Tour to visit likely sites of Pittsburgh's Civil War forts
June 17, 2013 8:00 AM
Ruth McCartan, president of the Allegheny City Society, and David Grinnell, the group's secretary, give a tour of the North Side where Civil War fortifications were dug.
By Len Barcousky Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Ruth McCartan stood atop a mound of earth that faced toward the direction of the Allegheny River.
"We hope this is it," Ms. McCartan said one recent evening. The high ground she was standing on in Pittsburgh's Spring Hill neighborhood was all that remained of a Civil War-era fort hastily erected when residents feared a Confederate attack.
For several frantic weeks in June and July 1863, thousands of Pittsburgh and Allegheny men labored with picks and shovels to dig trenches and throw up earthen walls at more than 30 points around the two cities. Allegheny City, now the North Side, was a separate municipality until it was annexed by Pittsburgh in 1907.
The Allegheny City Society will sponsor two tours to the likely locations of five of those defense works, known as redoubts, on Saturday. Ms. McCartan, society president, and David Grinnell, its secretary, gave a preview of the event last week during an evening expedition to several of the sites.
When Robert E. Lee's Army of Virginia crossed into Pennsylvania in June 1863, the forks of the Ohio were seen as a possible target for the invaders. Pittsburgh, Allegheny and the nearby suburb of Lawrenceville, the home of a U.S. arsenal, produced guns, ammunitions, warships, wagons, clothing and other supplies for the Union Army. A sudden attack by Gen. J.E.B. Stuart's fast-moving cavalry was a special worry for city leaders.
After the danger of a Southern invasion passed with Lee's defeat at Gettysburg, the "forts were relegated to the role of historic curiosities," doctoral student Bill McCarthy wrote in the winter 1998/1999 edition of Pittsburgh History. In 1908, author John Newton Boucher argued that at least portions of the grass-covered fortifications should be preserved because "they would one day be regarded as of great historical interest." Such warnings were ignored as urban development and redevelopment mostly obliterated them.
Using a contemporary map, photographs taken in the 1890s and descriptions provided by Mr. McCarthy in his magazine story, history buffs from the Allegheny City Society will take visitors on a tour to sites on the North Side and Millvale where they believe fortifications were built.
The redoubts were located at high points around the two cities. Soldiers and militia members stationed in those spots would have had panoramic views of the cities' three rivers, and sentries could have provided early warning of the approach of hostile troops.
Original plans called for moving artillery, including the Columbiad-style cannons made at Fort Pitt Foundry, into the defense works. After the Southern defeat, those plans were dropped, Ms. McCartan said. "How would they ever have gotten guns up here?" Mr. Grinnell asked, pointing to the steep slopes that lead to the top of Spring Hill.
One stop on the tour will be Cemetery Hill, which overlooks the city's Manchester neighborhood and the Ohio River. The land where Fort McKee is believed to have been erected is now under a hospital laundry on a site next to Union Dale Cemetery.
The view from Fort McKee would have been even more sweeping in 1863, Mr. Grinnell explained during last week's preview visit.
Fort Brunot, also known as Fort McKeever, was a square redoubt about 200 yards on a side. It was built along Marshall Avenue on the grounds of Pressley Ridge School. A visit to the site shows no evidence of the fortification, except for what may be the location of the fort's southwest wall. It likely made use of a steep slope behind the school that extends down to athletic fields and nearby Palisade Lane.
Pittsburgh-area residents who remember the dark days of the Cold War should identify with the worry that their predecessors felt during Lee's invasion of Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh's and Allegheny's importance as industrial centers made them tempting objectives for Confederate raiders 150 years ago, Ms. McCartan said.
Similarly, 20th century residents knew that the region's heavy industry made it a prime target for Soviet missiles, Mr. Grinnell said.
Allegheny City Society members are planning two bus-and-walking tours to the fort sites. The cost is $40 per person and will include lunch and a program on the Battle of Gettysburg.
Tentative tour times are 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. More details are available on the society's website, www.alleghenycity.org, or call Amelia at 412-766-5670 for reservations.