- Codie Eash
“An American citizen of African descent” – Black men in the battle for Culp’s Hill at Gettysburg
In part, this story originated on my Facebook page, Codie Eash – Writer and Historian, on July 3, 2019. The original post may be found here. Likewise, a video I recorded on the matter, and other pertinent topics on that same date, may be found here.
Before dawn on July 3, 1863, fighting along the slopes of Culp’s Hill erupted as the Battle of Gettysburg spanned into its third day—the culmination of the bloodiest armed encounter in United States history.
From about 4:00 to 11:00 that morning, U.S. and Confederate forces exchanged gunfire through smoke-filled woods in what was, to that time, perhaps the longest single period of sustained combat in the Civil War (only surpassed ten months later at the Bloody Angle during the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House). Compounded with the multi-hour duel along the hillside on the evening of July 2, the terrain featured one of the most hectic struggles of the entire conflict. During that nighttime action, Rebel troops made a foothold on the lower summit of Culp’s Hill against an overrun and outnumbered Union defense.
Now, on July 3, the defenders were reinforced and staged their grand comeback.
Near the right flank of the U.S. line, at the barb of the famous fishhook-shaped position, Sixth and Twelfth corps units repossessed previously evacuated earthworks, after the July 2 action culminated, but before the July 3 encounter commenced. Included in that movement was the 109th Pennsylvania Infantry, a member of the Twelfth Corps division commanded by Maj. Gen. John Geary, a fellow Keystone State native.
Three decades after the battle, on June 29, 1893, Dr. August E. Zeitler, a sergeant major at Gettysburg, recollected the Culp’s Hill battle from his vantage point within the 109th Pennsylvania. Under the headline “A Daring Deed,” in the National Tribune, a popular postwar U.S. veterans’ newspaper, Zeitler reflected on his regiment’s defensive position in relation to that from which the enemy launched its attack. “The ground between was scantily wooded with half-grown oaks,” he observed, “and there was a space intervening that a pistol-shot would span.”
“At this time the firing was desultory,” Zeitler remembered of the period prior to the battle proper. It was then that Pennsylvanians, and eventually their Ohioan neighbors, bore witness to a pair of spectacular demonstrations within the wooded canopy on southern Culp’s Hill, and along the western fringe of a clearing now called Pardee Field.
Zeitler and his comrades were joined by an unexpected guest—a man whose very presence directly reflected the causes and consequences of the entire war.
“‘Suddenly there appeared among us from the rear a young negro, without uniform, but with a musket and a cartridge-belt,’” according to Zeitler. “‘He spoke to no one, but moved steadily and rapidly towards the front, soon passing beyond the line. Scores of men yelled at him to come back, that he would be killed, but he gave no heed. He sought no cover, but with a calm dignity advanced to midway between the contending lines.’”
It seemed that this African American man was not aiming to fire upon the Rebels, but rather to gain military intelligence about them. “‘Here he halted, leaned his gun against a tree, which he climbed,’” Zeitler continued. “Forty feet or more in the air he rested. Now he could see over and beyond the enemy’s breastworks, and his purpose was clear.’”
“‘The significance of his action was noted by all, for he was doing the right thing at the right time,’” Zeitler remarked.
As a result of this reconnaissance, Union leadership gained valuable insights regarding the nearby Confederates’ whereabouts, since they had advanced into U.S. lines several hours earlier. “‘For [a] full three minutes the negro surveyed the ground,’” according to Zeitler. “‘Then he leisurely descended from his perch, and as calmly and fearlessly as before retraced his steps. He gave us information to the effect that the enemy was massing and maneuvering behind the breastworks as if to charge us, and then he disappeared.’”
“‘Half an hour elapsed in anxious suspense” once the man left, Zeitler relayed. “‘Then the enemy appeared in serried lines, their banners waving brightly. Now the muskets from thousands of men volleyed, defiantly Union cheers answered rebel yells, and the third day’s battle at Gettysburg was fairly on.’”
To the right of the 109th Pennsylvania stood the Fifth Ohio, sustaining and returning “volley after volley” for several hours, reported Col. John H. Patrick. As a result of the melee which followed, “the rebels were driven back with terrific slaughter,” Patrick maintained. Meanwhile, his soldiers were greeted by an equally intense scene to that which August Zeitler and the 109th Pennsylvania observed several hours earlier.
“On the left of our regiment an American citizen of African descent had taken position, and with a gun and cartridge box, which he took from one of our dead men, was more than piling hot lead into the Graybacks,” wrote a Buckeye sergeant simply identified as “Corine” in the Cincinnati Daily Times on July 14, 1863. “His coolness and bravery was noticed and commented upon by all who saw him,” the Ohioan noted. “If the negro regiments fight like he did, I don’t wonder that the Rebs and Copperheads hate them so.”
It is notable that “Corine” referred to the temporary warrior as “an American citizen of African descent,” opting to use the term “citizen” and utilizing what effectively amounted to the equivalent of the more modern phrase “African American” (though that identifier was in use as early as the 18th century, even if it was not as popular as it is now). The Ohioan’s verbiage suggests a profound respect for his black comrade’s service and willingness to potentially sacrifice his life as a momentary brother-in-arms.
