Pennsylvania's Role | Pennsylvania Civil War 150
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Pennsylvania Civil War 150

Pennsylvania Civil War 150


Pennsylvania's Role

In human and material contributions, the Keystone State upheld its name during the Civil War. In 1860, Pennsylvania was the second most populous state, approaching a population of 3 million. The state boasted the second highest enlistment of soldiers in the Union army—more than 340,000.

While serving in segregated units, more than 8,600 black Pennsylvanians joined the fight. Pennsylvania recruited more black troops for service in the USCT than any other northern state. President Lincoln once chided an opponent of emancipation and black soldiers: “You say you will not fight to free negroes. Some of them seem willing to fight for you.” His Emancipation Proclamation allowed African Americans to serve in the military in 1863, and 11 such Pennsylvania regiments were trained at Philadelphia’s Camp William Penn.

More than 33,000 Pennsylvanians died in service with thousands more left physically or mentally scarred by war.

Charity Aids War Relief Efforts

The war’s vast scale overwhelmed the resources and experience of the government. Lack of preparation and shortages of supplies and medical care imperiled many early state recruits for the military. To remedy this problem, communities formed relief groups to provide comfort to soldiers. Women played prominent roles in “aid societies” sewing clothing, making bandages, and packing food and sundries.

While these local benevolent efforts targeted friends and relatives, wartime charity became acts of patriotism toward the nation. Northerners relied upon considerable experience creating and administering a wide array of charitable, fraternal, and social organizations. This experience proved to be one of the North’s strongest wartime assets.

One of the most significant national organizations was the United States Sanitary Commission, created in 1861 to help the government care for sick and wounded soldiers and their families. Donations of time and money throughout the North helped the organization acquire food, medicine, clothing, and other items.

Beginning in late 1863, regional chapters began hosting highly popular Sanitary Fairs in major cities featuring parades, exhibits and entertainment for war relief. Thrifty Pittsburghers recycled the wooden structures from the Cleveland Sanitary Fair when it opened on the Allegheny Commons in June 1864. In 18 days, the fair raised more than $300,000, a tribute to the wartime economic boom of that industrial city. Philadelphia was a main eastern branch of the Sanitary Commission and in its final report noted that 1,250,000 soldiers had passed through its doors. One of the great comforts was the Refreshment Saloon administered by the Women’s Pennsylvania Branch.

Philadelphia’s great Sanitary Fair, held at nearly the same time as Pittsburgh’s, was one of the largest and most successful of the war. At the opening of the fair, the state’s Republican Governor Andrew G. Curtin intoned, “the work before this great nation is big enough for all.” The work of the Sanitary Commission was monumental. By war’s end, the Philadelphia branch alone managed a volunteer hospital, a supply department, a pension agency, and an employment bureau.

Pennsylvania Contributes Innumerable Resources

Beyond wartime charity, the state contributed vastly in terms of food, resources, and manufactures. Pennsylvania farmers supplied flour, beef, livestock and fodder while its mines produced millions of tons of hard and soft coal.

The industrial centers of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia were especially notable. The “iron city” of Pittsburgh fashioned steamboats, locomotives and freight cars, wagons and iron. The massive Fort Pitt Foundry cast some of the largest artillery pieces of the war and, at almost 1,200 guns, filled 15 percent of the government’s wartime orders. In September 1862, a ghastly explosion at the federal Allegheny Arsenal killed more than 75 young workers, proving the danger of ammunition making.

With over 6,000 manufacturing establishments, Philadelphia played an immense role. City shipyards built 19 warships for the Union. Government contracts in uniforms, accoutrement, blankets and tents, to name a few, employed thousands. And the Pennsylvania Railroad, under the guidance of Thomas Scott, was a major conduit for moving men and material.

Financial Support For The Union

Pennsylvania also played a key role in financing the Union war effort. Union victory derived partly from the strong Northern economy.

In Philadelphia, the firm of Jay Cooke & Company became the government’s primary financial agent. Prior connections and success selling bonds during the Mexican War helped Cooke become the main channel for raising government cash. Cooke’s marketing strategy linked investing with patriotism and appealed to buyers of all budgets by selling war bonds in varying denominations. His efforts raised hundreds of millions of dollars and helped contain runaway inflation in the North.

In contrast, the southern economy relied more heavily on printing currency, which had disastrous consequences of inflation, speculation and ruin.

Information for this section was contributed by Robert M. Sandow, Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania.

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  • Gabor Boritt, ed., The Gettysburg Nobody Knows (Oxford University Press, 1997).
  • William Blair and William Pencak, eds., Pennsylvania's Civil War: Making and Remaking (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001).
  • J. Matthew Gallman, Mastering Wartime: A Social History of Philadelphia During the Civil War (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000).
  • Grace Palladino, Another Civil War: Labor, Capital, and the State in the Anthracite Regions of Pennsylvania, 1840-1868(Fordham University Press, 2006).
  • Robert M. Sandow, Deserter Country: Civil War Opposition in the Pennsylvania Appalachians (Fordham University Press, 2009).

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