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Posted: 04/19/2021 | by Discover Lancaster

Our Civil War History

Learn about Lancaster's ties to the Civil War and the Underground Railroad.

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One of the best ways to learn about African American heritage in Pennsylvania Dutch Country is to immerse yourself in the stories and places where ordinary people with extraordinary determination changed our nation's history. Learn about the enslaved African Americans who fought in the American Revolution and Civil War, the freedom-seekers of the Underground Railroad, and the abolitionists who risked everything — all committed to the courageous Quest for Freedom.

The Susquehanna River Towns

It was June of 1863. The Confederate Army had taken York and was preparing to cross the Susquehanna River. They were to capture the bridge that linked Wrightsville and Columbia and overtake Lancaster before advancing to Harrisburg. Several hundred Union troops in retreat from York, a number already wounded, joined the Pennsylvania Militia and set up defenses to protect the bridge on the western side of the Susquehanna. A valiant Black militia company strengthened their force. Still, they were outnumbered by more than a thousand men and had to abandon their defenses and retreat across the bridge.

A desperate plan was put into action. The Wrightsville-Columbia Bridge, key to local commerce and communications, would be sacrificed. Union forces wired a span of the structure to blow up, but the explosion was not strong enough to do the task. The order to burn the bridge was then given by Colonel Jacob Frick and proved effective. The efforts of the Pennsylvania Militia at the Susquehanna River Towns spared Lancaster and slowed the advance of the Confederates toward Harrisburg.

The Quest for Freedom

The road to freedom was paved by acts of heroism and courage. Three of these hand-made paths made their way through Lancaster County. The county's location along the Mason-Dixon line, its residents' devotion to freedom, and its proximity to other free Northern states made it ideal as a pathway to freedom. Some fugitives made their way to Columbia, others crossed the Susquehanna River into Southern Lancaster County at Peach Bottom, and still others followed a path that lead them along the Octoraro Creek in the eastern portion of the county. Regardless the path, their destination was often Christiana and eventually, Philadelphia or Canada.

As many as 50,000 to 100,000 men and women escaped to freedom using the Underground Railroad network, but the exact number will never be known - many of the ledgers documenting their flight were destroyed. Oral histories and some records did survive, however, and these are enough to give us an idea of how slaves made their way north. Songs like Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, Brother Moses Gone to de Promised Land, Wade In The Water and Follow the Drinkin' Gourd served as directions for fugitives to follow. Using ingenious disguises and creative ploys (like one slave who mailed himself to freedom or others who hid in the false bottoms of wagons), slaves made their way out of bondage. Yet no story of the Underground Railroad would be complete without mention of the men and women who acted as "conductors" and "Stationmasters" along the pathway to freedom.

The Underground Railroad

For thousands of men and women fleeing the oppression of slavery, the Underground Railroad became their lifeline, their passage to freedom. Known alternatively as the Freedom Line, the Lightning Train, the Freedom Train, Mysterious Tracks, or the Trackless Train, the Underground Railroad wasn't a system of rails or trains but a loose organization of freed slaves and abolitionists -people- who harbored fugitives often at great peril to themselves. The federal Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 made assisting of fugitives a crime, and anti-abolitionist sentiment made life unsafe for freed blacks and white sympathizers alike. The entire movement was shrouded in mystery, but the place of its birth has been alternately placed in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Even the origin of the term "Underground Railroad" is much disputed. Some sources indicate that as slave catchers came north, their quarry seemed to disappear underground and the term "Underground Railroad" was born.

Like Columbia, Lancaster had a large black population and a number of white residents who supported the abolitionist cause. The city was home to slave self-protection groups and refugee societies that protected fugitives from masters or their agents. Lydia Hamilton Smith, Thaddeus Stevens, and Bethel A.M.E. Church provided assistance on the Underground Railroad by sending fugitives to larger American cities like Philadelphia, or even further, to Canada.


The town is known for its prominent involvement during the Civil War, especially in conjunction with the Underground Railroad. In fact, many historians consider the Christiana Resistance as the first battle of the Civil War, for it was in this small town that the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was tested for the first time. The Fugitive Slave Law stated that law enforcement officials were to arrest runaway slaves, and that anyone who aided a runaway was subject to imprisonment and fines. Southern slaveholders believed that the federal law protected their right to apprehend fugitives. Northern abolitionists, however, denied that the federal government had the right to enact a bill that was contrary to human rights.

The law's test came to life when Edward Gorsuch, a wealthy landowner from Baltimore County, Maryland, discovered that four of his slaves were missing, and he traveled to Christiana on a tip. Here, he found his slaves at the home of William Parker, a fugitive known for his assistance to slaves traveling along the Underground Railroad. Gorsuch immediately confronted Parker, which resulted in 75-100 people descending upon the homestead. Shots were fired, and the encounter left Gorsuch dead. Federal troops were called in to help with an investigation, which resulted in 38 men being arrested and charged with treason for defying the Fugitive Slave Law. The ensuing case ended with a "not guilty" verdict. This decision sent a signal to the South that the Fugitive Slave Law would not be enforced in the North, building upon the distrust that was already spreading throughout the country.

The Pilgrim's Pathway

This descriptive title was given to one of the earliest escape corridors into Lancaster County by those coming north along the Susquehanna River. At Peach Bottom, the St. Peters Creek empties into the river. Fugitive slaves followed the creek inland for several miles through dark, lonely ravines. They then left this creek and traveled overland, following farm roads. Because they were highly visible, night travel was almost a necessity. A second stream guided them to the safe houses and hideouts along the route to Eastern Lancaster County, Christiana, and eventual freedom. One of these roads retains the name Pilgrim's Pathway.

The People

1. Daniel & Hannah Gibbons (1775 - 1853)

Daniel and Hannah Gibbons, a devout Quaker couple, played a pivotal role in the Underground Railroad from their farm near the village of Bird-in-Hand, in eastern Lancaster County. For over 50 years, Daniel Gibbons aided as many as 1,000 fugitives by providing them with shelter and new identities. The Gibbonses kept detailed documentation of their work until the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. As a result of this law, the Gibbonses destroyed their records.

2. William Parker (born 1822)

William Parker was an important figure in the history of the Underground Railroad. Born a slave in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, he escaped slavery as a young man and used his intellect and imposing presence to defend the freedom of enslaved Africans. He settled in Christiana and used his home as a safehouse on the Underground Railroad. Parker spoke passionately against slavery and created a self-defense group to protect freed men and women from being kidnapped by Southern bounty hunters or the Gap Gang, a notorious group of slave catchers who kidnapped escaped slaves and returned them for a reward.

Parker was a prime figure in the Christiana Resistance, as he refused to turn over several escaped slaves to a Maryland slave owner. The melee is regarded as one of the first battles of the Civil War, because the incident was an overt act of civil disobedience against the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Parker fled the Christiana area, but continued to be a stalwart defender of freedom. He later moved to Canada, where he settled in North Buxton, Ontario, a community of runaway slaves. He spent his remaining years there, writing and speaking.

3. William Whipper (1804 - 1876)

William Whipper, a cousin and close friend of Stephen Smith, was born in Little Britain Township, Lancaster County. By 1828 he was residing in Philadelphia and was already known for his role as an intellectual within the free black community. In addition to being the editor of the National Reformer, the first African-American magazine, Whipper was among the founders of the Philadelphia Library for Colored Persons.

In 1847, Whipper bought a home on Front Street in Columbia, and accumulated several business holdings in Lancaster County. Upon Stephen Smith’s departure from Columbia, Whipper became a leading African-American in the area and became a “stationmaster” along the pathway to freedom, aiding hundreds of fugitive slaves


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