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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 (concluded)

 

The Year of Jubilee is Come

And so it happened, in the fading light of Monday, the twenty-ninth day of June in the year 1863, that one hundred and fifty African American men left their families in Tanner’s Alley, Short Street, East South Street, Mulberry Street, and from the unnamed dirt paths in the temporary refugee camps east of the canal, and assembled with their weapons to strike a blow against the slave powers.

They marched to the river, passing the market houses on the square where Daniel Dangerfield had been cornered by slave catchers in 1859, past the brownstone mansions at the corner of Front Street that had harbored fugitive slaves until they could be sent to the Rutherford farms in the Paxtang Valley, past the spot at the Cumberland Valley Railroad Bridge where James Phillips had been kidnapped by Richard McAllister in 1852. As they marched across Front Street into the first wooden span of the covered bridge that would take them to the impending battle for Harrisburg, the sites of their persistent heritage of resistance were left behind, but that rich heritage certainly traveled with them.

In body, they numbered one hundred and fifty, more or less, but in spirit, they numbered in the tens of thousands. Marching along with them, in spirit, were the women and men of Harrisburg’s African American community from present day to decades long past. First came Hercules, the pioneer and first of their number, who helped carve a settlement in the wilderness, and Scipio, who first took his freedom in 1749 from Captain Thomas Prather of Prince George's County, Maryland. Marching alongside them was Dick, gifted in languages, who escaped from Paxton Township farmer John Postlethwaite in 1766, and William Keith, highly literate, being able to read and write, and an opportunist, who ran from William Chesney while the latter was staying with his stepbrother John Harris II at Harris Ferry.

Sally Craig was also there. The spirited woman was over sixty years old when she left Archibald McAllister at Fort Hunter in the dead of winter in 1828, never to be seen again. She marched beside Governor Dick, the fiercely independent collier with strong African tribal influences, who took his leave whenever he felt like it from the woods around Cornwall Furnace.

There were also the hundreds who left masters in Pennsylvania to answer the call of Lord Dunmore in 1775. Their regiment’s uniform bore the inscription "Liberty to Slaves.” They included the rebellious Cuff Dix, from Birdsboro Forge, Polly King, who left Persifor Frazer for her chance at liberty, and bore her son Robert in glorious freedom a year later behind British lines.

From Harrisburg came Joe, who ran from Jacob Awl in 1777. Joining these freedom seekers were those who were called to service in other ways. There was the unnamed slave of Andrew Lycan, who cared for the wounded and took them to safety during an Indian attack on Lycan's farm in 1756 at Wiconisco. There was Hercules Johnston, who was born in Paxton Township and who enlisted with the Fourth Pennsylvania Regiment of the Continental Army at Carlisle in 1782. For him, freedom was better obtained by fighting with the colonists against the tyranny of British rule.

Joining the march to the river were the maroons, who kept their freedom by surviving under their own rule. There was the solitary Joseph Johns, who lived in a hut in Union Township, Lebanon County, George Washington, who lived on Blue Mountain above Harrisburg, and the residents of the enduring community of fugitive slaves in Long Swamp, near Pottsville, who welcomed freedom seekers to their closed village and kept outsiders at bay with ghost stories and witchcraft. There were even the unnamed bandits who inhabited the remote woods for a time near Cornwall Furnace, who found a certain freedom in lawlessness.

Fearless John Hall, of York County, joined the march. It was he who, in 1793, brazenly published in local newspapers a challenge for anyone who could prove him a slave to come forward and do so. No one did, and Hall continued to live free. Also in spirit beside the men marched Fleming Mitchell, who steadfastly maintained his freedom in Harrisburg through decades of tribulation.

Further reinforcing the ranks were the riotous crowds from Harrisburg in 1825, from Carlisle in 1847, and the organized black minutemen, which included Harrisburg’s forty rescuers summoned to the Rutherford Farm in 1845, the Short Street neighborhood watch, organized in 1849, The Henry Highland Garnet Guards, of 1859, the last to carry weapons before the present invasion.

It was not just the ghosts of military men who marched to the Camel Back Bridge with the volunteers on Monday the twenty-ninth of June. For there was Thomas Dorsey, who began educating Black children in Harrisburg in 1817, and the entrepreneurs who defied white efforts to limit them to the lowest labor roles: Ezekiel Carter, who sawed firewood and carried water until he earned enough money to purchase land and build boarding houses, John Battis and Edward Bennett, the chimney sweeps, and Curry Taylor, who brought fresh vegetables and fish from Philadelphia.

They were joined by James McClintock, who marched with fellow barbers Matthias, Felix and Henry Dorsey, and George and Marie Chester, the restaurateurs and caterers. Judy Richards and her daughter Mary Ann Richards, who oversaw the welfare of the neighborhood Judy's Town, were also there.

The parade included the victims of the slave powers: the kidnapped Rachel Parker, the martyred William Smith, and the ransomed James Phillips. The Butler family of Dickinson Township, kidnapped in 1860, joined in. Religious leaders Jacob D. Richardson, who oversaw the founding of Wesley Union Church in 1829, David Stevens, who had charge of the A.M.E. Harrisburg Circuit, and was aided by George Galbraith, were also there, as was Daniel Alexander Payne, whose extensive travels throughout central Pennsylvania helped religious leaders stay in tune with the black struggle to maintain rights and fight slavery.

