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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)

 

29 June 1863

Harrisburg residents got a good look at the enemy on Monday morning. For several days, Union troops had been bringing in groups of Southern soldiers captured in the skirmishing that was occurring with increasing frequency throughout the Cumberland Valley. The prisoners were brought to Harrisburg and turned over to the office of the Provost Marshall, which held them in secure areas in the city. This was far from an unusual occurrence, as Confederate prisoners were being brought through Harrisburg for just over a year now, the first group of several hundred arriving by train on Sunday afternoon, 15 June 1862.

In that instance, their entrance into town was treated like the arrival of a visiting king, with curious Harrisburg residents lining the railroad tracks all along the route from the western edge of the Cumberland Valley Railroad Bridge, in Bridgeport, down Mulberry Street, through Judy’s Town, all the way out to the railroad siding at Camp Curtin.

Those who went out as far as Camp Curtin got a close-up look at the prisoners when they were unloaded next to the siding and marched into the camp. The Telegraph reported, “Both sides of the road between the crossing and the camp were lined with men, women and children, who viewed the passing, captured ‘secesh’ with silent curiosity.” After they passed, no one was permitted into the camp to gawk, and within a few days the men were sent to a prison camp at Fort Delaware, near Wilmington.226

Hundreds more were brought to the city in the coming months, again mostly by train, and held at Camp Curtin until transportation and a military escort could be arranged to a more permanent prison camp. Contact with civilians was kept to a minimum, as the prisoners were usually transported by train directly to the siding at Camp Curtin. One notable exception was in September 1862, when hundreds of Confederate prisoners, including sixty African American Rebel prisoners, were marched from the camp into Harrisburg to be loaded on railroad cars in the Harrisburg station.

The prisoners brought into Harrisburg in late June of 1863 were viewed differently than the earlier groups, though. While the townspeople treated the prisoners of 1862 as curiosities and living relics brought back from the war in the South, the forty-two prisoners that were lined up in the yard behind the Court House early Monday morning were taken much more seriously.

One by one, they were taken out of the yard that connected the Court House with the prison and marched to the office of the Provost Marshal, where they were “examined,” before being returned to the yard with their comrades. This lengthy procedure allowed the citizens of Harrisburg plenty of time to interact with, and get a good look at, the type of men who were believed to be on the verge of capturing their city. They did not like what they saw.

These were not the defeated, sullen men of 1862 who trudged sadly from a prison train, through a corridor of gawking locals, toward a prison camp. These men were the cocky and self-assured soldiers of a triumphant army that had spent that last two weeks criss-crossing the rich Cumberland Valley, scattering local militia units, and which was even now within striking distance of the capital of Pennsylvania. They boasted that their invading force was 100,000 men strong, and that they had brought along one hundred and sixty-three cannons and four siege guns.

A town doctor was involved with the physical examination of the soldiers. Dduring his examinations, several told him “that it was Ewell’s intention to take the capital and destroy it, and they felt certain that it could be easily accomplished.”227

These braggadocios, although looking every bit as worn and weather-beaten as their comrades a year earlier, were not ridiculed in the local Republican press as being “dusty, musty and crusty” this time. Fate had now brought the war to Harrisburg’s threshold, and these were the very men threatening to beat down the front door. Harrisburgers regarded them this time with caution and timidity, the way one might treat ensnared wolves.

The black troops under the command of Captains Henry Bradley and T. Morris Chester might have happened by the Court House yard to get a look at the men that they expected to face shortly. If they did, they did not tarry long in that spot. There was still much drilling and marching to do, and they lost no time to sightseeing. Both captains kept their men constantly busy and under tight control, marching through the streets of Harrisburg, trying to master the art of moving in formation. They were observed by everyone, including out of town journalists.

A correspondent for the New York Times thought it was peculiar that, in contrast to previous weeks and months, they could now march through the streets “without being insulted.” This apparent change in attitude by Harrisburg’s white citizens toward its newly-armed African American soldiers would prove to be superficial, a point that even the Times reporter understood, noting that, in the present crisis, “there was bone and muscle even if the skin was black.”

