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Lee’s Army Moves Towards Gettysburg: Black Refugees Flee

June 12, 2013   View Discussion

Lee’s Army Moves Towards Gettysburg: Black Refugees Flee

Patrick Young, Esq.

by Patrick Young, Esq. - Blogger

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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.
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 will examine the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear monthly between 2011 and 2015, the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War. 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.

4. Immigrant Leader Carl Schurz Tells Lincoln to Stand Firm Against Slavery.

5. ...And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants

6. The Rabbi Who Seceded From the South

7. The Fighting 69th-Irish New York Declares War

8. The Germans Save St. Louis for the Union

9. New York’s Irish Rush to Save Washington

10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.

11. Carl Schurz Meets With Lincoln To Arm the Germans

12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?- The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.

13. Why the Germans Fought for the Union

14. Why Did the Irish Fight When They Were So Despised?

15. The “Sons of Garibaldi” Join the Union Army

16. The Irish Tigers From Louisiana

17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers

18. The St. Louis Germans Set Out To Free Missouri

19. Wilson’s Creek Drowns Immigrant Dream of Free Missouri

20. English-Only in 1861: No Germans Need Apply

21. After Bull Run: Mutineers, Scapegoats, and the Dead

22. St. Louis Germans Revived by Missouri Emancipation Proclamation

23. Jews Fight the Ban on Rabbis as Chaplains

24. Lincoln Dashes German Immigrants Hopes for Emancipation

25. When Hatred of Immigrants Stopped the Washington Monument from Being Built

26. Inside the Mind of a Know Nothing

27. The Evolution of the Know Nothings

28. The Know Nothings Launch a Civil War Against Immigrant America

29. The Know Nothings: From Triumph to Collapse

30. The Lasting Impact of the Know Nothings on Immigrant America.

31. Lincoln, the Know Nothings, and Immigrant America

32. Irish Green and Black America: Race on the Edge of Civil War

33. The Democratic Party and the Racial Consciousness of Irish Immigrants Before the Civil War

34. The Confederates Move Against Latino New Mexico

35. Nuevomexicanos Rally As Confederates Move Towards Santa Fe—But For Which Side?

36. The Confederate Army in New Mexico Strikes at Valverde

37. The Swedish Immigrant Who Saved the U.S. Navy

38. The Confederates Capture Santa Fe and Plot Extermination

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.

41. Did Immigrants Hand New Orleans Over to the Union Army?

42. Did New Orleans’ Immigrants See Union Soldiers As Occupiers or Liberators?

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.

44. Union General Ben Butler Leverages Immigrant Politics in New Orleans

45. Thomas Meager: The Man Who Created the Irish Brigade

46. Thomas Meagher: The Irish Rebel Joins the Union Army

47. Recruiting the Irish Brigade-Creating the Irish American

48. Cross Keys: A German Regiment’s Annihilation in the Shenandoah Valley

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.

51. Slaves Immigrate from the Confederacy to the United States During the Peninsula Campaign

52. The Irish 9th Massachusetts Cut Off During the Seven Days Battles

53. Union Defeat and an Irish Medal of Honor at the End of the Seven Days

54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.

55. Carl Schurz: To Win the Civil War End Slavery

56. Carl Schurz: From Civilian to General in One Day

57. Did Anti-German Bigotry Help Cause Second Bull Run Defeat?

58. Immigrant Soldiers Chasing Lee Into Maryland

59. Scottish Highlanders Battle at South Mountain

60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”- A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation

61. The Irish Brigade at Antietam

62. Private Peter Welsh Joins the Irish Brigade

63. Preliminaries to Emancipation: Race, the Irish, and Lincoln

64. The Politics of Emancipation: Lincoln Suffers Defeat

65. Carl Schurz Blames Lincoln for Defeat

66. The Irish Brigade and Virginia’s Civilians Black and White

67. The Irish Brigade and the Firing of General McClellan

68. General Grant Expells the Jews

69. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Its Destruction At Fredericksburg.

70. Fredericksburg: The Worst Day in the Young Life of Private McCarter of the Irish Brigade

71. Forever Free: Emancipation New Year Day 1863

72. Private William McCarter of the Irish Brigade Hospitalized After Fredericksburg

73. The Immigrant Women That Nursed Private McCarter After Fredericksburg

74. Nursing Nuns of the Civil War

75. The Biases Behind Grant’s Order Expelling the Jews

76. The Jewish Community Reacts to Grant’s Expulsion Order

77. Lincoln Overturns Grant’s Order Against the Jews

78. Irish Families Learn of the Slaughter at Fredericksburg

79. Requiem for the Irish Brigade

80. St. Patrick’s Day in the Irish Brigade

81. Student Asks: Why Don’t We Learn More About Immigrants in the Civil War?

82. Missouri’s German Unionists: From Defeat to Uncertain Victory

83. Missouri Germans Contest Leadership of Unionist Cause

84. German Leader Franz Sigel’s Victory Earns a Powerful Enemy

85. Immigrant Unionists Marching Towards Pea Ridge

86. German Immigrants at the Battle of Pea Ridge: Opening Moves

87. Pea Ridge: The German Unionists Outflanked

88. German Immigrants at the Battle of Pea Ridge

89. The Organization of the “German” XI Corps

90. The Irish Brigade on the Road to Chancellorsville

91. The “German” XI Corps on the Eve of Chancellorsville

92. The “Germans Run Away” at Chancellorsville

93. The New York Times, the Germans, and the Anatomy of a Scapegoat at Chancellorsville

94. An Irish Soldier Between Chancellorsville and Gettysburg

95. Lee’s Army Moves Towards Gettysburg: Black Refugees Flee


Painting of the Return of the 69th from Bull Run Unearthed

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Book Reviews

The Harp and the Eagle: Irish American Volunteers and the Union Army, 1861 to 1865 by Susannah Ural Bruce

Jews and the Civil War: A Reader Edited by Jonathan Sarna and Adam Mendelsohn

Civil War Citizens edited by Susannah Ural Bruce

Germans in the Civil War: The Letters They Wrote Home edited by Walter Kamphoefner and Wolfgang Helbich

A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War By Amanda Foreman

Irish Green and Union Blue by Peter Welsh

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