Afrolumens Project logo
Share |
Year of Jubilee title logo

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)


Calm Once More

On Friday, 19 June, a general calm settled over Harrisburg once more when the imminent Confederate attack did not develop. In the offices of the Patriot and Union, editor Oromel Barrett made the following observation:

Communications with Carlisle

We noticed the train for Carlisle going out as usual yesterday morning. Among those returning was a large number of negroes, who had fled down the valley a day or two before, lest they might fall into the “hands of the Philistines.” They probably return upon the strength of the intelligence that the rebels have halted at Chambersburg, and are fortifying their position there. The condition of these black refugees is pitiful. If they stay at home, they are in danger of capture; if they go away, they find an unfriendly world with which to deal, and have to face hunger and misfortune without money or influence on their side. Even their professed friends deal treacherously with them, and ignore their claims for help and sympathy.—It would be better for the contraband to stay where he is at all hazards, rather than run the gauntlet of the prejudice, the downright hatred, and the hypocritical, profitless friendship which he finds at his every step northward.

Harrisburg entered the weekend nursing a sense of relative security, knowing that large numbers of veteran Union troops had finally arrived or were on the way, believing that the enemy had slowed down and was perhaps even retreating back into Maryland, and trusting that the earthworks full of soldiers on the West Shore would keep the threat contained to the Cumberland Valley. The tone was set on Friday evening, when six cannons were rolled into place behind lunettes at the base of the hill at Third and Walnut Streets, giving the Capitol grounds a grim, no-nonsense air.

Thus fully reassured, local citizens resumed planning summer picnics, eagerly anticipated the arrival of James M. Nixon’s New York Cremorne Garden Circus, featuring a unique troupe of Syrian male and female acrobats, and rather grudgingly put up with the mayor’s proclamation prohibiting liquor sales between the hours of five p.m. and five a.m. Although the town newspapers hailed Hizzoner’s decision as one made out of “wisdom and prudence” for the current crisis, locals grumbled and viewed his anti-liquor fiat as premature, as sudden heavy rains made outdoor entertainments unlikely.156 With nothing else to do, they watched the mud puddles grow in the streets, secure in the belief that the rise in the river would make it even more difficult for enemy troops to ford the wide Susquehanna.

That weekend, General Couch rode across the Camel Back Bridge and inspected the newly constructed earthworks on Hummel Hill, described by a New York reporter as “ditch and entrenchment” works built in a semicircle and “running along the slopes and summit of a hill or bluff, with each termination resting on the river bank. It commands the railroad and roads leading south, the bridge and district surrounding it.”157

Couch surveyed the muddy works and the rows of tents being erected by the soldiers settling into their quarters at the site and pronounced the work satisfactory. He named the new fortifications Fort Washington and tendered his thanks to the civilian superintendents “and to the men who labored so faithfully on this work, for the energy they have displayed in fortifying the capital of their state.”158

The general displayed a confident face to the public, but privately he was worried by what he saw. Fort Washington commanded the bridges into Harrisburg, and to some extent the Cumberland County roads into town, but it was compromised by higher ground to the west, making it highly vulnerable to artillery fire from an enemy force in control of that ground. Some veteran soldiers at the fort pointed out that the workers had not covered over the excavated shale with soft earth, turning each artillery glacis from a protective embankment into a potentially lethal pile of stone projectiles, should it be struck by an enemy shell.159

Accordingly, Couch called upon an experienced military engineer and commander, Brigadier General William Farrar “Baldy” Smith, who was expected in Harrisburg shortly, to “inspect the defenses of the Susquehanna, and…make such dispositions as are necessary for the defense of the river.”160 Until Smith arrived, the work fell on his staff. By Sunday, plans were in place to construct a second fort eight hundred yards west of Fort Washington, and a third fortified site to the south, on the York Turnpike, to protect the main fort.

Many additional preparations were begun to provision this network of forts and to make them effective military emplacements. A telegraph line was run from the headquarters tent, down the hill, and across the bridge to General Couch’s office on the second floor of the Capitol. A week earlier, Superintendent William T. Hildrup had issued a call for empty barrels for use in the fortifications. Citizens were instructed to leave the empties outside of their homes or businesses so that military teams could drive wagons around the city to collect them and take them to the new camp on Hummel Hill. About one thousand barrels and hogsheads were collected in this manner, and during the following week, the Citizens Fire Engine and Hose Company ran one thousand feet of hose from the river to the top of the bluff into Fort Washington to fill them.

