McAllister’s Mill along the Baltimore Pike near Gettysburg was a hiding place along the Underground Railroad. Many enslaved individuals seeking freedom north of the Mason-Dixon Line found refuges in the Gettysburg community, though many of the stories and locations can be hard to verify since they were secretive. However, at McAllister’s Mill on July 4, 1836, a documented anti-slavery event took place.
On that 60th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, a group of local Gettysburg citizens prepared a resolution which added to the quest for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It’s another piece of the story of citizens striving for “a more perfect union” as promised in another founding document: the U.S. Constitution.
James McAllister, a white abolitionist, had purchased the mill in 1827, and it became the setting for an important meeting on that Independence Day 1836. Free Black families gathered that day, adding their voices to the resolutions.
Fourteen resolutions were adopted by the group, drawing on both religious and political ideas in their reasons for pursuing abolition. One ringing statement declared: “That, if liberty is the right of all men, no human being can be rightfully held in slavery.”
After laying out their reasons that slavery was wrong, these abolitionists made their stand:
“Resolved, That although we may be denounced, for our efforts in the cause of human rights, by office-holding and office-seeking politicians, and even by men wearing clerical robes, we will not be “afraid of their terror,” but, disregarding their denunciations, we will continue to open our mouths for the dumb [silent], and to plead the cause of the oppressed and of those who have none to help them, humbly believing, that, if we do unto others as we wish that they should do unto us, we shall have the approbation of Him who will render every man, according to his works, and who approbation will be a full remuneration for the loss of this world’s favor.”
The resolution reflects that abolition was still not a popular movement in the 1830’s and was even opposed by many politicians and some religious leaders. Going against the tide of public opinion, these Gettysburg residents willingly spoke up about the moral evils of slavery and their determination to speak out for liberty and assist those seeking freedom.
Five months later, on December 3, 1836, McAllister headed an anti-slavery meeting in Gettysburg’s old courthouse. Here, the abolitionists were put to the test as anti-abolitionists disrupted the meeting, throwing eggs and at least one dead cat at the speakers. The community divided over the issue of slavery, with the anti-abolitionists staking their claim that the pro-abolition movement would curb the town’s economic trade with Southern businessmen. That night the anti-slavery supporters were forced to retreat from their public meeting at the courthouse. It wasn’t the end. Leaving the courthouse, the abolitionists rallied at the Gettysburg Academy, and a committee formed to write the Adams County Anti-Slavery Society’s governing constitution.
As decades passed the Adams County Anti-Slavery Society grew and influenced the community. Sometimes with openly known results, sometimes in silence. The work of abolitionists—both Black and white—in the Gettysburg community during the antebellum years can be difficult to confirm in the haze of history. Many places around the town and countryside (now battlefield) have stories about serving as hiding places for men, women, or children running from slavery. As laws changed, it became a crime to aid fugitives from slavery, but enough stories and pieces of evidence exist to strongly suggest that quite a few Gettysburg residents were either still actively involved in Underground Railroad efforts or simply kept quiet about their neighbors’ activities to protect them. On several occasions, Gettysburg citizens intervened to stop slave catchers from dragging former fugitives back to bondage.
On July 4, 1863—27 years after the resolution at McAllister’s Mill—the battle of Gettysburg was over. Thousands of dead and wounded soldiers lay on the fields and the in the barns and houses of the community. A free Black man’s farm had been at the epicenter of the fight the previous day (Abraham Brien’s farm on Cemetery Ridge). While the battle was immediately recognized as a significant Federal victory, the political repercussions and the battle’s significance toward the end of slavery took longer to unfold. Months later, as free Black men did the work of disinterring fallen soldiers, placing their remains in coffins, and transporting them to the new national cemetery, President Lincoln’s first words of his now-famous Gettysburg Address reflected back to the Declaration of Independence.
While Lincoln’s words preserved in ink and etched in granite have been long remembered, it is significant to note the local Gettysburg initiative decades before the battle. Some committed local residents declared on July 4, 1836, their belief that “all men are created equal.” Twenty-seven years later, their community—and even McAllister’s Mill itself—became one of the places where blood and sacrifice took a heavy toll in the struggle for liberty and the building of a more perfect union.
Source and Suggested Reading:
James M. Paradis, African Americans and the Gettysburg Campaign (Lanham: The Scarecrow Press, 2013). See page 5 for details about the July 4 meeting at McAllister’s Mill.