Mayor Alexander Henry | Pennsylvania Civil War 150
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Pennsylvania Civil War 150

Pennsylvania Civil War 150


Mayor Alexander Henry

Like other war heroes, he commanded a great army. It just happened to be an army of cops.

Though no longer the nation's capital, Philadelphia was a vital center of political and, as the 'Arsenal of the North,' economic support for the Union throughout the Civil War.

Alexander Henry served with distinction as the mayor of Philadelphia during the tumultuous period and was prominent in the efforts to suppress Confederate sympathizers and unrest within the city throughout the duration of the war. He led civilians who built protective earthworks to defend the city during the 1863 Gettysburg Campaign and maintained order and security to a restless population.

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Henry was educated in local schools. He was a son of John Snowden Henry and Elizabeth (Bayard) Henry, and a grandson of Rev. Alexander Henry. He graduated with high honors from Princeton University in 1840. He studied law, passed his bar exam in 1844, and established a prosperous legal firm. He became active in local politics and represented the Seventh Ward on the City Council from 1856-1857.

In 1858, Henry ran for the office of mayor as a member of the People's Party, a fusion of political parties opposed to the extension of slavery, among which was the emerging Republican party. He was elected mayor, defeating incumbent Democrat Richard Vaux. Among his policies was strong support for the city's proposed system of public transportation, including streetcars. He also dramatically strengthened the police force, and as mayor, had direct control over its operations.

After the Civil War began in 1861 with the Confederates firing upon the U.S. Fort Sumter and on the flag, Philadelphia's southern leanings changed, and hostility moved from abolitionists to Southern sympathizers. Mobs threatened a secessionist newspaper and the homes of suspected sympathizers. Henry responded to the growing crisis and led efforts, along with the city police, to turn away the rioters and quell all unrest, which he would do successfully throughout the war. Compared to the upheavals other cities experience, Philadelphia remained relatively quiet under Henry's leadership.

During the Gettysburg Campaign in June 1863, he called out the home guard under Brig. General A. J. Pleasonton to help defend the city and encouraged citizens to help strengthen the line of earthworks and small forts ringing the main approaches to Philadelphia. Henry, along with city commander Maj. Gen. Napoleon J. T. Dana, organized a work party of 700 men for this effort. The Union Victory at Gettysburg under Philadelphian General Meade prevented the threat to the city.

The city's hospitality from which its name derives its roots was evident under Henry's tenure as he welcomed President Lincoln to Philadelphia on numerous occasions. Greeting Lincoln with a grand welcome both in life and posthumously, Henry served as Philadelphia's representative at Lincoln's 1865 funeral.

The war taking its toll, in late 1865 Henry chose not to run for another term and left office on January 1, 1866. He became a trustee of the University of Pennsylvania as a bank director, Commissioner of Fairmount Park and an inspector of Eastern State Penitentiary. He also was a leading member of the board of directors that planned the 1876 Centennial Exposition. He retired to a stately home in the Germantown region.

Henry died in Philadelphia on December 6, 1883, at age 60 from pneumonia after returning from a prolonged visit to Europe after the untimely death of his only child, his son. He was buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia. Henry Avenue in the Andorra neighborhood was named for this illustrious mayor.


Information for this section was contributed by Andy Waskie.

Image Courtesy of The Historical Society of PA

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