The Plight of African-Americans in the Path of the Army of Northern Virginia in the Gettysburg Campaign

Gettysburg in 1863 had a vibrant African-American community. Located close to the Mason-Dixon Line, it was a stop along the Underground Railroad and a number of fugitive slaves made their home there over the years since Pennsylvania abolished slavery. Pennsylvania’s free public education was open to African-American children, and jobs were available in Gettysburg to allow their parents to make a living in the town. These new residents joined African-American families who were already living in the community as a result of enslaved people being brought to the town and later freed as a result of Pennsylvania’s emancipation of its enslaved people. Historian Pete Vermilyea has an excellent article published in Issue 24 of Gettysburg Magazine in 2001. You can read it here. I highly recommend it. In addition to detailing the African-American residents’ participation in the Underground Railroad and other antislavery activities, he tells us Gettysburg’s African-American community numbered 186 people in 1860, and 31% of them were native to Maryland and Virginia. He tells us, “Fifty of the borough’s 186 black residents held jobs in 1860. The types of occupations ran the gamut from clergyman to fortune teller, with day laborer being the most frequent occupation for men and domestic servant the most common for women. Seventeen of the 103 black women in the borough held jobs.” [Peter C. Vermilyea, “The Effect of the Confederate Invasion of Pennsylvania on Gettysburg’s African American Community,” Gettysburg Magazine, Issue 24, 2001, p. 113]

With the confederate movement into Pennsylvania, the lives of these residents, along with the lives of numerous African-Americans along the Army of Northern Virginia’s route, would change dramatically, and in many cases forever. Underscoring the importance of slavery to the confederacy and the fact that slavery was its reason for existence, the confederate army conducted a systematic program of kidnapping African-Americans of all ages and sexes to bring them into slavery in Virginia. There are a number of accounts available of this kidnapping.

For example, one local resident, Jacob Hoke, wrote an account of the rebel invasion in which he recorded, “One of the revolting features of this day was the scouring of the fields about the town and searching of houses in portions of the place for negroes. These poor creatures—those of them who had not fled upon the approach of the foe—sought concealment in the growing wheat fields around town. Into these the cavalrymen rode in search of their prey, and many were caught—some after a desperate chase and being fired at. In two cases, through the intercession of a friend who had influence with Jenkins, I succeeded in effecting the release of the captured persons. That this practice of the raid was not confined to the vicinity of Chambersburg alone, but was practiced elsewhere, is proven by the quotation from Rev. Dr. Schaff’s diary previously given in which he said that colored persons were taken and sent into Southern slavery, even ‘such as I [he] knew to have been born and raised on free soil.’ In some cases these negroes were rescued from the guards who were conducting them South, by the indignant people. A case of this kind occurred in Greencastle, in which a few determined men, armed with revolvers, captured a squad which had in charge a number of these poor frightened creatures, and released them from the unhappy fate which threatened them. This feature of the war indicated the object for which it was waged, to establish a government founded on human slavery.” [Jacob Hoke, The Great Invasion of 1863, pp. 107-108]

On pp. 94-96 he describes events in Mercersburg, citing the diary of Rev. Philip Schaff. Hoke quotes from Schaaf’s diary, and then adds a comment from Schaaf saying, “various detachments of Lee’s army took and kept possession of Mercersburg till the terrible battles at Gettysburg on the first three days of July, and although public and private houses were ransacked, horses, cows, sheep, and provisions stolen day by day without mercy, negroes captured and carried back into slavery, (even such as I have known to have been born and raised on free soil,) and many other outrages committed by the lawless guerrilla bands of McNeil, Imboden, Mosby, etc., yet the actual reign of terror, bad as it was, did not after all come up to the previous apprehensions created by the ‘wars and rumors of wars,’ and the community became more calm and composed, brave and unmindful of the danger.” [Ibid., p. 96]

