Let's Learn From the Past: Pittsburgh's Civil War fortifications

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One hundred and fifty years ago, the threat of a Confederate attack rallied the city of Pittsburgh to protect its people and its essential artillery supplies during the Civil War.

When Gen. Robert E. Lee's Confederate Army began to march north in the spring of 1863, an invasion of Pittsburgh seemed imminent. Fearful of an attack, the city banded together to build 27 fortifications across the region, including more than 10 within the city.

Numerous local companies donated their workforce to help protect the city as factories and mines shut down so workers could help build forts and produce weapons. Pittsburgh Mayor Benair Sawyer even ordered local bars and saloons to close to avert any distraction from the war effort -- although some of them refused.

One of the largest local forts was Fort Black in Greenfield on what is now Bigelow Street between Parade and Shields streets. Like the other forts, it consisted of mounds of dirt piled 5 feet high so soldiers could stand and fire at opposing armies. Several forts were also built to protect the Allegheny Arsenal in Lawrenceville.

The arsenal provided Union forces with much of their weapons and munitions. With its industrial might and strategic location at the head of the Ohio River, Pittsburgh became known as the "Arsenal of the Union."

By early July 1863, the forts were nearing completion and the city was poised for an attack. When word of the Union's victory at Gettysburg reached Pittsburgh, local residents realized their city was no longer in danger. Signal rockets were fired for five minutes from each of the 27 forts in celebration.

Although the Confederate Army never reached Pittsburgh, the forts helped to protect the city and the integral role it played in the Union victory.

Visitors to the Heinz History Center can learn more about Pennsylvania's contributions during the Civil War in the new exhibition, "Pennsylvania's Civil War," presented by Mylan Inc. The exhibit, which opens Saturday, showcases Pittsburgh's role as the "Arsenal of the Union" and the impact that Western Pennsylvanians had on the war both on the battlefield and on the home front.

For more information, please visit www.heinzhistorycenter.org/civilwar.

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