Regardless of the opinion of their white neighbors, the African American companies carried out their public drills and made the most of the precious few hours that they had left learning how to be good soldiers. They had not volunteered to fight in order to impress or annoy their neighbors, particularly those who felt that black men had no business carrying weapons in the war. And although the Proclamation that the assembled black citizens of Harrisburg had issued in the A.M.E. Church last January promised that “if called upon we feel bound as citizens to maintain” the supremacy of the national flag, this was not really about duty to country anymore. They had volunteered for each other.

Although they would soon be defending Harrisburg from the Southern invasion, in their eyes they were really striking a blow against slavery, which, at its heart, was nothing more than a defense of their homes, their wives, and their children. To that end, they devoted themselves to their training with a zeal that the Times reporter mischaracterized as a childlike simplicity toward the grim business ahead: “The darkies themselves are highly delighted. They polish up their muskets and stuff their cartridge boxes full, laughing and chatting all the time as merrily as possible—tickled as a child with a new toy.”228

What he witnessed in this exuberant activity, but failed to recognize, was the release of decades of frustration at having built this nation, and then being beaten, cheated, raped, and ignored for their efforts. The sight of the arrogant Confederate prisoners being led to and from the Provost Marshal’s office had made them realize that the coming fight was to be a fight of retribution.

 

Flourish

Even as the defenders of Harrisburg got a good look at their opponent on this Monday morning, their foes were also getting a good look at them. About midmorning, a skirmish along the Union line caused quite a bit of commotion and noise, but few casualties. The Seventy-First New York had moved quietly back to their old line near Oyster’s Point late Sunday night, after it was abandoned by the Southerners. They paid the price for their advance on Monday morning, however, as their line was continuously shelled by Confederate artillery units located further west on the Trindle Road.

Suddenly, about eleven o’clock, two companies of Jenkins’ Sixteenth Virginia Cavalry charged the Union line. The attackers drew a lot of fire from the militiamen there and eventually retreated back down the Trindle Road to the safety of their own line, leaving a cannon and one wounded man behind. Although this limited attack and retreat gave the Union militia troops a considerable adrenaline rush and boosted their morale by the ease with which it was repelled, they could see no potential gain or reason for it.

It proved to be very valuable, however, to the Southern cavalrymen, and very disadvantageous for Harrisburg’s defenders. While everyone’s attention was drawn to the attack on the Union line, General Jenkins, with a scouting party consisting of about sixty men, rode quickly south through Shiremanstown to Slate Hill, and scouted the land considerably eastward, entirely unmolested by the distracted Union troops, to a vantage point along Lisburn Road, from where he intended to get a better look at Pennsylvania’s capital.

From his advance position, Jenkins could clearly see the capital city, the bridges, and the fortifications. He studied the area for nearly a quarter of an hour, comparing what he saw through his field glasses with the detailed descriptions of the forts that he had read about yesterday in Mechanicsburg on the front pages of some eastern newspapers. When he was satisfied that the published accounts were accurate, he turned his scouting party back toward their line near Peace Church. The results of the reconnaissance were then quickly transmitted to General Ewell, in Carlisle, who reviewed them that afternoon and subsequently ordered General Robert E. Rodes to attack and capture Harrisburg with his division on Tuesday the thirtieth.229

Harrisburg, which had long anticipated an attack, now had less than fifteen hours of freedom remaining. Although the city’s residents and defenders had no way of knowing that Ewell had just sealed their fate with his orders to General Rodes, the atmosphere around town, in sharp contrast to the chaos of all previous invasion emergencies, was subdued and quiet. The shops and factories were all closed and shuttered, not because the owners had left town, although some had, but more particularly to allow all able-bodied men to “assist in driving the rebels from this city.” Even the loyally Democratic editor of the Patriot and Union, Oromel Barrett, though a sharp critic of the war, felt the need to pick up a gun and join in the defense of his native city. He explained:

The gentle reader will please excuse our meager local report this morning, as we have “gone a sojering,” and are now a militiaman “all so bold.” Carrying a musket in one hand and taking notes with the other is not a state of affairs favorable to news-gathering, and “eyes fifteen paces to the front” can hardly be expected to wander at the same time through street and camp in quest of items. The pleasant humbug that “the pen is mightier than the sword” is played out now-a-days, and finds a lodgment only in the breasts of Quakers and blow-hards. It does well enough to write high sounding philippics against treason and traitors, bit it ain’t just what the Governor’s proclamation calls for.230

Troops continued to arrive via the still undisrupted train lines and marched briskly through the city streets to report for duty in the fortifications. In moving toward the river, they passed weary refugees still coming into town over the Camel Back Bridge, although the number of those immigrants were much reduced now as the enemy was in control of the major roads coming into Harrisburg from York and Cumberland Counties, except for the stretches of road that were within a mile or two of the Union forts on the West Shore.

