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Untold Stories: Union Col. Trimble Saves Black Freemen from Confederate Enslavers
There are so many inspiring, beautiful stories about the great heroes of American history which are scarcely ever told. One happens on them accidentally—buried in a thick, out-of-print biography, in small print on a museum sign, casually and fleetingly mentioned in an obscure educational video. America cannot return to greatness in the future if we do not truly understand the greatness of our past. That is why I am writing an article series to tell a few of these little-known but moving “untold stories” of American greatness.
In my first article in this series, I told the story of Abraham Lincoln’s interactions with former slaves in the “contraband camps.” Today’s story is also about the Civil War, but it is about a hero whose exploit is far less known even than Lincoln’s. In fact, I drew the story below about Union Col. William Trimble’s daring stand to protect free black laborers from slavery-fixated Confederates from a sign at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. The sign was situated in front of a former boat ramp.
“The boat ramp in front of you was the site of two daring escapes in the Battle of Harpers Ferry. Under the cover of darkness, 1,400 Union cavalrymen fled on horseback down the ramp, crossing a pontoon bridge into Maryland on September 14, 1862. The next day Confederates captured the remaining 12,500 Union soldiers. Among them were free black laborers, working for Union Colonel William Trimble’s regiment. Here at this ramp Confederate soldiers began dragging the free black laborers away, falsely claiming the Union was ‘stealing their slaves.’ Colonel Trimble shouted ‘My men are unarmed—I am not. Unhand them!’ Then he ordered ‘Regiment march,’ swiftly moving both the laborers and the soldiers past the Confederate guards, down this ramp, and across the bridge to safety in the North.”
You cannot win unless you fight. How many times have petty tyrants worked injustice when it possibly could have been stopped, because the people around them were too afraid to attempt the seemingly impossible! Let us take heart from Col. Trimble. Let us vow to stand for justice and freedom, no matter the personal risk.
(Note: There are no artistic depictions of the incident described in this article, so the image does not in fact depict Col. Trimble. The background image is of an event where Confederate troops rounded up and enslaved black Pennsylvanians before the Battle of Gettysburg. This appalling and official policy of the Confederates, to round up any blacks they encountered as supposed escaped slaves, enraged Union commander U.S. Grant so much when it was applied to black Union soldiers who were prisoners-of-war that Grant refused to do any more prisoner exchanges with Robert E. Lee until the policy stopped.)