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Year of Jubilee (1863)

Jacob Tilford Cumpton

Anti-Slavery Man and Soldier

Jacob Tilford Cumpton lived from 1836 to 1905, spending most of his adult life in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania excepting the last ten years of his life when he and his second wife, Lucretia, lived with his daughter in Wilkes-Barre. Although he was a well-known and respected member of Harrisburg's African American community, it was only while he lived in Wilkes-Barre that a local news reporter published a profile of his life, giving the following details of his early life:

Mr. Cumpton is a native of Maryland. His father was a slave, but his mother was a free woman, and he therefore was born a free man. It was considered high treason to educate a colored man, and he was obliged to study when he could while at work. Later, in 1854, his parents died of the cholera. In 1855 he was compelled to leave Williamsport, being charged with assisting two slaves, George and John Butler, to escape.

Newspaper photo of Jacob Cumpton in 1902.

Jacob Compton is found in the 1850 census of Williamsport, Maryland with his mother Rebecca, age 45 and two younger sisters, in the household of the William Shorter family. Shorter is listed as a laborer. All are free African Americans. Jacob's youngest sister, aged 5 years, is enumerated with the middle name "Shorter," indicating a blood connection with the host family. If the thumbnail sketch in the news article of his early life is correct, his father was still alive in 1850. Additional details of his early life and family connections remain elusive.

As noted above, in 1855, as a young man of about 19 or 20, he was involved with the plan that allowed two enslaved men, George and John Butler, to escape from Washington County. His involvement came to light and he "was compelled to leave," which is about when he came to Harrisburg. He found work at the brickyard owned by Charles F. Muench, near the canal. About 1860, some Maryland men in Harrisburg, possible slave catchers, spotted Cumpton working at the brickyard and attempted to kidnap him and take him back to Maryland for his role in the Butler escape. A "severe" fight ensued with several of Cumpton's co-workers, and possibly including his employer, Charles Muench, coming to his aid to foil the kidnapping attempt.

Coach Driver for Abraham Lincoln in Harrisburg

Not long after the brickyard episode, Cumpton began driving a carriage for U.S. Senator Simon Cameron in Harrisburg. When President-elect Abraham Lincoln came to Harrisburg on his trip from Illinois to Washington, on February 22, 1861, Cumpton drove the carriage that bore the president's wife Mary and son Robert from the Pennsylvania train station to their rooms at the Jones House hotel on Market Square. While Lincoln's family retired to their rooms at the Jones House, Lincoln spent the remainder of the day at the Capitol where he delivered a speech and in turn listened to several orations from state politicians. He did not get back to the hotel until the evening, received a few guests in his room and retired about 8 p.m., that being the version of events presented to the public.

Unofficially, secret schemes that would greatly affect the future president’s first few months in office and would color the way the nation viewed their new leader were being discussed inside of the hotel. Outside of the hotel, crowds of soldiers, citizens, office seekers and reporters drank, sang and roamed the streets late into the night. Inside of the hotel, Lincoln was in an urgent private conference that included, among others, railroad man Norman Judd, Governor Andrew G. Curtin, and Colonel Edwin V. Sumner. The subject was a serious one: rumors that secession sympathizers had planned to either destroy the president-elect’s train on its journey from Harrisburg to Baltimore, or assassinate Lincoln upon his arrival in that city. Fantastic plans of explosives placed beneath railroad tracks, unruly mobs, and fanatical assassins filled the room. The plots had been discovered and reported by railroad detective Allen Pinkerton, and independently confirmed by Frederick Seward, son of Lincoln’s designated Secretary of State William Seward.

The reality of the plots meant that Lincoln would have to be transported in secret from Harrisburg directly to Washington. Samuel Morse Felton, of the Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore Railroad, was instructed to provide for the two special trains that would be needed in the plan. Felton was one of the few people who knew of the plots before the president-elect, having been the person who invited the young Allen Pinkerton to make investigations in Baltimore. Men were secretly dispatched to cut telegraph wires from Harrisburg, effectively shutting the town off from the outside world. Carriages to carry Lincoln and a single bodyguard from the Jones House to a waiting train were arranged with William Calder, who operated stagecoach lines and an extensive livery stable on Market Square. As all this was being carried out, Lincoln’s secretaries turned away visitors on the excuse that the president-elect was extremely tired from the day’s exertions.

At 6 pm a carriage was quietly drawn up to the Second Street door of the hotel. Lincoln boarded with a bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon, and the carriage was driven off into the night to meet a single passenger car attached to a locomotive waiting at a lonely grade crossing just south of the city. After Lincoln and a heavily armed Ward Hill Lamon were on board, the locomotive pulled out, without lights, on its journey to Washington. Cumpton steadfastly maintained throughout his life that he was the driver of that carriage. He identified the grade crossing as Second and Vine Streets, and noted that "all the way to the station Mr. Lincoln protested against the secrecy, ridiculed the idea of great danger and with difficulty was persuaded to be guided by the counsel of his escort." Both of those details correspond with the historical record of the event.

