Did Black Men Fight at Gettysburg?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: It depends on how you define the pivotal Civil War battle.

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Had I stopped my inquiry there, I might have been disappointed. Because I didn't, I was both horrified and amazed. Thanks to the invaluable research of Paradis and Margaret Creighton, a history professor at Bates College whose 2005 book, The Colors of Courage, has quickly become the standard, I have learned that Gettysburg wasn't just a three-day affair but a longer campaign that enveloped an entire region and countless African-American lives. Put it this way: While I was skeptical at first, it's no wonder to me now that black residents in Gettysburg are currently seeking funds for their own museum, as reported by the Associated Press on June 25, 2013.  

The Terror

The terror began two weeks before what most regard as the Battle of Gettysburg proper (July 1-3, 1863), when a brigade of Confederate cavalry led by General Albert Jenkins crossed over the Potomac River and headed up the Cumberland Valley into Pennsylvania. They weren't only interested in conducting reconnaissance, cutting communications lines or raiding farms for cattle and other food supplies. They sought something more valuable: "contraband." However hard Southern apologists tried to deny that slavery was the central cause of the war, the Confederate invasion offered too tempting an opportunity to reverse the flow of the Underground Railroad, and in the fog of war, the Rebels didn't discriminate between runaways, refugees and free black people born and raised north of the Mason-Dixon Line.

As Creighton recounts in vivid detail, black people in Southern Pennsylvania had been quick to react to Gov. Andrew Curtin's warning on June 12. Of all citizens, they knew what the invasion meant from years of living along the porous border between slavery and freedom under the Fugitive Slave Law. It also wasn't the first time Confederate raiders had crossed over the Pennsylvania border to inflict terror during the war, Ron Soodalter reminded us recently in the New York Times, and it wouldn't be the last (in 1864, Rebel riders under "Tiger John" McCausland torched more than 500 buildings in Chambersburg when its citizens failed to meet a ransom demand of $100,000 in gold). Those who could, packed up and escaped further north to Harrisburg and east to Philadelphia. A number of black men assumed their wives and children would be safe from confiscation, but they were wrong. 

In town after town along the Pennsylvania border, beginning at Chambersburg on the night of June 15, Confederate advance troops swept in and rounded up whomever they could seize and carry back to "Dixie" by horseback or in wagons. " 'The stronger and more refractory ones were tied together, making somewhat of an extemporized coffle-gang,' " Creighton quotes one journalist's account. For two weeks leading up to the battle, even during it, the terror was widespread and prolonged, with one white witness likening blacks' furious attempts at an exodus to " 'buffalo before a prairie fire.' "

It is impossible to identify the exact number of ex-slave and free blacks taken during the Gettysburg campaign. Estimates range anywhere from 30 to 40 to several hundred, according to various first-person accounts. (Confederates didn't keep good records on this subject, John Heiser explained, and even if they did, many were burned during the fall of Richmond in 1865.) But blacks didn't need to wait for future historians to teach them the concept of total war; they were living it.

" 'Our life, our liberty, our country, our religious privileges, our family, OUR ALL is at stake,' " warned The Anglo-African all the way from New York on June 20 (quoted in Creighton). The Confederates " 'claimed all these Negroes as Virginia slaves, but I was positively assured that two or three were born and raised in this neighborhood,' " said a white minister shaken by the Rebels' kidnapping raids (quoted in Creighton). " '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,' " as quoted in Paradis' book.   

In a few instances, whites intervened with words and spontaneous arms. Blacks resisted, too, by escaping, hiding and fighting back. In one instance, a nameless black man succeeded in disarming and shooting his captor; another was mutilated for trying. As Creighton writes, "They slashed his chest and abdomen, cut off his genitals, and poured turpentine on the lacerations. A Vermont soldier saw him as he lay in a barn near the Potomac River, 'grinding his teeth & foaming at the mouth.' " All this, he added, " 'because he would not go over the river with them' " Paradis quotes.

When Confederates under General Jubal Early threatened the state capital in Harrisburg (a prize Lee wanted) at the end of June, blacks helped build fortifications along the Western edge of the Susquehanna River, Heiser explained. One black company was even more directly engaged, taking up arms with three white companies in helping the 27th Pennsylvania Emergency Volunteers block some 2,500 Rebels from crossing the Cumberland-Wrightsville Bridge southeast of the capital on June 28 (eventually they had to burn it). " '[J]ustice compels me to make mention of the excellent conduct of the company of Negroes from Columbia,' " Colonel Jacob Frick wrote in his after-action report, which is quoted in Paradis' book. " 'After working industriously in the rifle-pits all day, when the fight commenced they took their guns and stood up to their work bravely.' " Perhaps he was thinking of the black defender who had had his head shot off by cannon fire, one of the first casualties of the Gettysburg campaign.

One free black resident of Gettysburg, Randolph Johnston, had been training a local colored militia for such an emergency, writes Creighton. Now that it was at hand, David Wills, a white lawyer in town (who would host President Lincoln at the dedication of the Soldier's National Cemetery at Gettysburg in November), telegraphed Gov. Curtin informing him of the availability of Johnston's 60 men. Unfortunately, that offer was denied due to an apparent lack of authority.