The Terror of Being Black at Gettysburg

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While in Gettysburg last week for the CWI I led a dinner discussion about the effects of the campaign on the region’s black population. We discussed two chapters in Margaret Creighton’s book, The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg’s Forgotten History: Immigrants, Women, and African Americans in the Civil War’s Defining Battle. It was a really nice discussion so I decided to write up a little something for the History News Network. It’s also encouraging to see that others have touched on it as well on blogs and in newspaper editorials. The stories are powerful, but more importantly, it forces us to step back from our tendency to interpret the battle in isolation from the broader picture. We often get caught up in the details of the unfolding drama and lose sight of the fact that the movement of armies and place of battle mattered to ordinary people in profound ways. Anyway, most of you who read this blog are likely familiar with this story, but if I can offer a slightly different view of the campaign and battle for those new to this history than it will have been worth writing.

On Wednesday July 3, thousands of visitors will congregate near the “copse of trees” on Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg to commemorate the 150th anniversary of “Pickett’s Charge.” From this position they will be able to imagine the roughly 13,000 Confederates in tight formation, who crossed the deadly field in the face of long-range artillery. Once across the Emmitsburg Road visitors should have little trouble envisioning the deadly effects of short-range canister and the deafening sound of Union rifles. Some will contemplate the tragedy of a war that pitted Americans v. Americans while others will hold tight to thoughts of what might have been before accepting that the charge constituted a decisive Confederate defeat. [Read the rest of the article at HNN]

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11 thoughts on “The Terror of Being Black at Gettysburg

  1. M.D. Blough

    Great article. Creighton’s book is excellent but it should be noted that the first account I recall of the impact of the invasion on Gettysburg’s Black community is from Article 24 of Gettysburg Magazine “THE EFFECT OF THE CONFEDERATE INVASION OF PENNSYLVANIA ON GETTYSBURG’S AFRICAN AMERICAN
    COMMUNITY by Peter C. Vermilyea http://www.gdg.org/Gettysburg%20Magazine/gburgafrican.html. (the date isn’t give on the magazine’s website but, at a rate of 2 issues a year, it should have been around 2000-2001.).

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      I believe Pete worked on this subject for his M.A. degree. I partnered with Pete last week for a discussion with a group of amazing high school students at CWI.

      Reply
  2. Bryan Cheeseboro

    Excellent article, Kevin. Last month, I read “Gettysburg” from the Time-Life “Voices of the Civil War” series and I read the article “A Regular Slave Hunt” about the kidnapping of Black Gettysburg civilians in North & South Magazine (Vol. 4, No. 7). Rachel Cormany’s words are featured in both sources; but the Time-Life book makes no mention whatsoever about her or any other White Gettysburger (I guess that’s right?) witness of the kidnapping of Blacks by Confederates.

    Years ago, before I actually started reenacting- maybe even before “Glory-” I spoke to a White woman on the phone about my interest in becoming a reenactor. Eventually, we got on the subject of Gettysburg and, with an understanding that I’m African-American, she said to me, “They wouldn’t even let you take the field” because there were no Black soldiers at Gettysburg. And while I understand all of the units at that battle were White, I think an the stories in this article are a history that woman knew nothing about.

    BTW, since then, I’ve reenacted with White units several times. Maybe not historically accurate, though. Oh, well.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Thanks, Bryan. You are referring to Ted Alexander’s article in N&S. In addition to Ted’s piece I recommend African Americans and the Gettysburg Campaign by James Paradis and John David Smith’s essay, “Race and Reconciliation: The Capture of African Americans during the Gettysburg Campaign” by David G. Smith, which can be found in Virginia’s Civil War eds. Peter Wallenstein and Bertray Wyatt-Brown (UVA Press).

