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Civil War Philadelphia

By Anthony Waskie

August 2007

Philadelphia, birthplace of the Nation, is often noted as a shrine of the Revolutionary War, first capital of the Republic, and the colonial city of William Penn. Few realize however, that the city played a most significant and vital role in the American Civil War, earning it the title of "Arsenal of the North."

The might of the city's manufacturing base and heavy industries fired by anthracite coal created the iron and steel that produced weapons, ordnance, locomotives and rails that served the war effort. Uniforms, blankets and woolens, leather products, ambulances and other military supplies that brought ultimate victory were also manufactured here. Some would even say that the locomotives produced by Matthias Baldwin alone were indispensable to victory.

At the outbreak of hostilities in 1861, Philadelphia was the second largest city in the country and the closest urban center to the war front. As a major transportation hub, manufacturing center, and site of the finest civilian hospitals and medical schools in the nation, and later in the war the largest military hospitals, the city was destined to become crucial to the war effort.

Civic associations such as the Union League, Sanitary Commission, Christian Commission and its Great Central Fair, made heroic efforts to support the soldiery at home and at the front.

Philadelphia had always been home to the largest free Black community in the North. It was a center of Abolitionism, a safe haven and support for the Underground RR and a destination for fugitive slaves. After War Department authorization, large numbers of "Colored" Troops (as they were then known) were recruited from Philadelphia and vicinity and trained at nearby Camp William Penn.

By war's end over 12,000 African-American soldiers had been sent to the war front, proving their valor and courage in battle and contributing greatly to winning the war, and succeeding in emancipating their Southern brethren in bondage.

Philadelphia had one of the largest and oldest navy yards in the country, as well as many private ship yards. In addition to building many fine warships for naval service, the city was also home to several major military facilities, including armories and arsenals.

Nearly 100,000 Philadelphians entered the military service, 20,000 of whom never returned. This was an enviable record of service and sacrifice few other cities could equal.

Philadelphia could also claim some of the greatest commanders of both North and South, including the redoubtable Victor of Gettysburg, Gen. George G. Meade! Others included: Confederate general John C. Pemberton, Union generals McClellan, Humphreys, Gibbon and Crawford; Admirals Porter and Dahlgren, fallen heroes such as Koltes, Greble, the Ellets, Bohlen and Birney to name just a few.

Any visit to Philadelphia should retrace a journey through time to the large number of sites to be found there that are most closely identified with the Civil War era, including forts, training camps, recruiting stations, hospitals, arsenals and depots.

Also of importance will be a visit to the fortifications that were hastily erected to guard against the Confederate invasion of 1863 that was fortuitously halted at Gettysburg. Other sites include the homes of war heroes, cultural institutions, and of locales associated with the home front, such as the Southwark Refreshment Saloon movement.

In the postwar period, Philadelphia became a center for veterans' organizations, such as the Loyal Legion and the Grand Army. These veterans' groups played a most significant role in the postwar period with many patriotic projects, activities and initiatives for the widows and orphans and remembrance of the fallen, and pensions for their wounded and debilitated comrades.

The veterans were eager to memorialize their honorable service through ceremonials, parades, reunions and monumentation. Most of these shrines to the "mystic cords of memory" still dot the landscape of the city, including one of the earliest Lincoln Memorials in the nation (1871).

Homage must also be paid to many of the era's illustrious Greats, civil and military, by visiting their final resting places in Laurel Hill and Woodlands Cemeteries and other Victorian-era burial grounds.

Although previously better known for its Early American past, much is being done to highlight, interpret and preserve the rich Civil War era history of Philadelphia. Active in efforts to awaken and promote the city's treasures are a number of groups, organizations and institutions.

Among the leaders in seizing the initiative to welcome the arrival of the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth and the sesquicentennial of the Civil War itself are: the Civil War History Consortium, consisting of all major players in the Civil War history related field, the Civil War and Underground RR Museum of Philadelphia, the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) Civil War Museum & Library, the Union League of Philadelphia, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the Friends of Laurel Hill Cemetery, General Meade Society of Philadelphia, Temple University's Civil War & Emancipation Studies program, several old and active Civil War Round Tables, the Consortium of Mid-Atlantic Civil War Round Tables, and many others too numerous to mention.

The History Consortium represents the combined efforts of all the related groups and institutions and is attempting to coordinate programs and initiatives to sharpen the focus on the upcoming anniversaries. The Consortium also exists to engender support for many on-going programs and activities.

To access the Web site of the Consortium go to

Philadelphia has for many years had an active Civil War history community. These individuals and groups seek to educate the public to the deep, robust and illustrious role Philadelphia played in this period. Conferences, symposia fund-raising, historic preservation, reenactments, living history programs, public ceremonials, exhibitions and displays are some of the ways this core of dedicated activists raise the public's consciousness to the importance of the city to the Civil War and Emancipation era.

Despite these many efforts and an emphasis on research, tours of related historic sites, and promoting donations and funding for preservation, much, unfortunately, goes unnoticed.

The continuing challenge to the history community here in Philadelphia, and to the larger communities outside the city, is to present Philadelphia as the great center of Civil War history, which it can with justification claim, and present the city and its manifold resources in such a way that the interested visitor is drawn to take advantage of the treasures that abound.

One promising proposal is a Web-based portal to provide the public with an all-encompassing site to access information on the Philadelphia Civil War story, including: period newspapers, primary source material, a virtual tour of important sites, events listings, links to all associated institutions, groups and stake-holders. Such a portal will serve as a primary and comprehensive gateway to the wonders of Civil War Philadelphia.

Philadelphia beckons all those who wish to explore the rich and varied array of sites sacred to the history enthusiast, and now assumes its role as a primary destination for Civil War era history.

Another famous Pennsylvania site, Gettysburg, attracts millions of visitors to wonder at the heroic sacrifice of a generation. Although this battlefield has earned its place in the pantheon of American history, the battle lasted for only a few days of bloody conflict.

Philadelphia's role continued for four years. Clearly, without Philadelphia's many and varied contributions, the North could not have prevailed at Gettysburg, nor could the nation have remained united.

Anthony "Andy" Waskie, Ph.D., is a professor at Temple University and Co-Director of its Civil War & Emancipation Studies. He is President of the General Meade Society of Philadelphia and a officer or board member of several of the groups mentioned in his column, as well as a published author, researcher and historian. He may be reached at awaski01@TEMPLE.EDU

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