Calls to Action: The Civil War Era Songs of Joseph R. Winters

Calls to Action: The Civil War Era Songs of Joseph R. Winters

Black History Month is currently underway. The 2018 Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) theme for this year’s celebration, “African Americans in Times of War,” offers the perfect opportunity for scholars to showcase the diverse African American experiences during the Civil War. This post examines Joseph R. Winters of Chambersburg, Franklin County, Pennsylvania. Winters’ story offers insights into how the Gettysburg Campaign prompted his attempts to document African American civilian experiences, recruit for the Union Army, and remake the postwar society through a series of songs. In a sense, his songs functioned as important calls to action among African Americans living at the Pennsylvania-Maryland border.

Winters Historical Marker, Chambersburg, PA. Courtesy of the author.

Born free to an African American bricklayer and a Native American mother in Leesburg, Virginia, Winters relocated to Chambersburg where he became active in the Underground Railroad. After the Civil War, he received a patent for an improved fire-ladder and actively participated in local politics.[1] His wartime experiences are sometimes overshadowed by the various other African Americans highlighted in the Valley of the Shadow digital humanities project and in Edward Ayers’ volumes comparing the border Pennsylvania community with Augusta County, Virginia.[2] Nevertheless, his biography represents the type of individual envisioned by Carter G. Woodson and current ASALH organizers worthy of honoring during the February celebration. Winters’ wartime songs and recruitment efforts provide a window onto the rural black Pennsylvanians who survived the Confederate invasion. These events facilitated Winters’ activism as well as contributions to local African American Civil War memory.

While Frederick Douglass urged black Philadelphians to enlist in USCT regiments, Winters and other free black residents attempted to avoid enslavement. They employed Underground Railroad locales, ingenuity, and flight to safer destinations outside of Franklin County. Many, however, were not fortunate. The enslavement of free blacks and self-emancipated individuals deeply affected black and white Franklin County residents. White diarists, local newspaper accounts, and letters written by local men serving in the Massachusetts 54th Infantry Regiment noted their terror, fear for loved ones, and disgust toward the “negro-stealers.”[3]

Winters refused to allow others to speak his truth. He penned and published “About Ten Days After the Battle of Gettysburg.” He described the occupation of Chambersburg and the seizure of material goods in the third and fourth stanzas:

In Chambersburg he took a stand

And sent out the scouts to scour the land;

The railroad track he did tear up,

Likewise tore down the railroad shop.


The stores they plundered, that you know,

For that they do wherever they go;

They bought their goods with Southern trash,

And that they got by the Southern lash.[4]

Winters voiced the rage felt by survivors. These dishonorable Confederate soldiers employed force and destruction on a civilian population. He deftly dismissed the payment of goods with Confederate currency or “Southern trash.”[5] The guise of payment did not mask the destructive nature and trauma inflicted.

Winters then recounted the chaos black people experienced. Free African Americans understood the threat to their freedom posed by the Confederate raiders. Winters noted their flight and efforts at concealment in the fifth stanza:

The colored people all ran away,

Likewise the composer of this song, they say –

For if I hadn’t, I don’t know

But I’d been in the South a’working the hoe.

The threat of “a’working the hoe” guided their actions. They chose freedom. One black Mercersburg veteran recalled that they “knew what it was for them and their families to flee to the mountains or hide in cellars and garrets and caves for safety when Confederate soldiers raided the neighborhood.”[6] Those who succeeded only resurfaced when sounds of war had ceased. The song title signaled Winters’ own reemergence, occurring roughly July 14, 1863. Sold as a song sheet, Winters gave voice to the black experience unmediated by white Franklin County residents.[7]

Moreover, Winters promised a different response by black Franklin County men in the closing stanzas. They would no longer remain potential victims or passive bystanders in the fight. If Confederates troops returned, Winters proclaimed:

Now, if they come back, I’ll tell you what to do,

We’ll give them some grape, and canister too;

Let white and black all shoulder a gun,

And then, O Lord, won’t we have some fun.[8]

They would prove their manhood by fighting back and not cowering out of fear. His words were not mere bombast. T. Morris Chester, African American recruiter and wartime correspondent, found willing recruits in the various Franklin County communities. Their recent experiences and Winters’ demand to “shoulder a gun” motivated this post-Gettysburg enlistment.[9]

Even Winters fulfilled the promise made in the closing of the song. He devoted both his time and money toward military recruitment for the USCT regiments being organized at Camp William Penn outside of Philadelphia. Winters again turned to his pen and published “At the Time of the Draft for the Civil War.” Similar to Frederick Douglass’s “Men of Color, to Arms” address, Winters openly questioned their manhood if they avoided the military draft:

About the Draft, you will make a heap of fuss;

But, to be drafted, that you must;

Den, if to be drafted, you don’t want to be,

Jist leab dis country and clime a tree.[10]

