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a book about Harrisburg...

by George F. Nagle


Table of Contents

Study Areas:



Free Persons of Color

Underground Railroad

The Violent Decade

US Colored Troops

Civil War


Chapter Ten
The Bridge (continued)


Devil Take the Poets

A hot noontime sun beat down on Harrisburg and its environs, uncomfortably warming the air for those hard at work toting baggage along the city streets, and creating a stifling atmosphere inside of the passenger train that sat motionless in the middle of the Cumberland Valley Railroad Bridge. Louis Moreau Gottschalk listened to the incessant chatter from his fellow passengers who, he observed, “whilst pretending to be dead with fright, do not cease talking and making the most absurd conjectures.” The fright was caused by the increasingly dire stories about the Confederate advance, the latest news of which came from a passenger picked up at a station just south of Williamsport, who reported, according to his sources, that the Confederate army was now thirty miles from Harrisburg.

Gottschalk and his traveling companions, manager Max Strakosch and his sister-in-law, opera soprano Amalia Patti Strakosch, had boarded the train at dawn in Williamsport, well aware that they were hurtling headlong down the Northern Central rail lines toward a city threatened with imminent attack, all in the name of performing a concert. Gottschalk had tried to talk his manager into canceling the Harrisburg performance, arguing, “People who expect every moment to be bombarded are not in the state of mind to hear ‘Cradle Songs,’ [or] ‘Eolian Murmurs,’” but Max Strakosch ignored his protests, citing “the prospect of a good house” at Harrisburg. He also felt that the invasion stories were nothing more than gross exaggerations from excitable people, but Gottschalk was convinced that his manager’s optimism would have him playing “before General Jenkins and his staff” that very evening.

The traveling pianist and his entourage had now been sitting in the cars, in the middle of the bridge over the Susquehanna, for an hour, with no news and no movement. Aside from the murmur of low conversation around him, there was complete silence on the bridge. No rumbling of wheels upon rail, no creaking of floors and walls as the passenger car swayed gently in movement, no commotion of porters and freight men. Just silence, and the gentle gurgling sound of the Susquehanna River flowing around the bridge abutments far below them.

Growing more anxious by the minute, a number of passengers became convinced the train was about to be fired upon and sat down in the aisle “to be sheltered from the bullets.” This last irrational act was too much for Gottschalk, who decided that he had to get off the train, even if it meant walking the final distance to the station. He convinced Amalia Patti and Max Strakosch to go with him, and the three performers stepped off the car onto the wooden catwalk of the Cumberland Valley Railroad Bridge and began walking east, toward Harrisburg, in the afternoon sun.137

Following the tracks, the three visitors to Harrisburg soon reached the riverbank and crossed Front Street, where they would have observed civilian laborers digging rifle pits in Harris Park, the former common area around the old Golden Swan Inn. Forty years ago, drovers penned their cattle and other livestock in this area while awaiting their chance to cross the river at the ferry, and Pennsylvania German wagoners parked their immense Conestoga wagons in the open area around the inn. A few years ago, the city reclaimed the dug-up, rugged, utilitarian area and turned it into one of the first public parks in Harrisburg, creating a green landscaped area where locals could relax and stroll. It was named after the city’s founder, whose fieldstone mansion, now owned by Simon Cameron, overlooked the site.

The park also fronted a shallow point in the river, which made it ideal for outdoor baptisms during mild weather. African American churches favored this location for baptisms, and the events often drew large numbers of spectators, many of whom, of late, were soldiers from Camp Curtin, who viewed the solemn ceremony as an amusing spectacle. Before the Camel Back Bridge was built, this point was a popular fording site known as “the riffles,” and farmers would drive herds of animals across, as long as the river was not running unusually high or fast. The shallowness also made this a likely point at which an invading army could cross, in the event the river bridges had been destroyed, which was why the military was now digging up the lush landscaping to create fortifications.

Gottschalk and his companions followed the railroad tracks down Mulberry Street, crossed Second Street at grade, and continued on to Third Street, where they passed through the African American neighborhood of Judy’s Town. Here they would have observed a great number of local black residents responding to the invasion in a myriad of ways, some of which included packing possessions for an evacuation, but most of which involved cooking, washing, and otherwise caring for the hundreds of African American refugees who were now entering the town.