Rev. Schaff had other observations. “On Friday [June 26] this guerilla [sic] band came to town on a regular slave-hunt, which presented the worst spectacle I ever saw in this war. They proclaimed, first, that they would burn down every house which harbored a fugitive slave, and did not deliver him up within twenty minutes. and then commenced the search upon all the houses upon which suspicion rested. It was a rainy afternoon. They succeeded in capturing several contrabands, among them a woman with two children. A most pitiful sight, sufficient to settle the slavery question for every humane mind.” [Philip Schaff, “Gettysburg Week,” Scribner’s, Vol. 16, No. 1 (July 1894), p. 24] In his journal entry for June 27 he wrote, “Early in the morning the guerilla [sic] band returned from their camping-ground, and, drove their booty, horses, cattle, about five hundred sheep, and two wagons full of store goods, with twenty-one negroes, through town and towards Greencastle or Hagerstown. It was a sight as sad and mournful as the slave-hunt of yesterday. They claimed all these negroes as Virginia slaves, but I was positively assured that two or three were born and raised in this neighborhood. One, Sam Brooks, split many a cord of wood for me. There were among them women and young children, sitting with sad countenances on the stolen store-boxes. I asked one of the riders guarding the wagons: ‘Do you not feel bad and mean in such an occupation?’ He boldly replied that he ‘felt very comfortable. They were only reclaiming their property which we had stolen and harbored.’ ” [Ibid.] Rev. Schaff continues, “I expect these guerillas [sic] will not rest until they have stripped the country and taken all the contraband negroes who are still in the neighborhood, fleeing about like deer. My family is kept in constant danger, on account of poor old Eliza, our servant, and her little boy, who hide in the grain-fields during the day, and return under cover of night to get something to eat. Her daughter Jane, with her two children, were captured and taken back to Virginia. Her pretended master, Dr. Hammel from Martinsburg, was after her, but the guerillas [sic] would not let him have her, claiming the booty for themselves. I saw him walk after her with the party.” [Ibid., p. 25]

Rachel Cormany, another local resident of the time, recorded witnessing some of these kidnappings in her diary. “O! How it grated on our hearts to have to sit quietly and look at such brutal deeds–I saw no men among the contrabands–all women and children. Some of the colored people who were raised here were taken along–I sat on the front step as they were driven by just like we would drive cattle. Some laughed and seemed not to care–but nearly all hung their heads.” [The Cormany Diaries: A Northern Family in the Civil War, pages 329-330]

“On at least one occasion a civilian, Charles Hartman of Greencastle, was ordered by Rebels under Maj. Gen. Robert Rodes to assist in the kidnapping of blacks.” [Peter C. Vermilyea, “The Effect of the Confederate Invasion of Pennsylvania on Gettysburg’s African American Community,” Gettysburg Magazine, Issue 24, p. 116.]

