Feb. 1, 2010
Most of us recall the story of Joan of Arc, the young French maid who donned male armor and battled the English to save her country during the Hundred Years War. Another famous story from that war involves the Burghers of Calais. This coastal town was abandoned by the French Army in 1347 and faced annihilation by vengeful English troops under King Edward III. Six of the towns merchantsor burghers (from which we get the word bourgeoisie) offered their own lives as a ransom, if only the King would spare the town his wrath.
The King agreed to take these mens lives and spare the city. He fully intended to hang them, as a terrible example to other towns who resisted his might. But the Kings young wife, Queen Phillippa, fearing for their unborn child, begged the King to spare the Burghers lives. The King relented.
The Burghers of Calais were memorialized in a famous group of statues by the great 19th century French sculptor, Auguste Rodin. We have a copy of the statues in Washington at the Hirschhorn Museum.
America has her own storyvery bit as exciting and moving as the Burghers of Calais. During the 1863 Gettysburg campaign in the Civil War, rebel troops invaded southern Pennsylvania. Free black people fled the oncoming Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. One young mother was heard to tell her terrified children: Hurry, hurry, those rebels get you, theyll tear you up. Some fifty free black people were swept up by the invading army and taken back to Virginia, where they were sold into slavery. But in Greencastle, Pennsylvania, 25 miles southwest of Gettysburg, a group of thirty to forty free black men, women and children were liberated by their white neighbors. The black people were being guarded by four Confederate soldiers and a chaplain.
When Confederate Gen. Albert Gallatin Jenkins got word of the freeing of the black people, he claimed them as his own property. Gen. Jenkins rode into town on June 16th and demanded $50,000 from Greencastle. If his demand was not met, he would send in rebel cavalry to burn the town. He gave the town fathers two hours to come up with the money.
Greencastles town leadersburghers, if you willstoutly refused to pay the ransom. Gen. Jenkins rode out of town. Then, fourteen young black men came forward. They were free men, but they would sacrifice their liberty and surrender themselves to Gen. Jenkins rather than let Greencastle be burned down. Better love than this has no man, that a man will lay down his life for his friends.
Gen. Jenkins never returned. He was caught up in the Battle of Gettysburg, where he was slightly wounded and had his horse shot out from under him. His troopersJenkins Brigadewere on hand to cover Gen. Robert E. Lees retreat as the defeated Army of Northern Virginia re-crossed the Potomac River and returned to Virginia. A year later, Gen. Jenkins was dead.
Those fourteen young black freemen offered themselves in a way every bit as noble, every bit as Christian, as the famed Burghers of Calais of 1347. Their story from 1863 deserves to be memorialized in song and stone. During Americas Black History Month, its a good time to reflect on their willing sacrifice. We know the names of every one of those six Burghers of Calais. We need to know the names of the Freemen of Greencastle.
FRC Senior Fellow Robert Morrison is grateful to Gettysburg Magazine and author Peter Vermilyea for the story of Gettysburgs Black community during the Civil War Battle. Bobs Great-Great Uncle, Capt. Jonas Lipps, served in the Stonewall Brigade in the 50th Virginia Infantry and fought in the battle.