Just seven miles north of the Mason-Dixon Line, Gettysburg was a major stop on the Underground Railroad and a respite for many who had endured slavery and become free. In 1860, the town had close to two hundred black residents, and dozens of those were involved with the Underground Railroad. One of the underreported and barely scrutinized aspects of the Battle of Gettysburg is the terrible toll exacted on black families in the town.
When news reached Gettysburg in June 1863 that the Confederate army had crossed into Pennsylvania, many black residents scattered north–dozens of them never to return to what had been their homes. The terror black residents felt was well founded–slave catchers had operated in the border areas before the War, and during this incursion, hundreds of African Americans were rounded up and sent south back into slavery.
While many white townsfolk were adamantly opposed to slavery, many did not fully empathize with the real terror and risks. In her record, Tillie Pierce called the fleeing black people “amusing” and described the scenes as follows:
They regarded the rebels as having an especial hatred toward them, and they believed that if they fell into their hands, annihilation was sure. These folks mostly lived in the southwestern part of town, and their flight was invariably down Breckinridge Street and Baltimore Street, and toward the woods on and around Culp’s Hill. I can see them yet; men and omen with bundles as large as old-fashioned feather ticks slung across their backs, almost bearing them to the ground. Children also, carrying their bundles, and striving in vain to keep up with their seniors.
While dozens escaped ahead of the battle, not all were able to flee. One of these, in particular, was Elizabeth Butler, known to people in town as Ol’ Lizzie. Elizabeth was fifty-two at the time of the battle, and by the standards of the day, she and her family lived better than most African Americans in the North.
Elizabeth’s husband Samuel was a wagon maker, and Elizabeth worked as a washer woman and domestic servant for the McCreary family at 20 West High Street. The Butlers owned a home valued at $100 and had possessions worth another $100. The census shows their two younger children in their home, but by this age, they also had four grandchildren by their older children.
Born in Pennsylvania, the elder Samuel had probably never been enslaved, but Elizabeth likely was, given her Maryland birth. If she wasn’t, she certainly would have known other black people around her as slaves. On July 1, fifteen-year-old Albertus McCreary observed the following:
A number of colored people lived in the western part of town and when on the first day a great many of them were gathered together and marched out of town. As they passed our house our old washerwoman called out “Goodbye, we are going back to slavery.” Most of them were crying and moaning. We never expected to “Old Liz” again.
Old Liz hadn’t made it this long in life without being wily. Though her captors bound and gagged her, she had no intention of heading South again. In the commotion of the crowd and the battle, Elizabeth slipped away into the Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church at 30 Chambersburg Street. She ascended the stairs to the belfry and remained there in silence and suffocating heat for two days without food or water.
And what a two days! Within hours of the start of fighting, the church filled with more than one hundred wounded men, including Union and Confederates alike. Horatio Stockton Howell, a Presbyterian minister from Philadelphia, was in the hospital offering spiritual guidance. Instead of clerical garb, he wore a blue soldier’s uniform. When he stepped outside for a brief respite, he was accosted by a Confederate who demanded he give up his sword and surrender. Howell protested he was a noncombatant, and the Confederate shot him dead.
Meanwhile, amputations began in the basement and in an anteroom off the main hall. Arms and legs were dumped in the church yard, and when the piles got too high, wagons came to haul them away to be tossed in burial pits. Surgeons worked night and day, often falling asleep at their stations. Dozens and dozens died.
All this took place below Old Liz as she hid in the belfry, keeping perfect silence. At last, when the Confederates retreated from town, she came down, headed home, and then reported to work the day after the battle, exclaiming to Albertus and family, “Thank God, I’s alive again!”
While Elizabeth’s story had a happy ending, there are no records of how many African Americans remained captive and were transported South. The number captured in the Pennsylvania campaign probably numbered in the hundreds–General Longstreet wrote to his subordinates reminding them to ensure that “contraband” were sent South through proper means.