African Americans and the Gettysburg campaign

For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these "amazing facts" are an homage.

Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 38: Did black combatants fight in the Battle of Gettysburg, which turned the tide of the Civil War 151 years ago?

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Fantasy and Reality

"For every Southern boy fourteen years old," William Faulkner famously wrote in Intruder in the Dust (1948), it is early in the afternoon on July 3, 1863, just before the order is given to attack the center of the Union line across an open field three-quarters of a mile long, which leads up to Cemetery Ridge at what will become "the High Water-Mark" of the Confederacy — Pickett's Charge. "This time. Maybe this time," the fantasy goes.

To it I might add the less well-known but equally fervent dream of many black boys "fourteen years old," I'm sure: that when those grey and tattered butternut coats, their bayonets glistening in the summer sun, reach the apex of wood and stone, they and their African-American comrades are there to repulse the attack with the righteous fury of centuries of their enslaved ancestors, a clear victory of freedom over slavery that will drown out, once and for all, the wild Rebel yell.

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For three days last year there was plenty of time for reverie as throngs of visitors descended on Gettysburg, Pa., for the 150th anniversary of the symbolic battle of the American Civil War, but facts are facts, right? Pickett's Charge was Robert E. Lee's greatest miscalculation, the climax of his second and final Northern invasion, and there were no black troops there to make his defeat more complete. After all, the war would drag on for two more years. 

While close to 200,000 African Americans served in the Union Army and Navy during the war, those who'd taken up arms by July 1863 were engaged further west and south, where two weeks later the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment would make their own desperate assault on Fort Wagner, S.C.

(Note: It's important to remember that "individual black soldiers had been fighting since the beginning of the war, especially in the west, but not as units" until the First Kansas Volunteer Infantry in October 1862, according to the historian Donald Yacovone, writing in an email to me. At the federal level, the use of black troops had been authorized in July 1862 with the passage of the Second Confiscation and Militia Act, but President Abraham Lincoln didn't take advantage of this power until he added this provision to the final version of the Emancipation Proclamation; the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, of Sept. 22, did not include it. Yet even before then, in defiance of Congress and the War Department, Union General David Hunter had begun organizing what would become the First South Carolina Regiment in April 1862, describing it as "a fine regiment of persons whose late masters are 'fugitive rebels' "; while Hunter was dismissed and the regiment disbanded, it was quickly reconstituted under General Rufus Sexton and, after engaging in battle along the Georgia Coast and Sea Islands, mustered into federal service on Jan. 1, 1863.)

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I began writing this column wondering if I would find out otherwise, only to realize that proving there were black soldiers at the Battle of Gettysburg is a fool's errand. As John Heiser, Gettysburg National Military Park historian, said in an interview over the phone, the evidence is "scanty" and "untrustworthy." In fact, the only possible lead found was to one Charles F. Lutz, an Eighth Louisiana Confederate, who, apparently, could pass for white in census records. According to James Paradis in his illuminating book African Americans and the Gettysburg Campaign, Lutz was wounded on the second day of the battle, at East Cemetery Hill.

Given the amount of racial mixing in the Deep South during the antebellum period, it is not surprising there would be some black blood in some "white" soldiers, Heiser explained, but do not be misled: There were no black "combatants" on either side at Gettysburg, only "noncombatants" in support roles: ambulance and supply-wagon drivers, hospital attendants, teamsters. Of those there were hundreds, Heiser explained, including, on the Southern side, personal body servants (i.e., slaves) tending to white officers. Paradis shows the same, arguing that black teamsters in particular faced hard, perilous conditions and at Gettysburg were vital to supplying the Army of the Potomac and helping the Army of Northern Virginia escape.

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.  

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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. 

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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.   

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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.

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In another strange twist, writes Paradis, a black unit of 30-day volunteers organized in Philadelphia after June 15 made it all the way to Harrisburg to take part in the Gettysburg campaign, but upon arriving, were told by their white commander that he could only accept 60-day volunteers; by the time he was overruled, it was too late. 

The terror against blacks in Southern Pennsylvania during the Gettysburg campaign was " 'the worse spectacle I ever saw in this war,' " one white minister observed, according to Paradis, " 'a most pitiful sight, sufficient to settle the slavery question for every humane mind.' " To read more about it, check out the essay "Black and on the Border," by Edward Ayers, William Thomas and Anne Sarah Rubin in Slavery, Resistance and Freedom.

The Battle

Before the Civil War, Gettysburg was home to a "thriving black community," John Heiser explained. There were close to 200 in 1860 (approximately 8 percent of the borough's total population, according to Creighton). Most lived in the Third Ward and worked as domestics, tenant farmers and hired hands; they rented homes and owned lands and businesses; many attended the powerful AME church in town active on the Underground Railroad. By the time the main battle was joined on July 1, many had fled for safer terrain, among them the confectioner Owen Robinson, an ex-slave who, despite have legal papers, knew better than to take a chance being sent back.