As Pete Vermilyea goes on to tell us, “The best-known incident in which the Confederate army captured blacks occurred on the afternoon of June 16 in Greencastle, Pennsylvania, twenty-five miles southwest of Gettysburg. Between thirty and forty black women and children who had been captured at Chambersburg were brought into town in wagons. A Confederate chaplain and four soldiers guarded this caravan. As the wagons came through the town, the residents surprised the guards, disarmed them and locked them in the town’s jail. The captives were freed. When Jenkins received word of this, he demanded $50,000 in compensation for the blacks, who he claimed were his property. The town leaders refused, prompting Jenkins to threaten to return in two hours to burn the town. After Jenkins rode out of town, fourteen of the blacks whom the townspeople freed met with the town leaders and offered to give themselves up to Jenkins to spare the town. The town leaders refused their offer, and the town ended up being spared as Jenkins never returned. Despite the happy ending in Greencastle, no less than fifty blacks from the Adams County area ended up on the auction blocks of the southern slave markets, brought south while ‘bound with ropes’ as ‘the children were mounted in front or behind the rebels on their horses.’ It seems likely that most of the kidnappings were committed by those units operating either in the van of Lee’s invasion, like Jenkins’ cavalry, or those under quasi-independent command like ‘Hanse’ McNeill’s Partisan Rangers who served with John Imboden’s cavalry. [Ibid.] The local newspapers were not much concerned about the plight of these African-Americans–at least not as much concerned as they were about the property of their white citizens–but they did report what they found out. “On June 23, the Adams Sentinel reported: ‘[The Rebels] took possession of Hagerstown on Monday of last week. They remained until Wednesday afternoon… They carried off with them some horses and quite a number of colored persons, but otherwise doing very little damage.’ Six days later the following appeared in the Gettysburg Compiler: ‘About daybreak on the 18 th, a force of about 200 rebel cavalry made a dash into McConnelsburg and surrounded it in a few seconds. They then commenced their work of plunder, taking horses [and] Negroes… We are sorry to say that Captain States of Bloody Run had fourteen fine horses taken.’ Newspapers throughout the North, however, reported on the flight of ‘thousands’ of free Negroes from the Cumberland Valley swarming through Harrisburg.” [Ibid., p. 118] In his recollections of the invasion, Albertus McCreary, a boy at the time of the battle, wrote, “A number of colored people lived in the western part of town and when on the first day a great many of them were gathered together and marched out of town. As they passed our house our old washerwoman called out ‘Goodbye, we are going back to slavery.’ Most of them were crying and moaning. We never expected to see ‘Old Liz’ again, but the day after the battle ended she came walking in, exclaiming, ‘Thank God, I’s alive again!’ We all crowded around her, anxious to know how she had got away… The main fact was this: She was marched with the rest down the street and there was such a crowd that when they were opposite the Lutheran Church, in the confusion she slipped into church without being seen, and climbed up into the belfry; she stayed there for the two days without anything to eat or drink.” [Ibid., p. 120]

Albert Jenkins’ cavalry didn’t stop kidnapping people at Chambersburg and Greencastle. “One detachment, under Colonel Ferguson, went to Mercersburg and over the Cove Mountain into Fulton County. Upon reaching McConnellsburg shortly after dawn on the 18th, its stores and shops were visited and purchases made with Confederate scrip. Twelve thousand dollars worth of cattle, 120 horses, and several Negro boys were taken from the farms of the area.” [W. P. Conrad and Ted Alexander, When War Passed This Way, p. 137] As these two historians tell us, “Both raids brought additional blacks to be returned to Virginia. No one can estimate the numbers of Negroes who suffered this fate, for the practice continued throughout the time Lee’s army was in Pennsylvania. Entire Negro families were seized in the Mercersburg area and on several occasions Confederate officers helped release such captives, because they, too, were heartsick when they saw this happening. Beyond the cavalry units involved in the foraging business, there were irregular guerrilla bands from the mountains of western Virginia who worked along the fringes of the regular army. Their enterprise included–taking horses, cattle, store goods, household valuables, and Negroes. Upon returning to Virginia they sold their merchandise for personal profit.” [Ibid.]

Amos Stouffer, a Chambersburg farmer, wrote in his diary [June 19, 1863] that rebel cavalrymen were “scouring the country in every direction about Waynesboro, Greencastle, Mercersburg and Finkstown for horses, cattle, and Negroes.” [William Garrett Piston (ed.), “The Rebs Are Yet Thick About Us”, the Civil War Diary of Amos Stouffer of Chambersburg”, Civil War History, September, 1992, pp. 168-169]

Jemima Cree also witnessed kidnappings, which she communicated to her husband, who was in Pittsburgh on business. “In her letter of June 15 she complained of the rebel actions and described her efforts to free an employee. ‘“This morning among the first news I heard was that they had been scouting around, gathering up our Darkies, and that they had Mag down on the court house pavement. I got my ‘fixens’ on, and started down, and there were about 25 women and children, with Mag and Fannie. I interceded for Mag, told them she was free born, etc. The man said he could do nothing, he was acting according to orders. As they were just ready to start, I had to leave; if I could have had time to have seen the General, I might have got her off. Fannie being contraband, we could do nothing about her.’ The latter statement suggests that the Confederates were under orders to round up contrabands, but simply seized blacks irrespective of status. Mrs. Cree then witnessed the hapless victims marched off. ‘They took up all they could find, even little children, whom they had to carry on horseback before them. All who could get there fled to the woods, and many who were wise are hid in the houses of their employers.’ Chambersburg businessman William Heyser noted in his diary that when the rebels left town on June 18 they took with them ‘about 250 colored people…into bondage.’ ” [Ted Alexander, “A Regular Slave Hunt: The Army of Northern Virginia and Black Civilians in the Gettysburg Campaign,” North and South Magazine, Vol 4, No. 7, Sept, 2001, p. 85]

