Members meet monthly to share historical details; travel to Gettysburg twice a year to preserve monument
Allison Barash, 58, of Franklin Park, remembers visiting Gettysburg as a 5-year-old.
“I thought it was so cool. I was really intent on finding bullets on the battlefield and outside the hotel,” she said.
Her passion never diminished. Her dining room, for instance, is decorated in an American Civil War theme, complete with artifacts, lithographs, Abraham Lincoln statues, a cross-stitch of Lincoln's inaugural address and collector plates by Civil War artist Mort Kunstler.
Sixteen years ago, Barash co-founded the Greater Pittsburgh Civil War Round Table as a way to connect with other Civil War enthusiasts.
Its purpose was to provide a place to study, discuss and learn about the war that pitted northern states against southern states from 1861 to 1865 over the issue of slavery, and claimed the lives of nearly 1 million soldiers.
Fifty people came to the round table group's first monthly meeting at Northland Public Library in February 2000. By May of that year, the group had outgrown the space.
Today, the group boasts a membership of about 120, and meets at the Hampton Community Center on McCully Road to learn something new from a guest speaker who addresses a specific Civil War topic. Between 60 and 85 members attend each meeting, and come from as far away as the South Hills, Penn Hills and Mt. Pleasant.
Barash, a professor of psychology at Community College of Allegheny County, said nearly half of the group's members are women.
While the men in the group typically are interested in the Civil War battles and strategies, the women tend to gravitate toward the human interest stories from that era.
“People raise their eyebrows when they learn I'm a Civil War enthusiast,” said Evelyn Booth, a retired elementary school teacher from the Pine-Richland School District who shares a last name with Abraham Lincoln's assassin but claims to be no relation.
One of her favorite stories from the Civil War period involves Lincoln and Grace Bedell, 11.
“Grace wrote a letter to Lincoln a few weeks before he was elected president. She told him he should grow a beard,” said Booth, 62, of Richland.
Bedell's letter advised Lincoln that growing whiskers would improve his appearance, because his face was so thin. On his inaugural journey from Illinois to Washington, D.C., Lincoln stopped in Westfield, N.Y., Grace's hometown, to personally thank the child.
According to Ruth McCartan, a retired operating room nurse from UPMC Passavant, some of the most intriguing Civil War history revolves around women.
“Women in those days were supposed to stay in the background, but during the war they took over the farms when the men left to fight,” said McCartan, 66, of McCandless. “The women became doctors and soldiers, too. Mothers went (into battle) with their daughters.
“Some went with their husbands, leaving their children behind. Some women disguised themselves as men so they could serve their country.”
Jean Pascarella, of O'Hara, grew up hearing stories about how her great-grandfather served in the Civil War.
Among her most prized possessions are his Sharps Carbide rifle and sword. In June, she took the sword to Tennessee so her grandson could cut his wedding cake with it.
She has been a member of the round table group for 15 years.
“My enthusiasm for (the Civil War) keeps growing because I keep learning more about it. There's so much knowledge within the members, then we bring in such great speakers on specific topics. It's a jewel of a group,” she said.
Twice a year, members of the group travel to Gettysburg to pull weeds, trim grass, and cut brush around a 16-foot-tall granite monument located on Little Round Top that commemorates the 155th Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers.
The group maintains the monument as part of the National Park Service's Adopt-A-Position program, which relies on volunteers to help sustain the 1,328 monuments and memorials scattered over the 6,000-acre battlefield in Adams County.
In 2007, the statue on top of the monument — which depicts a soldier loading gunpowder into his rifle — was vandalized, and the top of the rifle still is missing.
“We chose to maintain this monument because the troops were from Allegheny County,” said Barash. “We're looking to get it to the top of the list to be repaired, and we're looking to do some fundraising to help get it fixed.”
The group also raises money through a holiday dinner and silent auction that puts 100 or more Civil War artifacts and other related items up for bid each year.
Proceeds benefit battlefield preservation organizations.
For President John Campbell and Vice President Rick Fellers, another pressing goal is to attract more young members to the group.
“We've talked about history students from Hampton High School and other local schools joining us for Civil War tours or helping us resurrect the local Herr Chapel Cemetery near Wildwood Golf Club (in McCandless), where a number of Civil War soldiers are buried,” said Fellers, 70, of Hampton.
“Once in a while, high school students attend our meetings to listen to one of our speakers,” added Campbell, 70, of Adams Township. “But kids today seem to lack the knowledge of our own country. Who was Joshua Chamberlain? Who was Grant? Who was Lee?
“They have no idea. They have no idea what the Civil War was.”
Laurie Rees is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.