On this Day in History: The Christiana Resistance – first battle of the Civil War

Brief Overview

On this day—September 11, 1851—a deputy U.S. marshal led a raid in Christiana to recover four enslaved people in accordance with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Free Blacks and freedom seekers in the surrounding area met this raid with a successful but deadly armed resistance. Some historians have called the Christiana Resistance (also known as the Christiana Riot) the first battle of the Civil War.

Map of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. 1851

The Christiana Resistance

In addition to being a stop on the underground railroad, many historians consider the Christiana to be the first battle of the Civil War. In fact, General Robert E. Lee, when making his attack into southeast Pennsylvania in the next decade, is alleged to have asked where the town was so he could burn it. It was here that the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was tested for the first time. Southern slaveholders believed that federal law protected their right to apprehend fugitives. Northern abolitionists denounced the law and denied that the federal government had the right to enact a bill that ran contrary to human rights and the laws of God. A confrontation between the sides was inevitable; their opposing philosophies met at Christiana.

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Edward Gorsuch, a wealthy landowner from Baltimore County, Maryland, discovered that grain and other items from his farm were missing, along with four of his slaves. With the law on his side, he set out to reclaim his property. Accompanied by a group of men, Gorsuch made his way to Christiana, where an informant had told him he would find his runaways.

The four escaped slaves had indeed made their way to William Parker’s home in Christiana. Parker was a fugitive who had established residence on the farm of Quaker Levi Pownall. Parker was a strong defender of fugitives and was known for his assistance to those traveling along the Underground Railroad.

On the morning of September 11, 1851, Gorsuch and his group made their way through cornfields to Parker’s tenant house on the Pownall farm. A marshal announced the group’s intention to apprehend Edward Gorsuch’s property.

The inhabitants of the house denied that any property belonging to Gorsuch was on the premises. Both sides fired shots. Eliza Parker, William Parker’s wife, sounded a horn for help, and between 75 and 100 people came to the assistance of those inside the little homestead.

The 1851 Christiana Riot put the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 on trial.

By the end of the encounter, Edward Gorsuch lay dead, and his son lay seriously wounded.

Federal troops were called in to help with the ensuing investigation. Forty-five United States Marines descended on Christiana. With a posse of fifty civilians, they searched and terrorized the community’s white and black citizens. As a result of the investigation, 37 men were arrested and charged with treason for their defiance of a federal order. Heading the defense team was abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens.

Thaddeus Stevens

After three months of testimony, the jury returned a verdict of “not guilty” in fifteen minutes. The verdict sent a signal to the South that the Fugitive Slave Law would not be enforced in the North and further fanned the flames of distrust and discord that were spreading throughout the country.

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One thought on “On this Day in History: The Christiana Resistance – first battle of the Civil War

  1. A former roommate of Gorsuch’s son was a man named John Wilkes Booth, which reported by some historians added to the intense hatred that Booth held for the north and Lincoln.

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