A large number of free blacks and escaped slaves had fled north from Maryland into Pennsylvania in advance of the Southern troops, and that wave of refugees had continued northeast through the Cumberland Valley and into Harrisburg. Along the way, it picked up additional hundreds of Pennsylvania free blacks. This wave of humanity broke on the eastern banks of the Susquehanna River, spilling thousands of dazed refugees in the state capital, effectively stopping its northern momentum.

Harrisburg gave the appearance of a safe haven. From the rapidly fortifying Hummel’s Heights, across the wide expanse of the Susquehanna River, to the rifle pits that surrounded the impressively grand State Capitol, fleeing African Americans found in Harrisburg what appeared to be a rock to which they could cling to escape the gray deluge. Standing on that rock, offering hundreds of hands to pull them up, were the African American citizens of Harrisburg. To most of these refugees, this was the place that they chose to stop running, and Judy’s Town was one of the two neighborhoods where residents invited them to rest.

The neighborhood still bore the scars of the disastrous fire of 1855, and many of the windows in African American houses still showed cracked or missing panes of glass from the two nights of rioting last May, but to the footsore refugees, some from as far as Virginia, it was a long-sought sanctuary.

From Judy’s Town the railroad tracks bore slightly left and it was from here on that Gottschalk, Strakosch, and Patti encountered, in stark contrast to the resolute determination of the African American neighborhood, the chaos of a panicked city in the midst of a complete skedaddle. The steady flow of black porters carrying the baggage, trunks, boxes, and crates of the white population to the rail depot for shipment out on the next train had only intensified since the morning, and the piles of freight on the platforms grew to unsteady mountains.

One particularly large stack of luggage had collapsed onto the tracks in front of an arriving train and was “tunneled” by the locomotive, resulting in scattered clothing, broken possessions, and splintered trunks spread out along the length of the platform. Great masses of people stood impatiently on the platforms, waiting to depart on the next train, and each arriving train was thronged with overeager passengers all pushing to board at once as soon as it squealed to a halt.

A number of arriving trains brought delegates to the Democratic Convention that was being held in Harrisburg, and which was scheduled to start on Wednesday, the 17th. The convention delegates were astonished to find they had to force their way off the trains, pushing through the frightened crowds out onto the platforms.

Looking for a way out of the confusion, Louis Gottschalk got the attention of a railroad conductor and requested directions to his hotel, the Jones House. The conductor pointed him and his party in the right direction then warned them to beware of the pickpockets who were working the packed and distracted crowd.

From the train station, Gottschalk, Max Strakosch, and Madam Strakosch headed west on Market Street toward the square, fighting against the surge of people headed east toward the train station. The muddy street was thick with carriages, omnibuses, men with wheelbarrows, horses, livestock, and hundreds of pedestrians, all moving with great haste one way or another, all jockeying like racehorses for street position.


Flying Artillery and Milroy's Wagons

Suddenly a great commotion—a mixture of shouts, screams, crashes, and whinnying—came from the direction of the square and spread east through the teeming street. Gottschalk watched in awe as the traffic parted for a battery of artillery that flew by “at full gallop,” roughly pushing him and his companions against the shop windows as everyone crowded up onto the sidewalks to get out of the way, lest they be run over.

Just after the battery passed, Max Strakosch spotted their concert location, Brant’s Hall, across the street, and went to check with the managers on the concert. Gottschalk and Madam Strakosch continued to push through the crowd along the sidewalk toward the Jones House, which was no small feat considering there was now a brand new barrier to progress: the street was now jammed with an endless line of dusty army wagons. Milroy’s wagon train had arrived in Harrisburg.138

By some accounts it was four hundred wagons long, while others numbered it about half of that. By any accounting it was an immense wagon train and it took hours to pass through town from the Camel Back Bridge, rolling east on Market Street, past the railroad depot at Fifth Street, to the bridge that took it over the canal. From about two o’clock in the afternoon until at least six or seven p.m., when the last wagon rolled through, nothing else could get over the river bridge or get through the main streets of Harrisburg. Market Street was completely jammed from one end to the other.

The entire train made camp in the open ground east of the canal, and even though it no longer blocked the main thoroughfares of the town and remained out of the sight of most people, the arrival of Milroy’s wagon train so unnerved local residents with its sights, smells, noise, and bone-shaking rumble, that they felt the weighty burden of its presence for weeks.

