freedom forever. It must have been almost maddening. The artillery duel continued throughout the afternoon until the sun began to set, sometimes slowing, sometimes increasing in intensity, but always there, never allowing them to forget about the deadly foe who had now advanced to within a half hour’s walk from their refuge.213

 

 

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Notes

210. Nye, Here Come the Rebels!, 328-329; Lawrence E. Keener-Farley and James E. Schmick, eds., Civil War Harrisburg: A Guide to Capital Area Sites, Incidents and Personalities (Harrisburg: n. pub., 2000), n.pag. (46-47).

211. Nye, Here Come the Rebels!, 328-332; Keener-Farley and Schmick, Civil War Harrisburg, (46-47); Crist, Confederate Invasion, 30.

212. Nye, Here Come the Rebels!, 336.

213. Ibid., 336-339; George Wood Wingate, History of the Twenty-Second Regiment of the National Guard of the State of New York (New York: Edwin W. Dayton, 1896), 181.

 

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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