The Civil War, 150 Years Later: Memoirs tell of when war trampled over the Pa. border
When the Civil War broke out in April 1861, David Patterson was 16 years old, a freshman at Westminster College in Lawrence County. He was, as he described himself in his memoirs written almost 70 years later, "a very 'green' country boy," more caught up in the excitements of college life than in the conflict that was unfolding in all its horror.
But this would change -- especially after Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia crossed the Potomac River in June 1863 into Maryland, a short distance from the Pennsylvania line.
No one knew precisely where the rebel army might strike.
Predictably, the prospect of an invasion prompted a frantic response in Pennsylvania: The state's Republican governor, Andrew Curtin, called for volunteers to help defend the commonwealth. Pittsburgh residents hastily constructed fortifications to protect the city's foundries, machine shops and U.S. military arsenal in Lawrenceville from an attack. Hundreds of people, particularly African-Americans who feared kidnapping and re-enslavement, fled from areas likely to be overrun by the Confederates. Harrisburg was crowded with refugees.
Nowhere was the threat more keenly felt than in Fulton County, where David was born and his family had lived for generations. Fulton was one of the state's border counties, so named because they were separated from the then-slaveholding state of Maryland by the Mason-Dixon line.
Underground railroad routes coursed through the border counties as fugitive slaves, sometimes with the help of sympathetic residents, black and white, made their way to freedom.
The area was also the site of what one historian has called "the other underground railroad" -- a network of slave-catchers who prowled the back roads in search of fugitives, but who didn't hesitate to kidnap free people of color as well.
For white families like the Pattersons, "the survey line that separated Pennsylvania from Maryland was seamless ground, easily passed over without consequence," according to Bates College historian Margaret Creighton. "To black families, however, the division between the free states and the slave states was nothing less than a chasm."
The fertile valleys -- "coves" in the vernacular of the people of Fulton County -- were rich farm lands whose crops and livestock, particularly horses, had tempted Confederate raiding parties since early in the war. With Lee's army approaching, "Naturally, everything of value was hidden so far as its was possible," David remembered in his memoirs, which he wrote during the winter of 1929 to "possibly leave something of value to my children and grandchildren." One of David's grandsons, William Patterson of Shadyside, has preserved the manuscript and made it available to the Post-Gazette.
But it wasn't only proximity to Confederate Virginia -- Webster Mills, David's hometown, was about 20 miles north of the Potomac -- that aroused fear and apprehension among Union-supporting families like the Pattersons. It was also the uncertain loyalty of some of their neighbors.
"This being a border county there were many Southern sympathizers, men who openly opposed the Union cause," David noted. "They were called 'Copperheads'. "
The Pattersons may have felt particularly vulnerable. David's parents, William and Elizabeth, were probably Republicans, and before that Whigs, in a county that usually backed the Democrats.
Their political leanings can perhaps be gleaned from their reading. "Horace Greeley's New York Tribune was our political bible," David recalled. The Tribune, one of the nation's most influential newspapers, had a circulation of about 250,000. Greeley, its editor, had long backed the Whig, and later the Republican parties. He also opposed the extension of slavery into the territories the U.S. had recently wrested from Mexico -- a key plank in the Republican Party platform of 1860.
William was a marked man in other ways: he owned a general store, which was likely to be ransacked should rebel troops invade Webster Mills. As the Confederate army advanced, Lee urged his troops "to abstain with utmost scrupulous care from unnecessary and wanton injury to private property." His orders were largely ignored.
David also says his father was the postmaster in 1863 in Webster Mills, although his memories do not square with U.S. Postal Service records. (A William Patterson had been the postmaster for a month in 1849. Perhaps, David meant his father owned the building where the post office was located.) Assuming William had some connection with the post office, he would have been a conspicuous symbol of federal authority in the county.
