Memorable Days: The Battle of Gettysburg through the Eyes of a Free Black Woman

This is the second installation of the series, “Memorable Days: the Civil War through the eyes of a free black woman.” Click here to view the previous post introducing Emilie Davis.

Gettysburg. If someone can name a single Civil War battle, it is most likely the only major battle that occurred north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Many argue that this three day ordeal in 1863 was the culminating point of America’s most destructive war, the moment that turned the tide against Robert E. Lee’s legendary Army of Northern Virginia and began the uphill struggle towards reunion and a new birth of freedom. But Emilie Davis, a free African-American woman living in Philadelphia during the war, never names this small Pennsylvania town in her diary chronicling the monumental year of 1863.

Emilie was an astute observer of her times, writing on January 1, 1863, “To day has bin a memorable day and i thank god i have bin sperd to see it the day was religously observed all the churches were open we had quite a jubilee in the evenin,” referencing the celebrations that erupted in Philadelphia in the wake of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Davis goes on to recount her own participation in the “jubilee,” making readily apparent not just her awareness of important events, but her active engagement in them.

Yet on July 4, 1863, as news of the twin Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg filtered into Philadelphia, she wrote, “the fourth has bin very quiet up in our part of the city.” Days later, on July 7, 1863, Emilie specifically mentions Vicksburg: “great rejocing here the surrender of Vicksburg.” But even as refugees from the central Pennsylvania town flooded east into Philadelphia, Davis does not name Gettysburg. Still, Emilie provides important insights into the Battle of Gettysburg, extending the timeline of struggle typically associated with July 1-4, 1863 into the days and weeks before and after the engagement.

 The North American and United States Gazette announces the twin victories for the Union Army at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. Philadelphia, PA, July 8, 1863.

The North American and United States Gazette announces the twin victories for the Union Army at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. Philadelphia, PA, July 8, 1863.

Emilie’s Battle of Gettysburg has different highlights than that of Lee or Meade or Chamberlain, but it is still their battle too. Indeed, it is every American’s battle, and the dimensions that Davis’s words add to the famous conflict must be recognized.

Days before battle erupted, Emilie reflected, “I sent a letter to Father last night To day has bin the most exciting day I had witness refugees are comin from all the towns this side of Harrisburg.” As mentioned in the previous post, Gettysburg struck particularly close to home for Emilie because her father, a free black man, lived in Harrisburg. As Robert E. Lee’s army pushed north, it claimed free blacks as captives and sold them south into slavery. The “refugees” Emilie mentions were not displaced by the aftermath of battle, the destruction of homes and property typically associated with war, but by fear of a pillaging army looking not for food, but for bodies.

This chronicle of Gettysburg makes the racial dimensions of the battle preeminent, and provides an important lens through which to understand the ordeal.

Davis documents two related narratives, one of flight from battle and another of colored citizens’ march towards conflict. With news filtering into Pennsylvania that their state would be invaded by a Confederate force, African-American Philadelphians formed their own fighting units. On June 15, 1863 Emilie observed colored recruits assembling in Philadelphia in response to Governor Andrew Curtain’s call for troops. She noted, “they looked quite like war.” Expanding on this statement in the “Memoranda” portion of her diary where Emilie elaborated on events most important to her, she wrote, “The Baneker gurds [guards] started for Harrisburge on the 17th returned on the 18th without a scare… Wensday the 17th 1863 will be remembered by a great many of our People nearly all of our best young men left for the war but happily returned the next day un harmed.”

 Notable early American abolitionist, Benjamin Banneker. The name “Banneker Guards” referenced his legacy.

Notable early American abolitionist, Benjamin Banneker. The name “Banneker Guards” referenced his legacy.

After forming a group of 150 citizen-soldiers, the Banneker Guards returned to Philadelphia a day after their departure, having been refused service by Governor Curtain. President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation invited African-American men to service in the Union Army, but Pennsylvania, it seems, was not yet ready to receive them. Though relief is evident in Emilie’s record of these events, it is likely that the men who reported to Harrisburg ready for duty did not return to Philadelphia triumphantly. Deprived of the opportunity to defend their home, an honor valued by Northern and Southern soldiers alike, the Banneker Guards were additionally deprived of the ability to defend their fellow colored citizens from the raiding Confederate forces.

Emilie’s narrative of Gettysburg appears to end on July 9, 1863 when she noted with perhaps even more relief that she had received a letter from her father. The simple line, “i received a liter from Father to day,” requires little elaboration as with a few words Davis could be assured that her father was safe from Confederate marauders at least for the time being. However, as the armies maneuvered back South and Gettysburg faded into the rearview of the Civil War’s timeline, Emilie’s narrative does not end.

July 31, 1863 Davis worried, “to day is the eventful day they begin to Draft in the seventh ward Alfred and EJ are both drafted Mary is quite worried I hope he will not have to go.” Turned away from service little over a month earlier when the war’s front came dangerously close to home, colored citizens of Philadelphia now found themselves drafted into military service. The drama that would subsequently unfold for the Davis family is the same drama experienced by white families throughout the country as Union and Confederate armies both looked to conscripted service for a source of manpower to continue the war’s increasingly destructive course.  

Emilie’s account of the Battle of Gettysburg may not name the town, but it illuminates dimensions often excluded from traditional histories of the engagement. The lens of race, the drama of flight from and march to battle, and the conflicted history of the inclusion of the United States Colored Troops in the Union Army in 1863, are important elements that deepen our understanding of those monumental days in July. The experience that Emilie chronicles with at times simple statements suggests that African-Americans faced unique hardships not yet fully incorporated into the historical record, while simultaneously confronting the same daily fears and trials shared by all Americans in a time of war. Perhaps most importantly, Emilie’s narrative reminds historians of the Civil War that for those living during those tumultuous years every day was a battle, and that the moments in between flashpoints on a timeline were just as important as the Gettysburgs, Shilohs, and Petersburgs.

Read the rest of the series here.

Becca Capobianco is an educational contractor with Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park and an adjunct faculty member at Germanna Community College. ©

Sources and Additional Reading:

Biddle, Daniel and Murray Dubin. Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2010.

Davis, Emilie Frances. Emilie Davis's Civil War: The Diaries of a Free Black Woman in Philadelphia, 1863-1865. Edited by Judith Ann Giesberg and the Memorable Days Project. State College, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014.

Gallman, Matthew. Mastering Wartime: A Social History of Philadelphia during the Civil War. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.

“Exodus of Colored Population,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 20, 1863.

“Meetings and Demonstrations,” The Christian Recorder, January 10, 1863.

“The Skeedaddle from York,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 20, 1863.

“Victory!” The North American and United States Gazette, July 8, 1863.