Harrisburg’s white community saw ominous signs of defeat in the worn out horses and mules, the dust covered canvas, the damaged wagons, and the visibly fatigued wagon drivers. Frank Moore’s Rebellion Record, a contemporary account of events that was sold in Harrisburg during the war, recorded that the appearance of the wagon train gave Harrisburg residents “a far better idea of the dust, turmoil, and fatigue of war than they could get in any other way.”139 In short, it brought the fighting directly down the middle of Market Street.

The appearance of the wagon train triggered a similar heavy feeling in the hearts of Harrisburg’s African American population, but for an entirely different reason. They, too, saw the spent horses, the broken wagons, and the torn, dirty canvas, but the thing that alarmed and discouraged them the most was the sight of hundreds and hundreds of desperate, demoralized black refugees who arrived with the train.

They knew that African American teamsters drove the army wagons, and that a number of these men had families who traveled along with the army and worked as cooks, washwomen, and servants to the officers, but the wagon train that arrived in Harrisburg carried more than these usual army workers. Every wagon, it seemed, was brimming with young and old, male and female, and many, many children. Children rode the horses and mules that drew the wagons, sometimes two on an animal, and they sat on the wagon driver’s seat. Mothers, fathers, and older siblings walked alongside the wagons, leading smaller children by the hand and carrying infants, while grandparents rode in the wagons, silently surveying the buildings along Market Street, stoically returning the stares of bystanders. Everyone was covered with dust and streaked with sweat, and everyone looked jittery and uneasy, as if they had not yet put enough miles between themselves and the pursuing rebels.

For hours and hours, the wagons rolled by, bearing not only the munitions and army stores of a vanquished command, but the human flotsam and jetsam picked up along the one hundred and twenty mile flight.140 To Harrisburg’s blacks, the arrival of Milroy’s wagon train was an emotionally draining, mind-numbing experience.

Those strong emotions turned to feelings of horror when the arriving refugees began to tell their stories. Many of the dust-covered, tired evacuees had spent the last forty-eight hours barely one town ahead of the advancing Confederate soldiers, and more than a few of the adults had not slept since Sunday for having to keep a constant watch for raiders. They told of fleeing from Virginia and Maryland on foot, in small wagons, or on horseback, many with small children in tow, and of joining the wagon train as it overtook them on the road north.

The black army teamsters, who had as much to lose as anyone, should they be caught by rebels, bravely invited the footsore to pile into the army wagons, and the train continued to pick up black people, or “contrabands,” as the whites called them, as it rolled through the towns and countryside on its wild flight. In that manner the wagon train increased in size, growing in each town through which it passed—Chambersburg, Mount Rock, Shippensburg, Stoughstown, Carlisle, and New Kingston—sweeping through the Cumberland Valley like an ark before the Southern tide, until it held hundreds of wagons in all sizes and states of repair by the time it arrived at the western end of the Camel Back Bridge.141

The hundreds of African American refugees that it brought into Harrisburg Tuesday afternoon were the lucky ones, if the fate of a refugee can in any way be providential. They had escaped the fate, and some just barely, of those left behind. They had escaped the slave hunt.

Earlier in the day, back in Chambersburg, diarist Rachel Cormany wrote of how the cavalry soldiers of General Jenkins command had become quite “active…hunting up the contrabands & driving them off by droves.” The rounding up of those African Americans who had not moved north, but had instead tried to hide out in fields and remote locations, was witnessed and remarked upon by a number of local residents. To Cormany, it was a sight she could only describe as “brutal.”

Most of the blacks that she witnessed being kidnapped were women and small children, some as small as babes in arms, which was puzzling to her until she reasoned out “when the mother was taken she would take her children.” She also surmised that the men had left the women and children behind to spare them the hardship of flight, assuming that “women & children would not be disturbed.”142 This grave miscalculation resulted in the capture and enslavement of a number of African American families, some of them free born Pennsylvanians. In total, as many as two hundred and fifty African Americans may have been removed south from the Cumberland Valley by enemy troopers.143

The full story of the slave hunts, the kidnapping of free blacks and the slave drives back to Virginia did not come out for days and weeks, but Harrisburg’s African American community had gotten advance notice of the horrors then occurring down the valley. Train station porters had overheard clips of stories told by whites arriving on the trains from Chambersburg, and the wagon train refugees, once they had rested and eaten, provided enough details that local folks knew the stories were true.

