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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)

 

Mohammed Khan

It is entirely possible that one of the “contrabands” who labored so diligently on the defenses at Bridgeport was actually a thirty-three-year-old adventurer from Afghanistan named Mohammed Khan. Two years earlier, Khan, fresh from Afghanistan, had been in New York City when recruiters for the Forty-Third New York Volunteer Infantry enticed him into the service with promises of adventure and glory.

Khan enlisted willingly, but due to a severe language barrier, he was unable to understand the questions about his nationality and place of birth. Faced with an inability to get the required information from his new enlistee, the recruiting sergeant efficiently cut through the red tape by making up what he did not know. He guessed that Khan, because of his dark skin tone, was Native American, and he marked him down in his paperwork as a member of the Blackfoot Indian tribe.

Khan was mustered in as Private John Amamahe, in Company H, and accompanied his regiment through the first bloody campaigns of the war. He was wounded in the face at the Battle of Malvern Hill, on 1 July 1862, when an enemy soldier clubbed him with the butt of a musket. He apparently served through the Antietam campaign and was afterward assigned to detached duty, possibly at the Union army hospital in that town.

Khan remained at Frederick for some time, until a case of mistaken identity caused his military career to take a considerable detour. Somehow, he was accused of being an escaped slave and was confined to a contraband camp. Many escaped slaves were dressed in discarded and surplus Union Army uniforms, and Khan’s dark complexion may have given local authorities reason to assume that he was just another refugee from a Southern plantation. He attempted to explain the mix-up to the guards, but his lack of fluency in English hindered these attempts.

Months passed, and in time, he was “sent” with a group of contrabands to Harrisburg, where he again attempted to get someone to believe his story. He probably felt that officials in Harrisburg, because it was teeming with a huge variety of soldiers and army equipment, would be more likely to understand his plight, but Harrisburg was not nearly as cosmopolitan as New York, and his story of being an Afghani soldier in the Union Army, who had been shanghaied as a fugitive slave, was just too spectacular for even a Harrisburger’s active imagination. With no other options, Khan lived with the contrabands that continued to pour into the city, and, given his history of service, probably joined the ranks of the strong-backed African American men who dug the entrenchments in late June on Hummel Hill.214

 

 

Sunday Night: Like So Many Burning Ships

By sundown, just as the cannonading from the direction of Oyster’s Point was fading, another phenomenon attracted the attention of local residents, soldiers, refugees, and the workers on the heights. A fiery glow could be distinctly observed downriver. As the sun continued to set and the night sky darkened, the glow became more prominent. People moved to vantage points at the tops of buildings and on local hillsides in at attempt to view the source of the infernal light, but it remained hidden just beyond their range of vision.

As had been common all during the day, rumors were passed from person to person when facts were missing. The most alarming story told of the appearance of a large force of enemy troops on the riverbank opposite Bainbridge, a mere twelve miles downstream, with a train of pontoon equipment “sufficiently large enough to cross the river.” Army intelligence gatherers, at six o’clock p.m., had telegraphed to General Couch that these were forces of General Ambrose P. Hill.215 This was not true, but the alarm shook military authorities in Harrisburg and terrified local residents because it meant that Confederate forces had the means to bypass the extensive defenses protecting the bridges across the Susquehanna.

Commanders reacted to the sudden threat with several measures. An order was issued to army quartermaster E. C. Wilson to have “sufficient combustible materials taken over to the west end of the public bridge, and there placed, under the direction of General [William F.] Smith, in such places that the bridge, if necessary, can be fired at a moment’s notice.” The orders even suggested, “Combustible materials of any kind can be used. Turpentine, tar, shavings, &c, would be the best.” It urged that such action be taken “without delay.”

The decision to burn the Camel Back Bridge, to prevent it from falling into the hands of advancing enemy troops, was an extreme measure that was probably only made after consulting with Governor Curtin. The delicacy of this decision, which indicated that the top military commanders at Harrisburg had no confidence in the ability of local defenders to stop the Rebels in front of the fortifications, was shown by the “confidential” instructions that preceded the telegram text. 216

Another order was given, probably in consequence of the feared imminent crossing of the river by Confederate troops at Bainbridge, which had huge significance for the African American community in Harrisburg. For the first time, black troops in Harrisburg were summoned to the state arsenal on Walnut Street to be issued weapons. All during the previous week, local militia and emergency troops, and even unorganized able-bodied white men, had been given rifled muskets and ammunition while the two African American companies of Captains Henry Bradley and T. Morris Chester looked on.

