Skip to main content

How African Americans Lost Their Gettysburg Address

Ron is a student of the American Civil War and writes about it frequently. His focus is not so much on the battles as on the people.

How Gettysburg's African American Community Fared at the Hands of Robert E. Lee's Army

As spring slipped into summer in the year 1863, the peaceful little town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania was home to a well established African American community. Indeed, blacks had lived in the Gettysburg area since before the founding of the town. When Alexander Dobbin, a Presbyterian minister, built a house in the area in 1776, the work of construction was done by his two slaves. These servants are generally believed to be the first black residents of the future town. Ironically, when the Dobbin house, built by slaves, was inherited by Alexander’s son Matthew, he turned it into a major station on the Underground Railroad.

African American Residents in Gettysburg's Early Days

According to the borough’s official history, Gettysburg was named after Samuel Gettys, who built a tavern in the area in 1762. When Samuel’s son, James, founded the borough in 1786, his slave, Sidney O’Brien, became the first black resident of the borough. Eventually, O’Brien was freed by Gettys and given a house in the town. Her descendants live in the Gettysburg area to this day.

Another early African American Gettysburg resident of note was Clem Johnson. Like many of the black inhabitants of the town prior to the Civil War, Johnson had been a slave in Maryland. Unlike many of his fellow ex-slaves in the area, Johnson was not a runaway. He had the good fortune to have a master who was willing to set him free. The Adams County Historical Society in Gettysburg still has the document that effected his manumission in 1831. It bears the signature of a man who had achieved fame in his own right by penning a certain poem most Americans know very well.

Whereas I, Francis Scott Key of the District of Columbia, being the owner of a certain man of colour called Clem Johnson, now in Gettysburg in the State of Pennsylvania, and being desirous for divers good causes and considerations to emancipate the said Clem Johnson and having agreed with him to leave him in the State of Pennsylvania and free to continue there, or to go wherever he may please, now therefore in consideration of five dollars to me in hand paid and for other good causes and considerations I hereby do manumit and set free the said Clem Johnson aged about forty five years, forthwith and hereby release and discharge the said Clem Johnson from all services to me my heirs exers and admrs. – F.S. Key

Francis Scott Key was, of course, the author of the poem that became the national anthem of the United States.

Gettysburg's Black Community on the Eve of War

By 1860, there were 186 African Americans among Gettysburg’s 2400 inhabitants. They were an integral part of the community, working in a wide range of occupations, such as brick maker, clergyman, blacksmith, janitor and cook. One, Owen Robinson, owned his own restaurant where he sold oysters in winter and ice cream in summer. He was also the sexton of the town’s Presbyterian church.

Another well known resident was a 24 year old wife and mother. Her name was Mag Palm, but she was better known by the nickname “Maggie Bluecoat” because of the sky-blue officer’s uniform coat she wore when performing her duties as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. She became so notorious for this activity that she was targeted by slave-catchers, who tried to kidnap her and sell her south into slavery. Mag, a physically powerful woman, effected her escape not so much by her own hands as by her own mouth – when one of her attackers made the mistake of allowing his thumb to come too close to her mouth, she bit it off. And her screams as she struggled caught the attention of a neighbor who came to her assistance and beat off the would-be kidnappers with his crutch.

The Confederate Army Marches Into Pennsylvania

Although African Americans in Gettysburg were far less economically prosperous than the whites they lived among, they formed a strong and stable community that gave them great hope for their future in the town.

Then something terrible happened – a devastating event that almost destroyed Gettysburg’s African American community, and from which it never fully recovered. Robert E. Lee came to town. And he brought with him about 75,000 of his closest friends, men who were proud to call themselves the Confederacy’s Army of Northern Virginia.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee

Confederate General Robert E. Lee

Lee was conducting his second major invasion of Northern territory, with the hope of drawing the Union’s Army of the Potomac into a battle in which it would be effectively destroyed, thereby possibly ending the war. Gettysburg had the misfortune to become the site of that conflict more by accident than by design. It was simply the place where the two armies happened to first meet one another in an encounter that grew into a three-day battle of gigantic proportions.

Of course, with two great armies literally fighting in its streets, the impact on all elements of the Gettysburg community could not fail to be enormous. However, the African American portion of the community had to contend with an additional burden that white citizens were not subjected to. As the Army of Northern Virginia swept into Pennsylvania, they brought with them an official mandate that would subject every black person they found to the same kind of slave-catching attack that Maggie Bluecoat had suffered.