“There is no way of knowing whether this solitary black figure was a civilian teamster who decided to join the Ohioans or a refugee from the town who had come out of hiding to do his bit...,” historian Allen Guelzo has written. “He was certainly not a soldier, since none of the new black regiments recruited since the issue of the Emancipation Proclamation were attached to the Army of the Potomac. Whoever he was, he is the only African American on record of a combatant fighting at Gettysburg.”
In fact, the identification of this individual (or these individuals, plural) has never been proven, but a handful of modern professionals—including Guelzo, local scholars and Gettysburg National Military Park Rangers and Licensed Battlefield Guides—have suggested it may have been Randolph Johnston. In her influential study The Colors of Courage, Margaret S. Creighton has described Johnston as a “twenty-two-year-old, dark-skinned, dark-eyed man [who] had grown up in Gettysburg and seen his family struggle for respectability.”
As the child of a troubled upbringing, Johnston possessed an unmistakable vigor—never more so than during the summer of 1863, when he achieved the militia rank of captain after having raised and drilled a company of citizen-soldiers. Ultimately, the Commonwealth denied Johnston and his men the ability to join the famed 54th and 55th Massachusetts regiments of Colored Infantry, in which many Pennsylvanians served. Likewise, he offered his 60-man unit to Gov. Andrew Curtin during the invasion of Pennsylvania preceding the Battle of Gettysburg, only to be denied that honor, as well.
By all accounts, according to Creighton, “Johnston wanted to stave off Confederates now,” making him a potential prime candidate for the role of an African American martial participant at and near Culp’s Hill. Otherwise, Gettysburg boasted an admirable black population representing approximately eight percent of the town’s residents as of the 1860s. Located fewer than ten miles north of the Mason-Dixon Line, Johnston and Gettysburg’s other freed people had much for which to fear—and thus a great deal for which to fight—being so close to the border between slavery and freedom. Eventually, Johnston enlisted in the 24th U.S. Colored Troops, along with other Gettysburgians who soon saw combat at battles such as Olustee in Florida, making them community heroes upon their later return to Adams County.
Back at Culp’s Hill on July 3, 1863, for several hours after having encountered the black combatant, the Fifth Ohio was “exposed to a harassing and heavy enfilading fire from the enemy,” reported brigade commander Col. Charles Candy. “They returned it promptly, and held their position for seven hours, causing great execution and punishing the enemy severely.”
As for the 109th Pennsylvania, its leader, Capt. Frederick L. Gimber, remarked, “A constant fire of musketry was kept up. We assisted in repelling a charge of the enemy, causing terrible slaughter, throwing them into confusion, and putting them to flight.” That regiment’s brigade superior, abolitionist Brig. Gen. Thomas Leiper Kane (who had previously formed the original Pennsylvania Bucktails in 1861), detailed the same “fire of unremitting strength for seven hours,” after which “the enemy fell back, and, although they kept up a desultory fire for some time after, it was plain, as the result proved, that the battle was over.”
That morning’s chaotic engagement, and ultimately Gettysburg as a whole, resulted in a definitive United States victory. In some small way, it was partly thanks to the conviction and assistance of at least one unknown African American man, whose race’s plight in national enslavement was the root of the Civil War’s origins, and whose eventual liberation from chattel bondage became the conflict’s most fundamental result.
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 August E. Zeitler, in “PICKET SHOTS,” National Tribune (Washington, D.C.), June 29, 1893, 3.  J.H. Patrick to A.H.W. Creigh, July 4, 1863, “Report of Col. John H. Patrick, Fifth Ohio Infantry,” July 4, 1863, in War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1889), series 1, vol. 27, part 1, 840. This source is referred to hereafter as OR.  “Corine” to Cincinnati Daily Gazette (Cincinnati, OH), July 14, 1863, quoted in Richard A. Baumgartner, Buckeye Blood: Ohio at Gettysburg (Huntington, WV: Blue Acorn Press, 2003), 134.  Allen C. Guelzo, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), 385-386.  Margaret S. Creighton, The Colors of Courage: Immigrants, Women, and African Americans in the Civil War’s Defining Battle (New York: Basic Books, 2005), 66. Aside from Guelzo’s book, the suggestion of Johnston being the Culp’s Hill informant or combatant has not, to my knowledge, been made concretely in writing, but rather merely in personal conversations with informed individuals such as Debra Sandoe McCauslin of Gettysburg Histories, Gettysburg National Military Park Ranger John Hoptak, and Licensed Battlefield Guides Bob Alcorn, Rich Kohr, and Bob Steenstra of Addressing Gettysburg Podcast.
 Creighton, Colors of Courage, 67; Guelzo, Gettysburg, 385-386.  Creighton, Colors of Courage, 66-67, 134, 216, 217, 221.  Charles Candy to Thomas H. Elliott, July 6, 1863, “Reports of Col. Charles Candy, Sixty-sixth Ohio Infantry, commanding First Brigade,” in OR, series 1, vol. 27, part 1, 837.  Frederick L. Gimber to Thomas J. Leiper, “Report of Capt. Frederick L. Gimber, One hundred and ninth Pennsylvania Infantry,” July 4, 1864, in OR, series 1, vol. 27, part 1, 853; Thomas L. Kane to Elliott, “Report of Brig. Gen. Thomas L. Kane, U.S. Army, commanding Second Brigade,” July 6, 1863, in OR, series 1, vol. 27, part 1, 847.