The approximately one hundred and fifty men of the two “colored companies,” who had been consistently denied weapons, remained steadfast in their outlook, however, and continued to drill without weapons, confident that their time would come. When it did, they received the weapons eagerly, and proudly marched to available open spaces in order to drill more efficiently and allow the men to get used to the heft of their new rifles.

Captain Bradley marched his full strength company just north to the Capitol grounds for instruction in the manual of arms. His choice of this spot for a drilling ground was probably not by happenstance. Prior to this, his recruits had trained in the wider streets of the city, probably using the avenues directly behind the Capitol. Now that he had a full company, however, he had no need to find more volunteers and could afford to move his men out of their neighborhood. The grounds of the Capitol were not only spacious and convenient to the arsenal and the Tanner’s Alley neighborhood; they were also highly public.

Bradley would have remembered the magnificent sight that the Henry Highland Garnet Guards made on Emancipation Day, four years earlier, when they marched through the streets of Harrisburg, glorious in their new gray uniforms, spotless white belts, with brand new muskets at the shoulder. He also would have remembered the humiliation of having to defend their right to organize and march, as the local white populace, in a wave of paranoia following John Brown’s Harpers Ferry raid, demanded that they be immediately disarmed and disbanded. The arms that his soldiers now carried, issued by the State of Pennsylvania, were the penultimate answer to that racist backlash.

It is probable that Captain Bradley wanted his men to be seen by as many people as possible, not only to repudiate those who opposed their participation in the war, but to validate the stirring words spoken by Jacob C. White, Jr. in Harrisburg at that 1859 Emancipation Day event. Black men had never hesitated to fight and die defending the United States, he had argued, but their motivations were as much fraternal as patriotic. Four years earlier, White had described his dream of blacks throughout the United States coming together and forcefully throwing off the “weight of oppression we are obliged to sustain.” Now, under the command of two black commanders, the African American men of Harrisburg had come together to do just that.

Just as Jacob White had drawn an admiring and enthusiastic crowd with his vision, the African American company of Captain Henry Bradley also drew an admiring crowd with their fulfillment of that vision. A local newsman reported that “the men looked strong and determined,” and added that “a large crowd, both of white people, and of the sweethearts and dulcineas of the departing soldiers were on the ground, attracted thither to witness the parade of the first company of blacks ever armed by the State of Pennsylvania.”217 If this parade and drill with muskets was the penultimate answer to their critics, the firing of those muskets in defense of Harrisburg, but more certainly in defense of their freedoms, their brothers, their homes, and their families, would be the ultimate reply.

The two companies drilled with their weapons until sundown, then joined the rest of the soldiers hurrying to the fortifications on the heights across from Harrisburg. There, they could more easily see the ominous orange glow emanating from the southeastern horizon. They may have overheard stories that York itself was burning to the ground, and they probably speculated among themselves about the source of the mysterious glow, adding more horrific rumors to the swirl of fearful stories that already circulated, stories that, ironically, had contributed to their acquisition of weapons.

By ten o’clock p.m., the light was brighter than ever, and news came that York was in possession of the enemy. A little later, a dispatch arrived, announcing that Confederate soldiers were at Wrightsville and that Union troops had destroyed the bridge between that place and Columbia. The black troops of Harrisburg probably gazed solemnly downriver, watching the flickering reflection of flames on the clouds in the night sky and thinking about the battle they were sure was coming the next day. Perhaps they wondered if they would be strong enough to stand up against an enemy assault and do credit to their brothers in arms. What they did not know was that their brethren from Columbia had already been tested, and that the orange glow they now saw was a symbolic pyre for the first African American soldier killed in the defense of central Pennsylvania.


The Fight at Wrightsville

Nearly two weeks earlier, the entire Columbia and Wrightsville area had been put on high alert when news reached them of the Confederate movement in force across the Potomac River. As in Harrisburg, plans were made to defend the bridge connecting Wrightsville, in York County, and Columbia, in Lancaster County, with entrenchments and fortifications. Railroad topographical engineers staked out rifle pits on the approaches to Wrightsville and workers were recruited to begin digging.