Orders From Richmond to Capture Blacks and Send Them South

Although General Lee had issued orders to his army that the property of white citizens was to be respected during his invasion of the North, there was a quite different policy toward African Americans. According to David Smith in his essay “Race and Retaliation” in Virginia's Civil War by Peter Wallenstein:

“In March 1863 policy was developed in Richmond and reinforced in a circular from Lee’s headquarters. Lists were to be compiled of fugitives ‘arrested’ by the army, and the slaves sent to special depots near Richmond.”

This policy allowed the soldiers and officers of Lee’s army to see themselves as authorized to capture and “arrest” every black person they could catch, and send such individuals back to Richmond as fugitive slaves. The result was that in every locale through which the Army of Northern Virginia passed as it progressed toward Gettysburg, African Americans were hunted down, chained, and sent south into slavery. Men, women, and children; escaped former slaves and blacks who had been born free – all were gathered indiscriminately into the slave-catcher’s net.

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Owlcation

Gettysburg in 1863, north of town, viewed from the area of the Lutheran Theological Seminary

Gettysburg in 1863, north of town, viewed from the area of the Lutheran Theological Seminary

Rebel Soldiers Hunt Down Black Men, Women and Children

Charles Hartman, a resident of Greencastle, Pennsylvania, a town located about 25 miles southwest of Gettysburg, described what he witnessed when the Confederates began searching for blacks in the town:

“One of the exciting features of the day 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 her 1888 memoir What a Girl Saw and Heard at Gettysburg, Tillie Pierce Alleman recalled the scenes she had witnessed as Gettysburg's African American population fled the approaching Confederates:

“We had often heard that the rebels were about to make a raid… On these occasions it was also amusing to behold the conduct of the colored people of the town. Gettysburg had a goodly number of them. They regarded the rebels as having an especial hatred toward them, and they believed that if they fell into their hands, annihilation was sure. These folks mostly lived in the southwestern part of town, and their flight was invariably down Breckinridge Street and Baltimore Street, and toward the woods on and around Culp's Hill. I can see them yet; men and women with bundles as large as old-fashioned feather ticks slung across their backs, almost bearing them to the ground. Children also, carrying their bundles, and striving in vain to keep up with their seniors. The greatest consternation was depicted on all their countenances as they hurried along; crowding, and running against each other in their confusion; children stumbling, falling and crying. Mothers, anxious for their offspring, would stop for a moment to hurry them up, saying: For' de lod's sake, you chillen, cum right long quick! If dem rebs dun katch you dey tear you all up.”

Confederates driving slaves south

Confederates driving slaves south

Some captured African Americans suffered a fate even worse then enslavement at the hands of their kidnappers. In his “Race and Retaliation” article, David Smith reports on the grisly discovery made by one Northern unit in the aftermath of the Gettysburg battle:

“While pursuing Lee’s army after Gettysburg, Union Lt. Chester Leach of the 2ndVermont reported finding a black man who had been tortured, mutilated, and murdered by Southern troops. The Vermont troops heard that he had refused to cross the Potomac with the retreating Confederate army.”

Courageous White Citizens Rescue Captured Blacks

The slave-raiders were not, however, always successful in their attempts to carry their captives away. Confederate General Albert Jenkins had been ordered to capture all freed slaves living in the Chambersburg, Mercersburg and Greencastle areas and to transport them south for re-enslavement. On June 16 his train of wagons containing more than thirty captured women and children arrived at Greencastle, guarded by four soldiers. Courageous residents of the town, determined to not allow what they considered an outrage to proceed unchallenged, actually attacked the guards, locked them in the town jail, and freed the captives. When Jenkins heard what had happened, he demanded $50,000 from the town as compensation for his lost “property.” When the town leaders refused his demand, Jenkins threatened to return after a few hours and burn the town to the ground. Fourteen of the captured black women offered to give themselves up to Jenkins in order to save the town, but the Greencastle residents wouldn’t hear of it. As it happened, Jenkins never returned to carry out his threat.

