In late June, 1863, the 500 or so Black residents of Adams County, PA lived with constant anxiety. They had long known to stay on the lookout for slave traders coming up from nearby Maryland, a slave state, and attempting to seize both free Black individuals and former slaves and drag them south to the auction blocks. Now, however, the situation was more precarious than before because the Confederate army had invaded Pennsylvania. Acting on orders from senior commanders, the officers were intent upon abducting “contrabands” despite “Confederate assertions that the war was not about sustaining slavery” (Creighton, 2005, p. 128).
In Gettysburg, the county seat, rumors circulated that the Confederates might sweep into town at any moment. As the Black citizens went about their jobs as domestic servants, farm hands, and laborers, they listened carefully for news.
On the morning of June 16, Rachel Cormany watched from her home as rebel troops flooded the streets. They were “hunting up the contrabands & driving them off by droves,” she wrote in her diary. “O! How it grated on our hearts to have to sit quietly & look at such brutal deeds -- I saw no men among the contrabands -- all women & children. Some of the colored people who were raised here were taken along -- I sat on the front step as they were driven by just like we would drive cattle” (Cormany, 1863).
The Confederates left town as suddenly as they had arrived. But everyone knew they could return at any time. Some families, concerned that their children would be taken away and sold, decided to evacuate to the north. They packed up and left “before daylight, threading themselves through grain fields or moving hurriedly along dirt roads” (Creighton, 2005, p. 131). Some went even though they were elderly or sick.
White residents observed the refugees, sometimes with little compassion. One young woman thought it was “amusing to behold the conduct of the colored people of the town. Gettysburg had a goodly number of them. They regarded the Rebels as having an especial hatred toward them, and believed that if they fell into their hands, annihilation was sure. These folks mostly lived in the southwestern part of the town, and their flight was invariably down Breckenridge Street and Baltimore Street, and toward the woods on and around Culp's Hill. I can see them yet; men and women with bundles as large as old-fashioned feather ticks slung across their backs, almost bearing them to the ground. Children also, carrying their bundles, and striving in vain to keep up with their seniors. The greatest consternation was depicted on all their countenances as they hurried along; crowding, and running against each other in their confusion; children stumbling, falling, and crying” (Alleman, 1889, Chapter II).
On July 1, the Union and Confederate armies converged on Gettysburg. Outnumbered, the federal troops were forced to fall back, and by late afternoon the rebels occupied the town, where a few Black residents remained.
Elizabeth Butler, in her mid-50s, worked as a washerwoman for a White family (Vermilyea, 2001). Her husband, Samuel, was a wagonmaker. They did well enough to own a house, where they had raised at least two children, Harriet and Samuel (U.S. Census Bureau, 1860). Elizabeth was one of many people caught by the rebels on July 1. Fourteen-year-old Albertus McCreary recognized his family’s employee among the large band of sobbing captives being marched past his house on the corner of Baltimore and High streets. She spotted him, too, and called out, “Goodbye, we are going back to slavery” (McCreary, 1909, p. 250). Albertus understood how dark her prospects were. “We never expected to see ‘Old Liz’ again,” he wrote later.
But Elizabeth wasn’t ready to give up. The Confederates pushed the captives along to Chambersburg Street, where they turned west and approached Christ Lutheran Church on their left. Here, the scene was chaotic. The church had become a field hospital, and a number of wounded were being carried inside. The street was crowded with wagons and horses, discarded weapons and equipment, and soldiers and civilians milling about. Elizabeth saw her opportunity. Amid the confusion, she slipped out of line and rushed up the steps of the church and through the door. She climbed up to the belfry and hid.
She stayed concealed there for two long days with no food or water. How difficult it must have been to wait, hour after hour, hoping no Confederates down below would decide to come up for a look around and discover her. She must have worried for the safety of her husband and children and wished she could let them know where she was. She would have heard the unsettling booming of the artillery and sporadic gunfire in the streets.
At one point, a rebel soldier shot and killed Union chaplain Horatio Howell on the steps of the church. “We saw they had shot a man,” wrote Mary McAllister, who lived across the street (McAllister, 1863). “When we looked, he was lying with his head toward us on the pavement. And those men on the steps said, ‘Shame! Shame! That was a chaplain!’” It is unclear whether this incident happened before or after Elizabeth entered the belfry, but in any case, intermittent shooting continued in and around town throughout the battle, and it must have frightened her. But she kept her head down and waited for the Union army to retake Gettysburg.
Some people don’t respond well in emergency situations, but others find a way to survive. To understand why, researchers have worked to identify specific cognitive mechanisms that correlate with survival behavior (Leach, 2011). For example, we need selective and sustained attention to notice “targets of opportunity” in the environment and take advantage of them. In addition, the storage and processing capacities of working memory must be functioning normally so that we can retrieve relevant information from long-term memory into working memory, where it can be integrated with information from the environment. Then, we can select and carry out appropriate goal-directed behaviors. If these cognitive processes break down, we may freeze or react to irrelevant stimuli, and the result could be fatal.
Elizabeth Butler survived. She noticed that the Confederate guards had become distracted by the horses, people, and wagons clogging the street and that they were no longer closely monitoring their captives. She observed that the Lutheran church was close at hand. Her general knowledge of the typical layout of churches might have helped her realize that the belfry could be a good hiding place given its out of the way location. In the end, she needed to identify and carry out a specific action that might prevent her from being sold into slavery. And she did. With resourcefulness and courage, she bolted toward the church door and ran inside.
On July 4, the McCrearys were stunned when Elizabeth showed up at their house, apparently ready to return to work. “We all crowded around her, anxious to know how she had got away,” Albertus wrote (McCreary, 1909, p. 250). She gave them the amazing details and declared, “Thank God, I’s alive yet.”