How African Americans Lost Their Gettysburg Address

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.

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.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.”

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.

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.

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.