Hundreds Taken South Into Slavery

Diaries, letters and official reports of officers all document the practice of hunting and capturing blacks as being widespread and officially sanctioned throughout every command of Lee’s army. Although there is no evidence that Lee personally authorized these kidnappings, there is no way they could have been carried out at the level they were without his knowledge and at least tacit consent. We do know that official complicity in such operations went at least as high as General James Longstreet, the most senior of Lee’s corps commanders. In his July 1 order instructing General Pickett to move his corps to Gettysburg, Longstreet directs that, “the captured contrabands had better be brought along with you for further disposition.” (“Contraband” was a term applied to slaves who escaped into Union lines).

Although accurate numbers cannot now be known, it is estimated that somewhere around one thousand African Americans were kidnapped and enslaved during the course of the Gettysburg campaign.

Black Communities Still Devastated

Of course, the effect of this practice on the African Americans of every community through which the Army of Northern Virginia passed on its way to Gettysburg was devastating. In Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, for example, the black community of 1800 people simply disappeared, having either fled or been captured. A South Carolina soldier, in a letter home written from Chambersburg, commented, “It is strange to see no negros.”

A similar dispersal of the African American community happened around Gettysburg as the Southern army approached. Some residents were captured and sent south. Others fled as refugees to Harrisburg or Philadelphia. Only a comparative few ever returned to their former homes. Of the 186 African Americans who were living in the Gettysburg area in 1860, only 64 were found living there in the fall of 1863, after the invasion and retreat of the Confederates. For those who did not return, it can truly be said that the greatest consequence of Robert E. Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania was that many of the African American citizens of Gettysburg lost and never regained their Gettysburg address.

© 2011 Ronald E Franklin


Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on October 06, 2017:

Thanks, Rodric. This is a part of our history most Americans are unaware of, but I think it still has an influence in where we are as a nation today.

Rodric Anthony Johnson from Surprise, Arizona on September 30, 2017:

This is a great contribution to my personal knowledge of American history. Thanks so much for contributing this! The stories are important to be told. I especially love the 14 women who thought to give up themselves to save the city. I love even more that the town did not allow that sacrifice at risk

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on February 09, 2016:

Thanks, Max. I'm sure being taken south with the retreating Confederates must have been a terrifying event for your ancestor, as it was for the African Americans the rebels kidnapped at Gettysburg. I salute all of them for their courage and fortitude.

Max Terman on February 09, 2016:

Thanks for this story. My 82nd Ohio ancestor was captured at Gettysburg and sent south. He survived 17 months as a pow, including Andersonville.

I am sure he would say it was worth it to save the Union and set a people free. For his Gettysburg story in novel form, see Gettysburg.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on March 06, 2015:

Hi, Eric. Great to hear from you. I'll be in touch.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on February 16, 2015:

Thanks, Charles. I really appreciate that.

Charles Kruger on February 15, 2015:

Hello. I stumbled across this by accident after one of your other posts appeared on my FB page. I am very taken with your finely crafted prose and elegantly nuanced story telling. Congratulations on your excellent work!

Robert Sacchi on February 13, 2015:

Thank you.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on February 13, 2015:

Robert, I suppose the incident at Harper's Ferry was the source of the Harper's Weekly engraving. So, yes, Gettysburg was not at all an isolated instance. It was Confederate policy.

Robert Sacchi on February 13, 2015:

When they captured Harpers Ferry in 1862 they also sent people south into slavery.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on February 12, 2015:

Robert, you're right that this episode doesn't get the attention it deserves. That's one of the things that motivated me to write this article. Thanks for reading it and commenting.

Robert Sacchi on February 12, 2015:

Thank you. This article addresses a part of the Civil War that is usually left out of the accounts of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on November 22, 2014:

javr, I think our civil war was the greatest test our nation, and our concept of "government of the people, by the people, for the people" ever faced. It was tragic. But as William Henry Seward put it in 1858, the clash between those who supported slavery and those who insisted it must be abolished was an "irrepressible conflict" that had to be resolved if the nation was to survive.

javr from British Columbia, Canada on November 22, 2014:

It's a wonder your nation survived during the civil war. So many innocents did not. A real tragedy.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on March 15, 2014:

Thanks, Levertis. I think "barbaric" is a good term for the whole story of American slavery. In my opinion it did as much moral damage to the slaveholders as to the enslaved. As you note, that same capacity for cruelty still lurks in many hearts today.