'Shut your damned Yankee mouth'
On June 28 -- he could still remember the date years later -- David and two friends were crossing a field on the Patterson farm. They were headed to the woods to feed his family's horses, which the young men had hidden there for safekeeping. Suddenly, "the boys" spotted several Confederate soldiers -- the vanguard of a raiding party headed by a cavalry officer identified by David as "Col. Pentz."
David and his companions began running, trying to get deep into the woods and avoid capture by the rebels.
They didn't make it. The Confederate troops surrounded the field, overtaking them before they could disappear into the woods.
Probably out of nervousness and terror, Bob Shirtz, one of David's companions, tried to make small talk with a Confederate soldier who was pointing a carbine at them.
"Why, how do you do. I'm so glad to see you. How did you leave the folks at home," Bob said as he grasped the soldier's hand.
The soldier wasn't amused, cutting off any further conversation. "Shut your damned Yankee mouth," he said to Bob.
The soldiers then demanded to know where their fourth companion had fled, but the boys denied that anyone else was with them. Unknown to them, David's father had been spotted by the rebels. William Patterson had eluded the soldiers, who perhaps had been preoccupied with pursuing David and his companions, by fleeing into his barn.
The boys convinced the rebels they were alone, but not before the soldiers took the boys into the barn and searched it. They poked haystacks with their rifles and called out to William to surrender, threatening to torch the barn if he didn't.
But still they couldn't find William. He had hidden in a granary whose entrance snapped shut and was concealed when the main door to the barn was opened. Eventually, the Confederates gave up, and William later was able to escape.
But David and his companions weren't out of danger. The rebels suspected that David and his friends were Union soldiers who had doffed their uniforms, and threatened to take them as prisoners of war. But David's sister Henrietta, "clinging to Col. Pentz's horse," finally convinced him that they were not soldiers but school boys recently returned home from college.
It's not clear who Col. Pentz was or even whether David Patterson remembered the correct spelling of his name. A Col. Pentz does not turn up in the rosters of Confederate troops.
But David remembered him as a gentleman who treated David's mother and sisters with respect. This despite the fact that his troops "confiscated and destroyed the entire stock of goods" in his father's store. The Pattersons eventually learned that the man they called Col. Pentz was killed three days later at the Battle of Gettysburg.
'A terrible day'
White civilians living in the border counties had much to fear from a rebel invasion -- notably the loss of property, often stolen or sometimes paid for with worthless Confederate money. And the losses could be huge, as the war damage claims filed in 1868 by William Patterson and other residents of the border counties show.
But black Pennsylvanians in the border areas had even more to lose -- not only their property but their liberty as well. Gen. Albert Jenkins's cavalry unit, in the vanguard of Lee's army, had come north to do more than spy and steal supplies. They were also determined, as historian Margaret Creighton notes, to round up and capture African-Americans, whom they regarded as runaway slaves, as "contraband" that should be returned to their "rightful" owners.
It is not clear whether the practice was sanctioned by Lee or his superiors in Richmond. But it appears to have been tolerated by many officers in the field, according to historian Stephen Sears.
A few days before David arrived home from college, a detachment of Confederate cavalry descended on the Patterson farm on what David described as "a terrible day." Henrietta, David's sister, described the incident in a letter to her brother, which she appears to have written long after the event. He included it in his memoirs.
"Col. Jenkens of Baltimore was in charge of a company of soldiers. They were hunting runaway slaves," Henrietta wrote. "The captain [in Col. Jenkens' unit] required Ma to take an oath as to which were slaves and which were free Negroes about the place."
Henrietta and her mother, Elizabeth, were taken outside to the carriage house, where a "brand new two-horse carriage was filled with darkies [Henrietta's name for blacks] and a wounded rebel soldier."
Henrietta apparently jumped into the carriage with the prisoners and the wounded Confederate. But the captain told Elizabeth to remove her daughter at once "as the Col. had had too many drinks in McConnellsburg, his pistol was cocked, and might go off at any minute and put an end to me."