Historian Ted Alexander writes, “The Mercersburg Journal reported that ‘several of our colored men were observed to be in their custody two of these were John Filkill and Findlay Cuff. They were taken along with a number of others, having before them the cheerless prospect of being sold as slaves in the far South. Some of these unfortunates were brought back, or found their way home again after six months or a year. Others were never returned or heard of afterward.’ ” [Ibid., p. 86] He also tells us, “Confederate forces continued to round up African-Americans as late as July 1, 1863. Around noon on that date a group of more than fifty partisans, led by none other than Major John S. Mosby, arrived in Mercersburg. While the main body of this command rode on to forage in the countryside, a small detachment remained in the town. This group, described by witnesses as ‘drunken,’ robbed individual citizens and looted stores. The local newspaper reported that the band, ‘denying connection with the regular army…, felt licensed to do and dare whatever Satan suggested.’ One ‘Satanic suggestion’ prompted the raiders to force ‘along with them several free colored citizens, some of whom were highly esteemed in the community.’ When Judge James Carson asked one of the guerrillas whether they took ‘free negroes,’ the rebel replied ‘yes and we will take you too if you do not shut up!’ ” [Ibid., p. 87]

Col William Steptoe Christian, commander of the 55th Virginia, wrote to his wife on June 28, 1863, in a letter that was found on the Gettysburg battlefield: “We took a lot of negroes yesterday. I was offered my choice but as I could not get them back home I would not take them.” You can view the entire letter here. Some neoconfederates will claim this letter was a forgery, but that only proves their lack of intelligence. If you look at the entire letter, you can see it has details no forger would know.

In a letter to his wife, Lt. Chester Leach, Company H, 2nd Vermont Infantry, tells the price paid by one African-American who tried to refuse to go along with the kidnappers: “I saw a sight yesterday that beats all I ever saw. A Negro boy that the Rebels left in a barn, entirely naked. His breast cut & bowels were scratched or cut & the Dr. said that turpentine had been put on him & also his privates had been cut off. I went in the barn to see him but it was rather dark. He lay on his back, his legs bent, knees up, & grinding his teeth & foaming at the mouth & seemed to take no notice of anything & breast & bowels looked as if they had been cut & then burned all over. I understand the reason of the act to be because he would not go over the river with them.” [Chester K. Leach to his wife, July 15, 1863]

In her book,  The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg’s Forgotten History: Immigrants, Women, and African Americans in the Civil War’s Defining Battle, Margaret Creighton writes, “Confederate infantrymen and senior infantry commanders were involved as well. Newspaper and civilian records point to soldiers from Ewell’s corps, Hill’s corps, and Longstreet’s corps taking African Americans during the invasion. Military records also point to Longstreet himself. The corps commander, Robert E. Lee’s right-hand man, instructed General Pickett, who was in Chambersburg, to carry with him ‘captured contrabands’ on the way to Gettysburg. Longstreet may have been carrying out something of a tradition. When Stonewall Jackson defeated Federal troops at Harpers Ferry in the fall of 1862, he ordered the seizure of hundreds of ‘contrabands.’ Whether the Confederate army was more careful about differentiating runaway slaves from free people in the fall of 1862 than the summer of 1863 is hard to know. According to one historian, it is not necessarily a relevant distinction. ‘Slave-catching,’ he has argued, whether directed at free or formerly enslaved people, was ‘in no way a military activity.’ Regardless of its standing in Confederate army policy, kidnapping was clearly sanctioned at the highest Confederate levels. According to another scholar, it was a practice intended to avenge the Emancipation Proclamation, the arming of black soldiers, and Northern depredations in the South.” [Margaret S. Creighton, The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg’s Forgotten History: Immigrants, Women, and African Americans in the Civil War’s Defining Battle, p. 130]