Charles W. Gardiner, the spirited elder who bolstered Harrisburg's underground in an hour of need was reliably present. Political leaders Junius and Caroline Morel, Carlisle's John Peck, opponent of colonization Jacob D. Williams, Columbia's William Whipper and Stephen Smith, all advocates of moral elevation, joined the march. Harrisburg's Thomas W. Brown, who turned to political activism after a cannon was aimed at his home in 1849, came along. Jacob C. White, Jr., who inspired resistance in the name of brotherhood and heritage, led the spiritual companies.

Community activists William Thompson, agent for Martin R. Delany's newspaper, and Edward Thompson, the Underground Railroad activist who initially hired Charles C. Rawn and Mordecai McKinney in 1850, marched. The husband and wife activist team of John F. and Hannah Williams marched. Schoolteacher John Wolf certainly marched, as did activist Thomas Early, and Dr. William M. "Pap" Jones and his wife Mary. Joseph C. Bustill, the game changer was present. Samuel Bennett, who, along with John Wolf and David Stevens, drafted the proclamation in January that guided the community through the war, was present.

Carrying the banner of freedom and liberty for the spiritual auxiliary were the heroes who sacrificed all. There was Archibald Smith, captured in 1843 and charged with guiding fugitive slaves, and Thomas and Harriett Pinkney, who lost their freedom in 1860 for helping others gain theirs. Joseph Popel, who could not stand idly by and watch other men be beaten, was at the fore along with William and Eliza Parker, who fought back against the slave powers without hesitation and arguably began the Civil War at their farm near the tiny town of Christiana in 1851. Commanding the spiritual force were Captain John Brown and his lieutenant, Shields Green, who had so nobly carried the fight to the enemy.

It was a grand and triumphant host that accompanied Harrisburg’s black men from their neighborhoods to the bridge, although it was imperceptible to all but the men who marched through the late June heat, down the city’s hard-packed dirt streets to the river.

One hundred and fifty pairs of boots and brogans left Front Street and clattered noisily across the wooden floorboards of the first span of the Market Street Bridge, leaving their sons, daughters, wives, and sweethearts behind in Harrisburg’s African American neighborhoods. They were knowingly marching to a battle that they could not win, but that they knew they must fight.

It was not a march to doom and defeat, however, but an advance toward glory, infused with a sense of solidarity and purpose. The men of Harrisburg’s two African American companies carried with them the legacy of two centuries of righteous struggle. In the coming battle, they would be fighting not only for their homes and for families, but also in the name of all the people listed above who followed them in spirit.

The year 1863 had begun with a thundering trumpet call, proclaiming from the nave of the Bethel A.M.E. Church to earth’s “remotest bound” that the African American men and women of Harrisburg were aroused to action. The need for action would not be long in coming. They had watched in alarm that spring as the storm clouds once again gathered, although the storm that developed in 1863 was perceptibly different to them from previous disturbances. They could see, in this approaching storm, the signs of Heavenly fury.

Perhaps it was no more than visions in the gray clouds, as preached some thirty-seven years earlier in Harrisburg by Jarena Lee, who had related the prophecy of a young man who “saw in the sky men, marching like armies, whether it was with the naked eye, or a Vision by the eye of Faith.” Lee’s sermons had been heard by many who still resided in Harrisburg, and now they firmly believed, as prophesied by the itinerant female preacher, that the approaching storm was “The lowering judgments of God…let loose upon the Nation and slavery.”

It began with a series of squalls that blew in, first north from Boston, then a wave from the South that moved steadily northward. Now the storm was breaking in the form of a final battle, but it was a struggle long heralded. It was in the hymn they had sung all year:

Let all the nations know,
To earth's remotest bound:
The year of jubilee is come!
The year of jubilee is come!


Flourish

On Monday evening, after the African American companies had marched by to take their places in the fort, a reporter from the New York Gazette, in defiance of General Couch’s order closing off the fortifications to news correspondents, sat down on an earthen parapet in Fort Washington, overlooking the capital, and composed his report to be sent via telegraph to his editor. It was a particularly grim summation of the situation. He penciled in the dateline as “Fort Washington, West Bank of the Susquehanna, June 29, - Evening,” then began his report:

As the sun goes down in the west it leaves within this fort and within and around Harrisburg an anxious, wondering, guessing, partially fearful and somewhat excited population. The enemy holds a position almost describing an arc of a circle. The extremes rest on two main roads, cross the railroads, and extend through wheat and corn fields and some, small woods. He has pickets out in all valuable positions, and has artillery commanding and intended to sweep the roads and protect his front and flank.

He then wrote, “We expect a fight to-morrow, more or less general or serious in its character.”238 It was a very foreboding sentence for a very desperate night. For the African American community of Harrisburg, whose armed sons and brothers bore their collective legacy of struggle against oppression as a mantle of honor, it was no less desperate or frightening, but sustained by faith and heritage, they took their places in the fortifications and prepared for the climactic battle of a momentous year. It was the year of our Lord, eighteen hundred and sixty-three.

It was the year of Jubilee.

 

Previous | Epilogue

 

Notes

238. New York Gazette, 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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