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Some couldn't leave, however. As Creighton writes, a few were too infirm to make the trip. Others who stayed faked injury to avoid appearing too enticing to slavers. Still others hid, were hidden or, in extreme cases, were confined by their white employers.

While blacks were not invited to take up arms on either side, a few had their lands seized and their homes destroyed during the battle, including James Warfield near Seminary Ridge (according to Paradis, Confederate General James Longstreet, aware of the taking of contraband, may have used the Warfield home for his headquarters during the fighting). More central was the farm of Abraham and Elizabeth Brien (also spelled "Brian" or "Bryan"), whose farm on Cemetery Ridge ended up in the middle of Pickett's Charge, with some Rebels even taking cover in his barn; nearly all were killed or captured, according to Paradis.

On the edge of the Brien property was the shack of Margaret Palm, a black laundress, who, having fended off an earlier kidnapping attempt in 1857, had warned her neighbors to flee before being tied up themselves. Another woman, referred to as "Old Liza," "took advantage of the chaos and the crowds of soldiers and civilians and bolted" to the Lutheran Church in town, Creighton writes. Others were forced to cook for Confederate troops who'd offered their white employers protection. Everywhere, Creighton writes, the threat of capture persisted during the battle; while the confusion saved some, another witness "saw 'a number of colored people' corralled together and marched away." What more than a few blacks of Gettysburg saw and heard themselves inspired them to join the Union cause as soldiers, among them prominent citizens like Randolph Johnston and teacher Lloyd Watts of the 24th U.S. Colored Troops; both became sergeants.

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When the fighting at Gettysburg was over, the Rebels' black teamsters, many of them slaves hired out by their white owners, drove the retreat. According to Paradis, 64 were captured and taken to Fort McHenry in Baltimore. Not until Dec. 18, 1863, did the U.S. War Department decide how to handle those still there: " 'Those who wish to take the oath of allegiance can be discharged, and if they so choose, continue as private servants of officers, or serve the Government as Cooks, Teamsters, Laborers or in any other capacity in which they can be useful. Those who refuse to take the oath of allegiance will be detained as prisoners of war, and will be employed or not, as the Commanding Officers of the Post where they are confined, may deem expedient and proper.'"

The Aftermath

In some ways, Gettysburg's black residents rendered their greatest service in the immediate aftermath of the battle. While healing from it would take the country years, one black woman, Lydia Smith, did not hesitate to ride a horse and wagon around to the field hospitals bringing food and clothing to the wounded, Union and Confederate. Observing her, one reporter that Creighton quotes said, " 'This is quite a commentary … upon Gen. Lee's army of kidnappers and horse thieves who came here and fell wounded in their bold attempt to kidnap and carry off these free people of color.' " While a number of blacks cooked in those hospital kitchens and helped rebuild the rail lines destroyed during the campaign, others washed the blood-soaked scraps of uniforms and sewed them into new ones.  

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Perhaps most moving was the service of those executing the burial detail, including free black Gettysburgian Basil Biggs, a hired hand, whose crew of black men reburied more than 3,500 soldiers from disparate hospital sites to the new Soldier's National Cemetery, where on Nov. 19 President Lincoln gave his famous Address on the meaning of the war (Biggs' job wouldn't be finished until the following March). 

Lloyd Watts, a black veteran of the war, was tireless in transforming the Gettysburg sites into a national shrine until he nearly wore himself out with "chest and joint pain," according to Creighton. He, Biggs and others also formed the Sons of Good Will to continue the local effort after the war, including celebrating Emancipation Day on Jan. 1. The laundress Margaret Palm did her part by telling stories and posing for a photo with ropes recalling slavers' attempts to capture her years before; in 1924, according to Creighton, Palm's story inspired the character of "Maggie Bluecoat" in Elsie Singmaster's novel A Boy in Gettysburg.

The Dedication

A century and a half after the Battle of Gettysburg, one has to wonder why so much of this history will be news to so many. The fact is, as Creighton shows, it didn't take long for the white winners and losers of the battle to narrow its history at their various cemeteries, museums and battlefield reunions, which, together with most standard textbooks of the war, excluded blacks or at least made them feel irrelevant or unwelcome. This "segregation of public memory" became especially acute during the Jim Crow era, Creighton explains, when it became increasingly difficult for blacks even to visit Gettysburg. "Of the thirty-six hotels and boardinghouses in the area in the early 1950s," Creighton writes, "none accepted guests of color and only three (out of fourteen) restaurants served them food, 'depending on the situation.' " 

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By whitewashing the history of the Civil War's most famous battle and narrowing it to three days of action only, generations of Americans obscured the centrality of slavery to the broader war and, in doing so, reduced it to a (white) brothers' war in which whites' mutually assured destruction quickly gave way to respect around wistful campfires.