Here’s the order from Longstreet to Pickett referred to above:

HEADQUARTERS FIRST ARMY CORPS,
Greenwood, Pa., July 1, 1863–10.30 a.m.
Maj. Gen. G. E. PICKETT,
Commanding Division:
As directed yesterday evening, if relieved in time to-day by General Imboden, the commanding general desires you to come on this evening as far as this point, and to follow on after the remainder of the command across the mountains to-morrow morning. If you do not start from the vicinity of Chambersburg before to-morrow you may move on across the mountain without stopping here. When you arrive here, either this evening or to-morrow, the commanding general wishes you to relieve a brigade of General Hood at New Guilford, and send it forward to rejoin his division. Your own brigade will in turn be relieved by General Imboden when he gets here and sent on to rejoin you. The captured contrabands had better be brought along with you for further disposition.
I am, general, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
G. M. SORREL,
[27.] Assistant Adjutant-General.

[O.R., Series 1, Vol. LI, Part 2, pp. 732-733]

In his book, Mosby’s Rangers, James J. Williamson, himself a member of Mosby’s command, wrote, “It was Mosby’s intention to join General Lee in Pennsylvania, but when we reached Mercersburg, where we expected to find a portion of the army, it had moved. Our number being so small, and as we were ignorant of the country as well as of the position of our army, Mosby determined to return to Virginia, which he did, but not until he had gathered up 218 head of cattle, 15 horses and 12 negroes.” [pp. 79-80]

James Paradis writes, “The Rev. Thomas Creigh recorded in his diary for Friday, June 26: ‘A terrible day. The guerillas [sic] passing and repassing, on e of the saddest of sights, several of our colored persons with them, to be sold into slavery, John Philkill and Findlay Cuff.’ The Rebels announced that they intended ‘to search all houses for contrabands and fire arms and that wherever they discovered either they will set fire to the house in which they may be found.’ The next day he reported that the soldiers had left, ‘taking with them about a dozen colored persons, mostly contrabands, women and children. The raiders carried much of the ‘contraband’ away in wagons. ‘Some of the men were bound with ropes, and the children were mounted in front or behind the rebels on their horses.’ Another citizen observed, ‘They took all they could find, even little children, whom they had to carry on horseback before them. William Heyser recorded in his diary on June 18, ‘The Rebels have left Chambersburg taking with them about 250 colored people again into bondage.’ ” [James M. Paradis, African Americans and the Gettysburg Campaign, pp. 30-31] Paradis tells us, “The fact that blacks were taken prisoner is corroborated by Confederate prison records and by records of the Freedman’s Bureau. Amos Bares, a free black from Pennsylvania, was freed from a Richmond prison by order of the Confederate War Department. A Richmond minister had petitioned for his release in apparent response to a request from a Pennsylvania Presbyterian minister.” [Ibid., p. 35]

In his classic history of the Gettysburg campaign, Here Come the Rebels!, Wilbur S. Nye wrote, “Annoyed and angered as the citizens were by the seizure of their means of transportation and their assets in livestock and grain, they were horrified at the sight of the Confederates chasing and capturing Negroes. Many of the colored people who lived in northern Maryland and Pennsylvania had not joined the tidal wave of refugees that swept up the Cumberland Valley on Monday. They were servants in private homes or taverns, employees of merchants and factories, members of railroad gangs, and field laborers. Most of them owned or rented small houses and had families. On the approach of the Rebels, many of these people hid in the waist-high wheat on surrounding farms. But the Southern cavalrymen rode through the fields searching for them, and even when they had not been seen, the quarry usually jumped up and ran when they heard the thundering of hoofs. In such instances, the soldiers were after them like tigers, shooting at them if they did not halt when called upon. As a result, a goodly proportion of the fugitives were rounded up. The captives were terrified, and they had good reason to be. Friendless and without protectors, they were tied together with ropes or chains and herded back into Virginia to be sold into slavery. Many had never been slaves or had long ago been freed. On the sorrowful trek to the Potomac there were occasional episodes in which enraged citizens set upon the few guards and freed the captives, but for the most part they were in a hopeless situation. There were a few exceptions. several Confederate officers who had received a share in the distribution of Negroes before the captives were sent south, voluntarily released them. No small number of Southerners were heartsick at the barbarous spectacle. The seizure of Negroes in Maryland and Pennsylvania was observed by numerous persons and can scarcely be doubted.” [Wilbur S. Nye, Here Come the Rebels!, p. 144]