In charge of this monumental operation was Chief Fire Engineer George C. Fager, a forty-nine-year-old veteran firefighter and Harrisburg native. Fager began fighting fires at age fourteen with the Friendship Fire Company, using leather buckets to help put out Harrisburg’s frequent blazes. He joined the Citizen’s Fire Company when it was organized in 1835, and proudly helped roll out its new Bates hand-pumping engine whenever the fire bells rang. Fager became the company’s chief engineer and operator of the much-admired machine. He put his extensive pumping knowledge to use for the invasion crisis, volunteering the company’s stalwart hand pumper for use at the fort. Fager set up pumps at the base of the bluff to force the river water to the waiting barrels at the top of the hill, so the troops at the fort would have a reliable supply of water.161

The additional preparations helped take some of the pressure off Harrisburg’s African American community, which was now severely stressed by the threat from invading Confederate troops and by having to take in and care for hundreds of African American refugees. The extra fortifications meant, ostensibly, extra security, which somewhat comforted local blacks, whose nerves were worn as thin as their resources from a week of uncertainty.

Also, the need for more fortifications meant work for many dozens of local black citizens and perhaps a few hundred of the African American refugees who continued to enter the city from the Cumberland Valley. They combined their labor with that of hundreds of black laborers from the Pennsylvania Railroad, who were brought in by the work carload for the heaviest work.

Rifle pits were dug along the turnpike road than ran from the Camel Back Bridge south to York. The exact site of the York Road fortifications was chosen by Captain Junius Brutus Wheeler, a topographical engineer and West Point teacher of mathematics who had been summoned a week earlier to Harrisburg to oversee the defensive works. Wheeler, who specialized in military fortifications, had not yet arrived when Wilson, Dodge, and Brady had laid out Fort Washington, and he had not been pleased with what he saw when he finally got to Harrisburg and inspected the newly dug works. The York Road fortifications were located three-quarters of a mile south of Fort Washington on either side of the turnpike, along the mainline of the Northern Central Railroad. The works protected the southern approach to the main fort, and may have been Captain Wheeler’s attempt to provide for defensive deficiencies in the main fort.

Another major defensive position was established eight hundred yards west of Fort Washington, on higher land that commanded the main fort. This was the elevation that had unnerved General Couch, the veteran artillerymen, and probably Captain Wheeler, when they independently viewed the local lay of the land. Wheeler assigned the design of this advance fort to artillery officer Major James Brady, of the Pennsylvania Militia, who laid out a line of artillery positions to command the roads converging on Bridgeport.162 Wheeler’s York Road encampment and rifle pits were christened Fort Russell, although the New York troops who occupied the works referred to it as Fort Cox, and Brady’s advance artillery position west of Fort Washington was named Fort Couch.

Harrisburg’s African American men again crossed the Camel Back Bridge to defend the city with picks, axes, shovels, and wheelbarrows. This time they were accompanied by large numbers of the black refugees who had been streaming into town. The refugees had arrived with tremendous needs and few resources. This new opportunity for work in the entrenchments not only fulfilled a military necessity, it also allowed the idle male refugees a chance to provide their labor in exchange for the care that was being offered to them, albeit unevenly and inconsistently, by Harrisburg’s black community and by the city authorities.

Most of the local black residents and refugees worked in Fort Washington, Fort Couch, and Fort Russell, adding their labor to that of the black railroad laborers already employed there, while additional fortified sites upriver were dug almost exclusively by the railroad laborers. More jobs for black refugees were available at the base of Hummel Hill, along the railroad lines on the West Shore. It was here that several other defensive measures were taken, including fortifying the roundhouse of the Cumberland Valley Railroad. The stout stone engine house “was pierced for musketry, and the doors barricaded with cross-ties and sand bags, with embrasures for two [artillery] pieces commanding the railroad.” In addition, “the rock cut of the Northern Central Railroad under the fort was barricaded” and rifle pits were dug on top of the cut itself.163

Other blacks were employed at working the fire engine pumps that forced water from the Susquehanna River up the face of the bluff through fire hoses to the fort, where it was stored in the hogsheads and barrels collected a few days earlier by Superintendent Hildrup’s crews. The pump handles were long levers that would accommodate eight to ten men to a side, working rhythmically to keep up a steady pressure. There were several engines employed at the bluff, making steady work for at least a hundred or more refugees.

Chief Engineer George C. Fager was quite satisfied with his “contraband” workforce. The local newspaper reported, “We are informed by the managers of the Citizens fire company, now in this service of supplying water to Fort Couch, that the contrabands detailed to assist them are faithful and efficient workers.” All the African American refugee workers in the fortifications were fed and sheltered on site. The same newspaper also reported, “rations are served out to them daily by the authorities, and comfortable quarters provided.”164

With steady work as a diversion, and few spectacular movements from the enemy, the African American residents of Harrisburg were able to relax somewhat by the late evening of Sunday, 21 June. The rate of incoming refugees slackened over the weekend and, as the Patriot and Union reported, some black refugees even cautiously ventured back into Cumberland County.