Although the skedaddling wagon train had brought the reality of the fight to white Harrisburg, it had brought something equally frightening, if not absolutely horrifying to black Harrisburg: it brought the brutality of Southern slavery straight down Market Street and turned it loose again in Judy’s Town and Tanner’s Alley.


At the Jones House

Visiting pianist Louis Gottschalk noticed the fear, and remarked upon the effect of the wagon train on local blacks. By late afternoon, he and the rest of his party had found and secured rooms in the Jones House, on Market Square. The Harrisburg landmark was now owned by Joseph F. McClellan, who expected the same high level of service from his African American staff as was provided under previous owner, Wells Coverly, even in the midst of a crisis.

Gottschalk shared the parlor and common rooms with a large, noisy crowd of New York reporters, “sent in haste by the great journals” to cover the invasion from Pennsylvania’s capital. With the announcement that dinner was being served, the hungry journalists tossed social norms to the wind and made “a general rush to the dining room,” annoying Gottschalk and almost overwhelming the already nervous and rattled staff.

As the newsmen focused intently on their plates and shared the latest rumors with their dining companions, Gottschalk observed the waiters who bustled around the tables, setting down full dishes and carrying away empty plates. They appeared so extremely “sad and suppliant,” he recalled, that their demeanor would have been comical to the well-traveled entertainer if he “did not know the horrors of slavery and the fate reserved for the free negroes of the North that fall into the power of the Confederates.”

Gottschalk was a Southerner by birth, and traveled extensively throughout the South in the course of his tours. His opinions were not born of high-sounding New England abolitionist rhetoric, but were grounded in his knowledge of his native land, his considerable connections to the Southern gentry, and his keen sense of observation, a trait he employed extensively on his excursions through countless American cities and towns in the North and the South.

As the waiters at the Jones House brought food around to him, he noticed that they were trembling, and seemed to be easily distracted by the shouts from the crowd in the street, and by talk that drifted in through the open windows from the knots of men on the sidewalk outside. They were visibly agitated by mention of “The Rebels,” words that Gottschalk felt “sound to them like a funeral knell.” Around the table, the New York reporters speculated loudly on the number of hours or days before Harrisburg would be occupied by the forces of Ewell, and Gottschalk watched as the color drained from the face of the oldest waiter.144


Bridge, Station, and Arsenal

The next few hours were a blur of frantic activity, all revolving around two central points: the train depot and the Camel Back Bridge. After the last of the army wagons had rumbled out of the bridge into Front Street, another sound began echoing through the wooden bridge rafters: the sound of hundreds of hooves clumping along the wooden floorboards, as farmers drove herds of cattle out of the Cumberland Valley into Harrisburg, to hide them in the hills beyond town.

Refugees on foot and with small carts and wagons continued to cross the bridge as well, as squads of men—many of them African American—crossed in the other direction to begin the night shift digging entrenchments. Harrisburg’s black residents were responding in large numbers to Superintendent Hildrup’s call for workers, and their numbers were swelled by several hundred of the African American refugees who had been arriving during the recent panic. They would soon be joined by African American railroad crews, who were paid half the wage given to civilian workers. By evening, nearly all the laborers digging by the light of the great bonfires on Hummel’s Heights would be black.

Most of the white laborers gave up the pick and shovel by the end of the day in favor of reporting to the State Arsenal on the Capitol grounds, where they expected to be issued a musket as part of the Governor’s calling out of the militia. Their enthusiasm was greatly ramped up by the rumor that General George Brinton McClellan was due to arrive at any moment in Harrisburg to take command of the newly summoned militia.

Most of those being equipped at the arsenal were young men or boys, some as young as fourteen years old and few over age eighteen, according to one observer. Once armed, they marched at the quickstep out Third Street and down Market Street toward the bridge. At some point during the afternoon or early evening, a company or more of black men volunteered, or were volunteered by someone in authority, to fight. No record exists of who they were, or from where they originated, but General Darius Couch did not believe they belonged in the Pennsylvania State Militia, and he sent them away without arms.

