Blacks in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
Margaret Palm was a colorful character in Gettysburg’s African American community during the mid-nineteenth century. She served as a conductor along the local branch of the Underground Railroad, earning the nickname Maggie Bluecoat for the blue circa-1812 military coat she wore while conducting fugitive slaves north. One evening, she was accosted by two strangers who bound her hands and tried to kidnap her into Maryland and slavery. Her screams attracted help and she escaped her assailants.
Alexander Dobbin, a Presbyterian minister, arrived in the Marsh Creek valley and purchased a two-hundred-acre plot of land in the spring of 1774. Two years later, Dobbin established the beginnings of local black community when he returned with two slaves who built the stone building that would serve as Dobbin’s home and school. These slaves were the first known African Americans in Cumberland Township.
The Underground Railroad
One of the main stations of the Underground Railroad in Gettysburg was the Dobbin house, owned by Reverend Alexander Dobbin’s son Matthew, who was a captain in the Underground Railroad. African American residents were active in the line that ran through McAllister’s Mill on the Baltimore Pike.
Due in part to the efforts of the Underground Railroad, the African American population of Gettysburg grew from 108 in 1820 to 186 in 1860. The fact that thirty-one percent of Gettysburg’s African Americans in 1860 were natives of Maryland and Virginia serves as evidence of the impact of the Underground Railroad on the town’s population.
In 1780, the state of Pennsylvania had passed a law which gradually abolished slavery. James Gettys incorporated the borough of Gettysburg around 1800, and his slave Sydney O’Brien became the borough’s first black resident. Gettys later freed O’Brien and provided her with a house in the southwestern part of town.
Life was hard for Gettysburg’s African Americans. They most often worked as day laborers, which required working six days a week, often from sunup to sundown, and involved largely tasks requiring heavy labor. While economic advancement proved to be elusive for most blacks, they were successful in establishing two new churches between 1837 and 1841.
By the 1840s, slavery was almost gone, and most blacks in Gettysburg were free. Some African American residents had escaped from Maryland, a slave state, and many who came to Pennsylvania were looking for economic, educational and social advancement.
While Gettysburg’s African American community was born into slavery, those slaves’ descendants were instrumental in helping Southern slaves escape to freedom. Membership in any of the area’s antislavery organizations was denied to Gettysburg’s blacks, for fear that they would draw the attention of the proponents of slavery. Reverend Jonathan Blanchard had been attacked by an anti-abolitionist mob in 1837 for fraternizing with blacks.
The Mason-Dixon Line
By 1860, the African American community was becoming well established. There was some slow improvement in economic conditions; they had established two churches, and their children had the opportunity to receive an education. Yet a dark cloud lingered over the community. Gettysburg’s location – seven miles north of the Mason-Dixon line – rendered the community constantly in fear of slave kidnappers.
This boundary, surveyed along the borders of Pennsylvania and Maryland, became a symbol of freedom from oppression for blacks enslaved in the southern states. Underground Railroad agents ushered thousands of fugitive slaves across this line and on to freedom.
Fugitive slaves chose to live only seven miles from the Mason-Dixon line because Gettysburg provided economic opportunities for runaway slaves desperate for work. Fifty of the borough’s 186 black residents held jobs in 1860. The types of occupations ran the gamut from clergyman to fortune teller, with domestic servant the most common for women. Seventeen of the 103 black women in the borough held jobs.
Only twenty blacks owned real estate in Gettysburg in 1860. Real estate owners were most often males with a family, although six women, all widows, also owned property. Almost two-thirds of black real estate owners were natives of Maryland and Virginia, perhaps offering a commentary on the economic goals of ex-slaves and free people of color who had lived with slavery.
During the march through Maryland and Pennsylvania, some Confederates seized Blacks whenever possible, and sent them into slavery in the South. They ignored the legal standing of their victims; some Blacks who had never been slaves were captured. Whether or not the Confederate government officially condoned this cruel practice remains unclear.
