Eyewitness 1864: Civil War relief effort more than 'fair'

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The most famous phrase from Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address promised policies "with malice toward none; with charity for all ..."

In that same speech, delivered a month before the end of the Civil War, he also pledged "to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan ..."

Ten months earlier, residents of the twin cities of Pittsburgh and Allegheny, as the North Side was then known, had done their part to fulfill the president's oath.

The Pittsburgh Sanitary Fair, a regional fund-raising effort to benefit wounded Union soldiers and their families, opened June 1, 1864, near Federal and Ohio streets.

"The day was delightful, and Providence seemed to smile upon the noble efforts made in behalf of the sick and disabled soldier," the Daily Pittsburgh Gazette reported the next morning. "The requests of the Mayors of both cities for a suspension of business, was cordially acceded to ... workshops, stores, factories, schools, and even private dwellings were abandoned, and the people turned out en masse to witness the [opening] procession and attend the inauguration ceremonies."

"The streets along the route were thronged with spectators, male and female, and the crowd in the neighborhood of the Fair Buildings was immense."

Paintings, machinery, floral arrangements, autographed books and historical artifacts were displayed for purchase or viewing in a half-dozen buildings.

Standard admission to the fair's floral or dining halls was 50 cents, equivalent to more than $7 in modern currency. Entry to other structures, including the Ladies Bazaar, Mechanics' Hall and Picture Gallery, cost 25 cents per building.

"We spent a couple of hours yesterday afternoon taking a look at the contents of the Old Curiosity Shop," an anonymous reporter wrote on June 2. "It is a grand success. We had not thought it possible to gather in so short a time so large and interesting a collection of rare and curious things as are now on exhibition in the south room of the Allegheny City Hall."

"The Old World curiosities are richer and more numerous than were anticipated. We note a fine assortment of Egyptians mummies and Etruscan vases, contributed and arranged by Mrs. Charles F. Spang."

Fund-raising activities were not limited just to the fairgrounds. Arts groups and entertainers, performing elsewhere in the area, pledged their profits toward soldiers' relief during the 18-day run of the fair.

Visiting Pittsburgh from Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, "Brian's Great Show and Tom King's Excelsior Circus" advertised multiple joint benefit performances."

"The Mayor of the City of Pittsburgh [will] act as treasurer [and] will see that the monies received shall be donated to the exclusive benefit of this truly charitable purpose," a June 1 advertisement promised.

Businesses and wealthy individuals had been encouraged to make cash contributions before the fair got under way. As a result, organizers announced that $100,000 -- equal to more than $14 million today -- had been received by opening day. That large number encouraged the writer for the Gazette to predict that the event might raise as much as $250,000 by its conclusion.

By June 10 -- a little more than halfway through the run -- fair activities already had raised $220,000, according to the newspaper.

That same day's edition also included a sobering reminder of why the fair was being held. A Gazette correspondent, writing under the name "Nemo," listed the names and injuries of 14 Pittsburgh soldiers wounded during battles in Virginia.

Those on Nemo's roster included James A. Stamford, who suffered a severe head injury; John Lauth, wounded slightly in the right eye; and James McKee, who died "in an ambulance at White House Landing [Va.]"

"I have seen most of the persons whose names I have reported," he wrote.

"There are about two thousand wounded men here. They are being attended to as well as could be expected," Nemo reported.

"Our Western Pennsylvania soldiers learned with inexpressible delight and exultant pride that the Pittsburgh Sanitary Fair opened successfully," he wrote.

According to a June 20 wrap-up story in the Gazette, the fair had raised $300,000 by the time it closed, with proceeds from an estimated $30,000 in unsold merchandise yet to be added to the total.

One beneficiary of the sanitary fair continues its mission in the 21st century.

When the Civil War ended, on April 9, 1865, about $200,000 remained unspent from the profits of the fair. According to historian Leland D. Baldwin, that money became the "nucleus" of the endowment for Western Pennsylvania Hospital, now part of West Penn Allegheny Health System.


Len Barcousky can be reached at lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184. Past stories in the "Eyewitness" series can be read on post-gazette.com/pgh250 .


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