Historian Dave Smith has looked into this episode. “Lee’s concern for the farmers of the Shenandoah Valley and their ability to feed his forces may also help explain why soldiers from every part of Lee’s army apprehended (and, in many cases, returned to Virginia) fugitive slaves and even captured Northern free blacks when the army was in Pennsylvania. This activity was not aberrational, as has been claimed, but involved soldiers from every part of Lee’s army. Some of this activity was motivated by a simple desire to recover fugitives, or efforts to exact retaliation against a population not protected by the General Orders Lee issued when the army entered Pennsylvania. It also appears, however, that capturing African Americans and sending them to the Shenandoah Valley may have been a part of Lee’s strategy to increase and protect that region’s productive capacity.” [David G. Smith, ” ‘Clear the Valley’: The Shenandoah Valley and the Genesis of the Gettysburg Campaign,” The Journal of Military History, Vol. 74, No. 4, October, 2010, p. 1095]

In an essay focused on African-Americans in the Gettysburg Campaign, Dave wrote, “The capture of these black civilians took place from the time Gen. Robert E. Lee’s troops entered the state until at least the battle of Gettysburg. Newspaper accounts, soldiers’ letters, and local diaries all reported the capture, flight, or concealment of African Americans, from the upper Shenandoah Valley in Virginia to the Pennsylvania capital, Harrisburg. One Confederate soldier described his unit’s activities near Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, as ‘Boys capturing negroes and horses.’ Another wrote to his family that his brother had ‘captured several Negroes and is sending them back.’ … the evidence implicates units from every one of Lee’s infantry and cavalry corps.” [David G. Smith, “Race and Retaliation: The Capture of African Americans during the Gettysburg Campaign,” in Peter Wallenstein and Bertram Wyatt-Brown, eds., Virginia’s Civil War, p. 137] Dave estimates several hundred kidnapped in Pennsylvania alone, and when added to those captured further south in the Shenandoah Valley and in Maryland, the total kidnapped may even top one thousand.

When confronted with the irrefutable evidence of confederate soldiers kidnapping African-Americans and taking them south, many neoconfederates will seek to claim Robert E. Lee had nothing to do with it. In other words, they would rather believe Lee was a bumbling old fool who had no idea what his army was doing than believe he not only knew about but ordered this to happen. On March 21, 1863 Lee sent out a circular to all his subordinate commanders directing them to comply with General Orders No. 25. The circular exists in the National Archives, and its citation is: “W. H. Taylor to General, 21 March 1863, Orders and Circulars Issued by the Army of the Potomac and the Army and Department of Northern Virginia, C.S.A., 1861-1865, NA Microfilm M921, reel I, frame 1391. Also see Orders and Circulars, Rodes and Battle’s Brigade, Army of Northern Virginia, 1861-1865, NA, RG 109, Chap. 2, vol. 66, pp. 175-76. Lee’s order directed the army to comply with an early March directive by the Confederate Adjutant General (General Orders No. 25, Adjutant and Inspector General’s Office, 6 March 1863, in OR, Ser. 2, vol. 5, pp. 844-45.”

You can see General Orders No. 25 here.

The order turned every confederate army into armies of slave catchers, and slave catchers were not known for being particular about which African-American they accused of being a fugitive slave. The Army of Northern Virginia, acting on Lee’s order, implemented General Orders No. 25 and became an army that kidnapped African-Americans to put them into slavery.

But this was nothing new for that army. It was merely continuing what it had been doing previously.

