Pittsburgh offered a tempting target for Confederate forces, Abraham Lincoln told a visitor to his office on June 18, 1863.
"The President talked a good deal about Pittsburgh," a "gentleman of this city" wrote in a letter from Washington published June 22 in the Daily Pittsburgh Gazette. Such private correspondence was often the source of out-of-town stories for the region's newspapers.
According to Lincoln, Pittsburgh "was more an object [of military importance] both to the rebels and the country than Harrisburg, as there was an arsenal, some gun foundries, and a good deal of boat building."
Lincoln's comments added to the multiple reports that identified the Forks of the Ohio as a possible target when Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia invaded Pennsylvania in June 1863. Of even greater concern was the whereabouts of Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart's fast-moving cavalry. No one knew where Stuart's horsemen would turn up next.
A New York businessman named Hewitt had arrived in the city after a journey to Vicksburg, Miss. "He informed one of our leading merchants that it had long been the intention of the rebels to destroy Pittsburgh," according to a story that appeared June 5. "He wished our citizens to be on their guard ..."
Another Pittsburgher told of a conversation with a Rebel officer, "in which he stated that it was their intention to destroy the cannon foundry as soon as it was possible for them to do so." That reference was to the Fort Pitt Foundry in what is now Pittsburgh's Strip District, where heavy artillery was produced.
Pittsburgh and its sister city of Allegheny, now the North Side, were rail hubs and home to hundreds of factories and warehouses. The federal government's Allegheny Arsenal was only a few miles away in what was then the separate borough of Lawrenceville.
During that first week in June, residents formed committees of public safety to defend their communities. "The best mode for preventing attack is to be at all times thoroughly prepared for our defense," committee members said in a statement published June 6.
Less than a week later, Gen. William T.H. Brooks arrived in Pittsburgh to organize the military and civilian defense of the region as commander of the Department of the Monongahela. Brooks asked that business and factory owners provide at least 2,000 men to start digging entrenchments to protect approaches to Allegheny and Pittsburgh. Meeting June 14 at the Monongahela House on Smithfield Street, the community leaders agreed.
The Gazette on June 15 contained some slightly reassuring news. Lee's army had been located on the eastern side of the Allegheny Mountains near Winchester, Va., and Martinsburg, in the new breakaway state of West Virginia. That made a Confederate attack on Harrisburg or Philadelphia more likely than a move against Pittsburgh. But the location of Stuart's cavalry remained unknown.
The public safety committee asked, in a story that appeared June 17, that Allegheny County men "capable of bearing arms forthwith enroll themselves in military organizations for drill, active service and defensive warfare ..." All others were asked to "form themselves into squads for labor, and work upon the fortifications for defense and security of this vicinity."
By the end of that week, almost 4,500 men were digging trenches and putting up earthworks on high ground around the cities. The Gazette on June 19 ran lists of companies and the number of workers they provided for defense. Iron makers Jones and Laughlin, for example, had 350 of its workers laboring on Mount Washington.
The Gazette reported that same day that the city's black residents were eager to do their part to defend their homes. "We are informed that the colored men of the two cities sent a deputation to the military authorities, tending their services in any capacity," the story said.
Almost six months after the Emancipation Proclamation freed all slaves in secessionist states, the issue of using black volunteers remained controversial. Brooks did not reply to the proposal from the African-American community to provide about 200 men.
"The offer, however, was honorable to them, and we hope that matters can yet be so arranged that they may have an opportunity to render their assistance," the newspaper said. The story noted that some African-Americans were already at work. "We knew that a band of colored men were engaged on the works on the south side of the Monongahela, and are informed that they labored with great energy."
The Gazette also warned that Pittsburgh was in danger of falling behind its cross-state rival in its racial attitudes. "In Philadelphia the services of two or three companies of colored men were offered and accepted, as we see by the papers of that city."
In that same day's paper, a familiar name turns up: Joseph Horne, the founder of the department store chain, proposed at a public safety meeting that the merchants of Pittsburgh "suspend all business until the present emergency has passed." His motion was approved.
By June 20, more than 6,800 workers were digging fortifications on Mount Washington, Squirrel Hill and more than two dozen other locations around the two cities.
Not everyone was following the rules. The Gazette reported on June 25 that a gang of men had walked down what was then Liberty Street "for the purpose of compelling certain shop keepers to close up their stores." Most complied, the story said.
One exception was M. Amburgh, a clothier at Liberty and Smithfield streets. Although his salesman, H.S. Solomons, urged him to close, Amburgh "became very indignant [and] declared he would not shut his store." When Solomons refused to fetch police to disperse the crowd of protesters, Amburgh fired him. He then briefly closed his store, "but after the crowd left, he opened the front door."
Conditions grew more tense as the Confederates occupied more Pennsylvania towns. Gazette headlines on June 25 told of "15,000 Rebels in the Cumberland Valley" and "Chambersburg Taken and Gutted." On June 29, Pittsburgh readers learned: "Carlisle evacuated by our troops" and "Longstreet and Ewell's Corps in Pennsylvania."
Work on fortifications around the city continued into the first days of July with a goal of completing them by Independence Day. Brooks had ordered bars and saloons to close Friday and Saturday, July 3 and 4. His proclamation, published in the July 3 Gazette, banned both "the selling or giving away" of alcohol. "The carrying of beer, ale or any kind of liquor to the working parties also is forbidden."
"The Fourth passed off very quietly and pleasantly in this vicinity," the Gazette reported on Monday, July 6. "There was a very general response to the call to work upon the fortifications, and thousands were thus employed ... the number of ladies who visited the earth works during the day was very large."
While work on all the fortifications had not been completed by the July 4 deadline, the urgency dissipated. What the Gazette called the "Great Battle near Gettysburg" had ended with Lee's army retreating south. The big danger to Pennsylvania had passed.
As it wound down its affairs, the public safety committee on July 7 passed a resolution to halt all paid labor on the redoubts, forts and trenches.
Members also offered a tribute to those who labored on the defenses: "Whereas, During the last three weeks many skilled workmen and mechanics, suspending their usual avocations, have devoted their time and labor to the construction of the fortifications around the city ... this committee acknowledges the services of these patriotic fellow citizens who have thus nobly sacrificed their individual advantage for the public benefit."
Len Barcousky: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1159. First Published June 23, 2013 4:00 AM