Levertis Steele from Southern Clime on March 15, 2014:

I cannot understand the kind of minds that would find amusement at seeing women and children trying, without success, to escape their captors. How barbaric. I suppose that heartless behavior is comparable to today's thugs gunning down people in the streets for reasons that make no sense at all. I do not think that the fiercest animal on land or in the sea is more vicious than the human creature. GREAT HUB! Love the play on words: " They lost their Gettysburg address."

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on January 31, 2014:

Thanks, Coolpapa. No, I didn't know that about Florida. It's probably true of many communities across the South, and the North and West as well. Thanks so much for reading.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on January 31, 2014:

Thanks so much, pstraubie48. Whenever I feel discouraged by the inhumanity of the soldiers who assisted in rounding up innocent people to enslave them, I think about the citizens of Greencastle, who put their town on the line to fight that injustice.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on January 31, 2014:

Thanks, Askme. I appreciate that.

Coolpapa from Florida on January 31, 2014:

Compelling hub! The state of Florida has many black communities tha have disappeared under duress. A sad commentary about our collective ast!

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on January 30, 2014:

This was captivating from beginning.

It is just wrong on so many levels that the war ever happened never mind what it did to human beings that whose lives were shattered. And many lost their Town you know, not just their "Gettysburg."

Awesome well said shared

Angels are on the way to you ps

Rebecca O'Reilly from California on January 29, 2014:

I can't believe this was not a HOD.

Informative and captivating.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on November 21, 2013:

Hi, Jill. Thanks for your kind words about the article. And I think you are right that in a very real sense, the struggle over the issues the war was fought over continues. With regard to your grandmother and Underground Railroad activity in this part of Pennsylvania, you might want to contact the Adams County Historical Society. It's great to hear about your great grandfather in Chattanooga. Who knows, perhaps he served members of my family. Welcome to HP!

Jill Sim on November 20, 2013:

Hello, Mr. Franklin,

Just wanted to commend you on your wonderful article that brings to life forgotten history that we should never forget. We live history's reverberations today and in some ways we are still fighting this war. I am very interested in the history of African Americans who lived in and around Gettysburg in the mid 19th century to after the war. I have often wondered if blacks settled just over the line to await family members able to escape slavery in Virginia and Maryland. I have read of accounts of Underground Railroad activity, and was struck to find Thaddeus Stevens owned an iron mill in the Fairfield area (his Lancaster home was reputed to be a station), which made me wonder if he was actively involved in running fugitives in the Gettysburg area, too. A great-great grandmother of ours settled outside Gettysburg before the war, for as my grandma archly put it, "for peace and quiet". She was a former slave from Virginia. So far I have been unable to conclusively locate her, and wonder if there are extant records on African Americans of Fairfield and Hamiltonban. Also, as an aside, my grandmother's father was a doctor who served Chattanooga's black community. Thank you for this superb article.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on November 20, 2013:

Eric, I'm glad you enjoyed the article. It's a piece of history that should not be forgotten or overlooked. Thanks for reading.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on November 20, 2013:

Thank you very much. Just an outstanding article. I am just amazed.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on September 17, 2013:

Thanks, pstraubie48. I grew up in Tennessee, so none of my family were here at the time of the Gettysburg battle. Thanks for your encouragement about writing history. You are right that reading about it can sometimes seem tedious, but it doesn't have to be. After all, history is all about people and their stories. That's what I try to convey.

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on September 17, 2013:

This was a deplorable time in our history. And one that it behoove us to learn from. To learn that man's inhumanity to man, woman, and child leads down the road to more of the same. Will we ever learn that? Not just those of the white race but any of us?

Reading this entry made me wonder. Were some of your family in Gettysburg during this time? I know we are all of the same 'family' but I wondered if you perhaps heard some of this nightmare passed down from generation to generation in your family.

It saddens me and sickens me to know that such horrid things happened in our country.

You may want to consider writing a book for high schools and colleges including your writings. I will be back to read more.

Reading about history can sometimes be tedious but I was carried right along with you as you recounted this part of history that is shameful.

Angels are on the way to you and to all hopefully to help us to reach out and make a difference in the lives of others. ps

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on May 10, 2013:

Thanks, lions44. More about Lee is in the works.

