Gettysburg, Pennsylvania is justly famous for the pivotal Civil War battle that occurred there during the first three days of July in 1863. Many historians believe the defeat suffered by Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army during that battle sealed the doom of the slave-holding Southern Confederacy.
The town of Gettysburg suffered surprisingly little physical damage from the rebel invasion. There was some destruction of buildings and property, but the most significant and long-lasting damage was imposed on a specific segment of the population: the Confederates deliberately and systematically targeted the city's black residents with a campaign of terror that involved kidnapping and enslaving them. To this day the Gettysburg African American community has not fully recovered from that traumatic experience.
Gettysburg Was Home to a Small but Strong Black Community
According to historian Peter C. Vermilyea, before the Civil War Gettysburg was home to a strong and stable African American community. Of the approximately 2400 residents of the town listed in the 1860 census, 186 were black. They worked in a range of occupations, ranging from clergy to brick makers to janitors and cooks.
Some, like Samuel Butler and his wife Elizabeth, were property owners. Owen Robinson, in addition to being the sexton of the borough’s Presbyterian Church, owned a restaurant that featured oysters in winter and ice cream in summer. Mag Palm, a 24-year-old wife and mother who bore the nickname “Maggie Bluecoat” for the sky-blue officer’s coat she often wore, was well known as a conductor on the Underground Railroad.
Although the black residents of Gettysburg were not as prosperous as their white neighbors, they were an accepted and valued part of the community.
But that all changed, or rather became irrelevant, in June of 1863. That’s when Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia reached central Pennsylvania.
Lee’s Army Incites Terror Among African Americans
This was Lee’s second attempt to invade the North (the first ended at the Battle of Antietam in 1862). His hope was to defeat the Union’s best army on its home turf and effectively end the war.
With that goal in mind, Lee and his army of 75,000 combatants crossed into Pennsylvania in early June. By late June they were marching though many of the towns in the south-central part of the state on the way to meeting their destiny at Gettysburg.
Actually, most residents along the invasion route had little to fear from the Confederates, at least in terms of their personal safety. In his General Order 72, Lee had specifically commanded that during the army’s incursion into Pennsylvania, civilians and their property were not to be unnecessarily molested. There was some plundering of food, horses, and money, but in the main Lee’s order was obeyed.
But while white citizens could feel safe as the rebels marched past their houses, African Americans very definitely did not. In fact, the entire black community felt compelled to flee their homes the moment they knew the Confederates were approaching. Most would never return.
Why did African Americans feel so threatened by Lee’s army? After all, although the rebels were fighting to defend a society based on slavery, Pennsylvania’s black residents were legally free. Most had never been enslaved at all. But it was soon apparent that the Confederates didn’t care about that.
Orders From Richmond to Hunt Down Blacks
According to historian David G. Smith, in March of 1863 the Confederate government at Richmond, Virginia issued orders concerning the disposition of any “fugitive slaves” the army might encounter during its invasion of the North. Men, women, and children were to be rounded up and shipped south to special depots prepared for them near Richmond. To the officers and soldiers of Lee’s army that meant that any blacks they could catch were to be considered runaway slaves, and sent back for enslavement in Virginia.
Although we have no documentary evidence that Lee himself ever personally endorsed this policy, we do know his headquarters sent out a circular concerning it, and that the order was distributed and acted upon throughout his army. On July 1, the first day of the Gettysburg battle, Lee’s second in command, General James Longstreet, ordered General Pickett (who two days later would lead Pickett’s charge) to bring his corps to Gettysburg.
In that order, Longstreet instructed Pickett that “the captured contrabands had better be brought along with you for further disposition.” (The term “contrabands” was used for slaves who had escaped into Union lines). Clearly, even before they got to the Gettysburg area, Pickett’s men had captured and were carrying with them a number of black Pennsylvania residents.
Smith concludes that Lee's entire army was complicit in kidnapping and enslaving African Americans during the Gettysburg campaign:
The evidence indicates the involvement in the slave raids of units from every single infantry and cavalry corps of Robert E. Lee’s army.
— Historian David G. Smith
Lee's Men Hunted African Americans With Enthusiasm
Residents of Gettysburg and nearby towns recorded in diaries and memoirs accounts of terrified African Americans being gleefully hunted down by Confederate soldiers and penned up for shipment South.
Charles Hartman, who lived in the town of Greencastle about 25 miles southwest of Gettysburg, witnessed several such scenes. In a diary entry for June, 22, he described how mounted soldiers terrorized fleeing blacks. Not only were houses searched, but riders sifted through farmers’ fields to flush out any blacks who hadn’t had the foresight to flee before the rebel army arrived.
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.
Rachel Cormany, who lived in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, was horrified by what she saw. She wrote in her diary:
[The Confederates] were hunting up the contrabands and driving them off by droves. O! How it grated on our hearts to have to sit quietly and look at such brutal deeds — I saw no men among the contrabands — all women and children. Some of the colored people who were raised here were taken along — I sat on the front step as they were driven by just like we would drive cattle… One woman was pleading wonderfully with her driver for her children — but all the sympathy she received from him was a rough “March along” — at which she would quicken her pace again. It is a query what they want with those little babies — whole families were taken.