Thankfully, the correction is well under way at Gettysburg. According to Park historian John Heiser, the civilian story was always there but not always visible. It received an important boost in 2000, when then-Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. spearheaded an effort to ensure that federal funding of historic military sites emphasized the broader context. In part as a result of "Rally on the High Ground," the Gettysburg Visitor Center that 150th anniversary celebrants toured last year makes no doubt about the real cause of the war, while public programs make an effort to include the civilian experience, including campfire talks and educational programs evoking multiple black voices.

This does not mean there is no more "unfinished work," to quote Lincoln. As I indicated above, the descendants of Gettysburg's black heroes are busy carrying the story forward by planning for a new museum devoted to their ancestors and the long struggle for equality that followed it into the 20th century. "Our story here in this town, and in this state, and in this country has not been told," Lloyd Watt's great-great granddaughter Mary Nutter told the Associated Press last week.  Finding major donors remains a challenge.

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To the 14-year-olds out there, I am sorry I could not do a better job placing you directly behind the Union line at the appointed hour of Pickett's Charge, but I hope that in visiting Abraham Brien's farm at the center of the Confederate left flank, you will feel a greater sense of ownership of this history, that you will learn from it and be proud, and that you will never let anyone tell you that the Civil War had nothing to do with black people. As Scott Hancock, an associate professor of history at Gettysburg College, tells his students each year atop one of the battlefield's observation towers: There would be no battlefield to commemorate had there not been slavery or fugitives escaping in the hills surrounding it.

Thanks to Scott, I was reminded of the real stakes of the battle when reading a copy of the black Christian Recorder's Nov. 28, 1863, coverage of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. In it, the reporter, standing in the same cemetery that Basil Biggs and other black men were consecrating with their hooks and shovels, wrongly or deliberately transcribed the last line of Lincoln's speech as follows: "that the Government of the people, for the people, and for all people, shall not perish from earth." The humanity Lincoln evoked reflected the humanity Pennsylvania blacks had shown in the face of the worst kinds of terror.

That humanity was tested again only a week after the Battle of Gettysburg in New York City, where some of the very same troops had to rush to quell the infamous Draft Riots that turned poor whites bitter about fighting the war — not against the rich men running it (the very men buying their sons' way out of it), but against the black citizens they blamed for its continuation. "Any black person unfortunate enough to encounter the mob became a target and was chased, beaten and often hanged," Linda Wheeler wrote for the Washington Post in a retrospective last April. "On the third day of the riots, newspaper images showed three black men hanging from lamp poles with a jubilant crowd dancing below them." Again, estimates varied from between 105 dead to 500. 

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What was clear, based on the events of June and July 1863, was that black lives north of the Mason-Dixon Line were worth more to Confederate kidnappers than to many white draftees they'd be battling, except after Gettysburg, they'd also have to contend with a much larger contingent of black soldiers — black soldiers bearing arms.

On the anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg and the various campaigns of terror blacks faced and resisted, I cannot help but think of nurse and poet Walt Whitman's famous line about the Civil War in his Memoranda During the War (1875-1876): "Future years will never know the seething hell and the black infernal background of countless minor scenes and interiors, (not the official surface-courteousness of the Generals, not the few great battles) of the Secession war; and it is best they should not — the real war will never get in the books." It didn't stop him from trying — neither should it we.

In a very gratifying response to my column on the absence of black soldiers at Gettysburg, my friend Allen Guelzo, the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War and director of the Civil War Era Studies Program at Gettysburg College, informed me that while no black men fought officially, in uniform, for either the Union or the Confederate troops, he did discover that one unidentified black man spontaneously entered the fray and fought quite nobly. Here is what Professor Guelzo wrote to me, information that is summarized from his book Gettysburg: The Last Invasion.

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“On the left of the 5th Ohio, a sergeant noticed something he had not expected: 'an American citizen of African descent had taken position, and with a gun and cartridge box, which he took from one of our dead men, was more than piling hot lead into the Graybacks.' There is no way of knowing whether this solitary black fighter was a civilian teamster who decided to join the Ohioans, or a refugee from the town who had come out of hiding to do his bit, or even a member of the Adams County company that had tried, unsuccessfully, to volunteer itself to the all-black 54th Massachusetts. He was certainly not a soldier, since none of the new black regiments recruited since the issue of the Emancipation Proclamation were attached to the Army of the Potomac. Whoever he was, he is the only African-American on record as a combatant, fighting at Gettysburg. 'His coolness and bravery was noticed and commented upon by all who saw him,' and the Ohio sergeant who described him thought that 'if the negro regiments fight like he did, I don't wonder that the Rebs … hate them so.' "

We are all indebted to Professor Guelzo for this important revelation, and I hope that others will find the time, as I now have, to read his book Gettysburg: The Last Invasion on this 151st anniversary.

As always, you can find more “Amazing Facts About the Negro” on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.