Pittsburgh’s Forgotten Civil War Treasure

Espy Black and White
Espy Post Circa 1911.

When pondering the history of the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the first thing that springs to mind is generally not the city’s involvement in the American Civil War. Although the state hosted the most famous battle of the war, Pittsburgh seemingly stood on the periphery of the war. This is not to say that Pittsburgh did not have ties to the great conflict. The burgeoning industrial city housed the Allegheny Arsenal, which, on September 17, 1862, was the scene of the worst civilian disaster of the war, when the
laboratory at the arsenal exploded, killing 78 workers. The Fort Pitt Foundry produced the largest single cast cannon ever made, the 60 ton, 20-inch Rodman Gun. And from August 1863 to March 1864, Pittsburgh’s old Western Penitentiary housed 118 officers of Brig. Gen. John Hunt Morgan’s command, who were captured about 70 miles west of the city, during Morgan’s famed 1863 raid. With those claims to fame withstanding, Pittsburgh passed quietly through the war years.

At the cessation of hostilities, tens of thousands of Union veterans returned home. Most of the men had forged close friendships that would endure for the rest of their lives. The men had seen and experienced events that their families back at home could never fathom. Thus to fill this void, on April 6, 1866, three days short of the one year anniversary of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Benjamin F. Stephenson founded the Grand Army of the Republic in Decatur, Illinois. Better known as the G.A.R., this fraternal organization was open to all Union veterans who honorably served between April 12, 1861 and April 9, 1865. By the early twentieth century, 6,928 G.A.R. posts had been established in the United States, Mexico, Canada and Peru; and nearly 40% of all former Union soldiers were a member of the G.A.R. Allegheny County in Pennsylvania was home to 34 of these posts. The vast majority of the posts were housed in temporary quarters, which were mostly comprised of rented rooms or public meeting halls around local towns. Few G.A.R posts around the country had permanent homes.

Yet there is one G.A.R. Post in the Pittsburgh area that is nearly intact. It is housed less than five miles west of downtown Pittsburgh in the Andrew Carnegie Free Library, in Carnegie, Pennsylvania. The Captain Thomas Espy Post, Number 153 was founded in 1879, before the town of Carnegie had been named after the steel magnate and former Union telegrapher.

Modern day look at the Espy Post.
Modern day look at the Espy Post.

Like many other G.A.R. posts, the Espy Post was named after a respected local officer that fell in defense of the Union. Captain Thomas Espy served in Company H of the 62nd Pennsylvania, which was largely made up of Allegheny County soldiers. Espy was a merchant from Upper St. Clair, Pennsylvania, who was 53 years old when he enlisted on July 4, 1861, an age that was considerably older than the average recruit. Espy was mortally wounded and captured at Gaines’ Mill on June 27, 1862. He died a Confederate captive on July 6, 1862, and his body was never recovered.

The post that was founded in his name seventeen years later did not initially have a permanent home. Like so many other posts the members rented spaces for meetings. In 1901 a new library opened in Carnegie and by 1905 the post members were brokering a deal with the staff. On February 1, 1906 the post’s president William Hill signed an agreement with the Library Commission which gave the Espy Post a permanent home “for all time” in a room on the second floor of the library building.

The members set to work putting together their new home. They spent $1,100 on furniture and display cases and held meetings on the second and fourth Monday of each month. The room was filled with 177 artifacts that the men had brought home from the war or collected in the postwar years. In 1911 a detailed catalog of all the artifacts owned by the Espy Post was written by William H. H. Lea. Lea had served in the 2nd Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery (also known as the 112th Pennsylvania). Lea was instrumental in brokering the agreement between the post and the library, and was also instrumental in collecting information on each artifact in the post.

For the next 31 years members met at the post, however in 1937 the last member of the Espy Post died and the care of the artifacts that remained within the room now fully fell on the shoulders of the library staff. Unfortunately the library did not realize what a treasure trove laid within their walls. A most likely fanciful story is told of the door of the post being closed, and a bookcase placed in front of it effectively sealing off the room entirely. For the next 50 years the room turned from an active G.A.R. Post into a time capsule. Only a handful of staff actually knew what lay behind the doors. It was not until the 1980’s that local Civil War expert Michael Krause opened the time capsule and rediscovered a now soot and mildew covered room. From the turn of the twentieth century until the late 1970’s Pittsburgh was the “Steel City”. There were hundreds of smoke stacks in the area, blanketing Carnegie, and the dormant Espy Post, in coal dust and black soot.

Time, the elements and ne’er do wells took its toll on the post. At least 77 of the 177 artifacts were stolen from the room. Everything inside was covered in the black coal dust which had to be removed. By the 1990’s the room was opened for tours, but was far from the curatorial condition that it needed to be in. A massive renovation was needed. In 2003 Maggie Forbes, Executive Director of the Andrew Carnegie Library Free Library and Music Hall, initiated a massive fund raising project to renovate the post. Forbes was proud of what the library had, and recognized the importance of the collection. She states that the room is probably the most complete of the six or seven intact G.A.R. Posts that still exist. The room was closed to the public, and by 2005 funds had been secured to begin renovation and restore the post to its former glory.