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    2. M.D. Blough

      Rachel was from the Chambersburg area in Franklin County. The letters and diaries can be found on line as part of the Valley of the Shadow project that followed two towns, one Union and one in Confederate territory. http://valley.lib.virginia.edu/ before, during, and immediately after the war. Also, while blacks may not have fought at Gettysburg proper, they fought, as an unmustered militia unit, participating in the Union defense at Wrightsville/Columbia as shown in this report from the OR (the reference to them is at the end of:

      >>.R.– SERIES I–VOLUME XXVII/2 [S# 44] JUNE 3-AUGUST 1, 1863.–The Gettysburg Campaign. No. 419.–Report of Col. Jacob G. Frick, Twenty-seventh Pennsylvania Militia, of operations June 24-30.
      [ar44_277 con't]
      HEADQUARTERS DEFENSES OF LANCASTER COUNTY,
      Columbia, Pa., July 1, 1863.
      CAPTAIN: I have the honor to report that, in compliance with General Orders, No. 14, from the Department of the Susquehanna, I left Harrisburg on the morning of the 24th ultimo, and arrived here on the afternoon of the same day, and immediately sent four companies, in command of Lieutenant-Colonel Green, over the river.
      On the morning of the 25th ultimo, I sent four more companies to that officer, with instructions to take up a position near the York turnpike, about a half mile from Wrightsville.
      Hearing, on the afternoon of the 27th, that the enemy were in the vicinity of York, I ordered my two remaining companies to report to Lieutenant-Colonel Green that we might be prepared to resist any sudden attempt by the enemy to get possession of the bridge at this point.
      Late in the evening of the same day, I crossed the river, assumed command, and disposed my force for defense.
      During the night, our force was increased by four companies from Columbia (three white and one colored), numbering about 175 men.
      Very early next morning, having obtained intrenching tools from citizens of Columbia and the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, my own men and the negro company (the other three companies from Columbia having left for their homes) dug rifle-pits on either side of the turnpike.
      During the morning, a detachment of convalescent soldiers from York, and the Patapsco Guards, in all about 250 men, joined me, and they were posted on the left of the town, protecting the left flank of my position. They were placed under command of Lieutenant-Colonel Green. We were also joined by scattered fragments of the Twentieth Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteer Militia, under Lieutenant-Colonel Sickles, during the morning, which I posted on the right of the town as a protection to the right flank.
      The work of intrenching was continued until the approach and attack of the enemy, about 5.30 p.m., and, while the work was in progress, I selected, with the assistance of Major Hailer, aide-de-camp to the commanding general, the several points at which to post my limited number of men.
      The main body of the enemy, about 2,500 strong, composed of cavalry, artillery, and infantry, took up their position about 6 p.m. on the turnpike in our immediate front, and within three-quarters of a mile of our rifle-pits. A force of cavalry and infantry moved down the railroad on our left, and attacked our skirmishers, who, after replying to their fire for a short time, retired to the main body, which kept up a steady fire, and held the enemy in check until they received orders to retire to the bridge. The rebels succeeded in getting a battery in position on the elevated ground on our right and a section in our immediate front. These guns were used most vigorously against those of my command occupying the rifle-pits.
      In the meantime, they sent a column of infantry, under cover of a high hill on our right, within a few hundred yards of the river. None but their skirmishers approached within range of the guns of the men occupying the rifle-pits, and these being in a grain-field, and obscured from our view, excepting when they would rise to fire, it was difficult to do then much harm or dislodge them. They depended exclusively upon their artillery to drive us from our position here. Having no artillery ourselves on that side of the river with which to reply, and after retaining our position for about one and a quarter hours, and discovering that our remaining longer would enable the enemy to reach the river on both of my flanks, which I was unable to prevent because of the small number of men under my command, and thus get possession of the bridge, cut off our retreat, and secure a crossing of the Susquehanna, which I was instructed to prevent, I retired in good order, and crossed the bridge to the Lancaster side.
      Before the enemy had left York for the river here, I made, as I supposed, every necessary arrangement to blow up one span of the Columbia Bridge. When they got within sight, the gentlemen charged with the execution of that work repaired promptly to the bridge, and commenced sawing off the arches and heavy timbers preparatory to blowing it up with powder, which they had arranged for that purpose. After an abundance of time was allowed, and after I supposed every man of my command was over the river, and when the enemy had entered the town with his artillery, and reached the barricade at the bridge-head, I gave the order to light the fuse. The explosion took place, but our object in blowing up the bridge failed. It was then that I felt it to be my duty, in order to prevent the enemy from crossing the river and marching on to Harrisburg in the rear, destroying on his route railroads and bridges, to order the bridge to be set on fire. The bridge was completely destroyed, though a vigorous attempt was made to save a part by the soldiers.
      I was materially assisted in my operations by Captain Strickler, who had charge of a small force of cavalry, acting as scouts. I feel indebted to him for much reliable information as to the movements and force of the enemy.
      Major [Charles C.] Haldeman, formerly of the Twenty-third Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers, volunteered his services, and rendered me very efficient aid.
      Lieutenant-Colonel [David B.] Green, who had charge of the left flank of the position, with a force of 250 men, and Major [George L.] Fried, who took charge of the left wing of the Twenty-seventh Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteer Militia, behaved with accustomed coolness and gallantry, and brought off their forces in most excellent order.
      Great praise is due to Captain [Joseph] Oliver, Company D, Twenty-seventh Pennsylvania Volunteer Militia, commanding a body of skirmishers of about 70 men, for the skillfulness and boldness with which he handled his men.
      The officers and men of my command generally did their whole duty.
      Before closing this report, justice compels me to make mention of the excellent conduct of the company of negroes from Columbia. After working industriously in the rifle-pits all day, when the fight commenced they took their guns and stood up to their work bravely.
      They fell back only when ordered to do so.
      I herewith inclose a list of casualties.(*)
      The prisoners taken–18 in number–were all from the Twentieth Pennsylvania Volunteer Militia, including Lieutenant-Colonel [William H.] Sickles, of that regiment. From information received since the engagement, I feel convinced that if my orders had been promptly obeyed, no prisoners would have been taken.
      I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
      JACOB G. FRICK,
      Colonel, Commanding
      Capt. ROBERT LE ROY,
      Asst. Adjt. Gen., Department of the Susquehanna.<<
      —–

