As General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army marched north into Pennsylvania in the summer of 1863, not only did they round up supplies and livestock, they also kidnapped scores of free black citizens from several towns in the southern counties of the state. While many black families fled north in fear of this very thing happening, many stayed in their homes, hoping their status as free citizens would keep them from falling into the hands of enslavers.
Though a number of those captured had once been slaves, many had been born free in Pennsylvania. They ran farms, attended church, and were working members of the community before being tracked down, chained, and taken South to be “returned” to slavery.
The legend that Lee’s Confederates were well-behaved when invading Pennsylvania has endured to this day. However, for the black citizens of the Keystone State, who lived in terror of the Army of Northern Virginia, nothing could be farther from the truth.
Setting the Scene, Early June 1863
It was the middle of June, 1863. The war had ravaged the South for two years prior, and General Robert E. Lee devised a plan to invade north into Pennsylvania. By the middle of the month, Lee had detached J.E.B. Stuart’s illustrious cavalry division, and they were still guarding the passes in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. As a vanguard, he had acquired the cavalry under General Albert Jenkins, an officer of good stock, born to wealthy parents on a Virginia plantation, who had attended a private academy, a fine college in Pennsylvania, and Harvard Law School. Prior to the war, he served in the United States Congress. He was no ill-mannered, blood thirty rouge. By all accounts, he was a southern gentleman, even when being entertained by the fine citizens of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.
Still, General Lee didn’t quite trust Jenkins’ men. They had raised much hell throughout Western Virginia and perhaps their ways were not up to Lee’s own standards. Nevertheless, they were brought aboard and given to General Richard Ewell to be used as screens in the march north across the Potomac. Ewell, in turn, gave them to Robert Rodes, a strict disciplinarian, believing he would keep Jenkins in line.
Rodes had sent Jenkins north as a vanguard, with orders to take Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, where they arrived late on the night of June 14th. For the couple of days preceding their arrival, bands of black families, both free and slave, passed through town, warning of the invasion. Before the arrival of the Rebels, almost every horse had been sent north, hopefully out of their reach. When Union troops fled through town, it fully convinced them that not only were the Confederates in Pennsylvania, but Chambersburg was their target. The Rebels entered town well after dark, but spent the night a mile or so north.
Come dawn of the 15th, the true occupation began. The Confederates were a mostly well behaved lot. They hardly bothered the farmers, did not tear down too many fences, and took only a few cattle. Most things they confiscated were paid for in Confederate script. Jenkins and his men cleaned out the downtown merchants, who were hardly amused with being paid in such worthless promissory notes.
General Jenkins and his Confederates paid for everything, save three particular items. The first was horses, which he considered contraband of war. When the horses were found to be in short supply, he proceeded to take all of the arms in the town, giving no script in return. Any make or model would do. When delivered, he destroyed the worthless and kept the finest.
June 16 – Rounding up Black Citizens in Chambersburg and Greencastle
The third item which Jenkins took while refusing to pay was black people. His men rounded them up like they had wanted to round up horses. Slave, free, man, women, or child, it did not matter – a black person was a slave and nothing more.
Chambersburg, like many larger towns, had a section where many of the black people lived. According to a local paper, Jenkins’ men, “went to the part of the town occupied by the colored population, and kidnapped all they could find, from the child in the cradle up to men and women of fifty years of age.”
Rachel Cormany, a citizen of Chambersburg remembered that the Rebels “were hunting up the contrabands &c driving them off by droves. O! How it grated on our hearts to have to sit quietly &c look at such brutal deeds—I saw no men among the contrabands — all women & children.” Cormany recognized that “some of the colored people who were raised here were taken along.” But she could do little apart from watching as the black women and children were “driven like cattle.” One women, she recalled “was pleading wonderfully with her driver for her children – but all the sympathy she received from him was a rough ‘March along.’”
In Greencastle, a nearby town captured by Jenkins the previous day, a similar thing was happening.
“One of the exciting features of the day,” recalled Charles Hartman of Greencastle, “was the scouring of the fields about town and searching of houses for Negroes. These poor creatures, those of them who had not fled upon the approach of the foe, concealed in wheat fields around the town. Cavalrymen rode in search of them and many of them were caught after a desperate chase and being fired at. In some cases, the Negroes were rescued from the guards. Squire Kaufman and Tom Pauling did this, and if they had been caught, the rebels would have killed them.”
Jenkins ordered at least one citizen to help his men round up local black people. “They took up all they could find,” wrote Chambersburg resident Jemima Cree, “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 hid in the houses of their employers.”