The same situation occurred in Wrightsville as occurred in Harrisburg, however, as the white citizens quickly gave up on the hard, dirty work of excavating the fortifications and African American workers were brought in to take their place. The Columbia Spy newspaper reported, “The working party consisted of over one hundred negroes from Tow Hill, divided into reliefs.”

Tow Hill was the neighborhood in Columbia that had developed primarily on land donated specifically for African American residences by William Whipper, some years before. The residents of Tow Hill bickered almost constantly, as close neighbors commonly do, but when danger threatened, they closed ranks. They were fiercely loyal to each other, actively sheltered runaway slaves, and kept active vigils against slave catchers in the neighborhood. In 1847, they had chased down a slave catcher and liberated the slave in his possession. Now, in 1863, they were laboring together to protect their homes.

Working overnight, the black citizens of Columbia did “excellent service” and soon had the Wrightsville trenches ready for use.218 The works were soon inspected by local military men and pronounced “well planned and properly constructed.” The editors of the Columbia Spy felt safe enough to boast, “We have made a fair beginning, and if the Rebels do not come in overwhelming numbers, are even now ready to give them a wrestle for the bridge. We will fight for it before we will burn it.”219

Unfortunately, a week later, the Rebels did come in overwhelming numbers. The men sent from Harrisburg, on Wednesday, 24 June, to defend the Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge were the Twenty-Seventh Pennsylvania Militia, commanded by Colonel Jacob G. Frick. The regiment relieved local militia units then defending the bridge, and took up a position at the west end of Wrightsville, where things remained relatively calm for several days.

As they established their position, the men of Frick’s command witnessed a steadily increasing flow of farmers, livestock, merchants with their goods, and refugees, streaming from out of York County to cross the bridge at Wrightsville to safety on the Columbia side. Within days, the situation mirrored that at Harrisburg as the road leading to the bridge quickly became clogged with panicked people fleeing from closing enemy forces.

By Saturday, when news reached Wrightsville that Confederate troops were just outside of York, the scene at the bridge became dangerously chaotic. It took a concerted effort on the part of local military authorities and the bridge owners to break up the traffic jam and clear the area so that the army could prepare an effective defense.

With Confederate troops closing in, Frick rushed the remainder of his troops across the bridge and secured four more companies of local militia from Columbia to bolster his numbers. The local newspaper described the excitement in Columbia as news of the Rebel advance was received: “About 8 1/2 o’clock on Saturday evening the City Troop dashed into Columbia and reported that York had surrendered to the enemy. The bells were rung and the men of the town were ordered to take arms, when several companies, without distinction of party, crossed over the bridge and took position at the rifle pits beyond Wrightsville.”

Three of the militia companies were white and one was African American. Working until well after midnight, Colonel Frick positioned his troops in a defensive arc around the western approaches to Wrightsville, with the Twenty-Seventh Regiment at the point, holding the trenches that flanked the turnpike into town. With entrenchments only partially prepared, and not sure of the strength of the approaching enemy forces, the Union defenders passed Saturday night in restless anticipation of the coming attack.220

Sunday’s sunrise revealed no threat of immediate attack, allowing Colonel Frick the opportunity to renew the much-needed work on his fortifications. He obtained shovels and picks from the railroad and ordered them to be distributed among the men of his regiment and the four militia companies. Work began apace, but as the sun rose well above the horizon, the men of the three white militia companies put down their tools and walked back across the mile-long wooden bridge to Columbia.

Frick was amazed that the men of the town seemed to care so little for its defense, but noted with satisfaction that the fifty-three men of the African American company were still hard at work, swinging their picks side-by-side with his own men. The black minutemen of Columbia and the soldiers of the Twenty-Seventh Militia labored through the morning, and their numbers were soon bolstered by some additional troops sent in haste from Harrisburg. Frick positioned these units on the right and left of his line to protect the flanks.221

It was a very tense day for the Union troops who protected the bridge entrance at Wrightsville. In the early afternoon, some scouts reported that Confederate troops had entered York in force at eight o’clock that morning. York was only eleven miles away, making it evident to Frick and his men that the enemy would very soon be making directly for the river crossing that they now defended.