“When Mercersburg was raided by General Stuart … in 1862, several colored men were taken captive and taken to Richmond.” Old Mercersburg, quoted in Ted Alexander, “A Regular Slave Hunt: The Army of Northern Virginia and Black Civilians in the Gettysburg Campaign,” North and South Magazine, Vol 4, No. 7, Sept, 2001, p. 84]

In writing about what happened in both 1862 and 1863, Smith wrote, “The slave raids in Pennsylvania were a continuation of similar practices that had occurred in 1862 in the Shenandoah Valley, at Harpers Ferry, and even in Pennsylvania. Most soldiers who participated in the raids appear to have been supervised by their officers, who encouraged or at least acquiesced in the activity. The actions of General Rodes (who threatened to destroy a town to recapture African Americans), and especially the order to General Pickett, makes it very likely that the highest ranks of the Army of Northern Virginia were aware of the raiding, and wanted to maintain control of the captives.” [David G. Smith, “Race and Retaliation: The Capture of African Americans during the Gettysburg Campaign,” in Peter Wallenstein and Bertram Wyatt-Brown, eds., Virginia’s Civil War, p. 147]

 

Elizabeth Butler [“Old Liz”] escaped rebel captivity and enslavement, but many did not; however, it appears many more African-Americans in the path of the rebels managed to make their way to safety, either in Harrisburg or Philadelphia, or to Yellow Hill, an African-American community about seven miles north of Gettysburg located in a heavily wooded area confederate scouts apparently didn’t locate. Whatever their fate, the Gettysburg African-American community was never the same thereafter. “Of the 186 blacks that lived in Gettysburg in 1860, no more than 74 still lived in the borough in 1870. At the most, only 31 percent of the 239 African American living in Gettysburg in 1870 had lived in the town in 1860. Ninety percent of the blacks who moved to Gettysburg between 1863 and 1870 were natives of Maryland and Virginia; these were most likely former slaves escaping the land of their persecution.” [Peter C. Vermilyea, “The Effect of the Confederate Invasion of Pennsylvania on Gettysburg’s African American Community,” Gettysburg Magazine, Issue 24, p. 124]

The priority placed on finding, capturing, and bringing to Virginia as many African-Americans as they could shows how focused the confederates were on slavery and on strengthening the institution. After all, strengthening and preserving slavery was why they existed in the first place and why they wanted to be independent from the United States.

Most histories of the Gettysburg Campaign, from Coddington through Guelzo, cover this chapter of the campaign. Additionally, some newspaper articles covered it [example here], and my blogging colleagues Don Shaffer [here], Pat Young [here], and Andy Hall [here, here, and here] covered it as well.

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8 comments

  1. Very nice summary of the many accounts of this episode.

    In my article for CWTI in 2002 (“Lee’s Slave Makers,” July, 2002) I included an interesting anecdote from 1862:

    “A very revealing incident from this period is related by Colonel William H. Trimble of the 60th Ohio, part of the captured garrison at Harpers Ferry. Col. Trimble had reached an arrangement with Confederate Major General A.P. Hill that would allow those black men who had accompanied the regiment from Ohio (13, total) to remain with the regiment when it marched out of Harpers Ferry on parole. However, when the Ohioans did begin to leave on September 16, they were halted by a Confederate major who ordered a detail to seize the blacks with the 60th, accusing Trimble of being “a d—-d nigger thief.” Trimble protested, and explained that he had passes from Hill for the men, but this had no apparent effect on the Confederate, who said that he “would not regard the order of General Hill in such a case.” Only when Trimble drew his sidearm — which he had been allowed to keep by the terms of the surrender — and threatened the major’s life were the blacks allowed to march on with the regiment.”

    Not sure where I found this—I think it is in one of Ted Alexander’s books.

    1. Thanks, Jim. That’s a good story.

  2. Thanks for posting this Al. I had written about this two years ago, and it was the first time I had looked at the primary sources on this practice of kidnapping.

    1. Thanks, Pat. I’ll find your post and add its link to mine.

        1. Thanks. I did a search on the site and found it.

  3. Matt McKeon · · Reply

    Great post.

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