The Battle of Christiana

The Crafts escaped Boston with the help of non-violent resistance, abetted by threats of violence. Shadrach Minkins escaped thanks to actual violence. Millard Fillmore and John P. Bigelow sent in Army, Navy, and police to take Thomas Sims back to Georgia, by force if need be. After Sims, many fugitive and free blacks left Boston rather than gamble on whether they could follow the Crafts and Minkins or whether they would be taken like Sims. But fugitive slaves lived in places other than just Boston and passed through many more on their way to freedom.

Christiana's location, near the Maryland state line

Christiana’s location, near the Maryland state line

The Quaker village of Christiana, Pennsylvania, in Lancaster County between Philadelphia and Gettysburg, welcomed fugitive slaves who came its way and helped them along. In September of 1851, Noah Buley, Nelson Ford, George Ford, and Joshua Hammond arrived in Christiana. They belonged to Maryland wheat planter Edward Gorusch and fled in advance of his temper two years prior. Gorusch came up short on wheat and apparently went looking for someone to blame.

Armed with the new law, Gorusch, his son, and three federal marshals, and a posse of relatives came to Christiana looking for his runaways. They hid on the farm of William Parker, himself an escaped slave, who would had protected others who came his way. The slaves and Parkers spent a tense night waiting for them. A few hours before dawn, on September 11, 1851, one of the fugitives went out into the yard and spotted fifteen men skulking across the way.

Parker knew his business and had a plan in place. His wife sounded a horn to alert their neighbors as the posse rushed into the first floor of the farmhouse. They found two dozen black men armed and ready. A standoff ensued and two of Parker’s Quaker neighbors arrived to suggest that the slave catchers go away empty-handed.

The Battle of Christiana

The Battle of Christiana

They refused, Gorusch swearing that he would have his property or go to hell. Parker insisted they leave his farm, but affirmed that he meant them no harm despite the small matter of fifteen or so rounds they had fired into the house already. Someone (Both sides blamed the other.) fired a shot and general mayhem erupted. Gorusch did not survive it. His son came out badly wounded. The slave catchers withdrew and the fugitives and Parker fled to safety in Canada.

Not quite a year after Millard Fillmore signed the Fugitive Slave Act into law, black men shed white blood to defend their freedom. The Lancaster County newspapers declared it the first blow of civil war. The Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune called it the inevitable fruit of the Fugitive Slave Law. To the American Right, the Battle of Christiana followed the tradition of usurping national law by force and so amounted to another act of treason like those which kept Shadrach Minkins free. To the South, fanatical abolitionists deluded otherwise happy slaves into absconding and murder alike.

Up in Rochester, New York, Frederick Douglass answered white shock and astonishment everywhere:

We have said that the pro-slavery people of this country don’t know what to make of this demonstration on the part of the alleged fugitive slaves of Christiana. This, however, is possibly a mistake. There is in that translation a lesson which the most obtuse may understand, namely, that all NEGROES ARE NOT SUCH FOOLS AND DASTARDS AS TO CLING TO, life WHEN IT IS COUPLED WITH CHAINS AND SLAVERY.

Millard Fillmore did not back down; he sent in the Marines. They and federal marshals canvassed Lancaster County and came up with five whites and thirty-six blacks to arrest and indict. Washington demanded Canada extradite Parker and two other ringleaders, but went ahead with trying those it could reach when denied. Following Daniel Webster’s logic, the government charged them with both violation of the Fugitive Slave Act and  high treason.

Castner Hanaway, a white Quaker, came to trial first. He certainly came to Parker’s farm that night; he and his horse gave cover to Dickerson Gorusch. Five lawyers, including Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, defended Hanaway and Philadelphia jury spent fifteen minutes finding him not guilty after a trial that degenerated into farce. The government dropped the other indictments after Hanaway’s November acquittal.

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