Restored Espy Post in Carnegie a treasure trove of history
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Union Army Capt. Thomas Espy has long lain in an unmarked grave. But a photograph of his determined face still casts a forceful presence in the Carnegie veterans post that bears his name.
If the souls of his men from the 62nd Regiment stir happily, perhaps it's because this elegant room, where they and other local soldiers met regularly for three decades, has been beautifully restored with the help of four archival photographs.
In this Civil War-era time capsule called Captain Thomas Espy Post No. 153, on the second floor of the Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall in Carnegie, the wood paneling gleams, burgundy stencils decorate the high ceiling, and an orange, teal and cranberry patterned carpet covers the floor. Through tall windows, faint winter light shines on a Bible, ornate swords, rifles, a crisp blue uniform, and the captain's red and blue drum.
A new, museum-grade climate control system protects the artifacts, books and archives that make this one of the richest and most intact among the remaining half-dozen Grand Army of the Republic veterans posts in the nation, according to Stuart McConnell, a history professor at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif. The GAR, founded in 1866, was a veterans organization for soldiers who served in the Union Army and Navy.
Fittingly, the room reopens with a $50 ticket reception Friday, Abraham Lincoln's birthday. Just outside the Espy Post, in a large reception hall, visitors who come during regular library hours through March 27 will see an exhibition of 100 photographs of Lincoln.
The public can also visit the Espy Post from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. every Saturday beginning this week. Visitors can also make an appointment.
As president, Lincoln struggled to save the nation. Capt. Espy, an affluent Upper St. Clair merchant who ran a grist mill, did his part, too. He had recruited and commanded a militia unit before the Civil War began in 1861. With the outbreak of hostilities, Espy, who listed his age as 52 in the U.S. Census of 1860, enlisted along with his men. Wounded at the battle of Gaines Mill, Va. in 1862, Capt. Espy was taken prisoner and died a few days later, leaving behind a wife and eight children.
Members of the Espy Post, chartered in 1879, wanted to preserve their history and moved to the library for that reason in 1906. Librarians promised to care for the post's artifacts and archives forever. But after the post's last member died in 1937, the heavy wooden door slammed shut for nearly 50 years while coal dust and decay exacted their gradual toll. A bookcase was placed in front of the door and the room largely forgotten.
In the early 1980s, Michael Kraus, whose Civil War passion began in his boyhood, bought a sword from a man in Carnegie. The seller suggested he visit the library; a maintenance man admitted Mr. Kraus to the Thomas Espy Post.
"It was dark, dirty, piled with extra furniture from around the library. ... Anything you touched had this old Pittsburgh coal dust. You looked like a coal miner if you went in there and came out," said Mr. Kraus, curator of Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum in Oakland.
Working with Charlene Langer, then a library board member, Mr. Kraus volunteered to catalog the 100 items that remained from a list of 177 mementos that post members had compiled in 1911.
"The Grand Army of the Republic was really woven into the fabric of post Civil War America. It was the first successful veterans organization. At one time, they were politically powerful," Mr. Kraus said.
In 1890, GAR membership peaked at around 350,000, spread among nearly 7,000 posts. But, by 1910, many veterans had died. GAR chapters began consolidating; many local groups met at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall, which was opened in 1910 by Civil War veterans after Allegheny County donated the land and building.
Mr. Kraus credits the creation of the Espy Post partly to William H.H. Lea, who joined the Union Army in 1861 and left in 1865 as a second lieutenant. Mr. Lea collected many of the artifacts.
The goal of restoring the veterans post had to wait until the library and music hall, damaged by water and neglect, could be updated. Today, the library and music hall are enjoying a renaissance thanks to a $7 million fundraising campaign begun in 2003 by its executive director, Maggie Forbes. Since 2005, the three-story building's foundation has been sealed, an elevator installed and numerous updates completed. Left on the to-do list are lighting, landscaping and renovating a gymnasium that has a 20-foot-high ceiling.
The Espy Post got a boost in 1981 when a group of re-enactors called the 9th Pennsylvania Reserves began meeting at the library. Rea Andrew Redd, president of the group, said that in 2000, re-enactors cleaned the music hall and staged "Our American Cousin," the drama Lincoln saw the night he was assassinated. Through admissions and donations and a $10,000 grant, the group raised $20,000 to pay for archival supplies and a conservator's report that assessed the state of artifacts.
Work on restoring the post was jump-started in December 2008 by a generous donation from Bill and Denise Brown of Collier. The couple's gift prompted an anonymous local donor to give $500,000.
Mr. Brown, 64, president of Resco Products Inc., is a native of Birmingham, Ala. He grew up hearing about his mother's relatives who fought and died for the Confederacy.
"All of our family members in the South were cattle ranchers and cotton farmers but none of them had a plantation or owned any slaves," said Mr. Brown, who has the flag that draped the coffin of his namesake, William M. Brown, his paternal great-grandfather who joined the Union Army.
The Thomas Espy Post, Mr. Brown said, "helps us understand America's story. You can almost see the old Union veterans sitting there talking about the fights they were in ... how they lost battles to the South, taking a smoke and reliving all the glory days."
Another person minding the post is Diane Klinefelter, a professional librarian, geneaologist and Civil War historian. Since 2006, she has served as library director and also is researching the lives of the post's veterans.
A student of the Civil War since her early 20s, Ms. Klinefelter toured numerous battlefields in Richmond, Va., while visiting her mother's relatives whose ancestors fought for the Confederacy. But at least seven of her Klinefelter ancestors served in the Union Army.
In 2003, the Western Pennsylvania Geneaological Society published her book, "Personal War Sketches of the African-American Members of the Robert G. Shaw Post 206," which met at Soldiers & Sailors.
"African-Americans were invisible back then. They didn't own property nor did they have large personal estates," said Ms. Klinefelter, who never found a photograph of the Robert G. Shaw Post members.
On Memorial Day in 1905, members of the Thomas Espy Post posed for a picture on the library steps; the image reveals three African-American members.
"I was shocked," Ms. Klinefelter said. "Oh, this was an integrated post. This Grand Army of the Republic, as a national organization, did not condone segregation, but it existed at the local post level."
Now, the librarian would like to write a book about the Espy Post. Two weeks ago, after the last artifacts were displayed on the shelves and Ms. Klinefelter had run the sweeper, the room fell quiet and afternoon sun glowed on the mementos. She stood quietly and spoke to the spirits.
"You know, guys," she said softly, "I hope you like what we did for you. We're keeping our word."
First Published February 8, 2010 12:00 am