Pennsylvania Tries to Recruit Troops – Denies Black Recruits

June 20, 1863 (Saturday)

As Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia pushed northward and elements of its cavalry invaded Chambersburg, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania did not sit idly by waiting for Joe Hooker’s Army of the Potomac to come to their rescue. Governor Andrew Curtin believed it was Harrisburg, not Pittsburgh, Philadelphia or Baltimore that was the target, and urged the War Department in Washington to act quickly. For the most part they did.

Couch: I didn't think I'd go too far after leaving the AoP!
Couch: I didn’t think I’d go too far after leaving the AoP!

By June 10th, Pennsylvania was split into two military sectors – the Department of the Monongahela, covering the western state (including Pittsburgh), and the Department of the Susquehanna, covering the central and eastern portions (including Harrisburg and Philadelphia). While General W.T.H. Brooks was sent to Pittsburgh to build defenses, the former commander of the II Corps, Darius Couch, unable to work with Joe Hooker, was sent to Harrisburg.

The first thing Couch wanted to know was how many state troops Pennsylvania had ready to form into a fighting unit. The answer was, of course, none – unless you counted two companies of invalids in York. With nothing else to work with, Couch called them to Harrisburg. But he also called upon “all able-bodied men of ages 18 to 60.” This call for troops was an open-ended deal, and at first very few came forward. In fact, the only real response came from some rather old fellows – veterans of the War of 1812, who marched through Harrisburg in a torchlight procession, armed with their old flintlocks.

Arms and ammunition were also needed, and Couch asked Washington for help, but the War Department refused to arm any soldiers who were not official Federal soldiers. General Brooks in Pittsburgh, however, was an exception. Halleck issued 11,000 rifles, a few million rounds of ammunition and offers for more of both, if needed.

Pennsylvania had a militia of sorts, but it was mostly home guard units that Governor Curtin wasn’t really sure he had the authority to call out. Due to party politics (he was up for reelection), he wanted Washington to approve it. Though they were supportive, they had no real authority to call out a state’s militia.

As Richard Ewell’s Corps attacked Winchester on the 14th and 15th, and a few more volunteers came forward, Washington made available a gaggle of officers who were currently without jobs. This included such men as Generals “Baldy” Smith and Franz Sigel. While Smith was diverted west before he could get to Pennsylvania, Sigel was placed in charge of recruiting in Reading.

Still, raising troops was troublesome. Without a direct threat, nobody seemed to care. Those who wanted to enlist, would only do so for thirty days. Proclamations from President Lincoln and Governor Curtin, requesting six month enlistments were coldly received. Somehow or another, by the 17th, 8,000 “Emergency” troops were in Harrisburg and mustered into Federal service (after a bit of political wrangling, of course).

Curtin: Does this suit make me look up for re-election?
Curtin: Does this suit make me look up for re-election?

Camp Curtin – the name given to the rendezvous point in Harrisburg – was soon filled to capacity. By this date (the 20th), new recruits had to be encamped in a nearby field. The rains that had flooded the Potomac River and prevented all of Ewell’s Rebels from crossing, had also turned this field to mud.

Many of the new recruits were not military men. They were Pennsylvanians who had mostly sat out the war until it was delivered to them by the Confederate invaders. One such exemplary unit was the Philadelphia Grays, a militia unit compromised mostly of the well-to-do who were not at all accustomed to camp life. When they arrived at Camp Curtin, they were sent to camp in the muddy field.

Combined with the amazing amounts of insects, the stifling humidity, and what they perceived as wretched conditions,
many of the new recruits were demanding to be set free almost as soon as they arrived. General Couch complained that the men, seemingly all 8,000 of them, were interested in nothing more than going home.

Camp Curtin
Camp Curtin

All Pennsylvanians had a stake in defeating the Confederate invasion, but none more so than the black population. White citizens feared for their property and livelihood, while the people of African descent feared for their freedom and their lives. As had already been witnessed in Chambersburg and Greencastle, the Rebel invaders (at this point only cavalry) were rounding up black people, both free and escaped slaves, to take them south into Virginia. Whites, of course, had no such worries.

Recruiting poster, June 1863.
Recruiting poster, June 1863.

It was because of this that the black community responded so strongly to the call for volunteers. But on June 16th, when Governor Curtin received requests to allow cities and counties to raise black units, he flatly refused, stating that he had no authority to accept black regiments. Technically, Curtin was correct. The Federal law allowing black enlistments was only for Federal regiments with a three year terms of service.

Pennsylvania had no such regiments. Any black Pennsylvanians who wanted to join the army had to go to Massachusetts to enlist in the 54th or 55th Regiments. Many from Franklin County (which contained Chambersburg and Greencastle) did just that. But those remaining in the southern tier of Pennsylvania still came forward.

In the little, hardly-known town of Gettysburg, twenty miles east of Chambersburg, a full company of sixty black soldiers had been recruited and offered to Governor Curtin. They were refused along with the other offers. Though other towns were eager to send their black volunteers along with their white, no city was more enthusiastic about it than Philadelphia.

Ebenezer Bassett had a few concerns about racism in the military.
Ebenezer Bassett had a few concerns about racism in the military.

During the month of June, Frederick Douglass had been in town lifting the spirits of the black community and inspiring them to enlist. A young leader named Octavius Catto taught at the Institute for Colored Youth, and was ready to raise a regiment to pitch into the Rebels. The principal of the school, Ebenezer Bassett, however, was leery. He wrote the Mayor and asked if his students would be on equal footing with the other “emergency men.” The Mayor believed they would be and so a company was raised.

Ninety men (though mostly they were boys still living at home) joined the ranks and boarded a train for Harrisburg. When word reached Governor Curtin, he flew into a panic. “Have the negroes stopped at once!” went the message down the wire. But he was too late. The train had left. When the Mayor, acting on the Governor’s wishes, tried to catch the train at West Chester, he was also too late.

Philadelphia’s black volunteers reached Pennsylvania’s capital and were met by a message from General Couch. Trying to sidestep the issue without openly bringing race into the picture, he informed them that they would not be accepted since they were “thirty days men.” He was only taking three-year enlistments at this time. They would have to return to Philadelphia.

Here's today's map.
Here’s today’s map.

When the Mayor caught wind of this, he did everything in his power to redress the issue. All his fuss worked, but not too well and all too late. The dejected men returned to their homes and school. In Washington, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton authorized General Couch “to receive into service any volunteer troops that may be offered, without regard to color.” An hour or so later, Stanton may have thought differently. He all but rescinded his authorization by writing that if there was “likely to be any dispute about the matter, it will be better to send no more [black troops]. It is well to avoid all controversy in the present juncture, as the troops can be well used elsewhere.”

As will be shown, however, many black men were able to help as laborers and even as soldiers, especially on the local level. All the help that could be gathered was needed, as General Albert Jenkins and his cavalry – the same units that rounded up black men in Chambersburg – had again crossed the border. They were encamped south of Greencastle as the vanguard to General Lee’s Army, steadily moving northward.1

The recruiting poster for everyone else.
The recruiting poster for everyone else.


  1. Sources: Here Come the Rebels by Wilbur Nye – that this book has gone out of print is a travesty; Gettysburg by Stephen W. Sears; African Americans and the Gettysburg Campaign by James M. Paradis; Philadelphia and the Civil War: Arsenal of the Union by Anthony Joseph WaskieOfficial Records, Series 1, Vol. 27, Part 3, p203. []
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Pennsylvania Tries to Recruit Troops – Denies Black Recruits by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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