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The Civil War Library and Museum: Past, Present, and Future

By Michael A. Cavanaugh


November 2004

On April 15, 1865, news of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and the attack on his cabinet spread through Philadelphia like wildfire. Hundreds of veterans gathered at Independence Hall to hear the latest news. The air was abuzz with talk of a plot to overthrow the United States government.

Many active and recently discharged officers believed the Union was again in peril. Two army surgeons and an infantry officer called for a mass meeting of Philadelphia veterans. Their main agenda would be to renew their allegiance to the Union and do whatever was necessary to put down any new threat to the country. When they were assured that it was not a plot to overthrow the government they turned their attention to honoring the slain president by making plans to participate in his funeral.

These three Union officers (S.B. Wylie Mitchell, Peter D. Keyser and Thomas E. Zell) would form what became the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States.

The Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, or MOLLUS, became the first Civil War veterans organization in the country. The first few months of the legion were difficult. Interest was high but attendance was irregular. The war was over and the first priority of veterans was to successfully reenter civilian life. But a faithful few remained determined to keep the organization together and make it a success.

The first state to organize was, of course, Pennsylvania. Seventeen states from coast to coast soon followed plus Washington, D.C. However, until 1885, when the National Commandery was created, the Pennsylvania Commandery would be regarded as the chief legislative and judicial body of the order with headquarters in Philadelphia.

Over the years the membership of the Loyal Legion would grow into the thousands. Leadership and membership rolls would be a who's who of Union notables. The army was represented by such names as Winfield Scott Hancock, George Gordon Meade, Phil Sheridan, Joshua Chamberlain and George Thomas, just to name a few. George Melville and David Farragut would represent the navy.

Five U.S. presidents were companions:Rutherford B. Hayes, Chester A. Arthur, U.S. Grant, Benjamin Harrison, and William McKinley. Distinguished non-military figures from the Lincoln Cabinet were companions and Abraham Lincoln was elected the first Honorary Member on April 16, 1865.

The Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States exists today with commanderies in several states that are still very active. Second Class Membership (First Class Membership was limited to actual Union army officers) is limited to lineal descendents of Union army officers. Associate membership is now available with a ladies organization called DOLLUS (Dames of the Loyal Legion of the United Sates). Honorary memberships are still being added to the rolls.

As would be expected, MOLLUS meeting places throughout the county would produce a treasure-trove of Civil War-related relics and material. In Philadelphia, accumulations of these relics produced a first-class library and museum. As state departments closed due to declining membership, their collections were sent to Philadelphia or, as in the case of the Massachusetts Commandery's huge image collection, was sent to the U.S. Army Military History Institute at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania.

In 1888, the Pennsylvania Commandery formed what would become the Civil War Library and Museum. Rutherford B. Hayes, 19th president of the United States, was the first president. But the driving force of the creation of the CWL&M was Brevet Lt. Col. John Page Nicholson of the 28th Pennsylvania Infantry. Nicholson's 43 years as Recorder-in-Chief made the CWL&M the finest Civil War library and museum in the country.

The Present

Today, the center city four-story row house contains a library of nearly 13,000 books, periodicals and manuscripts. The huge relic collection consists of such treasures as the uniform coat, hat, boots, etc. that Gen. George Gordon Meade wore at the battle of Gettysburg. The collection also includes the blouses of Generals Grant and Sherman.

A life mask of Abraham Lincoln, plus a lock of his hair, is on display along with the death mask of U.S. Grant and his famous "Unconditional Surrender"約 letter. The saddle that Gen. John Reynolds rode on when he was killed on July 1, 1863, at the Battle of Gettysburg shares an honored place in the Meade Room. Custer's cavalry guidon used at Gettysburg is preserved on the third floor.

Scores of battle flags and paintings adorn the walls of the 1857 townhouse, including Meade's headquarters flag used on the 1864 Wilderness Campaign.

Valuable Confederate relics are also on display. Jeff Davis's housecoat along with the blanket used by Henry Wirz at Capital Prison highlight the Confederate Room. The Navy Room contains hundreds of books on the Civil War at sea along with detailed scale models of the USS Monitor. The list goes on and on but the crown jewel of the collection is the head of General Meade's gallant warhorse Old Baldy on loan from the GAR Museum and Library in the Frankford section of Philadelphia.

The CWL&M has been the meeting place of the Old Baldy Civil War Round Table of Philadelphia since 1977. The round table, usually totaling around 100 members, has been a steadfast supporter of the library and museum with financial support and volunteers. When the museum opened to the public in the early 1980s it was the small paid staff and volunteers who kept the doors open and the place running.

