Struggles for Freedom in Cumberland Township (5/19)


When battle came to Cumberland Township in 1863, it changed everything. That’s the story we know. We think of the farm fields around the township littered with bodies. We think of the streams running red with blood. We think of chaos. But that “everything” was not just graves and blood. The battles across these fields had lasting effects for the people who called the farms around Gettysburg their homes.

One of the men changed was David Hankey. When his father died in 1860, Hankey’s widowed mother needed help. The Gettysburg College graduate returned home, giving up life as a teacher to make sure the family farm on the Mummasburg Road survived. In 1863, an enemy army threatened that farm. Rebel forces rolled across Hankey’s farm. But on the morning of July 1, 1863, another stranger, not a soldier but a local woman, sprinted across the Hankey farm and dove into the house’s doorway. The black woman needed shelter and she hoped Hankey would provide it. If the Confederate soldiers in the dooryard had been able to nab her leg or snatch her skirts, she would have been dragged south, kidnapped into slavery. But she made it into the house. The soldiers outside demanded the woman be delivered as their so-called property. Hankey thought quickly. He brokered a deal with a rebel officer. If the Hankey’s, along with the black woman, cooked for the Confederate soldiers, the woman would remain free. So they cooked food for the soldiers to protect her life/freedom.

Hankey grabbed a hammer, nailing the door shut to keep would-be slave catchers outside. He watched as outside rebel soldiers ripped his farm to shreds. He begged them to leave his prize calf. They killed it anyways. Then they handed the quartered pieces through the window for the captive kitchen staff to roast. For three days of battle, Hankey watched Confederate soldiers dismantle his family’s livelihood and willingly let it happen all to save the black woman’s life.

Seven years later, because of that war, black men were finally allowed to vote in Pennsylvania. But local political power-brokers tried to deny some of Cumberland Township’s men their newfound rights. Outside the township’s polling place in 1870, David Hankey was not about to let his sacrifice, and the sacrifice of countless of men, women, and children, black and white, be in vain. He spoke up, stepped in, and, allying with the politically active black citizens working the polls, fought for their right to vote.

These are the stories of Cumberland Township’s Civil War and its aftermath you don’t normally hear. They’re tales of men and women fighting for freedom. They are the histories of how Cumberland Township experienced a complex war we so often ignore, the battle after the battle.

For African-American citizens and the white allies who helped them, the Civil War was far from the gallant struggle we enjoy remembering. It was a battle for the definitions of American freedom.

On June 3, at 7 p.m., join the Cumberland Township Historical Society as it celebrates the 270th anniversary of the township that was home to men and women who fought for their freedoms. Historian John M. Rudy will present “We Were Free Souls Then: Cumberland Township and the Birth of Civil Rights,” sharing stories of the first freedoms celebrated by black men and women.

Written by John Rudy for the Cumberland Township Historical Society.