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Pennsylvania sent 425,000 men into battles of the Civil War

Bob Bauder
| Monday, April 11, 2011

Few people thought about war in Western Pennsylvania on the morning of April 12, 1861.

In Allegheny County, a sensational trial of glass blower Zelock Morgan, 26 — accused of seducing, impregnating and abandoning Mary Jane Hawthorne, 19, by plying her with presents and promises of marriage — captured their attention.

Across the ridges in Westmoreland County, people worried more about spring planting.

The buzz in Washington County centered on James Miller, a petty thief who dug a hole through a wall in the county jail and escaped, starting a fire in the street to cause confusion. He made it about a block before the jailer's son caught him.

With Pittsburgh well on its way to becoming a manufacturing center, the city's middle-class culture during that time often turned rowdy, said Edward K. Muller, professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh.

About 30 percent of the county's 178,831 people were foreign-born, and nearly 78,000 of them lived in Pittsburgh and Allegheny City, which later became one.

"It's a street world," Muller said. "Rowing was big on the rivers. There are kegs of beer. People are out on the riverbanks, yelling and wagering. It's a very on-the-street participatory culture."

That evening, word trickled into the region about the 4:30 a.m. attack on Fort Sumter, 700 miles away in Charleston, S.C., by forces with the newly formed Confederate States of America.

In the Pittsburgh Theater, at Wood and Fifth streets, the manager stopped Henry T. Craven's play "The Chimney Corner" to read on stage the telegraphed dispatches. The audience erupted into "round after round of tremendous cheers" when he noted that Fort Sumter's Union soldiers returned fire, the Pittsburgh Evening Chronicle reported.

"One excited individual shouted at the top of his voice that he was a Democrat and a Union man, and called for three cheers," the newspaper reported. The theater's orchestra burst into "Hail Columbia," America's unofficial national anthem, followed by "Yankee Doodle."

"All through the city the same excitement prevailed," the Chronicle recounted.

Some people living in rural areas didn't find out until much later, said Edwin P. Hogan of Smithton, author of the book "Waiting for Jacob: A Civil War Story." In rural communities, where people typically learned news in church, those who didn't attend would not have heard about the war, Hogan said.

"I wouldn't doubt in April 1861 you had some kid on a farm here in South Huntingdon Township who didn't even know the war happened for months," he said.

As word spread, Pennsylvanians responded by organizing militias. Men from throughout the region would distinguish themselves on battlefields as the war continued. Before it ended, Pennsylvania would send 425,000 Union soldiers into battle, more than any state except New York.

Largely pro-Union and anti-slavery, Allegheny County provided vital support to Republican presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 election. Yet the county had plenty of Southern sympathizers, said Michael G. Kraus, curator at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Oakland.

The case of Samuel H. Davis of Upper St. Clair illustrates that. Davis enlisted in the Union army in 1861 and rose to the rank of captain before he died in 1864 during the battle at Cold Harbor, Va.

His pro-South parents, George and Mary, refused to accept their son's sword when comrades shipped it home, said Diane Klinefelter, director of the Carnegie Library in Carnegie.

The sword sold at auction and remained unaccounted for until members of the Grand Army of the Republic's Capt. Thomas Espy Post 153, headquartered at the library, tracked it down in 1884. It remains in the library's extensive collection of Civil War artifacts.

Photo Galleries

Civil War 150th Anniversary

Civil War 150th Anniversary

April 12 marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War which began with the shelling of Fort Sumter, S.C., in Charleston Bay.

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