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  3. Pat Young

    Thanks for writing about this topic.

    We see refugee and civilian internal displacement situations around the world, yet Americans rarely consider the massive dislocations of African Americans during the Civil War within an international context. The new scholarly research on this is greatly appreciated, as is its inclusion in more popular works like Guelzo’s new Gettysburg volume.

    Elsewhere in the world, refugees tend to settle as close to the places they came from as possible to be able to stay in touch with their families and to assist family members in their escape. For example, Syrian refugees tend to settle along the Syrian/Turkish border. This of course makes them vulnerable to attack from the very forces they had escaped.

    The Gettysburg/Chambersburg area was a essentially just over the border of freedom. Like many refugees worldwide, blacks were often resented by their receiving communities. Although we tend to think of them as Americans moving from one part of the country to the other, by changing legal jurisdictions they were leaving slavery behind, unless they could be dragged back into the physical space of the Confederacy. This gave what appears to be an internal displacement the feeling of transnational migration.

    I’ve written a couple of times about this situation among black Americans myself because it seems so familiar from what I saw in Central America among those displaced by the civil wars there.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Hi Pat,

      It’s an excellent point and one that is supported by historians who have written about this topic.

      Reply
  4. Yulanda Burgess

    Twenty-five years ago, the few tidbits on the African American community in that Gettysburg region and its involvement in the battle of Gettysburg was that a black family’s farm “was on the battlefield.” I researched African Americans in the region surrounding Gettysburg when I was developing interpretation for the 125th Anniversary and found a much more as is reflected in Mr. Levin’s article. That information was not easily obtainable twenty-five years ago, but it existed and I used it as “justification” of my participation at the 125th event as it was required by my Civil War unit. Therefore, it is a “very good thing” that documentation about the migration of northern African Americans prompted by the military has progressed. What has happened over the ensuing years is that scholarly research has become more accessible to non-academics. It is nice to see that progression presented in the overall history of Gettysburg during the battle and affected by the battle. It’s “a long time coming.” I hope for more inclusion and less segregation in this history.

    FYI: Every year Gettysburg’s African American community is commemorated during Remembrance weekend in November at the Lincoln Cemetery and at the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the “black section” of Gettysburg. There are many families buried in Lincoln Cemetery who trace their origins to the pre-1860s and there are several USCTs buried there also. Local historians like Jean Green and Betty Dorsey Myers are the caretakers of that history and highlight Gettysburg’s African Americans contributions in the Civil War.

    Reply
    1. M.D. Blough

      I don’t know Ms. Green but I have met Mrs. Myers several times. When a friend, Walter Wells and I did a town walk for the Gettysburg Discussion Group’s annual muster (pre-town guides) and included Lincoln Cemetery, we contacted Mrs. Myers in advance. She was extremely helpful and met us when the tour arrived. Walter and I had to good sense to turn that part of the tour over to her so that the group could have the benefit of her knowledge of the cemetery. I’m not up to that much walking any more but I’m glad for the experience.

      Reply

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