Eyewitness 1863: As Lee moves northward, Pittsburgh digs in

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

Pittsburgh appeared to be a logical target when Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia invaded Pennsylvania in June 1863. The city of more than 50,000 was a rail hub, site of a cannon foundry, and home to hundreds of factories and warehouses. The federal government's Allegheny Arsenal was nearby in what was then the separate borough of Lawrenceville.

"Pittsburgh is not only a point where an immense store of supplies to our army could be cut off or destroyed, but [it] would offer abundant means of subsistence and most needed articles to the famished rebels, so long cut off from the requisites of comfort and civilization," an anonymous author calling himself "Soldier" warned in the June 20 edition of the Pittsburgh Gazette.

Federal officials, business owners and local residents worked together for the next three weeks to make sure the Confederates wouldn't get near any of those supplies without a struggle.

That same day's edition of the Gazette listed Pittsburgh companies that had released more than 6,800 of their workers to dig fortifications on Mount Washington, Squirrel Hill and more than two dozen other locations around the city.

Not everybody was sharing the load, however. An executive committee, formed to oversee the region's defense, announced it would seek to pull the liquor licenses of "drinking houses, saloons and restaurants" that had remained open despite orders from the local military commander, Maj. Gen. William Brooks, to close.

The committee also requested that retail stores shut their doors "until the fortifications and rifle-pits, required for the defense of this city, be completed ... ."

Conditions grew more tense as the Confederates occupied more Pennsylvania towns. The Gazette's headlines on June 25 told of "15,000 Rebels in the Cumberland Valley," "Chambersburg Taken and Gutted" and "The Enemy Moving Toward Harrisburg!"

The same newspaper reported that "... a party of men, with a martial band, started up Liberty street, for the purpose of compelling certain shop keepers to close up their stores. ... The crowd visited a number of stores nearby, all of which were soon afterwards closed."

Another "committee went around among the butchers in the Diamond [in Allegheny City on the North Side] ... to ascertain what they would do by way of furnishing men or going to work themselves upon the entrenchments.

"To the credit of the butchers, let it be said, that every man save two either agreed to go or to pay for the employment of others." The Gazette went on to name names of shirkers. "The two niggards who informed the committee that they would neither go themselves nor pay for employing others were John Mussler and Fred Werner."

Work on the ring of fortifications around the city continued through the first days of July, even as residents read first reports that Lee's army was battling Union forces near the small town of Gettysburg.

As the Independence Day weekend approached, Gen. Brooks had ordered bars and saloons to close on 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 ... "

Plans for the city's defense, however, were overtaken by what the Gazette referred to as the "GLORIOUS VICTORY" in the "Great Battle near Gettysburg." Lee's army was forced to retreat south of the Potomac River, and the danger to Pennsylvania had passed.

As it wound down its affairs, the executive committee 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, either without compensation or at a rate of daily pay far below their ordinary earnings ... this committee acknowledges the services of these patriotic fellow citizens who have thus nobly sacrificed their individual advantage for the public benefit."

Len Barcousky can be reached at lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184. The entire 'Eyewitness' series can be read on www.post-gazette.com . Look for "Pittsburgh 250" on the home page under Special Reports, click on "A year-long celebration ..." then scroll down to "Pittsburgh 250: Eyewitness."


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?