A Gettysburg resident, Reverend Thomas Creigh, wrote in his diary for June 26, 1863, that the Rebels announced that they intend “to search all houses for contrabands and fire arms and that wherever they found either they will set fire to the house.” Another citizen wrote: “They took all [Blacks] they could find, even little children.”
Hearing about the danger, most of Gettysburg’s Black residents had already fled, fearing that if they were caught by the Confederates, they would be sold into slavery. The sight of the black population fleeing made a lasting impression on the town’s residents, many of whom later wrote of their experiences.
Rebecca Johnson’s departure left Sarah Montfort without a servant to help with the household chores. Sarah’s twelve-year-old daughter, Mary Elizabeth Montfort wrote:
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 [she said]. No rebel is gonna catch me and carry me back to be a slave again.”
Among those who had left were free Blacks – Abram Bryan, his wife, and two teen-aged sons. Fannie Buehler wrote that her maid had “left early in June, from fear of being captured.” Some of the white townspeople provided hiding places for their unfortunate neighbors, but the Confederates still managed to take a number of captives.
It is uncertain where those African Americans who left Gettysburg during the Confederate invasion fled. It is most likely that many went of Harrisburg or Philadelphia, both cities with large African American populations. The Harrisburg Telegraph reported on June 24, “Contrabands are arriving here constantly, and it really is a distressing sight to see women and children huddled in wagons, bringing all their worldly possessions with them.”
The Battle of Gettysburg
Fought over the first three days of July 1863, the Battle of Gettysburg was one of the most critical battles of the Civil War having occurred at a time when the fate of the nation hung in the balance – the summer of 1863. Often referred to as the High Water Mark of the Confederacy, it was the culmination of the second and most ambitious invasion of the North by General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia.
The Army of the Potomac, the Union army that had long been the nemesis of Lee, met the Confederate invasion at the crossroads town of Gettysburg and though it was under a new commander, General George Gordon Meade, the northerners fought with a desperation born of defending their home territory. The Union victory resulted in Lee’s retreat to Virginia and the eventual end to the hopes of the Confederacy for independence.
The Confederate army retreated from Gettysburg in the early morning of July 5, but life did not return to normal for Gettysburg’s civilians. Isaac Carter, who had spent the battle hiding in a woodlot for fear of being captured, recounted:
I visited the battlefield three days after the fight, and it made me sick the bodies were so numerous and so swelled up, and some so shot to pieces – a foot here, an arm there, and a head in another place. They lay so thick in the Valley of Death that you couldn’t walk on the ground. Their flesh was black as your hat – yes, black as the blackest colored person.
Gettysburg’s African American population did not escape from having the bodies of soldiers killed in the battle buried on their property. James Warfield returned to find fourteen Confederate bodies buried in his garden. Forty-five Confederates were buried around Basil Biggs’ property. Two Confederate bodies were buried in the AME Church Cemetery.
Yet the task of exhuming the bodies for burial in the Gettysburg National Cemetery was an economic opportunity for blacks. Basil Biggs removed more than 3000 for reburial. Resident Leander Warren described the scene:
Biggs had the contract to raise the dead and put them into coffins. He had a two-horse team and hauled six at a time. Every particle of the body was gathered up, and the grave neatly closed over and leveled. The bodies were found in various stages of decomposition. They were generally covered up with a small portion of earth dug up from alongside the body.
African Americans who returned to Gettysburg often found their property or belongings damaged, destroyed, or stolen by either of the two armies. Basil Biggs reported damages totaling $1506.60, including forty-five acres of wheat, eight cows, seven cattle, ten hogs, twenty-six yards of carpet, and five dollars worth of jellies. Abraham Brien claimed to have lost $570 worth of property, but was only awarded fifteen dollars from the government because that was the value of the amount of hay that Brien could prove was consumed by Union horses.
Many of the African Americans of Gettysburg who fled never returned. Those who did return generally did so mainly because they owned real estate there. 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 black community would unravel under the pressures of losing many of its old members, and the apathy of its new members toward community institutions. Consequently, it became a less attractive place for blacks to settle, and the African American community of Gettysburg and Adams County would decrease by forty percent by the turn of the century.