With the endowment dwindling, it took the efforts of many to help pay the bills. The institution was saved several times by generous contributors. Member Lee Quinn made the highest personal donation in the history of the museum with a check for over $80,000 in the early 1990s. Another long-time supporter passed away and left the museum $10,000 which was used to put on a new roof. The old roof was a constant danger to the collection.

Endorsements contracts with the Franklin Mint helped along with generous donations over the years by members of the board of governors. With the many threats of closing it seemed that the tireless efforts of Director John Craft, members of the board and the volunteers would always be able to keep the doors open.

In 1988, the 100th anniversary of the CWL&M, a special "Spirit of 88"約 fund raiser was created. Any one person or organization that contributed $2,000 over a four-year period would receive special notice. One contributor to the "Spirit of 88"約 of note was Alex Trebek of "Jeopardy,"約 a long-time supporter and Civil War buff.

The project was a mild success but helped in paying the bills for a several more months. Special exhibits such as "The Look of the Ladies, African-Americans in the U. S. Military 1863 to 1918"約 and "Imports from the United Kingdom 1861-1865"約 were very well received and increased attendance. It took many hours of work by staff (led by curator Steve Wright) and volunteers to put these wonderful exhibits together.

In the mid-1990s it became apparent that something must be done or the institution would have to close its doors and the collection turned over to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The board began to look for a new location to house the collection. Several offers were contemplated and negotiations began with the Union League of Philadelphia. After months of meetings and proposals and counter-proposals the deal fell through.

Another proposal came from the capital of the Confederacy itself, Richmond Va. They offered to take most of the collection "" three- dimensional items "" and create a national museum at the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond. This proposed move created a firestorm in the Civil War community in the Delaware Valley. It split the board of governors and the city of Philadelphia itself.

One group was totally opposed to the collection leaving the city under any circumstances and the other group thought there were no other options left open. Law suits were filled and the state and local courts and the Attorney General's Office of Pennsylvania became involved. After more than two years of hearings and intense negotiations a settlement was reached.

The collection would stay in Philadelphia. The state would loan $60,000 to the museum's treasury to keep the museum running and the doors open. A new board of governors was formed with five members of the old board as members. The city and the state along with members of MOLLUS and the Union League would be represented. Sixty percent of the two-dimensional items would go to the Union League to create a research facility called the Center for Civil War Studies.

The new board's first priority was to safeguard the entire collection and second would be to find a new location. The institution's name was changed from the Civil War Library and Museum to the Civil War Library and Underground Railroad Museum. Material related to the Underground Railroad would be solicited for future exhibits and research.

The Future

Today the future of the Civil War Library and Underground Railroad Museum looks bright. In June 2004, the institution received a grant from the William Penn Foundation in the amount of $341,000. The funds will be used to inventory and evaluate the entire collection along with decisions on the building's future and the future of the museum itself.

A recent fund-raising luncheon at the Union League, featuring the legendary Ed Bearss, was a real shot in the arm. One hundred and seventy supporters paid $125 per person to attend. The first priority of the new board of governors is to find a new location for the institution.

The building on Pine Street is jam-packed with the collection. The building was built as a private residence not a library and museum. It is not handicapped accessible and its plumbing and electrical systems are old and dangerous.

Moving is at least five years down the road. One possible site talked about is the Convention Center near the historic Independence Hall area. This would be a great location for walk-in visitors. It will take the complete cooperation of the state, city, and corporate and private sectors to make the Civil War Library and Underground Railroad Museum a first-class institution again.

In 1888 the founders wrote the mission is:"To Preserve the History of the Great Conflict and to Promote Public Education."約

The museum is open on Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Group tours are available with advanced notice. The Old Baldy CWRT meets on the second Thursday of the month throughout the year and is open to the public.

For further information on the museum or the Old Baldy Civil War Round Table call or write:The Civil War Library and Underground Railroad Museum, 1805 Pine St., Philadelphia, PA 10107. (215) 735-8196. fax:(215) 735-3812. On the Web:www.netreach.net/~cwlm

Michael A. Cavanaugh has been connected with the Civil War Library and Museum as a volunteer since 1975. He is an honorary member of MOLLUS and was a member of the museum's board of governors from 1997 to 2002. He has authored and co-authored five books on the war and is writing a biography on Maj. Gen. William Mahone, CSA.

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