Home Guard units continued to drill in the open parks and the wider streets in the city. The Telegraph took a count of local volunteers and reported “over five hundred men are now in the militia companies of Harrisburg.”231 More than a quarter of those volunteers were the African American men in the two companies commanded by Bradley and Chester.

Other than those involved with military affairs, few other people were about. The normally boisterous beer halls were dark. The theaters had closed. Even the notoriously unruly back alleys around Tanner’s Alley and East South Street were quiet. For once, the local papers had no arrests “of consequence” to report, remarking instead “The town, although much excited, was never less riotous or dissolute than at present.”232

The one notable arrest had a very sinister aspect related to the expected invasion. Late in the day, a man crept up to the riverbank near the Half Way House on the Middletown turnpike. The river was still running high and swift from last week’s frequent downpours, and presented a considerable barrier to crossing by any means but a bridge. The river at this specific location, however, which was about half the distance between Harrisburg and Middletown, was more hospitable to a fording or crossing than most, it being just south of the old Chambers Ferry site.

The man launched a small boat from this point and began making for the center of the river. At least one person observed him after he was out in the river, and, perhaps curious as to why anyone would be out in a small boat in high water at this late hour of the day, watched his actions. The witness soon believed that the strange man was taking soundings of the river, an alarming prospect considering the current crisis. He alerted local authorities, who confirmed that the man appeared to be sounding the river at various points from shore. The man was quickly apprehended, and when questioned, could give no good reason for his actions. He identified himself only as Thomas Wilson. He was placed in the local jail and the Provost Marshal in Harrisburg was summoned to come pick him up.233

News of Wilson’s arrest generated a fresh set of rumors that the Confederates were on the West Shore of the river opposite Middletown, preparing to cross just below Harrisburg, since the Wrightsville crossing had been denied to them. This story capped an entire day of rumors; and although Harrisburg usually thrived on rumors, the effect of all these unsubstantiated stories only served to raise the stress level of the capital city’s residents and defenders almost to the breaking point.

Harrisburgers began the grim task of preparing for the worst. Emergency hospitals were opened up in accessible, commodious buildings to treat the large numbers of wounded soldiers that were sure to come when the fighting commenced. In addition to the established hospitals at Camp Curtin and the cotton factory, a military hospital was already functioning in a brick building below the railroad bridge at Bridgeport. All these locations already had plenty of patients. Others were readied in the Lancasterian school house, on Walnut Street, the female academy at Walnut Street and River Alley, the African American Presbyterian church at the same intersection, the boys academy on Mulberry Street, and the Sunday School room of the German Reformed church. Between all eight hospitals, local military authorities hoped to accommodate up to seven hundred wounded soldiers.234 Everyone prayed that they would not reach capacity.

By evening, General Couch issued an order forbidding all newspaper correspondents from crossing the Camel Back Bridge, effectively denying them access to the fortifications on the west bank of the river.235 To residents and defenders, this order must have seemed like the final bit of preparation before the fighting began in earnest. The general, who was not on good terms with the press, must have had his reasons. Perhaps it was the suspicion, correctly surmised, that the enemy had gained valuable intelligence on the Bridgeport fortifications from the newspapers. Perhaps it was the deleterious effect many of their situation reports had on local residents.

The New York Times correspondent, just this day, had telegraphed a report from Harrisburg reporting that General Ewell had bragged that he would “encamp in front of Harrisburgh to-night.” Ewell is supposed to have added that he “would have done so last night, but that he preferred not to travel on Sunday.” Such reports demoralized soldiers and citizens alike.

