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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

 

Preface

The American Civil War remains the central event in African American history. It redefined the place of every person of African descent in American society not only by destroying forever the institution of legalized slavery in this country, but also by weakening the traditions of state-sponsored racism that had permitted slavery in the first place. The impact of the war on American racial mores was made all the more powerful because African Americans took an active role in securing their right to fight in the war. Although far from being passive actors throughout the pageant of American history, the constant agitation in support of equal rights, most notably by African American abolitionists in the North, people such as Frederick Douglass, Martin Delany, Thomas Morris Chester, Frances Ellen Watkins, Mary Shadd, and Robert Purvis, served to keep pressure on lawmakers to advance the cause more quickly. When real change came, it came swiftly, due in part to the military exigencies of the war, but also owing to the increasingly belligerent tone taken by African American activists, whose mounting impatience in the face of bureaucratic stonewalling took the form of impassioned speeches and pleas, calls to action, and highly effective alliances with local white abolitionists, all of which served to highlight the absurdity of denying them a chance to prove themselves equal in all measures.

Moreover, the war was the ultimate showdown for African Americans against the most tangible aspects of racism. Each cartridge fired in battle was a furious blow against slavery, an uprising no less significant than those led by Toussaint L’Ouverture and Nat Turner. To each African American not in uniform, the campaigns of “their troops” became heroic odysseys to be followed faithfully in newspapers and letters. In Harrisburg, getting news about the African American soldiers was somewhat difficult because the only available newspaper that covered news of the U.S. Colored Troops, as they were officially designated, was the Philadelphia Christian Recorder. Local subscribers to that newspaper, persons such as A.M.E. minister Joseph A. Nelson, merchant William Toop, or barber Samuel Stanton, whose shop stood in the African American neighborhood of Tanner’s Alley, would have been the best sources of current news.

The assignment of local man T. Morris Chester as field reporter with the Army of the James by the Philadelphia daily newspaper the Press added greatly to the available coverage of actions involving African American troops. Chester documented the day-to-day lives, activities, heroism, and deaths of Northern sons and husbands on the battlefield and in camp. The resulting portrait of African American soldiers was gratifying to Chester’s readers because it showed these troops to be competent and often brave, but not super heroic. Mostly, it showed them to be average soldiers. This was important because it placed their performance on par with white soldiers, and it did so without condescension or bias.

If the Civil War was the central event in African American history, the third year of that war, 1863, was the crucial year for African Americans living in south central Pennsylvania at the time. It was a year of monumental events, all hastened by the war to occur in quick succession. Not only was it the year in which President Lincoln activated the Emancipation Proclamation, the National Conscription Act was written to include African Americans, Governor Andrew of Massachusetts began filling the ranks of his two black infantry regiments, and African Americans were finally permitted to fight as national troops—those were all significant national events—but the most dramatic event of the year, particularly to local citizens, was the Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania in late June.

Taken individually, any of these events would have marked a momentous year, but with all occurring within a time span of six months, Harrisburg’s African American residents must have thought they were caught up in an epic endgame. It is clear why they turned to their faith and employed biblical references to give voice to an incredible surge of emotions throughout this period. Politics and sectional differences seemed insufficient catalysts for events of such formidable proportions. Such a series of events, it was reasoned, could only have a transcendent origin, as when the gods of Mount Olympus deigned to interfere with mortal matters. But this was wholly unlike Zeus’ swanlike dalliance with Leda, or Aphrodite’s jealous torture of Psyche. These events had a dark, retributive, Old Testament quality to them. Hadn’t old John Brown, even as he stood in the shadow of the gallows four years earlier, predicted a bloody dawn for society’s long night of crimes? To Harrisburg’s African American community, these were the events that heralded that dawn.

The climactic battle at Gettysburg during the first three days of July, though it involved no African American regiments, was regarded for years by blacks as something approaching Armageddon. Writing from the front lines in Beaufort, South Carolina in late 1864, a soldier in the Third U.S.C.T. Regiment referred to the very mention of Gettysburg as having “magic powers in making the heart of every true patriot in the land beat quickly. Thank God that was won!” He went on to ask for God’s continued blessing to help them “put down this unholy rebellion.” The Christian Recorder published a letter a mere month after the battle, in which the writer declared, “The soil around Gettysburg has been consecrated by the best blood of the nation.” That same newspaper, at the end of the year, published a reflection from one-time Harrisburg resident and eloquent anti-slavery activist Junius C. Morel, who pronounced Gettysburg “a monument of undying fame” in resistance to the slave power.