Captured slaves (or in this case, captured free citizens of color) had become an issue for the Confederate government. It wasn’t, however, because the practice was found deplorable. It so happened that when former slaves were captured, instead of being returned to their previous owners, Confederate officers were keeping them, turning them into personal body servants.
A new policy was now in effect (as of January, 1863) that ordered the captured blacks to be sent to a camp and held until they were claimed. It was sort of like an incredibly ghoulish lost and found. Because of this new law, the Confederate officers were unable to profit directly from the capture of blacks. But instead of sending them to the camps, they privately sold the prisoners to whomever might give them money.
For now, however, all that Jenkins was concerned with was removing the fifty or so black women and children out of Chambersburg. Before being transported south, they kept them in Greencastle.
When they were brought into the town, they were lightly guarded – only a chaplain and four soldiers oversaw the wagons. A number of conscientious residents, perhaps even the Lincoln-man who was called an “abolitionist” by Jenkins the previous day, make a charge at the guards. They quickly disarmed them and took them to the jail. All of the black prisoners were freed.
It didn’t take long for Jenkins to catch wind of this bit of direct action. He demanded $50,000 to compensate him for the people he was trying to kidnap, claiming they were his own property. The town council of Greencastle refused to pay him, and he threatened to burn down the town in retaliation.
Fourteen of the freed blacks approached the town council and offered to give themselves up to Jenkins to spare the town, but the council refused. Jenkins’ mind, however, was quickly brought to other fronts on the following day and never came back to Greencastle.
Though this practice wasn’t wide spread in the Confederate Army, it was accepted and allowed. More such instances occurred in the days leading up to the coming battle. On July 1st, when General George Pickett’s Division was moving through Chambersburg, General Longstreet send him a message telling him that “The captured contrabands had better be brought along with you for further disposition.” 1“The Effect of the Confederate Invasion of Pennsylvania on Gettysburg’s African American Community” by by Peter C. Vermilyea, Gettysburg Magazine, Issue No. 24; “Black and on the Border” by Edward L. Ayers, William G. Thomas III, and Anne Sarah Rubin; The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg’s Forgotten History by Margaret S. Creighton.
June 25-27 – A Regular Slave Hunt in Mercersburg
Over a week later, the Confederate infantry entered into Pennsylvania, and by the 25th of June, both cavalry and infantry had fanned out across several of the south central counties of the state. In particular, the small town of Mercersburg was favored. The small Pennsylvania town, which sat twenty miles west of Greencastle, had been visited twice before by Confederate cavalry and infantry. First came Albert Jenkins’ cavalry, who more or less behaved themselves, having had their fill of bounty in McConnellsburg, ten miles away. Next came George Steuart’s Brigade, who passed through on their way to the same town (where they now were encamped). Finally, they had to deal with John Imboden’s command.
Though these men were Confederates, and were officially attached to Jeb Stuart’s division, they acted more as partisan rangers. Of late, they had been tearing up B&O Railroad lines through Maryland and West Virginia. More recently, Imboden had been ordered by General Lee himself to keep to the left of his army.
Lee also made it a point to inform Imboden that his men were to follow the fairly strict code laid out in his General Orders No. 72, which disallowed the destruction or confiscation of private property. From reports received of Mercerburg’s residents, Imboden very enthusiastically ignored Lee’s order, which had been read to the citizens by George Steuart when he passed through the previous day.
Dr. Philip Schaff, a Protestant theologian living in Mercersburg at the time, explained their coming in his diary:
“The town was occupied by an independent guerrilla band of cavalry, who steal horses, cattle, sheep, storegoods, negroes, and whatever else they can make use of, without ceremony, and in evident violation of Lee’s proclamation read yesterday. They are about fifty or eighty in number, and are encamped on a farm about a mile from town. They are mostly Marylanders and Virginians, and look brave, defiant, and bold.
“On Thursday evening [June 25] their captain, with a red and bloated face, threatened at the Mansion House to lay the town in ashes as soon as the first gun should be fired on one of his men. He had heard that there were firearms in town, and that resistance was threatened. He gave us fair warning that the least attempt to disturb them would be our ruin. We assured him that we knew nothing of such intention, that it was unjust to hold a peaceful community responsible for the unguarded remarks of a few individuals, that we were non-combatants and left the fighting to our army and the militia, which was called out, and would in due time meet them in open combat. They burned the barn of a farmer in the country who was reported to have fired a gun, and robbed his house of all valuables.”