Debunking any excuses, he implored them to ignore Democrats’ campaigns against local black enlistment and even the violence displayed during the New York draft riots. But, the song presented eligible black Franklin County men with a choice: enlist if drafted or “git out of sight.”[11] In December 1863, his son Jacob Winters and other black Franklin County men enlisted and left for training. Black GAR members later recalled that their decision “transformed them from boyhood into sturdy manhood.”[12]

Winters remained an important voice of black Franklin County residents after the Civil War. He turned his energies to securing the franchise for black Franklin County residents and reaping civil, political, and social rights from their wartime sacrifices. After the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, he became a significant African American leader within the local Republican Party before switching to the Democratic Party in 1890.[13] In this capacity, he rallied black voters with a series of songs that used specific Civil War references to convince black electoral support for the 1880 Garfield-Arthur, 1896 Bryan-Stevenson, and 1904 Parker-Davis campaigns. These postwar activities reflect Winters’ efforts to transform the Gettysburg Campaign trauma he endured into advancing meaningful change, but also his disappointment with the Republican Party in achieving a more inclusive society.[14]

While scholars have discussed the occupation of central Pennsylvania during the Gettysburg Campaign, Winters remains one of the lesser known stories of the African American civilian experience. These events deeply affected Winters and other Franklin County residents who escaped seizure. Winters’ Civil War era songs voiced their trauma and how he attempted to find justice through purchasing the song sheets, recruitment efforts, military service, and postwar political engagement. Collectively, Winters’s calls to action contributed to the development of a complex Civil War memory that acknowledged individuals seized and enslaved, the civilians who remained, and the men who wore Union uniforms. These song sheets serve as important cultural artifacts for understanding these later commemorative traditions. The 2018 Black History Month ASALH theme, therefore, is the perfect opportunity to explore other lesser known black Franklin County experiences through the Valley of the Shadow digital humanities project and by reading The Thin Light of Freedom by Edward Ayers.


[1] M. L. Marotte III, “The Story of Joseph Winters, 1816-1916: Citizen, Pioneer, Inventor, Gunsmith, Machinist, Land Owner, and Born A Free Man” (Chambersburg: M.L. Marotte III, 1999), 3.

[2] See Valley of the Shadow, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA,; Edward L. Ayers, In the Presence of Mine Enemies: The Civil War in the Heart of America (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2003) and The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2017).

[3] “Speech of Frederick Douglass,” Addresses of the Hon. W. D. Kelley, Miss Anna E Dickinson, and Mr. Frederick Douglass, at a Mass Meeting held at National Hall, Philadelphia, July 6, 1863, for the Promotion of Colored Enlistments, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia; Ayers, Thin Light of Freedom, 41-56, 91-95; “The Invasion!,” Franklin Repository, July 8, 1863, 5.

[4] Joseph R. Winter, “About Ten Days After the Battle of Gettysburg,” VF-Winters, Franklin County Historical Society, Chambersburg, PA.

[5] Winters, “About Ten Days After the Battle of Gettysburg.”

[6] Old Mercersburg Revisited: Civil War to Bicentennial (Mercersburg, PA: Woman’s Club of Mercersburg, 1987), 236.

[7] Winters, “About Ten Days After the Battle of Gettysburg.”

[8] Winters, “About Ten Days After the Battle of Gettysburg.”

[9] Winters, “About Ten Days After the Battle of Gettysburg.”

[10] Joseph R. Winters, “At the Time of the Draft for the Civil War,” VF-Winters, Franklin County Historical Society, Chambersburg, PA; Frederick Douglass, “Men of Color, to Arms,” March 3, 1863, Frederick Douglass Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. This is available online at

[11] Winters, “At the Time of the Draft for the Civil War.”

[12] Ron Gancas, Fields of Freedom: United States Colored Troops from Southwestern Pennsylvania (Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Trust, 2004), 46; Old Mercersburg Revisited, 236.

[13]They Ought to be Represented,” Valley Spirit, June 1, 1870, 2; Joseph R. Winters, “Information Wanted,” Valley Spirit, October 25, 1882, 2; “After the Election,” Valley Spirit, November 19, 1890, 6; “Colored Democratic Club,” Harrisburg Daily Independent, October 11, 1912, 16.

[14] Stella M. Fries, Janet Z. Gabler, and C. Bernard Ruffin, eds., Some Chambersburg Roots: A Black Perspective (Chambersburg, Stella Fries, 1980), 96-97; Joseph R. Winters, “Campaign Song,” 1896 and “Campaign Song,” 1904, VF-Winters.

Hilary N. Green

Hilary N. Green is the James B. Duke Professor of Africana Studies at Davidson College. She previously worked in the Department of Gender and Race Studies at the University of Alabama where she developed the Hallowed Grounds Project. She earned her M.A. in History from Tufts University in 2003, and Ph.D. in History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2010. Her research and teaching interests include the intersections of race, class, and gender in African American history, the American Civil War, Reconstruction, as well as Civil War memory, African American education, and the Black Atlantic. She is the author of Educational Reconstruction: African American Schools in the Urban South, 1865-1890 (Fordham, 2016).

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