Elizabeth Patterson and her family had a long association with African-Americans that mirrored in some ways the changing status of black people in Pennsylvania over the preceding century. Her grandparents -- George Ashman and Elizabeth Cromwell Ashman, originally from Virginia -- were slaveholders who migrated to Pennsylvania in the 1700s. The slave quarters at the Ashman homestead in Three Springs, about 35 miles north of McConnellsburg, Fulton County, were still standing when David wrote his memoirs in 1929.
Elizabeth's mother -- Henrietta M. Ashman -- had been given two African-American slaves, Toby and Chloe, as part of her dowry when she married Elizabeth's father, David Hunter, in the early 1800s.
Pennsylvania began the gradual abolition of slavery before the end of the Revolution. Those blacks who were enslaved in 1780, when the legislation was passed, were not legally free unless their owners consented. Children born to enslaved mothers "could be held as servants until reaching age 28, at which time they were to be freed," noted the historian Darold D. Wax.
It is not clear from David's memoirs whether Toby and Chloe were slaves in 1780 or the children of enslaved mothers. However, Toby and Chloe's descendants, who later took Thomas as a family name, were still living in Fulton County in the 1920s, and "some have been servants of my mother's and my family," David noted.
Neither David nor his sister Henrietta tells what their mother did when she was asked to swear which of the black people in the wagon were free and which were fugitive slaves. But David's grandson, William Patterson, said that according to family tradition Elizabeth swore that all the blacks in the wagon were free people.
David and Henrietta are also silent about whether Col. Jenkens' troops released their black prisoners. For it's not clear that even if Elizabeth vouched for their status as free people, that the Confederate raiders would have released them.
"The number of free or fugitive blacks condemned to slavery during these weeks can only be estimated," historian Stephen Sears has written, "but widespread testimony suggests that it was in the hundreds. Of various ugly incidents [that involved civilians] during Lee's Pennsylvania invasion, this was surely the ugliest."
Exile and return
After the summer of 1863, William Patterson had had enough. His store was pillaged. And William had no intention of restocking it, only to have it ransacked again by Confederate raiders, his son wrote. Three months after the Battle of Gettysburg, William, Elizabeth and their children, including David, moved to Springfield, Ohio. There they would remain until December 1865 before returning to Webster Mills. By this time, the war was over.
The Civil War appears to have done little to improve the economic status of Toby and Chloe and their descendants. Slavery, of course, was abolished, so the fear of kidnapping no longer hung over the black communities in the border counties.
And in 1870, the 15th Amendment was ratified, giving black men the right to vote. But one senses from David's memoirs that these new voters were a marginalized group, used on election day but forgotten soon after.
Of course, David, ever the Republican operative, quickly cultivated the black voters in Fulton County -- driving people to the polls and, where needed, paying their taxes so they could vote. And because many could not write, he would "fix their ticket" -- that is, fill out their ballot for them.
David Patterson would spend the rest of his long life in Fulton County, except for a short stint in Allegheny City -- now Pittsburgh's North Side. His life followed the familiar patterns of his ancestors as a businessman, postmaster, member of the Legislature, civic booster and local politician.
When David was born in 1844, one could still count veterans of the Revolution and War of 1812 among one's friends and relatives. He would die in 1937, during Franklin D. Roosevelt's second term as president.
About this story
Although the Civil War ended nearly 150 years ago, memories of the conflict are still vivid for many families in Western Pennsylvania. Sometimes these memories have been handed down by word of mouth over the generations. Sometimes, as in the case of William Patterson of Shadyside, a family is also fortunate to have an ancestor who wrote down his or her recollections of the Civil War years. Mr. Patterson has graciously shared his grandfather's memoirs with us, and David Hunter Patterson's recollections form the basis for much of this article.
Also, thanks are due to the Fulton County Historical Society. Its depository of records as well as its publications over the years are an invaluable source of information about the Civil War in Pennsylvania's border region with the then slave-holding state of Maryland.
First published on August 19, 2012 at 12:00 am