CJ Kelly from the PNW on May 10, 2013:

Glad to see you've punctured the myth about Lee. He was no better than Nathan Forrest. This whole idea that he was morally conflicted about the Civil War has always been a fraud. Great job.

Alastar Packer from North Carolina on March 07, 2013:

Do appreciate that Pastor Franklin. Perhaps it goes to show just how contrasting a man he was. The whipping incident before the war and the church example after it.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on March 07, 2013:

Thanks, Alastar. I'm sorry you never made it to Chattanooga. I never found bullets, but used to play on Orchard Knob which is where U. S. Grant and Maj. Gen. George Henry Thomas (like Lee, a Virginian) stood to observe the assault on Missionary Ridge in November 1863.

About Lee personally whipping slaves. A 2010 article in The Atlantic reports on 2 letters published in 1859 about some of Lee's slaves who escaped and were recaptured. The Atlantic article says, "Lee angrily demanded they be whipped. The estate's overseer refused, and the constable took over. But after whipping the men, he declined to beat the woman. Lee, according to the letters, did that job himself." Here's the link:

Alastar Packer from North Carolina on March 07, 2013:

Pastor Franklin I'd like to thank you for the reply. Your a man of very many excellent qualities and achievements. If you would be so kind as to indulge me I'd like to say a few things. You remind me in many ways of the father that raised me, he was from Chattanooga, too, and suffered intensely from the Great Depression as a boy. He told me once of collecting bullets and cannonballs from the battlefield there. Right before he passed he also told me it was a great regret of his that we were never able to visit his hometown together.

You are of course correct that Lee was a man of many contrasts and personal integrity and compassion. He was also of the planter elite and had bondspeople whipped though I am unaware of him personally ever doing so. If indeed he did, it would be a sad surprise to me. I read once where a slave had very much displeased him in some fashion and he told the overseer to spare not the rod.

He was against disunion and and anguished in his decision to forsake the offer of commanding the U.S. forces. But he could not bring himself to turn against his kin, his friends and fellow citizens and the state of Virginia itself. As an educated man on this subject you know one reason the war was fought was the issue of state's rights vs the federal government in Washington.

And in conclusion, the Southern planter elite would cite the bible itself as proof bondage was ordained by the Lord in the old and new testaments. You as an erudite gentleman and pastor possibly know those chapters they would reference. Thank you sir for tolerating this long post, slavery was a great evil and its demise was God ordained if anything was. I only wish we could banish and end it for all times in our own day. Best regards Pastor Franklin and thank you again.It is a distinct honor and pleasure to have meet you.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on March 07, 2013:

For me Lee is a man of contrasts - a man of great personal integrity who broke his oath and took up arms against the government that nurtured and educated him; a man of great compassion who personally whipped slaves who didn't meet his expectations; a Christian who fought for a system dedicated to perpetuating human bondage. I'm still trying to figure out how all that fits together in one person. Thanks for reading!

Alastar Packer from North Carolina on March 07, 2013:

Although I knew of the Confederate Congress's policy this is a very sad chapter to read about as concerns the Gettysburg campaign, painful even. Thank you Ron for writing on this important chapter of American history. This is no defense of anyone but shows what I believe is the true essence of R E Lee. After the end of the war, a black couple entered a white church and went up to the front to pray. The congregation was shocked and uncertain how to react. It just so happened Lee was in that church and after a while walked up front and stood beside the couple in prayer. Yes, Lee had once been a "good" slave holder at Arlington but realized the country now needed to heal its wounds ...and wrongs.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on February 28, 2013:

I, too, was encouraged when I saw how the people of Greencastle were willing to risk their town to save others. In the midst of that horrible war, that was something refreshing. Thanks!

Sheila Brown from Southern Oklahoma on February 28, 2013:

I have always been appalled at how some human beings can treat other human beings. This is a very interesting article and it is hard for me to find the words to describe how this makes me feel. It is good to know that there were some good people that did try to help. I don't understand the reasoning for such cruelty. This is an very good article! Voted up and awesome! :)

khrys24 from pa on August 03, 2011:

I enjoy reading you hubs, hope to see more, Good story.

PWalker281 on August 03, 2011:

This is one of the best history hubs I've ever read - a vivid and compelling description of what happened to African Americans in Gettysburg during the Civil War. I am definitely going to follow you! Welcome to HubPages. You're off to a fantastic start!!

Related Articles