Later that evening he informed Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton by telegraph of his decision, wiring, “Applications have been made of colored troops for State defense. I judged that it would be bitterly opposed, and have, therefore, merely stated that I had no authority for accepting them.”145 Couch’s decision, made in the chaos of Tuesday’s evacuation of civilians and state government, did not settle the issue of whether African American soldiers would be needed, and he would find himself facing more black recruits, eager to volunteer to defend the Keystone State, a day later. For now, though, the only weapons allowed to African Americans in the defense of Pennsylvania were shovels and wheelbarrows.

The general panic only increased as the day wore on, and Louis Gottschalk turned his attentions to joining the mass exodus from the city, noting, “Our position in a few hours has become very critical.” Finally, he and Madam Strakosch secured a seat on the five o’clock train out of town—Max Strakosch was going to stay behind to search for their lost baggage—but Gottschalk became worried when they arrived at the train station to find four or five thousand other passengers also waiting to depart.

While waiting, the pianist and his companion saw orderlies bringing in dozens of wounded soldiers on litters, a trainload of cannons and caissons pulled in, and a convoy of half-built locomotives arrived from shops in the valley. The five o’clock train to Philadelphia, which was unusually large at eight or nine passenger cars and a few extra baggage cars, finally began boarding, and the burgeoning queues of old men, women, and children were packed in to take advantage of every inch of space.

When it pulled out of the Market Street station, it carried the hastily packed contents of the state archives, hundreds of crates containing the important business documents of the state government, the entire contents of the state library, the carefully packed oil portraits from the halls of the Capitol, and some two thousand of the city’s white citizens out of harm’s way, while the black porters were left to deal with the mountain of baggage that continued to clog the depot platforms.

Later that night, from the safety of his Philadelphia hotel room, Gottschalk summarized Tuesday, the sixteenth day of June with a curse, writing “The devil take the poets who dare to sing the pleasures of an artist’s life.” Meanwhile, back in Harrisburg, the “dusty drivers and the contrabands” from the wagon train, “penniless, outcast, in a strange land” and numbering in the hundreds, took advantage of the rain-swelled waters of Paxton Creek and began washing the grit from two days and one hundred and twenty miles of flight from their bodies, all the while praying for at least one more night of freedom.146

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137. Gottschalk, Notes, 203-209.

138. Ibid., 209-211; Patriot and Union, 17 June 1863. The rifle pits in Harris Park would be improved by the soldiers of the Twenty-Third New Jersey when they occupied them on 19 June. The men of the Garden State good-naturedly christened the site “Fort Yahoo.”

139. Frank Moore, ed., “June 16th,” The Rebellion Record: A Diary of American Events, vol. 7 (New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1864), 10.

140. Ibid.; “Changed Quarters,” Patriot and Union, 19 June 1863.

141. Moore, Rebellion Record, 10; Nye, Here Come the Rebels!, 260-261.

142. Mohr and Winslow, Cormany Diaries, 329.

143. Stone, “Diary of William Heyser,” 74; See Ted Alexander, “ ‘A Regular Slave Hunt’: The Army of Northern Virginia and Black Civilians in the Gettysburg Campaign,” North and South 4, no. 7 (September 2001): 82-89. News of the capture of African American civilians by Confederate troops was carried in the New York Herald as early as 20 June. That newspaper, which was readily available in Harrisburg, reported, “Carrying Off the Negroes. To the citizens of Chambersburg this was, perhaps, one of the most painful of all the scenes they witnessed. The rebels took old people, and even very young children. Some were driven along the road like sheep. Others were handcuffed or tied and marched along in that way. Others again were taken off mounted behind their ‘riders.’ They got a large number in all. Free negroes as well as fugitive ones were carried off. They treated them with hardly any degree of kindness whatever.” “Our Chambersburg Correspondence,” New York Herald, 20 June 1863.

144. Gottschalk, Notes, 211-212.

145. Couch telegraphed his update of the situation in Harrisburg, including the news of the application of black troops, to Stanton at eight o’clock p.m. The Secretary of War responded to Couch later that evening with regard to the supplying of militia troops, but did not address the issue of African American troops at that time. Official Records, ser. 1, vol. 27, pt. 3, 163.

146. Gottschalk, Notes, 217-219; Patriot and Union, 17 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.

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