The renovation included the installation of a proper HVAC system, as well as the installation of museum quality windows. The room got a new coating of a pumpkin chiffon paint, the same color that the former soldiers gazed upon during meetings. The paint had to be recreated using paint samples taken from behind a heating register. The original post members took pictures of each wall of the room, which was invaluable in helping to restore the space. Maggie Forbes is quick to point out, “The photos have guided us every step of the way.” The photos also allowed Curator Diane Klinefelter to bring the post back to its original appearance.Espy Post Relics Cover

Klinefelter was also aided by William H. H. Lea’s “Catalogue of Relics”. According to Klinefelter, this meticulous catalogue has allowed her to see exactly what artifacts are missing, while at the same time Lea’s catalogue has also helped to bring the remaining artifacts to life. Lea left very detailed descriptions of many of the artifacts, which included human interest stories which help to provide a more personal connection to the objects. One of the artifacts that Director Maggie Forbes likes to point out is the sword of Samuel H. Davis. Davis was captain of Company I, 2nd Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery, who, in June of 1864 was serving as infantry in the 9th Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s 9th Corps. In the opening assaults at Cold Harbor on June 1, 1864 Davis was killed in action. His sword was taken from his body by Lieutenant Thomas Sharp of the same regiment. Sharp hoped to send the sword home to Davis’ family, but before he could do so the lieutenant was killed in the opening actions of the Siege of Petersburg on June 17. The sword was eventually sent back to Pittsburgh to the Davis family. Unlike their son, Mr. and Mrs. Davis were “rebel sympathizers”. They refused to pay the $1.00 charge from the freight company for their son’s sword. Eventually the sword was sold by the freight company at an unclaimed goods sale. In 1884 two members of the Espy Post tracked down the sword in Greencastle, PA, and the owner agreed to sell the sword to the post for $1.00, the original shipping cost.

Diane Klinefelter likes to highlight a few of the items used at the post meetings. A not-so simple gavel was used by the post’s president. Klinefelter points to an anomaly in the head of the gavel–the anomaly is a minie ball. One of the post members carved the gavel from a piece of wood taken from the Devils Den area of the Gettysburg Battlefield. Another item of interest is the ballot box that the members used. Even though every former member of the Union Army was welcomed to join the G.A.R., they still had to be voted into a post. The ballot box still contains both white and black marbles that the veterans would use for the vote.

Other artifacts fill the display cases, which include a piece of the wooden stockade at Andersonville Prison and a Union canteen, which was found by a member of the 6th Louisiana on the Second Fredericksburg Battlefield. The canteen was tucked into a tree and hornets had built a nest around the canteen. A knapsack taken from the Wilderness Battlefield adorns one of the cases as you enter the room. Another case holds cotton, picked by William Lea near Petersburg in 1864, as well as epaulettes belonging to Thomas Espy.

Sadly, other artifacts have disappeared in the 50 years the room was locked up. The sword of Colonel Walton Dwight, commander of the 149th Pennsylvania had once been part of the collection. Dwight was wounded on the 1st day at Gettysburg and for a time fell into Confederate hands. The sword was taken from him by a Confederate lieutenant, who was shot and killed on July 4th while trying to escape the hospital in which Dwight was being treated and the sword was returned to its rightful owner. Dwight was too severely wounded to take active field service again and gave his sword to Lieutenant John Snodgrass of Company D. Snodgrass was from Allegheny County and donated the sword to the post on March 11, 1911.

The sword and sash of Captain Thomas E. Kirkbride also have gone missing. Kirkbride served in Company B., 102nd Pennsylvania. He was mortally wounded along the Orange Plank Road on May 5, 1864, at the Battle of the Wilderness. Klinefelter is quick to point out that because of Lea’s catalogue it is potentially possible to track down these lost items, and others, in the future. In fact, Captain Davis’ sword is one of a number of items that has been returned to the post in recent years.

The 1905 Espy Post Memorial Day Photo.
The 1905 Espy Post Memorial Day Photo.

The post also has a number of paintings and photographs; the stern countenance of Thomas Espy gazes down over the post as you enter the room. In one corner of the room is a picture taken on Memorial Day 1905 of the members of the post. The picture was taken on the front steps of the library and even though only a handful of the members have been identified Klinefelter is quick to point out that three of the posts members in the photograph were African-American. In fact the Espy Post was an integrated post. “I am still in awe that this was an integrated post.” says Diane Klinefelter. She went on to explain that “while segregation was not condoned at the national G.A.R. level it was still widely practiced at the local level. The Espy Post wasn’t the only integrated Post but it was rare. That says a lot about the membership of this post — experiences shared on the battlefield meant more than race.”

This post, once forgotten to time, has been reborn. It tells a story beyond the battlefield, a story of pride, sacrifice and remembrance. Its artifacts are lasting reminders of a legacy that the veterans wanted to leave behind for future generations, and although the room may be small, it is filled to the brim with a history that the veterans were very proud of. Both Forbes and Klinefelter agree that they want every visitor to the Espy Post to leave with a greater understanding of the Civil War and respect for the sacrifices the veterans made.

The Thomas Espy Post is open for free tours every Saturday from 11 AM to 3 PM, groups by appointment. The library will also host their first ever Civil War Symposium on March 7th titled “The Road to Appomattox”; and will host their 10th Annual Civil War Day on April 11th.

2 Responses to Pittsburgh’s Forgotten Civil War Treasure

  1. I am a fan of Pittsburgh, and try and visit there when passing through. (it makes a convenient stopping point between Chicago and the East coast.) I feel that Pittsburgh’s “own” civil war General, James Scott Negley, deserves a mention as well. Interesting man.

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