Military Service During the Civil War

With the acceptance of African American men in uniform by the middle of the Civil War, nearly 180,000 enlisted in Union army units. Jacob Cumpton enlisted in Southards Independent Company at Camp William Penn in Philadelphia, being mustered into the unit on July 28, 1864, just days before his twenty-eighth birthday. Southards had been formed as an emergency unit for a duration of 100 days, so in November it's men were transferred to other U.S. Colored Troops regiments. Cumpton transferred on November 14, 1864 to Company D of the Twenty-Fourth United States Colored Infantry regiment, transferring as a corporal. On February 23, 1865 he was promoted to sergeant, the rank at which he mustered out with the rest of his regiment after the end of the war on October 1, 1865. He was granted a military pension of six dollars per month on April 15, 1901, at the age of 64.

Post War Life

A few years after his return to civilian life in Harrisburg, Cumpton entered the restaurant business, taking charge of the restaurant at the Bolton Hotel, advertising that he was "prepared to accommodate the public with oysters, game of all kinds, and everything to be secured in a first-class restaurant." He continued his involved with several fraternal organizations, holding leadership positions with the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows from before the war, and helped organize a harrisburg chapter of Free and Accepted Masons after the war. He was frequently noted for his musical talents, and organized and led the Excelsior Band in Harrisburg.

1871 Advertiement for the Bolton Hotel Restaurant, under the management of Jacob T. Compton.


The spelling of his surname appears in various records as "Cumpton" and "Compton."

On driving the carriage carrying Lincoln to his secret train, Cumpton's version, or at least the version printed in the newspapers, identified the bodyguard in the carriage as Zouave Colonel Elmer E. Ellsworth, who was part of the presidential party that arrived in Harrisburg earlier that day, but research favors the bodyguard as Pinkerton associate Ward Hill Lamon. Other accounts give the driver of the carriage as either Harrisburg liveryman William Calder, or George C. Franciscus, Division Superintendent of the Pennsylvania Railroad. In addition, there are accounts of a second decoy carriage being used. Positive proof as to who actually drove the carriage that spirited Lincoln away from the Jones House may never be found.

Cumpton's military pension of $6 per month indicated that he was enjoying relatively good health in 1901. Pension amounts were based on degree of disability. Under the 1890 pension law, any Union military veteran of the war whose health was not nearly perfect could receive a pension. Those who could not prove that their ill health or disibility was related to the war received between $6 and $12 per month.

A photograph of Cumpton's grave marker in Lincoln Cemetery, Penbrook, is here.


  • Seventh Census of the United States, 1850, Williamsport, Washington County, Maryland, United States; NARA microfilm, Washington, D.C.
  • Wilkes-Barre Times, 24 May 1902
  • Wilkes-Barre Semi-Weekly Record, 19 April 1901
  • Harrisburg Telegraph, 7 September 1905
  • National Park Service, "Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System" (Film M589, roll 18)
  • Samuel P. Bates, History of the Pennsylvania Volunteers (1861-1865), Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 1868.

Now Available on this site

The Year of Jubilee

Vol. 1: Men of God and Vol. 2: Men of Muscle

by George F. Nagle

Both volumes of the Afrolumens book are now available on this website. Click the link to read.

The Year of Jubilee is the story of Harrisburg'g free African American community, from the era of colonialism and slavery to hard-won freedom.

Volume One, Men of God, covers the turbulent beginnings of this community, from Hercules and the first slaves, the growth of slavery in central Pennsylvania, the Harrisburg area slave plantations, early runaway slaves, to the birth of a free black community. Men of God is a detailed history of Harrisburg's first black entrepreneurs, the early black churches, the first black neighborhoods, and the maturing of the social institutions that supported this vibrant community.

It includes an extensive examination of state and federal laws governing slave ownership and the recovery of runaway slaves, the growth of the colonization movement, anti-colonization efforts, anti-slavery, abolitionism and radical abolitionism. It concludes with the complex relationship between Harrisburg's black and white abolitionists, and details the efforts and activities of each group as they worked separately at first, then learned to cooperate in fighting against slavery. Read it here.

Non-fiction, history. 607 pages, softcover.

Volume Two, Men of Muscle takes the story from 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, through the explosive 1850s to the coming of Civil War to central Pennsylvania. In this volume, Harrisburg's African American community weathers kidnappings, raids, riots, plots, murders, intimidation, and the coming of war. Caught between hostile Union soldiers and deadly Confederate soldiers, they ultimately had to choose between fleeing or fighting. This is the story of that choice.

Non-fiction, history. 630 pages, softcover.



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