The assault on Fort Wagner, although involving African American troops, the much-heralded Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts regiment, and occurring two weeks after Gettysburg, did not garner more than a mention in the daily papers of Harrisburg, but received good coverage in the Christian Recorder a few weeks after the actual battle. It never assumed the ultimate good-versus-evil mantle that African Americans continued to associate with the earlier battle at Gettysburg, but it came to represent something even more important: proof that African American troops could and would fight with the same valor and ferocity as white troops. By war’s end, the unsuccessful charge against the ramparts of Fort Wagner had taken its place in the litany of battles associated with black sacrifice, standing tall next to Milliken’s Bend, Petersburg, and Fort Pillow. The charge at Fort Wagner and the mass entry of African American men into the ranks of the United States Colored Troops rounded out the Year of Jubilee, not as a grand finale, but more as a coda. It was evident to African Americans that, despite the mythic scale of the year’s events, there was much more work to be done.

The stories of the persons in this book reflect the broad range of African American experience in south central Pennsylvania from colonial times to the middle of the Civil War. Beginning with the story of Harrisburg’s only well known enslaved man, Hercules, the rescuer of John Harris, and continuing through periods of slavery, anti-slavery, and war to the triumphant welcome home parade for the U.S. Colored Troops in Harrisburg, these stories introduce many additional characters seldom encountered in the standard local histories. From entrepreneurs such as George Chester and Edward Bennett to unobtrusive matriarchs and laborers such as Judy Richards and Joseph Popel, each person portrayed here played an important role, some more prominent than others, in the events of their time.

A few of these actors on the hometown stage of history had unwelcome parts, rising from a position of utter obscurity to having their names on the lips of nearly every citizen within days. Rachel Parker and William Smith were victims of sensational crimes, while the tragic Chloe and the notorious Ben Stewart were convicted of capital crimes and paid their debt to society with their lives. Others achieved public recognition slowly and laboriously, garnered through their tireless work, humanitarian efforts, or selfless devotion to a cause. Men like the highly respected Stephen Smith, the scholarly William Whipper, and the iconoclastic Junius Morel became important leaders of their times, giving voice to, and highly influencing, African American opinion and thought. Less prominent but no less influential were the women who supported these and other men: schoolteacher Charlotte Weaver, the daughter of abolitionist and Underground Railroad agent Jane Chester, and evangelist Amanda Smith.

These were the people who helped take Pennsylvania and the nation from colonial dependence to a period of new optimism born of faith and patriotism. From pre-revolutionary freedom seekers to industrious merchants in a growing river town, to unflinching color bearers advancing through a hail of minie balls toward the enemy line, each had a specific dream to follow. No one knew how events would unfold; they only knew that they had to pursue that dream.

All the while, they sensed a great flow of history swirling around them, changing their lives forever. Those whose lives spanned the war years saw the greatest change, and they were justly proud of their accomplishments. They had saved the Union, unchained their brethren, and gained a voice in democracy. Before the Civil War began, few could envision the breadth of changes that would be wrought in the crucible of America’s bloodiest conflict. Few as well could have foreseen the level of sacrifice that would be required of every American. Perhaps old John Brown saw it coming, but even he, in his most violent moments at Pottawatomie Creek and Osawatomie, probably never dreamed of the carnage that would result from four years of vicious fighting.

The impact of the Civil War on the African American community is still visible today. Stand in the middle of any old African American burial ground and look around. A great number of the men who were of fighting age in 1863, 1864 and 1865 went off to war. Those who survived and returned to their hometowns eventually got on with their lives, but their tombstones, inscribed with the initials “U.S.C.T.” will forever reflect the sacrifice that they made.

Still more heroes may be hidden in forgotten graves beneath the grass underfoot. Though their final resting places may be unmarked by enduring granite tablets, their lives were certainly not un-mourned. In Harrisburg’s Lincoln Cemetery, there stands a noble marker, an obelisk, to commemorate those dead. It reads, “This monument erected in memory of the colored soldiers and sailors of Dauphin C. who gave their lives for the Union in the rebellion and to the unknown dead.” This is not a modern marker. It was placed by the still grieving but intensely proud mothers and fathers, brothers, and sisters of local African American Civil War soldiers.

From a modern viewpoint, African American history radiates outward from the Civil War. We can point to the events of 1776, 1780, 1850, or 1859 as important milestones on the long road to emancipation and freedom, and we can trace the roots of many important events that followed back to the war. It is important to be aware, however, that those enslaved persons, abolitionists, workers, teachers, and soldiers whose stories follow were not aware of the grand scheme of history, as we now understand it. We have an obligation to them to try to understand their actions from the point of view of persons struggling with the great issues of their day.

Slavery, anti-slavery, African American rights, the fugitive slave laws, secession, and the justification for war itself were all hotly debated in taverns, on street corners, and in homes. While most people had similar understandings of right and wrong, many disagreed on what courses of action to take. Ultimately, most people did what they felt they had to do. Some made poor choices, some made good choices, and a few rose to lead and inspire others. Sooner or later, however, they all came together on the road to jubilee.

Next

 

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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