Confederate Cavalry Rounds Up Pennsylvania Blacks, Free and Slave

June 16, 1863 (Tuesday)

Confederate Cavalry General Albert Jenkins was of good stock. He was born to wealthy parents on a Virginia plantation, attended a private academy, a fine college in Pennsylvania, and Harvard Law School. Prior to the war, he served in the United States Congress. He was no ill-mannered, blood thirty rouge. By all accounts, he was a southern gentleman, even when being entertained by the fine citizens of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.

Confederate officer Albert Jenkins
Confederate officer Albert Jenkins

Jenkins and about 2,000 of his cavaliers had been attached to General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Though not a part of Jeb Stuart’s illustrious division, Jenkins’ Cavalry was an officially recognized unit – not a loose band of partisan rangers. Still, General Lee didn’t quite trust them. They had raised much hell throughout Western Virginia and perhaps their ways were not up to Lee’s own standards. Nevertheless, they were brought aboard and given to General Richard Ewell to be used as screens in the march north across the Potomac. Ewell, in turn, gave them to Robert Rodes, a strict disciplinarian, who he believed would keep Jenkins in line.

Rodes had sent Jenkins north as a vanguard, with orders to take Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, where they arrived late the previous night. For the couple of days preceding their arrival, bands of black families, both free and slave, passed through town, warning of the invasion. Before the arrival of the Rebels, almost every horse had been sent north, hopefully out of their reach. When Union troops fled through town, it fully convinced them that not only were the Confederates in Pennsylvania, but Chambersburg was their target. The Rebels entered town well after dark, but spent the night a mile or so north.

Come dawn, the true occupation began. The Confederates were a mostly well behaved lot. They hardly bothered the farmers, did not tear down fences, and took only a few of the cattle. Most things they took were paid for in Confederate script. Jenkins and his men cleaned out the downtown merchants, who were hardly amused with being paid in such worthless notes.

General Jenkins and his Confederates paid for everything, but three particular items. The first was horses, which he considered contraband of war. When the horses were found to be in short supply, he proceeded to take all of the arms in the town. Any make or model would do. When delivered, he destroyed the worthless and kept the finest.

The third item which Jenkins took while refusing to pay was black people. His men rounded them up like they had wanted to round up horses. Slave, free, man, women, or child, it did not matter. To them, a black person was a slave and nothing more.

Chambersburg, like many larger towns, had a section where many of the black people lived. According to a local paper, Jenkins’ men, “went to the part of the town occupied by the colored population, and kidnapped all they could find, from the child in the cradle up to men and women of fifty years of age.”

Rachel Cormany, a citizen of Chambersburg remembered that the Rebels “were hunting up the contrabands &c driving them off by droves. O! How it grated on our hearts to have to sit quietly &c look at such brutal deeds—I saw no men among the contrabands — all women & children.” Cormany recognized that “some of the colored people who were raised here were taken along.” But she could do little apart from watching as the black women and children were “driven like cattle.” One women, she recalled “was pleading wonderfully with her driver for her children – but all the sympathy she received from him was a rough ‘March along.'”

Jenkins' Cavalry in Chambersburg
Jenkins’ Cavalry in Chambersburg

In Greencastle, a nearby town captured by Jenkins the previous day, a similar thing was happening. Jenkins ordered at least one citizen to help his men round up local black people. Charles Hartman recalled after the war:

“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 some cases, the Negroes were rescued from the guards. Squire Kaufman and Tom Pauling did this, and if they had been caught, the rebels would have killed them.”

“They took up all they could find,” wrote Chambersburg resident Jemima Cree, “even little children, whom they had to carry on horseback before them. All who could get there fled to the woods, and many who were wise hid in the houses of their employers.”

Captured slaves (or in this case, captured free citizens of color) had become an issue for the Confederate government. It wasn’t, however, because the practice was found deplorable. It so happened that when black people were captured, instead of being returned to their owners, Confederate officers were keeping them, turning them into personal body servants.

A new policy was now in effect (as of January, 1863) that ordered the captured blacks to be sent to a camp and held until they were claimed. It was sort of like an incredibly ghoulish lost and found. Because of this new law, the Confederate officers were unable to profit directly from the capture of blacks. But instead of sending them to the camps, they privately sold the prisoners to whomever might give them money.

Chambersburg, PA
Chambersburg, PA

But all this would happen in the future. For now, all that Jenkins was concerned with was removing the fifty or so black women and children out of Chambersburg. Before being transported south, they kept them in Greencastle.

When they were brought into the town, they were lightly guarded. Only a chaplain and four soldiers oversaw the wagons. A number of conscientious residents, perhaps even the Lincoln-man who was called an “abolitionist” by Jenkins the previous day, make a charge at the guards. They quickly disarmed them and took them to the jail. All of the black prisoners were freed.

It didn’t take long for Jenkins to catch wind of this bit of direct action (though it might have been the following day). He demanded $50,000 to compensate him for the people he was trying to kidnap, claiming they were his own property. The town council of Greencastle refused to pay him, and he threatened to burn down the town in retaliation.

Fourteen of the freed blacks approached the town council and offered to give themselves up to Jenkins to spare the town, but the council refused. Jenkins’ mind, however, was quickly brought to other fronts on the following day and never came back to Greencastle.

Though this practice wasn’t wide spread in the Confederate Army, it was accepted and allowed. More such instances occurred in the days leading up to the coming battle. On July 1st, when General George Pickett’s Division was moving through Chambersburg, General Longstreet send him a message telling him that “The captured contrabands had better be brought along with you for further disposition.”

Rather large map, today.
Rather large map, today.

Much farther south, General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was vastly spread out. With General Dorsey Pender’s Division near Chancellorsville, and Robert Rodes’ Division at Williamsport, Maryland, the Confederate force of nearly 80,000 men covered over 130 miles.

For General Joe Hooker, commanding the Union Army of the Potomac, things could hardly be going worse. He had moved his army to Manassas and wanted to figure out Lee’s plan, but, as he told President Lincoln, “we can never discover the whereabouts of the enemy, or divine his intentions, so long as he fills the country with a cloud of cavalry. We must break through to find him.”

This did not speak highly of his own cavalry under Alfred Pleasonton, who was told to do a better job. “Drive in pickets, if necessary, and get us better information,” wrote Hooker to Pleasonton. “It is better that we should lose men than to be without knowledge of the enemy, as we now seem to be.”1

  1. Sources: The Rebellion Record, Vol. 7 edited by Frank Moore; “The Effect of the Confederate Invasion of Pennsylvania on Gettysburg’s African American Community” by by Peter C. Vermilyea, Gettysburg Magazine, Issue No. 24; “Black and on the Border” by Edward L. Ayers, William G. Thomas III, and Anne Sarah Rubin; The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg’s Forgotten History by Margaret S. Creighton; Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 51, Part 2, p733; Gettysburg by Stephen Sears; Here Come the Rebels by Wilbur Nye. []
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Confederate Cavalry Rounds Up Pennsylvania Blacks, Free and Slave by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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4 thoughts on “Confederate Cavalry Rounds Up Pennsylvania Blacks, Free and Slave

  1. Glad Jenkins got his comeuppance less than a year later at Cloyd’s Mountain when he and his troops were decisively defeated by Crook’s Union cavalry and Jenkins, the slaver was mortally wounded.

  2. What a heroic story about the town of Greencastle! Next time I travel east I’m going to go visit it.

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