Book Review: Our People Are Warlike: Civil War Pittsburgh and Home-Front Mobilization

Our People Are Warlike: Civil War Pittsburgh and Home-Front Mobilization. By Allen Christopher York. Knoxville, TN: The University of Tennessee Press, 2023. Hardcover, 199 pp. $50.00.

Reviewed by Jon-Erik Gilot

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania likely does not come to mind for many readers when thinking of the great urban centers most closely associated with the Civil War. Indeed, it has only been in recent decades that historians like Art Fox, Brian Butko, Mike Kraus, and Rich Condon have begun to unpack the critical role Pittsburgh played in the Civil War and how the Steel City’s wartime experience mirrors or diverges with her northern counterparts. As a Pittsburgh native, Liberty University professor Allen Christopher York seeks to examine how Pittsburgh’s home front experienced and participated in the northern war effort in his recent book, Our People Are Warlike: Civil War Pittsburgh and Home-Front Mobilization.

In this book, York uses Pittsburgh as a case study to investigate how community and regional dynamics shaped and sustained the Union war effort on the northern home front during the Civil War. Rather than a chronological recounting of local events, York takes a thematic approach. Each chapter examines a different aspect of Pittsburgh’s home-front experience, including reaction to the secession crisis, threats of invasion, industry and manufacturing, conscription and emancipation, charity and benevolence, and managing death on the home front.

The author introduces readers to Pittsburgh with a helpful history of the city from colonial times up to the eve of war. With a population of more than 49,000 and a metro population of nearly 78,000, Pittsburgh was one of the larger urban areas in the country at the outbreak of the Civil War. The city was also diverse, with nearly 40 percent of the population being foreign-born, half of that number being Irish or German.

Situated at the confluence of the Ohio and Allegheny rivers, Pittsburgh was destined to serve as a vital hub for both transportation and manufacturing. Additionally, being located only a few dozen miles from the slave state of Virginia created prewar tensions over slavery and abolition that strained factions of the citizenry. Even so, Pittsburgh delivered a greater majority of the vote for Abraham Lincoln than any other city in the 1860 election.

In late December 1860, Pittsburghers mobilized to disrupt the shipment of more than 120 cannons from the local Allegheny Arsenal to forts in Texas and Louisiana. York ably recounts the standoff that was defused in early January 1861, when the order to remove the guns was countermanded, as well as the resulting Union meetings and the early mobilization of local militia units, home guards, and volunteer companies. With Pittsburgh realizing the uneasy realities of soldiers living in their midst with their sometimes rowdy behavior, including drunkenness, desertion, and even homicide, Camp Wilkins was established in the spring of 1861 to house the influx of volunteers flocking to the city.

The war truly hit home in the summer of 1863, when the Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania threatened the western Pennsylvania home front. Business was suspended and bars closed throughout the city as between 10,000 and twelve 12,000 men – both White and Black – mobilized to dig rifle pits and construct a series of defensive works around the city. While the threat of invasion diminished following the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg, for several weeks in June 1863 thousands of home-front civilians had mobilized for the war effort without consideration of uniform or stripe.

Even still, Pittsburgh’s patriotic fervor received tests. Lincoln’s various calls for additional volunteers, recruitment appeals, and conscription quotas tried local resolve. Spared the violence and draft resistance experienced in the Pennsylvania coal region, as the war dragged on, Pittsburgh’s volunteer recruits lagged and exemptions swelled. Subscriptions and bonds were sold to support local bounties as community leaders strived to sustain volunteerism and patriotism on the home front. Nowhere was this more evident than in Pittsburgh’s 1864 sanitary fair, which raised more than $360,000 for the care of sick and wounded Union soldiers. York explains that where politics may have divided Pittsburghers on what the war effort should look like, the city time and again mobilized private goods and resources for the Union war effort.

York turns in his finest work in chapter five, which outlines Pittsburgh’s manufacturing during the Civil War, where local firms produced flour, nails, wagons, and coal for the war effort. The Fort Pitt Foundry produced more than $3 million worth of guns and projectiles for the United States military, second only to the West Point Foundry, including the famed 20-inch Rodman gun. Less well known was Pittsburgh’s government shipbuilding during the war, which constructed several boats of Charles Ellett’s United States Ram Fleet, as well as two riverine ironclads, the Manayunk and Umpqua. Though ordered in 1862, repeated complications delayed the Pittsburgh ironclads until late 1865. Pittsburgh’s wartime manufacturing brought transformational wealth to western Pennsylvania, with several local revenues rising by up to 90 percent between 1863 and 1865.

While seemingly every city grappled with death during the Civil War, Pittsburgh itself suffered the scenes of a battlefield, when on September 17, 1862, seventy-eight workers were killed in an accidental explosion at the Allegheny Arsenal. Most of the victims were young ladies, working to make rifle cartridges for the war effort. Many of the unidentified victims were buried in a mass grave, where a monument was later dedicated to Pittsburgh’s most significant home-front loss of the Civil War.

York mines an impressive selection of family papers and manuscripts, official and government records, and more than two dozen newspapers. He takes what many might normally deem “local history” and weaves it into the larger narrative. In this case, the author successfully demonstrates that Pittsburgh’s wartime mobilization was shaped by both prewar and frontline events and offers much to advance our understanding of the northern home front. After all, isn’t all history local?

1 Response to Book Review: Our People Are Warlike: Civil War Pittsburgh and Home-Front Mobilization

  1. thanks Jon — nice review … had no idea the Navy was building ironclads in Pittsburgh.

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!