How Lee’s army captured and enslaved blacks at Gettysburg – A Civil War Tidbit

American and Confederate Flags backtobackGettysburg, Pennsylvania is justly famous for the pivotal Civil War battle that occurred there during the first three days of July in 1863. Many historians believe the defeat suffered by Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army during that battle sealed the doom of the slaveholding Southern Confederacy.

But Gettysburg itself suffered damage by the invasion of the rebels from which it has never completely recovered. That damage was not to buildings or property, but to a community.

Before the Civil War Gettysburg was home to a strong and stable African American community. But with the coming of General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, the black residents were forced, as white residents were not, to flee their homes. Many never returned.

Why did blacks feel so threatened by the approach of the army fighting to defend a society based on slavery? After all, they lived in the North and were entirely free. But the Confederates didn’t look at it that way.

The rebel government at Richmond had issued orders to Lee’s army that any blacks they were able to catch were to be considered runaway slaves, and sent back to Virginia for reenslavement. And Lee’s men carried out that mandate with seeming enthusiasm.

Residents of Gettysburg recorded in diaries and memoirs how terrified blacks were literally hunted down by soldiers and penned up for shipment South. For example, Charles Hartman, who lived in the town of Greencastle about 25 miles southwest of Gettysburg, described how mounted soldiers hunted down fleeing blacks. Not only were houses searched, but riders scoured farmers’ fields to flush out any blacks who had not had the foresight to flee before the rebel army arrived.

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.

Nobody knows for sure how many people, mostly women and children, were kidnapped by Lee’s men and sent South into slavery. Historians estimate the number at around a thousand.

Confederates rounding up slaves and driving them south. Source: Harpers Weekly, November 1862 (public domain)

This was obviously a tragic occurrence for every black person caught in the slavers’ net. But for some it must have felt doubly tragic. That’s because the rebels had no way of distinguishing black people who had always been free from escaped slaves, and didn’t make any effort to do so. Many of those Lee’s army sent into slavery were free blacks who, until then, had never been enslaved.

By the time Robert E. Lee’s army retreated after losing the Battle of Gettysburg, almost no African Americans were left in the city. They had either fled or been rounded up and shipped to Richmond. Either way, few of them ever returned. To this day, the African American community of Gettysburg has yet to regain the place it once held in the life of that city.

Flags photo credit: mitchlee83 at and PSIplus at


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