Imboden’s men would not leave for two more days, and the worse was yet to come.
On the following day, Dr. Schaff continued:
“On Friday [June 26] this guerrilla 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 on which suspicion rested. It was a rainy afternoon. They succeeded in capturing several contrabands, among them a woman with two little children. A most pitiful sight, sufficient to settle the slavery question for every humane mind.”
The barbarism against Mercersburg, however, was not yet at an end, as the Confederates encamped nearby and would be sure to revisit the town the following day.
On the 27th, the Confederates came back. Again taking to his diary, Dr. Schaff noted that the returning guerrillas “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.” Mercersburg was located west of Chambersburg. Imboden had been ordered by Lee to protect the left of General Richard Ewell’s Corps, specifically mentioning the Mercersburg Road upon which the cavalrymen were operating.
Dr. Schaff continues:
“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.’”
The Rebels also took sheep, hardware, arms, dry goods, clothing, and whiskey. Other items that could not be carried with them, such as fine China, were smashed out of spite. So bold were these Confederates that they offered to sell back the stolen goods to the very people who, until the previous day, were the rightful owners. The black citizens, however, were not given such a chance.
“I expect these guerrillas 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,” wrote Schaff. “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 the 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 guerrillas would not let him have her, claiming the booty for themselves.”
Schaff concluded that the guerrillas were “far worse than the regular army, who behaved in an orderly and decent way, considering their mission. One of the guerrillas said to me, ‘We are independent, and come and go where and when we please.’” 2Sources: Here Come the Rebels by Wilbur Nye; Plenty of Blame to Go Around by Eric Wittenberg and J. David Petruzzi; Gettysburg by Noah Andre Trudeau; Gettysburg by Stephen Sears; “The Gettysburg Week” by Philip Schaff, Scribner’s, Vol. 16; Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 27, Part 3, p912, 929.
“I Was Offered My Choice”
Though most of the kidnapping took place on the fringes of General Lee’s Army, it’s also clear that it was an accepted (or at least tolerated) practice in the regular infantry. Col. William Christian of the 55th Virginia in Henry Heth’s Division of A.P. Hill’s Corps, described an offer made to him. On the 27th, his regiment had marched through Chambersburg, Pennsylvania before turning east towards Gettysburg.
“We took a lot of negroes yesterday,” wrote Col. Christian on June 28th. “I was offered my choice, but as I could not get them back home I would not take them. In fact, my humanity revolted at taking the poor devils away from their homes. They were so scared that I turned them all loose.”
Originally, Christian confessed, that upon entering Pennsylvania, he wanted to seek revenge upon the population, “yet when I got among these people I could not find it in my heart to molest them. They looked so dreadfully scared and talked so humble, that I have invariably endeavored to protect their property, and have prevented soldiers from taking chickens, even in the main road; yet there is a good deal of plundering going on, confined principally to the taking of provisions.”
The following day, General Meade received word that he was now in command of the United States Army of the Potomac. Four days later, the Battle of Gettysburg would commence. 3Sources: Scribner’s, Vol. 16; The Rebellion Record, Vol. 7, p325; Here Come the Rebels by Wilbur Nye; Gettysburg by Stephen Sears; The Gettysburg Campaign by Edwin Coddington. 4This piece originally ran as parts of three different posts in the Civil War Daily Gazette. You can see them here, here and here.
References [ + ]
|1.||⇡||“The Effect of the Confederate Invasion of Pennsylvania on Gettysburg’s African American Community” by by Peter C. Vermilyea, Gettysburg Magazine, Issue No. 24; “Black and on the Border” by Edward L. Ayers, William G. Thomas III, and Anne Sarah Rubin; The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg’s Forgotten History by Margaret S. Creighton.|
|2.||⇡||Sources: Here Come the Rebels by Wilbur Nye; Plenty of Blame to Go Around by Eric Wittenberg and J. David Petruzzi; Gettysburg by Noah Andre Trudeau; Gettysburg by Stephen Sears; “The Gettysburg Week” by Philip Schaff, Scribner’s, Vol. 16; Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 27, Part 3, p912, 929.|
|3.||⇡||Sources: Scribner’s, Vol. 16; The Rebellion Record, Vol. 7, p325; Here Come the Rebels by Wilbur Nye; Gettysburg by Stephen Sears; The Gettysburg Campaign by Edwin Coddington.|
|4.||⇡||This piece originally ran as parts of three different posts in the Civil War Daily Gazette. You can see them here, here and here.|