One young Gettysburg resident, 12-year-old Mary Elizabeth Montfort, recalled how a black woman she knew rushed to get away before the Confederates arrived:
Today we saw Aunt Beckie. She is the colored lady who helps mother with the wash. Jennie and I love Aunt Beckie. She and some other colored people were pulling wagons or pushing wheel barrows and carrying big bundles.
“Yo ol’ Aunt Beckie is goin’ up into de hills. No rebel is gonna catch me and carry me back to be a slave again.”
Although Samuel Butler was one of 20 blacks who owned real estate in Gettysburg, his wife, Elizabeth was captured by the rebels. As she was at the point of being transported south into slavery, Elizabeth managed to escape by slipping unseen into a church as the group of captives passed by on the street. She hid in the belfry for two days without food or water until the rebels retreated.
White Civilians Act Courageously to Free Captured Blacks
Some white Pennsylvanians refused to sit idly by while their black neighbors were being kidnapped and enslaved. Peter Vermilyea recounts perhaps the best known of several such incidents.
On June 16 four wagons filled with between 30 and 40 black women and children who had been captured at Chambersburg arrived at Greencastle. The wagons were guarded by a Confederate chaplain and four soldiers. Incensed at the injustice they were witnessing, white residents overcame the guards, locked them in the town jail, and freed the captives.
The Confederate commander, General Albert Jenkins, threatened to retaliate by burning down the town if the freed blacks were not returned. Fourteen of the captured black women offered to turn themselves over to the rebels in order to save the town.
But the white citizens of Greencastle stood firm. They refused to return any of the kidnapped African Americans to captivity. In the ebb and flow of war, Jenkins was forced to move his command away before he could carry out his threat.
Some whites, however, were not so sympathetic. On June 29 the Gettysburg Compiler newspaper reported:
About daybreak on the 18th, a force of about 200 rebel cavalry made a dash into McConnelsburg and surrounded it in a few seconds. They then commenced their work of plunder, taking horses [and] Negroes… We are sorry to state that Captain States of Bloody Run had fourteen fine horses taken.
Apparently, if the Confederates had taken just the black people and left the horses, all would have been well.
When They Could, Blacks Fought Back
Whenever they had the opportunity captured African Americans didn’t wait for sympathetic whites to help them, but fought back on their own. One such report appeared in the Chambersburg Repository newspaper on July 8, 1863:
"Many escaped in various ways… One Negro effected his escape by shooting and seriously wounding his rebel guard. He forced the gun from the rebel and fired, wounding him in the head and then skedaddled."
What Happened to The Black People Who Were Shipped South?
Nobody knows for sure how many people were kidnapped by Lee’s men and sent south into slavery. According to Smith, historians estimate that the number, including persons rounded up in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania as the Confederates marched north, may have exceeded one thousand, most of them women and children. Equally unknown is what ultimately happened to them — the fates of all but a very few are lost to history.
It is known that some ended up in Confederate prisons. For example, D. M. Eiker, a white man from Chambersburg who found himself lodged in the infamous Castle Thunder prison in Richmond, recalled seeing there a black man from Chambersburg who had been captured by Lee’s army: “While in the Castle I met Alexander Lewis, a colored man, from this place, known to many of our citizens.”
A Community Destroyed
Certainly, Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania was a tragedy for every African American who was caught in the slave driver’s net or forced to leave their home to avoid that horrific fate. But for many it must seemed even worse than tragic. That’s because the rebels had no way of distinguishing escaped slaves from blacks who had always been free, and made little effort to do so. Many of those Lee’s army snatched from their homes and sent into slavery were undoubtedly free black people who, until then, had never been enslaved.
By the time Robert E. Lee’s army retreated back to Virginia after its defeat in the Battle of Gettysburg, very few African Americans were left in the city. Although a few had managed to remain there in hiding, most had either fled or been rounded up and shipped to Richmond. Either way, the majority of those who lived there before the Confederate invasion never returned. Although by 1870 there were 239 blacks living in Gettysburg, only 74 of the 186 who had lived there in 1860 had come back.
What Gettysburg Lost
Gettysburg’s black community never fully recovered from the devastation brought upon it by the army of Robert E. Lee. Most of the African Americans who left or were removed from Gettysburg during the invasion never returned, and, as Peter Vermilyea notes, those who did "often found their property or belongings damaged, destroyed or stolen by either of the two armies." The result, according to Vermilyea, was that:
"The opportunities for developing a true African American community in Gettysburg, which had been so vibrant before the war, waned as the borough became simply the first town many blacks encountered on their route north after being freed from slavery... Gettysburg’s African American community would unravel under the pressures of losing many of its old members."
Gettysburg would never again be the haven for African Americans that it was before the Confederates arrived. The tragic reality, that persists to this day, is that:
Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania had changed the nature of the community forever.
— Historian Peter C. Vermilyea
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Ronald E Franklin