Their optimism was not unreasonable. General Jenkins’ raiders had backed off from Scotland after destroying the bridge there several days earlier. On Saturday evening, the Telegraph reported, “the rebels are making a retrograde movement,” and “are now moving back towards the Potomac.” The next morning, alarming reports were received that there were forty-thousand Confederate soldiers between Hagerstown and Williamsport Maryland, but newspaper reporters coolly dismissed the reports as “preposterous.”

The New York Times correspondent in Harrisburg even observed that his job was “not to speculate, but to give the news.” He then proceeded to speculate that the cavalry forces of Robert E. Lee were merely operating from “a sort of base at Williamsport, and an outpost at Hagerstown,” from which they were making “chronic raids up these valleys” to gather livestock, remove food stores, capture African American residents, and gather intelligence on Union troop strengths. “Their object in holding Hagerstown,” he postulated, “can be nothing else…If, on the contrary, they intended to march on Harrisburgh or Baltimore, why did they not do it before forces were collected at these points? It is too late now. Harrisburgh is well fortified; the works are nearly completed.”165

By Sunday evening, George Bergner’s crew was busily setting type for the Monday morning edition, postulating that Lee’s movement into Pennsylvania was a “feint at an invasion,” designed to “cajole Hooker into transferring the bulk of his army north of the Potomac” so Lee could recapture the “sacred soil” south of that river. News also arrived that railroad crews had rebuilt the bridge at Scotland, and regular mail service would resume shortly.166 Suddenly the entire invasion seemed to be turning into just another one of the frequent scares that kept local blacks constantly on edge. By Monday morning, “The Situation” column of the local newspaper was very brief, beginning “There is nothing special today.” Calm returned to Harrisburg.

Previous | Next



156. “Proclamation by the Mayor,” Patriot and Union, 19 June 1863; “Our Harrisburgh Correspondence,” New York Times, 19 June 1863. By Thursday afternoon the Twenty-Third New Jersey, the Eighth New York, and the Seventy-First New York had arrived in Harrisburg and some five thousand troops were reported to be in Camp Curtin. So many Pennsylvania militia soldiers were reporting to town that the streets, public buildings and the Capitol grounds were filled with lounging, sleeping soldiers. “Military Matters,” Evening Telegraph, 19 June 1863.

157. Crist, Confederate Invasion, 18.

158. “General Orders No. 3,” 19 June 1863, Official Records, ser. 1, vol. 27, pt. 3, 223.

159. Crist, Confederate Invasion, 19-21; Nye, Here Come the Rebels!, 225.

160. “Special Orders, No. 10,” 20 June 1863, Official Records, ser. 1, vol. 27, pt. 3, 240.

161. Morning Telegraph, 16, 29 June 1863. Biographical information on George C. Fager is from Our Firemen, A History of the New York Fire Department, Volunteer and Paid (New York: Augustine E. Costello, 1887), chapter 58, Reproduced on

162. Crist, Confederate Invasion, 18-21; Nye, Here Come the Rebels!, 225-228. Robert Grant Crist places the location of Fort Russell (also called Fort Cox) as “near the intersection of what has become Sixteenth Street, New Cumberland, and the Northern Central Railroad line.” Wilbur Sturtevant Nye, in locating Fort Russell, notes “at that time the road running south to New Cumberland was close to the railroad, 20 yards or more east of the present Bridge Street.” (p. 234) Earthworks from Fort Couch have been preserved and are marked by a Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission marker and a large interpretive marker placed by the Camp Curtin Historical Society and Civil War Round Table. The modern location of Fort Couch is along Eighth Street between Indiana and Ohio Avenues, Lemoyne, Pennsylvania.

163. “Report of William F. Smith, Brigadier General,” Official Records, ser. 1, vol. 27, pt. 3, 223-224; “Report of Brigadier General John Ewen,” Official Records, ser. 1, vol. 27, pt. 2, 234.

164. Patriot and Union, 3 July 1863. Details on the operations of hand pump fire engines is from Theodore B. Klein, “Some Hot Times in the Old Town—The Fire Boys Between the Years 1837 and 1871,” in Egle, Notes and Queries, Annual Volume 1900, 12:59-60.

165. “The Situation,” Evening Telegraph, 20 June 1863; “The Trouble Among the Pennsylvania Militia,” New York Times, 24 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.

About the AP | Contact AP | Mission Statement | 20th Century History