George H. Boker | Pennsylvania Civil War 150
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Pennsylvania Civil War 150

Pennsylvania Civil War 150

Civilians

George H. Boker

Many members and generations later, his stand for the Union had lasting popularity.

George Henry Boker (1824-1890), one of the leading poets and playwrights of his day, sacrificed every private consideration, even his desire to write, to the cause of making Philadelphia loyal to the Union.

At the time of the Civil War, Philadelphia's loyalty to the Union was by no means certain. Many of the city's leading families had strong ties of commerce and kinship to the slaveholding South. Philadelphia's textile industry (the largest in the country), institutions of higher learning and transportation networks were closely connected with the southern states.

A large faction of southern sympathizers in Philadelphia hoped for a Confederate invasion of the city in the summer of 1862 and had in fact selected a headquarters building for Robert E. Lee, at the corner of Broad and Walnut Streets. Their plans were thwarted only by the stalemate at Antietam on September 17, 1862.

Against this backdrop of a conflicted city, Boker along with John I. C. Hare, proposed the formation of a Union Club to support President Lincoln, the administration and the Union in November 1862. Boker served as the League’s first Secretary from 1863 to 1871. His wartime annual reports contain some of the finest patriotic writings from the period.

In the early days, allegiance to the Union League involved some risk. An anti-Union newspaper printed the names and addresses of the early subscribers to the League with threats that their houses would be ransacked. Boker was threatened by a pistol-wielding, would-be assassin, whom he answered with vigor. Fortunately the ruffian's friends pulled him away before any damage was done.

By early 1863, more than 250 men had joined the Union League. Over the next two years, under Boker's vigorous leadership, the League helped turn Philadelphia into a Union stronghold.

During the final two years of the Civil War, the Union League and its members:

  • Helped with the formation of 700 Union League clubs in every ward of the city and across the country from Maine to California, serving as the "mother house" of the Union League movement
  • Raised and financially supported nine regiments of Union troops and 11 regiments of U.S. Colored Troops
  • Edited, published, and distributed more than 2 million pro-Union pamphlets across the country
  • Held a leadership role in Philadelphia's 1864 Great Sanitary Fair, which raised $1.1 million to care for soldiers
  • Provided financial support for soldiers' families both before and after the war: widows, orphans, wounded soldiers, jobs for returning soldiers
  • Supported the Pennsylvania Freedman's Relief Association, whose president was a founding League member (After the war this was reorganized as the Freedman's Bureau.)

After the war, George Boker would go on to serve his country as Minister to Turkey (1871-1875) and Minister to Russia (1875-1878). He served the Union League as president for five consecutive terms, from 1879-1884.

He is buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia.

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Information for this section was contributed by Laura Blanchard and James Mundy.

Photo courtesy the Union League of Philadelphia

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