For their part, the residents of Harrisburg looked across the darkening river to the multitude of campfires that could be seen on Hummel’s Heights. Over there, around those campfires and in the trenches that protected them, were their sons and husbands, awaiting the advance of a far superior foe that could come at any time. What number of them believed in the impregnability of the fortifications, which was trumpeted in all the local and regional newspapers, is not known.236 Perhaps, given that the long-feared crisis had finally arrived, they felt that they had little choice but to trust the judgment of the military men, who so confidently bragged to the press that they would surprise the invaders with a “warm reception” on Harrisburg’s doorstep. For their part, the soldiers simply hunkered down in the camps, the trenches, the rifle pits, and at their posts in exposed positions in front of the works, serving on the picket line. Most could probably think of little more than the coming attack.

 

Heritage and Faith

Among them, somewhere on the heights, were the one hundred and fifty men of the two Harrisburg African American companies. This was actually the second day in which they were called upon to help man the entrenchments. They had previously been sent there on Sunday when all of Harrisburg thought the rebels were crossing the river downstream from the capital. That was the first day in which they actually held weapons in their hands. Within hours of receiving the new rifled muskets, they had been marched down to the bridge at the head of Market Street, and, with only a minimum of training, had been ordered over the bridge to take their places in line alongside the white home guard units and the Pennsylvania Militia units that were already there.

Some of them were probably familiar with a muzzle-loading weapon and a few might even have been crack shots from years of hunting experience. Many of them, however, only learned the difference between a cap and a ball this week, and were struggling to remember how to load their weapon, how to fire it, and what to do if it misfired. None of them had ever fought a skirmish, much less taken their place in a firing line in a major battle as enlisted soldiers.

Now, in the waning hours of Monday, the twenty-ninth day of June, they found themselves in the fortifications protecting Harrisburg, awaiting an attack from, by nearly everyone’s reckoning, 30,000 or more veteran Confederate infantrymen backed by at least one hundred pieces of artillery. Hummel Hill was not a good place to be, on this day, for anyone, but especially for a black Union soldier.

Despite all the crowing by local authorities about the soundness of the fortifications and the patriotism of the people of Harrisburg, the men of the companies commanded by Henry Bradley and T. Morris Chester could not have been very optimistic about the expected outcome of a determined Confederate attack. This would not have been for a lack of confidence in the fortifications. It is probable that many of them had contributed their own labor and sweat to dig rifle pits, chop trees, and haul lumber for artillery platforms. Lacking any battle experience, the fortifications probably looked very secure to their untrained eyes. They probably also found little fault with their white brothers-in-arms, many of whom had been skirmishing with Confederate cavalrymen for days now.

It is more likely that they simply understood the nature of the gray storm that was about to break over them. For weeks, the local men among them had been listening to the stories told by the hundreds of terrified refugees who, having traveled for ten, twenty, thirty, or more miles, finally crossed into Harrisburg on the bridge, then simply collapsed on the riverbank in Harris Park, too exhausted to move into town in search of aid. They told stories of brutality and ferocity, of children kidnapped, families separated, and dreams shattered.

They told of a Southern onslaught that was unstoppable and headed straight for Harrisburg, and with each passing day, the headlines and news stories proved the truth of their words. Some of the men in the ranks of the African American companies were refugees themselves. They had volunteered their muscle and toil to build the forts, and now, given the chance, they were volunteering their lives to defend them. They did this fully aware of the rout at Wrightsville, where determined defenders in rifle pits were easily outmatched by a small attacking force of experienced Southern soldiers.

And although they might have been aware that a black company had been in the front line there, they certainly did not know that an African American man had already sacrificed his life in the defense of his town. They volunteered suspecting, if not knowing, that local military authorities had made preparations to burn the Camel Back Bridge in the event of an unstoppable attack, just as had occurred at Wrightsville.

Of all the defenders in the forts across from Harrisburg on 29 June, the men of the two black companies had the most defensible reasons for not being there. Until last week, they had been denied in all their attempts to fight as enlisted men, and even now were not completely trusted by their white comrades to bear weapons in defense of their country.

One month ago, riotous, hate-filled soldiers had stormed their neighborhoods, defiled their homes, and trashed their public hall. Four years before that, they had been looked upon as if they were all potentially murderous revolutionaries under the control of Osawatomie John Brown.

