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Posted on Jul 8, 2013 in Books and Movies

Civil War Pittsburgh – Book Review

By Sean Stevenson

civil-war-pittsburgh-coverCivil War Pittsburgh: Forge Of The Union. Len Barcousky. The History Press, 2013. Paperback, 128 pages. $19.95

The Civil War is not forgotten in Pittsburgh. Schoolchildren still learn about the disaster that occurred at Allegheny Arsenal in 1862, a series of explosions that killed more than six dozen people; just a few years ago, a “coroner’s inquest” held at The Heinz History Center placed blame squarely on the commander, Colonel John Symington, and his staff for their careless management of the gunpowder stores. On a more personal note, I take pride in being a direct descendant of Union General John Wilson Sprague—who served in the Western Theater, including the Atlanta Campaign—as well as enjoying a possible connection to the Sprague Light Horse unit from New York state which served at Gettysburg and in The Wilderness.


But it is easy to lose track, for those north of the Mason-Dixon Line, of exactly how much the war impacted our communities. When the war broke out, the South was merely thirty-four miles away from Pittsburgh; West Virginia had not been carved from Virginia yet, so we shared a border with the Old Dominion. Although Pittsburgh and the surrounding region had gone heavily for Lincoln and the Republicans, there was still a strong core of Democrats who supported states’ rights and the Southern secession. This was best reflected in the positions of the city’s pair of newspapers; The Daily Pittsburgh Gazette was staunchly Republican, while The Pittsburgh Post backed the Democrats and their opposition to the war.

Given that history, Len Barcousky has a unique ability to write on the war. Working as he does for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Over the course of a century, the once-rival newspapers conflated into one.) the author has access to the archives of both newspapers. He has produced a fine book, Civil War Pittsburgh, which gives us the war as the newspapers of the day reported it, providing readers more than cold historical data and providing all-important context (social, political, even economic) for a variety of events and decisions.

A small trade paperback, coming in just over 120 pages, the book is in a format similar to the neighborhood history books you can find in most major cities around the country. Nicely illustrated throughout with period drawings and photos, along with more recent photos taken around the Pittsburgh area of landmarks, Civil War Pittsburgh packs a good amount of information on the War Between The States.

Barcousky begins with a February 14, 1861. stop by President-elect Lincoln in Pittsburgh, on his way to take up residence in Washington, DC. The trip was not a rousing success, as it rained in the city during Lincoln’s entire stay—and I assure you things have not changed, Pittsburgh has more cloudy days than Seattle. Barcousky quotes liberally from the newspaper accounts of the day with a deft touch, not pedantically reciting what others said but weaving them into a comfortable narrative. So we learn that while the Gazette spoke admiringly of the visit, the best that the Post could offer Lincoln was, “He is by no means a handsome man, but his facial angles would not break a looking glass.” Happy Valentine’s Day, Abe.

Following this introduction are a series of chapters detailing the war from just after the 1860 election through to Lincoln’s assassination and its aftermath. One of the most fascinating incidents—little-reported on before this—comes to light on the first few pages. Before it was known as The Arsenal Of The Union, Pittsburgh was the arsenal for the United States. Because of its key positioning for river traffic, the numerous mines all through western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio, and the many forges and mills that existed in the area from the American Revolution onwards, Pittsburgh was a major center for weapons manufacturing, particularly heavy artillery pieces.

On Christmas Day 1860, a story broke in the Pittsburgh papers. The administration of President Buchanan, himself a native of Pennsylvania, was planning to send south to New Orleans and Galveston more than one hundred artillery pieces that had been made and stored in Pittsburgh. This at a time when the clouds of war had not only gathered but were breaking; the Confederacy had already formed, elected its own president, and was demanding the surrender of Federal military installations. Republicans in Pittsburgh correctly assumed that any guns sent to the South would wind up reinforcing Southern armies. Thousands took the streets in protest, and telegrams and letters were sent to the White House urging the president to block the transfer of arms.

It helped the protestors’ cause that one of the more powerful figures in the Buchanan administration, attorney general Edward Stanton (soon to be Lincoln’s secretary of war), had lived in Pittsburgh for nearly twenty years and married a Pittsburgh woman. John Floyd, Buchanan’s Secretary of War—and former governor of Virginia, by the way—who had approved the transfer of guns, quickly resigned, and the 142 pieces of artillery stayed put until sent out months later to bolster the Union army. Floyd, meanwhile, joined the Confederate forces, became a brigadier general until relieved of command, and was then made a major general of Virginia State Line troops. No less a light than Ulysses S. Grant accused him of having purposely aided the southern secessionists during his tenure as Secretary of War. Considering that half to two-thirds of Confederate artillery pieces during the war were captured from the North, and envisioning an extra thirty or so guns on the Southern side of the field at Gettysburg, you can see how vital that Christmas in Pittsburgh turned out to be!

The book is filled with great anecdotes, from the Pittsburgh Rifles’ service on the exposed flank at Antietam to the trenches dug around the city as Lee’s army invaded the state. The book covers the war from the inevitability of its beginning through to Andrew Johnson’s equally poor reception in Pittsburgh, though his visit was marred not by weather but by ill political winds, with neither Republicans nor Democrats (and, hence, neither Pittsburgh paper) completely trusting Lincoln’s Democrat running mate. Best of all, rather than being told with 20/20 hindsight, the war is conveyed from the point of view of those times, which works well when (as example) we get a sense of the real panic gripping Pittsburgh when Southern troops invaded Pennsylvania. Lee was east of the mountains, Pittsburghers knew, but where was Stuart and his cavalry? (Lee would be asking the same question in the early days of July.)

The light touch Barcousky uses might not appeal to hardcore historians who demand details, but despite its small page count this breeze of a book conveys reams of information on the impact the Civil War had on the Pittsburgh region, and also gives us insight into its effect on the neighboring corner of Virginia (breakaway state West Virginia). Barcousky’s use of the archives available to him is masterful, and his adoption of the voices of yesterday to tell yesterday’s story is exceedingly well-done.

The book ends on an understated note covering the 1946 passing of 99-years-young Joseph Caldwell, the last living Pittsburgh veteran of the Grand Army Of The Republic, in his photo looking wonderfully elegant in his business suit and Union Army military cap. Having read through this book, I was able to understand the war through Private Caldwell’s eyes. Thanks to both Private Caldwell and Mister Barcousky for their Civil War service.

Sean Michael Stevenson is a writer from Pittsburgh. He is currently working on an online comic book and has also provided several gaming reviews for Armchair General.