Pittsburgh supplied weaponry to North in Civil War
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When historian Arthur Fox began his research on what would become a book about Pittsburgh in the Civil War, he was told by one local librarian, "Why bother? Nothing happened here."
That didn't stop Mr. Fox, who teaches at Community College of Allegheny County. The fruits of his research, two volumes on the home front in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County during the war, have become indispensable guides for Civil War buffs, historians and journalists interested in the period.
The librarian who tried to discourage Mr. Fox might be forgiven for thinking that nothing happened here.
There were, of course, no major battles near Pittsburgh like the epic struggle at Gettysburg or the siege of Vicksburg, which probably sealed the South's fate.
Nevertheless, the city was hardly a backwater during the war years. About 26,000 men from Pittsburgh and Allegheny County served in the Union army and navy, according to Mr. Fox's estimate. This was at a time when the county population was fewer than 200,000. Of the men who volunteered or were drafted, Mr. Fox has concluded that about 4,000, 14 percent, were killed, died of battle wounds or succumbed to disease.
Undoubtedly, the city's major contribution to the Union cause was its shops, factories and foundries, which turned out uniforms, cannons, ammunition and iron plate for the newly developed ironclad ships.
In this, Pittsburgh mirrored the industrial and transportation revolutions that had transformed much of the North during the preceding decades.
"The North had built up an extraordinary industrial base by the 1850s. So much so that it was able to supply and resupply itself" and ultimately win the war, said Walter Licht, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in 19th century U.S. economic history.
Perhaps contributing to the idea that nothing happened here is the fact that little remains of mid-19th century Pittsburgh. A survey in the 1970s by the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation identified fewer than a dozen buildings in Downtown dating from the Civil War era. Even some of those probably have not escaped demolition or extensive renovation during the ensuing years, foundation staffers said.
Other sections of the city appear to have fared slightly better. One can get a feel for mid-19th century Pittsburgh by walking around North Side neighborhoods or along the streets of Lawrenceville, the site of a huge U.S. government arsenal.
Some of the buildings that do remain, notably those along Fort Pitt Boulevard in Downtown, are a reminder that Pittsburgh, along with Allegheny City in what is now the North Side, was an economic powerhouse in 1861.
Below Fort Pitt Boulevard, once known as Water Street, steamboats docked at the Monongahela Wharf.
"Bales, boxes, barrels and freight were piled six feet high on the bank and in front of the stores on Water Street, sometimes for the greater part of a mile" from near what is now the Boulevard of the Allies ramp to the Point, as Leland D. Baldwin noted in his history of Pittsburgh published in the 1930s.
Around the Point, coal, lumber, agricultural products and manufactured goods were, as Baldwin put it, "finding their way down the Allegheny [River] to be used in Pittsburgh or sent down the Ohio River."
It was a pattern that would be repeated during the Civil War as men and supplies were shipped down the Ohio to the Union armies fighting for control of the Mississippi River Valley. And it was by this same route in reverse that many of the wounded and dead would be brought home. This human traffic also included Confederate prisoners of war.
Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania had been swept up in the debate over slavery and states' rights, especially after 1850. For nationally renowned abolitionist speakers like Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, Pittsburgh was a stop on their circuit.
The city's blacks were excluded from public schools, confined to menial jobs and denied the right to vote. Many lived in a neighborhood called Hayti, in what is now the Lower Hill.
Despite being hemmed in by prejudice, the black community produced outstanding leaders, notably Martin Delany, who was an early collaborator with Douglass and would become a commissioned officer in the Union Army.
The black community received a terrible jolt in 1850, when Congress passed a new Fugitive Slave Law as part of a compromise to preserve the Union. Some slaveholders were emboldened to come North to bring back "their" former slaves who had fled. The newspapers of the time are filled with accounts of black people and sympathetic white people trying to prevent free blacks from being carried off. Shortly after enactment of the law, dozens of the city's black residents fled to Canada out of fear of being re-enslaved. Many eventually returned.
In late December 1860, reports surfaced that President James Buchanan's secretary of war, John B. Floyd, had ordered 100 20-pound guns to be shipped from the Allegheny Arsenal in Lawrenceville to New Orleans and then to forts in Texas.
The order provoked outrage among some Pittsburgh residents who feared they would end up in the hands of secessionists. South Carolina had already left the Union.
A crowd gathered near what is now Forbes Avenue and Grant Street to protest the decision to transport the guns. Many vowed to block the shipments by force. A plaque from 1916, placed on the side of the Allegheny County Courthouse, marks the spot.
In early January, Buchanan countermanded the order, even as some of the weapons were being hauled to a wharf to be loaded onto a ship.
By late May 1861, six weeks after the attack on Fort Sumter, Pittsburgh was on a war footing.
A camp had been built on the city's fairgrounds to accommodate the thousands of men who had answered President Abraham Lincoln's call for volunteers to augment the Union army.
As spring gave way to summer, many of those who had volunteered, expecting to serve a scant three months, had departed in empty cargo cars provided by the Pennsylvania Railroad for military posts in Eastern Pennsylvania. From there, many were deployed to positions near the nation's capital. The railroad link between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, completed less than a decade earlier, was proving its strategic value.
As the volunteers marched through Downtown from their staging area in what is now the Strip District, cheering crowds lined the streets. Buildings along the route to the train station were bedecked with flags.
Many of the wounded would return to Pittsburgh along the same rail lines and ship routes that had carried them into harm's way. Military hospitals were established to treat wounded soldiers. In some cases, these military hospitals were the forerunners of the hospitals the city has today.
The Fort Pitt Foundry and the Allegheny Arsenal in Lawrenceville were key suppliers of war materials.
Mr. Fox has concluded that about 60 percent of the Union's heavy artillery, manufactured under government contracts, was produced at the Fort Pitt Foundry. In the 1860s, the foundry was situated near what is now Macy's Downtown store. It drew visitors from abroad who came, as one early chronicler put it, to witness "the casting of the monster cannon."
The foundry's most famous product was an 80-ton cannon that had a range of up to seven miles.
The Allegheny Arsenal looked out onto Butler Street. Its specialties were gun carriages, horse and infantry equipment and ammunition, Mr. Fox said.
On Sept. 17, 1862, as Union and Confederate troops clashed near Antietam Creek in Maryland, three explosions rocked the arsenal, killing nearly 80 people. Most were girls and women.
So important was Pittsburgh to the Union war effort that in 1863, when Robert E. Lee began his second invasion of the North, a ring of 37 fortifications was hastily constructed in June and early July around the city to protect it from Confederate attack. Stanton Heights, Morningside, Greenfield and Squirrel Hill were among the places where earthen fortifications were built.
A group largely composed of the city's African-Americans built Fort Robert Smalls on the South Side Slopes. The fort was named for a slave, later a U.S. congressman, who piloted a ship out of Charleston, S.C., harbor and brought it to the U.S. Navy. Jones & Laughlin steelworkers also constructed a fort nearby, on what is now the site of the Arlington playground.
There is little evidence today of these forts, which largely disappeared as the city expanded in the early 20th century. But a few photographs, taken in the 1890s, remain. By that time, trees and underbrush had sprouted along the fortifications.
First Published May 30, 2011 12:00 am