Frick also knew that his limited number of men lacked battle experience and would not stand up long against seasoned Rebel infantrymen, so the decision was made to fight a delaying action while carpenters from Columbia prepared the Wrightsville-Columbia Bridge for destruction. The plan was to saw most of the way through the key support timbers of two spans, place explosives at those spots, and drop the spans by detonating the explosive charges once friendly troops had cleared the bridge. With two spans missing, the bridge would be unusable to the invading Confederates, but still easily repairable after the danger had passed.222

About five-thirty that afternoon, the Confederate troops were reported to be approaching. The men of the Twenty-Seventh Militia and the fifty-three African American militiamen found their weapons and took their places in the rifle pits that flanked the toll road down which the Rebels were coming. The two groups contrasted greatly in appearance: the white regiment was uniformed in Union blue and equipped with rifled muskets while the African American company wore civilian clothes, now heavily stained with the sweat and dirt of more than ten hours of digging, and held antiquated muskets and fowling pieces.

The lack of uniforms increased the danger to the African American troops, as it meant they could be identified by enemy troops as partisan fighters, and therefore subject to execution on the spot if captured. Despite their contrasting appearances, however, the black minutemen of Columbia and the white soldiers of the Twenty-Seventh Militia were identically steadfast as they pointed their weapons down the turnpike in the direction of York. Both groups probably had more than a few soldiers who held their weapons with hands that trembled, and not from fatigue.

By six o’clock, the Union troops could now see the gray-clad soldiers moving into the fields on either side of the turnpike. The tall grass and crops hid their movements from sight, causing considerable consternation among the nervous men in the trenches. These were Georgians from Gordon’s Brigade in the division of Jubal A. Early, fresh from the capture of York earlier that day. They took their time getting into position and soon set up an artillery section on the turnpike road.

The Confederate battery began firing into the Union position at the approaches to the town, with many shells landing in the town itself. The defenders held the Rebels at bay from the rifle pits, gaining valuable time for the carpenters to complete their work. By seven o’clock, Colonel Frick observed a flanking movement on either side of his line and knew that their time was about up. He would have to pull his troops in and withdraw across the bridge now if he was going to save them.

About this time, a Confederate shell struck the front rifle pits near where the African American company was stationed, and fragments took off the head of one of the black minutemen. Despite the loss of one of their number, the men of the black company stayed relatively orderly as the order was given to withdraw. They gave one last volley in the direction of the enemy and filed quickly back through the town of Wrightsville along with the other Union troops, making it safely across the long bridge to Columbia.

Only a small group of men from the Twentieth Militia regiment did not make it back across the bridge before the order was given to detonate the charges. The explosions rocked the structure, but to the chagrin of the carpenters and the military men alike, the strong timbers held and the spans did not drop into the river as planned.223 Colonel Frick was faced with a potential disaster. With the Union defenders now across the river in Columbia and the bridge intact, the road to Harrisburg would be completely open if Gordon’s Georgian’s could seize the bridge.

Seeing the Union retreat and the failure of the explosive charges to destroy the spans, the Georgians moved quickly past the Union defenses, past the body of the dead African American defender, and through Wrightsville to the bridge entrance. They were slowed at that point by a blockade of railroad cars placed across the entrance, and had to file through singly, but they were now within a few minutes of capturing the huge prize of an intact bridge across the Susquehanna River. The back-door capture of Harrisburg now seemed assured.

Colonel Frick, however, had a backup plan. From the Columbia side, Union soldiers raced with lit torches to a point in the bridge that had previously been soaked with kerosene. There, they touched the torches to the combustible liquid. The flames quickly spread across the oil-soaked timbers, forming a wall of flames that halted the triumphant Confederate soldiers, then gradually forced them back into the town of Wrightsville. An effort was made by the Southern troops, with the help of the townspeople in Wrightsville, to save the bridge by bucket brigade, but in the end, the crackling flames asserted undisputed control.

Soldiers and townsfolk on both sides of the river watched the flames gradually spread toward each end of the bridge in the light of the setting sun. The vanishing twilight was barely noticed as the entire area was brilliantly illuminated by the conflagration. A local reporter, watching from the Columbia side, described the sad and terrible scene aptly, writing, “As span after span fell into the water, they floated away like so many burning ships.”224

 

Flourish

The bridge burned well into the night, brilliantly illuminating the Columbia-Wrightsville area and casting its orange glow high into the late June night sky. In Harrisburg, thousands of people stopped what they were doing to gather in knots, watch the light show, and engage in their favorite pastime, which was to gossip about the source of the glow. They generally grasped the idea that something big was burning, and speculated that York had been put to the torch by the invaders. Gradually news began to filter in, from scouts, from the refugees that continued to flow into town, and from the new telegraph line that had been installed in the Third Street office of the Patriot and Union newspaper.

