Place of Refuge

The thought of being invaded by enemy troops was terrible for any civilian to consider, but in late June of 1863, the black population of Gettysburg had special cause for alarm.  As Margaret Creighton explains in The Colors of Courage:

As the first Confederates to enter Pennsylvania in June 1863, General Albert Jenkins’ cavalrymen were in a hard-hitting mission to gather information and round up supplies…[they] were not, however, on a routine scavenging operation…These troopers were hunting down African Americans. Intent on seizing what they called ‘contraband’, they rode from town to town, chasing and kidnapping black families – some born free and some born enslaved, many of them women and children – in order to send them south.

Many white citizens of Gettysburg – including Tillie Pierce, Rachel Cormany, and Jacob Hoke, as well as several clergymen – have left us firsthand accounts of such sad occurrences as Jubal Early’s cavalry rode into Gettysburg on June 26. One by Albertus McCreary, fifteen years old at the time of the battle, tells of the experiences of “Old Liz” – probably Elizabeth Butler, a laundress for the McCreary family. According to James M. Paradis, in his book, African Americans and the Gettysburg Campaign:

She had made her escape by taking advantage of the chaos in town. Her captors marched her and the other prisoners up to Chambersburg Street. With the large crowd milling in the street and the confusion of the moment, no one saw her slip into [Christ] Lutheran Church. She climbed the steps into the belfry, where she stayed hidden for two days without food or water.

She likely had the help of the women of the town. As reported in the black newspaper Anglo-African on December 26, 1863:

[They] were…moved to sympathy for the unfortunates. The ladies congregated in the church, and having a good hiding place there, they, at given signals, had nearly all of them smuggled into the church.  The rebel guard were puzzled and enraged as the number of their prisoners steadily decreased.

Though historic record would tend to suggest that the days during which these events took place would have been wet and dreary, I decided to depict a clear evening with a bold sunset, to symbolize the relative peace and sense of hopefulness provided by this church hiding place. I have chosen to commemorate “Old Liz’s” ordeal, not by creating a literal rendering of a terrified refugee, but by depicting the Christ Lutheran Church belfry with the corner of a quilt accidentally draped outside, and a lone bird startled from its perch; two subtle indicators of the presence of a harassed and desperate transient hidden in this place of refuge.

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March 13, 2011