150 years ago today, Pittsburghers rallied to help wounded warriors

The Sanitary Fair of June 1864 raised money for Union soldiers


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Although he had spent many years working as corporate lawyer, Abraham Lincoln was known to many as the "rail splitter." The nickname was a reference to his humble origins and to his work as a young man, turning logs into fence rails.

Visitors to the Pittsburgh Sanitary Fair, a regional fundraising effort to benefit wounded and sick Union soldiers, would get a chance to see one of the rails that Lincoln made during his early days. The wooden artifact was one of more than 1,000 items to be displayed in the fair's "Old Curiosity Shop," according to an advance story in the May 13, 1864, edition of the Pittsburgh Gazette.

The fair opened 150 years ago today, June 1, on the Diamond in Allegheny City, now Pittsburgh's North Side. Displays filled five temporary buildings, and the Allegheny City Hall, near Federal and Ohio streets. A seventh building, a temporary auditorium called the "audience hall," had room for more than 3,000 spectators.

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, Picture Gallery and Monitor Building, cost 25 cents each.

The display planned for the Monitor Building was designed to provide visitors an "idea of naval warfare on a small scale." Craftsmen from the Fort Pitt Iron Works, which made armor plate for the U.S. government, were building a 9-foot-long model of a Union Navy ironclad ship for display at the fair. The vessel would steam around a 40-foot-by-50-foot indoor pond. "She will be fitted up with an engine ... and the gun will be so arranged that it can be fired off," according to a May 6 story in the Gazette.

Weather cooperated for the opening day of the fair. "Providence seemed to smile upon the noble efforts made in behalf of the sick and disabled soldiers," the Gazette said on June 2. "The request 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 procession and attend the inauguration ceremonies."

Gov. Andrew Curtin was the main speaker at the opening. Knowing that there were events like the sanitary fair happening in Pittsburgh offered comfort to soldiers in the field, he said. "It is important that each soldier knows that those who are at home are preparing, constantly preparing, the means which are to provide for him, whether sick or wounded," the governor said. And if he died, "those near and dear to him are to be kindly and liberally cared for."

Paintings, machinery, floral arrangements, autographed books and historical artifacts were displayed for purchase or viewing in the fair buildings. Food in the Dining Hall was prepared on an "extensive cooking range ... upon which will be fried, stewed, baked, roasted, boiled and broiled everything that can gratify the tastes of the daintiest epicure or most voracious gourmand." Lighter refreshments in the Floral Hall included fresh fruit, ice cream and sweet, carbonated drinks that the newspaper called "soda," rather than "pop."

The fair also offered a glimpse at several ethnic cultures. "Among the most attractive features of the Bazaar is the Chinese Booth," the Gazette reported on June 14. "Four ladies, two gentlemen and two children appear every evening in full Chinese silk robes, gorgeously embroidered and decorated." The items displayed on a Buddhist altar that was part of the Asia exhibit included "two larger idols [that were] part of the spoils of the British opium war."

Business owners and individuals had been asked to make cash contributions before the fair opened. Organizers reported that $100,000 -- equivalent to more than $1.5 million in modern currency -- had been collected by opening day. That early result offered hope that the event might raise as much as $250,000 by its conclusion on June 18.

The Audience Room, also referred to in advertisements as the Grand Concert Hall, drew a variety of performers. They included the Hyatt Cadets, a 170-member military drill team, and a squad of gymnasts, in full costume, performing "a series of feats with the light dumb-bells, the gymnastic rings, wands and the Indian clubs."

A singing group still well-known in Pittsburgh performed on June 6. The Teutonia Maennerchor, which still has its headquarters on Pittsburgh's North Side, took part in a performance by four combined choirs and three orchestras. The work was called "On the Seashore" ("Am Meeres Strande").

The June 10 edition of the Gazette provided a reminder of why the fair was important. A Gazette correspondent, writing under the name "Nemo," gave the names and injuries of 14 Pittsburgh soldiers wounded during recent battles in Virginia. Those on Nemo's list included R.G. Thomas, hit in the right leg; Horatio Goldthorp, a slight head wound; Lieut. James McIntire, hurt in the right arm; and James McKee, who died "in an ambulance at White House Landing." White House Landing, on the south shore of the Pamunkey River in Virginia, was the site of a Union Army supply base during Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's 1864 Overland, or Wilderness, Campaign.

"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.

Pittsburgh residents were proving to be generous. By June 13, fair activities already had raised $257,000, according to the newspaper. Ultimately the fair 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, according to a June 20 wrap-up story in the Gazette.

Some of the good works begun at the sanitary fair continue into the 21st century. When the Civil War effectively ended with Robert E. Lee's surrender 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 fund for Western Pennsylvania Hospital, now part of West Penn Allegheny Health System.


Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159.

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