There had been a dust-up near Wrightsville, they learned, but misinformation was rife. Again, speculation took over. Perhaps it was Wrightsville that was burning. By ten o’clock p.m., word finally came that the light in the eastern sky was from the flames that were consuming the Columbia Bridge. The news was jarring to those who had assumed the main threat was coming down the Trindle Road from Carlisle.

It now became apparent that two large columns were converging on Harrisburg, and that the capital was about to be caught between the hammer of Early’s Division, which was assumed to be advancing up the eastern side of the Susquehanna from Columbia, and the anvil of the remainder of Ewell’s Corps, which was even now resting in the dark somewhere beyond Oyster Point, just three miles from the western end of the Camel Back Bridge.

To the soldiers and citizens in the streets of Harrisburg, it was a sobering eye-opener. To the black soldiers who slowly began to filter back to their homes in Tanners Alley and Judy’s Town, or to the refugee camps throughout town late that night, it laid bare a new terrifying reality. They returned to their families, children, wives, and sweethearts, not knowing if this would be the last night that they would ever spend together, for the dawn was expected to bring a storm of gray that would surely kill or enslave them all, man, woman and child.

They had no way of knowing, on this night, that the Confederate tide had been stopped on the western bank of the river, in York County. They did not know that the opportunity to move Jubal Early’s division across the river below Harrisburg had been lost, partially due to the delaying action fought by an inexperienced militia regiment and a small company of African American minutemen from Columbia. They also had no way of knowing that the first African American blood had been spilled on their behalf in a muddy rifle pit west of the town of Wrightsville.225 Jacob C. White’s speech at Harrisburg was now more prophetic than provoking.

 

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Notes

214. “Mohammed Kahn,” Index to the Reports of Committees of the House of Representatives for the First and Second Sessions of the Forty-Sixth Congress, 1879-80, vol. 3 (Reports 573-981) (Washington, 1880), 832-833. Mohammed Khan’s story is detailed in his claim for an Invalid Pension in 1880, in which he is identified as Mohommed Kahn, otherwise John Ammahoe. There are two additional alternate spellings of his name in his service file, giving credence to his claim of lack of fluency in English, and probably also indicating a thick accent.

215. Evening Telegraph, 29 June 1863; Official Records, ser. 1, vol. 27, pt. 3, 387-388.

216. Official Records, ser. 1, vol. 27, pt. 3, 388.

217. “Colored Companies,” Daily Patriot and Union, 29 June 1863; “The First Colored Troops from Harrisburg,” Evening Telegraph, 29 June 1863.

218. “The Invasion of Pennsylvania,” Columbia Spy, 20 June 1863.

219. Ibid.; Nye, Here Come the Rebels!, 284.

220. “Defences of the Susquehanna,” Columbia Spy, 27 June 1863; “The Skirmish Beyond Wrightsville,” Columbia Spy, 11 July 1863; Nye, Here Come the Rebels!, 284-288.

221. “Report of Col. Jacob G. Frick,” 278.

222. “The Skirmish Beyond Wrightsville,” Columbia Spy, 11 July 1863.

223. Ibid.; “Report of Col. Jacob G. Frick,” 278.

224. “The Skirmish Beyond Wrightsville,” Columbia Spy, 11 July 1863; U.S. Naval Observatory, “Sun and Moon Data for One Day: June 28, 1863,” http://aa.usno.navy.mil/cgi-bin/aa_pap.pl (accessed 26 May 2010).

225. “The Situation,” Patriot and Union, 29 June 1863. The Confederate attack at Wrightsville actually killed two Union soldiers: one African American and one white. Nine Union soldiers were wounded and eighteen white soldiers of the Twentieth Militia were taken prisoner in Wrightsville. “Report of Col. Jacob G. Frick,” 278; “Telegrams from Columbia, Penn,” New York Times, 30 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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