When Confederate troops began slipping west and north of the Union army for their June 1863 invasion of Pennsylvania, no one worried more about the prospect of Robert E. Lee’s men arriving in Gettysburg , Pennsylvania, than the hundreds of black refugees who had sought shelter in the region. Gettysburg was only a dozen miles north of the line dividing the free and slave states, and Gettysburg along with towns to the west like Chambersburg and Greencastle were the first free towns people escaping slavery arrived in.1
Nearly 2,000 blacks lived in the area, many of whom were born free in the North. While blacks had lived in Gettysburg for almost as long as whites, the first African Americans were brought there as slaves.2
Soon after they themselves gained freedom, Gettysburg’s blacks organized stops on the Underground Railroad to help escaped slaves fleeing north to Canada. Some escapees stayed. The area’s black population grew quickly enough that some local whites circulated a petition in 1860 stating “that the rapid growth of the free Negro population within a brief period is not only a burden to the petitioners, by increasing demands on their poor fund, but owing to the indolence and dissipation of the Negroes they have filled the prisons and increased the taxes to an enormous extent.” 3
With war, the migration increased, particularly after the January 1, 1863 Emancipation Proclamation declared escaping slaves “forever free.” Although free, the former slaves were distained by many of their white neighbors. While some white Pennsylvanians took great risks to protect blacks from the Confederates, others were amused by the fear that gripped the African American community.4
In mid-June of 1863, Confederate cavalryman Albert Jenkins led his troopers into Chambersburg and soon his men were “scouring the fields for negroes. Many were caught and some, freed and slave, were bound and sent under guard South. Some escaped and some were captured from their guards by citizens of Greencastle” and freed, according to one resident. Another recalled that the Confederates kidnapped “all of [the people of color] they could find even little children” for sale in the slave market in Richmond. Cavalrymen threatened to burn the houses of whites sheltering escaped slaves. One farmer reported seeing four wagon loads of black women and children being shipped south.5
Re-enslavement of blacks after Confederate capture of Harpers Ferry, 1862.
Historian David G. Smith estimates that “several hundred” blacks were captured by Confederates and sent South. Most of these were refugees who had fled slavery but who gained only temporary freedom when they left the Confederacy and came to the United States.6
The reasons why a busy army in the midst of a major invasion would capture slaves when it seemingly should have been preparing for battle were threefold. First, slaves were valuable commodities. Blacks shipped south could fetch as much as $40,000 in modern U.S. dollars. Second, many Confederates viewed escaped slaves as thieves who had stolen themselves from their white “owners.” They had a strong impulse to punish the blacks. Third, in order to undermine the Emancipation Proclamation, the Confederate government had endorsed a policy of kidnapping blacks to demonstrate to slaves that they would not be securely free if they ran away to the Union lines.7
According to historian David Smith, not all Confederates could carry out the re-enslavement and forced return migration. A letter written by Confederate Colonel William Christian says that “We took a lot of Negroes yesterday [June 27]. I was offered my choice, but…my humanity revolted at taking the poor devils.” He said he turned loose those he could. Christian was not typical, however. One Confederate wrote home talking about soldiers “capturing negroes and horses.” Another soldier said that after Lee’s victory his men would return to the town of Greencastle to “take off every neager.” Civilian slavehunters also followed Lee’s army, hoping to capitalize on the opportunity to reenslave. According to Smith, virtually every major unit of the invading army was involved in the recapture of former slaves. Divisional and Corps commanders were involved in sanctioning the captures.8
If we think of the United States and the Confederacy as two countries, then Gettysburg was practically a border town. Its proximity to slave territory made it both a refuge and a trap for blacks hoping to immigrate to freedom.
Video: Darden Leadership Ride – Chancellorsville and Gettysburg: Leadership Lessons From the Battlefields of the Civil War with University of Virginia Civil War historian Gary Gallagher. This is the first of three lectures by this noted historian focusing on Union and Confederate leaders during the Gettysburg campaign.
1. Race and Retaliations: The Capture of African Americans during the Gettysburg Campaign by David G. Smith found in Virginia’s Civil War ed. by Peter Wallenstein and Bertram Wyatt-Brown published by University of Virginia Press p. 138-140.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion by Allen C. Guelzo published by Knopf (2013)
5. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion by Allen C. Guelzo published by Knopf (2013) Kindle loc. 1711-1720; Reminiscences of the War by Jacob Hoke published by Foltz (1884) p. 38.
6. Race and Retaliations: The Capture of African Americans during the Gettysburg Campaign by David G. Smith found in Virginia’s Civil War ed. by Peter Wallenstein and Bertram Wyatt-Brown published by University of Virginia Press P. 138.
7. Race and Retaliations: The Capture of African Americans during the Gettysburg Campaign by David G. Smith found in Virginia’s Civil War ed. by Peter Wallenstein and Bertram Wyatt-Brown published by University of Virginia Press p. 138-140.
8. Race and Retaliations: The Capture of African Americans during the Gettysburg Campaign by David G. Smith found in Virginia’s Civil War ed. by Peter Wallenstein and Bertram Wyatt-Brown published by University of Virginia Press p. 137, 139, 143, 146-147.
The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:
1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War – Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.
2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America – Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.
3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist– A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.
5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants
10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.
12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.
17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers
39. A German Regiment Fights for “Freedom and Justice” at Shiloh-The 32nd Indiana under Col. August Willich.
40. The Know Nothing Colonel and the Irish Soldier Confronting slavery and bigotry.
43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.
49. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Richmond-The Irish brigade in the Peninsula Campaign from March 17 to June 2, 1862.
50. Peninsula Emancipation: Irish Soldiers Take Steps on the Road to Freedom-The Irish Brigade and Irish soldiers from Boston free slaves along the march to Richmond.
54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.
60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”– A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation
Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites