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Colonel Trimble's remarkable action to save free blacks at Harpers Ferry

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When the parole of the 12,500 Union prisoners following their surrender at Bolivar Heights at Harpers Ferry on September 15, 1862 took place, General “Stonewall” Jackson had left and ordered General A.P. Hill to be in charge. It became apparent that there was no policy laid down concerning the Negroes accompanying the federal army. General Hill explained “As great numbers had fled from surrounding country to Harpers Ferry, it would be difficult to decide who was free and who was not.”

On the morning of September 16, the day after the surrender, Colonel William H. Trimble of the 60th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment attempted to get passes for the free blacks who had been with his regiment since its inception. The Confederates in the meantime were rounding up contraband blacks to return them to slavery. Harpers Ferry had been a haven for contraband blacks, runaway slaves, as they sought protection from the Union garrison located there.

Colonel Trimble explained the situation to General Hill, telling him all his blacks had been born free and were not runaway slaves but acted as cooks and teamsters for his army. They had been with the regiment since their muster in February 1862. (At this time blacks served in the Union army as laborers, scouts, spies, teamsters, etc. They were not enlisted into Union service until the Bureau of U.S. Colored Troops was set up in May 1863.) General Hill decided to trust Trimble’s word that his blacks were not runaway slaves and issued Trimble passes for his thirteen blacks.

Colonel Trimble proceeded to the guards at the pontoon bridge connecting Harpers Ferry to Maryland. The Confederate cavalry guards refused to accept the pass from General Hill and blocked Trimble’s passage. The Confederate Major insisted that Trimble’s command could not pass “till ever damned nigger was taken out.” Trimble responded quickly and decisively, screaming at the guard, “If the men are unarmed, I am not. I’ll sell my life for these free boys. Unhand them. Guards, give way! Regiment march.” Trimble pulled his pistol and held the Confederate guard at gunpoint until his entire force, including the blacks, were safely across the bridge and into Maryland.

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