Thirteen years ago, Richard McAllister and his gang of henchmen had begun terrorizing them by authority of the federal Fugitive Slave Law. Three years before that a vicious mob stoned and egged Frederick Douglass in the Courthouse because he was a black man who had dared to publicly address a crowd that included white men and women.

In 1838, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania officially removed their right to vote. This came seven years after the African American residents of Harrisburg had found it necessary to gather in their church and publicly declare their opposition to schemes of being forcibly rounded up and shipped to Liberia as “colonists.”

In 1821, the Borough of Harrisburg had made it illegal for free African Americans to live where they pleased and to come and go as they pleased without first notifying the chief burgess. Those that failed to do so were subject to imprisonment.

Sixty-three years before African American men volunteered to man Harrisburg’s fortifications, at least sixteen African Americans were still being held as slaves by borough residents. This was thirty years after the Revolutionary Government of Pennsylvania had declared slavery abhorrent and had affirmed itself duty bound to eventually free all slaves within its borders. That act, though steeped in the language of morality, was seriously flawed because its piecemeal approach placed the interests of white slaveholders above those of the very slaves it sought to elevate.

Based upon their historical experiences, the one hundred and fifty black men who marched to the fortifications on Hummel’s Heights, fully expecting to meet a foe that would overwhelm and probably kill or enslave them, should not have been there. They were coming to the defense of a town that had a long history of enslaving them, physically abusing them, relegating them to the lowest paying and most demeaning of jobs, disenfranchising them, and in almost every way possible, denying their basic human condition. Logic seems to indicate that these men, along with their families and the rest of the eight hundred or more African American residents of the state capital should have fled east to Philadelphia long ago.237

But instead, they chose to make a stand here.

Given the treatment that they had endured while under local, state, and federal laws, it had to have been something other than patriotism that motivated them. Given the knowledge that military authorities were preparing to destroy the Camel Back Bridge even as they dispatched men to the West Shore to defend it indicates that it was not faith in their generals that motivated them. It had to have been something that trumped love of their country and trust in their military leaders. The motivation to stand and fight, in such an extreme and seemingly hopeless crisis, could only have come from the two constant and reliable things in their lives: heritage and religious faith. Both had sustained them through periods of slavery, poverty and the loss of human rights.

 

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Notes

226. “Excitement in the City—Arrival of Rebel Prisoners,” Morning Telegraph, 16 June 1862; Miller, Training of an Army, 100.

227. “The Situation,” Patriot and Union, 30 June 1863.

228. “Our Harrisburg Correspondence,” New York Times, 1 July 1863.

229. Nye, Here Come the Rebels!, 340-342; Crist, Confederate Invasion, 34-36.

230. “Closing of Places of Business,” Evening Telegraph, 29 June 1863; “Please Excuse,” Patriot and Union, 29 June 1863.

231. “Company Parades,” Evening Telegraph, 29 June 1863.

232. “Police Affairs,” Patriot and Union, 29 June 1863.

233. “Committed to Prison,” Evening Telegraph, 1 July 1863.

234. “Opening of Hospitals,” Daily Telegraph, 1 July 1863.

235. “Our Harrisburg Correspondence,” New York Times, 1 July 1863.

236. Evening Telegraph, 29 June 1863. On Monday, the Telegraph reported, “Our fortifications are finished here, and they are pronounced by military men of experience the best and most formidable erected during the present war. Guns are mounted and ready for action.” Similar statements were carried in the New York Herald and the New York Times.

237. Actually several hundred African Americans did evacuate Harrisburg for Philadelphia, but these were nearly all refugees who had fled east from the Cumberland Valley into Harrisburg and had the means or strength to keep going. A quote was reprinted locally from the Philadelphia newspaper North American, dated 30 June 1863, which reported, “The morning train from Harrisburg brought down an enormous load of refugees, and the freight cars were filled with property removed for safety from the State capital. Large numbers of negroes are coming into West Philadelphia. Dozens of them, weary and foot-sore, probably fugitives from slavery, came into the city during the day and were taken car of by the colored people here. With such, even the poorest negro shares his crust.” “Still Flitting,” Patriot and Union, 1 July 1863. The New York Herald reported that many of the African Americans in Lancaster fled that city on Monday, 29 June, when an attack on Harrisburg appeared imminent. “Our Lancaster Correspondence,” New York Herald, 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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