On September 11, 1851, a small farming community in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania fought the first battle of the Civil War. These neighbors banded together in the Christiana Resistance to Slavery, a conflict that ended with the arrest of 141 black and white abolitionists and led to the largest trial of treason in United States history. The resistance was led by William and Eliza Parker, a married couple who had successfully freed themselves from slavery and who had dedicated their lives to building a community that could offer equal freedom to others.
“The most staunch friends”
William and Eliza Parker had both escaped enslavement and had rebuilt Christiana for a new life among the city̵
When it became known that Maryland slave Edward Gorsuch had arrived in Christiana with armed civilians, a US deputy marshal and an arrest warrant for the confiscation of Gorsuch’s “property”, four Christiana men who had escaped Gorsuch’s enslavement came to the Parkers for help. Eliza and William secured her in their home while the vigilance committee met and spread the word in order to be ready to defend the Parker farm.
Just before sunrise on September 11, 1851, Gorsuch’s group arrived at the Parker house. They were confronted with Williams claim that they would fight to the death before surrendering. When Gorsuch tried to enter the house, Eliza pushed him off by throwing a fish spear in his way. Then she went to the window and blew a horn to alert her neighbors to such problems. Gorsuch’s group opened fire to stop them, but they kept the alarm on and encouraged everyone in the house to oppose the recapture, regardless of the cost. When one of the men at Parker’s house suggested surrender, William replied, “Don’t think a living man can take you away.”
The neighbors arrived quickly, and many were armed for defense. The Gorsuch party believed the white neighbors had come to help them and was shocked to discover their mistake. William Parker and others tried to convince Gorsuch and his men to leave without violence, but Gorsuch insisted on having “his property.” Both sides opened fire. It wasn’t long before the Gorsuch party was either injured on the ground or fled with empty weapons. One of the men Gorsuch had tried to take back beat him with a rifle until he collapsed. As for Gorsuch’s death, according to Williams’ memoir, “The women put an end to him.”
The white neighbors who were there now asked their black neighbors to flee. Though their cause was fair, a white man had died surrounded by armed black men. They knew the chances that justice would be served were miserable. Even so, the Parkers refused to go to Canada until they made sure a doctor would arrive to attend to their injured opponents.
The law on fugitive slaves is on trial
Martial law was declared in Christiana. Almost 150 people, black and white, were arrested. President Millard Fillmore soon received a telegram from Maryland Governor Louis Lowe threatening his state would withdraw from the Union if the federal government did not seek justice for the murder of his constituent. Of the 141 men arrested, 39 were tried for high treason. Prosecutors alleged that, based on the Fugitive Slaves Act of 1850, anyone who aided and assisted the slaves’ escape from their slaves was plotting to defy federal law and dissolve the union.
The first trial was for Castner Hanway, the first white neighbor to answer Eliza’s alarm. Prosecutors considered their case against Hanway to be the strongest of the 39, as popular opinion at the time was that only a white man could have organized a riot of this size. If they could judge Hanway, they would try the rest.
The selection of the jury was made difficult by the fact that almost every person called wanted to be released from duty due to illness or poor hearing. A judge told a prospective juror, “Your disease has become epidemic today.” On the witness stand, the U.S. Assistant Marshal, who served Gorsuch’s warrant, was involved in so many lies that he was later charged with perjury. And when the defense attorney denied the treason charge, which the US Constitution says includes waging war on the country, he opted for a bit of sarcasm: “Armed with corn cutters, clubs and a couple of muskets and led by a miller, in a felt hat, without a coat, without arms and mounted on a sorrel whiners. [those charged] War waged against the United States, “he said.” Praise God our union survived the shock. “
At the time the arguments ended, it only took the jury 15 minutes to declare Hanway “not guilty”. The federal prosecutor had lost what they thought was their strongest case. When Hanway and his companions were sent back to Lancaster on state murder charges, local politicians realized that the voting public agreed with the resistance fighters and that a trial would destroy their chances of re-election. All 39 were released on December 31, 1851.
Frederick Douglass described the aftermath of this “affair with Christiana” as “fatal wounds on the fugitive slave bill” … Slaveholders found that not only failed to get their slaves into possession, but also to try to enforce them Odium on himself. “Within ten years the nation would be at war over this law and all laws calling human property. From his new home in Buxton, Canada, William Parker wrote his memoir and shared his hopes: “Prejudices are quickly uprooted … In a short time, I hope that the evil spirit will disappear completely.”