Civil War history hides in, around Pittsburgh
A few overgrown lumps of earth and holes in the ground are the only surviving signs of a feverish attempt 150 years ago to erect hilltop fortifications for what seemed a likely rebel attack.
Historians are working to keep alive the story of dozens of Civil War fortifications hastily built around Pittsburgh during June and July of 1863.
Workers built 37 fortifications, trenches and defensive moats from the East End to the North Side, from Uptown to Turtle Creek and the South Hills. Few remain today, plowed under by urban development.
“It’s like hidden history right here in Pittsburgh,” said Ruth McCartan, a former teacher and president of the Allegheny City Society.
Gripped by growing fears as Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee brought his troops north, employers dispatched thousands of workers in June 1863 to build earthen fortifications around the city.
It was a scene somewhat repeated during the Cold War, though with a ring of Nike missile sites instead of earthen forts. The intent, though, was the same.
“We were making steel then,” said David Grinnell of Observatory Hill, secretary of the Allegheny City Society. Steel needed to be protected.
Turning to old maps, including one drawn on July 20, 1863, and other research dating to 1919, the Allegheny City Society traced the approximate location of the five forts on the North Side. People can tour them Saturday.
“I don’t think a lot of people realize the local aspect of the Civil War. Four thousand people from Allegheny County were killed,” said McCartan, 63, of McCandless. Her group promotes the history of Allegheny, a separate city from 1840 until 1907, when Pittsburgh annexed it and it became the North Side.
Efforts to retell the Civil War stories are crucial to keeping them alive, especially for young people, said John Campbell, president of the Greater Pittsburgh Civil War Roundtable.
“Those forts would have become vitally important if Robert E. Lee decided to turn left instead of right,” Campbell said.
Forts were located on Mt. Washington, Squirrel Hill, the South Side, Greenfield, Stanton Heights and Garfield. A couple of “clear remnants” of the old North Side forts remain, said Grinnell.
Fort Brunot, located at what is now the Pressley Ridge School on Marshall Avenue, was a small fort with a powder magazine built on the hillside of the McKeever farm.
Although most of the fortifications were circular and intended to house cannon and other weaponry, Fort Brunot was square.
“It had a high wall and a bit of a trench around it,” Grinnell said. It was one of the few forts actually completed, the society’s research showed.
The remnants of an earthen works believed to be Fort Childs remain in Spring Hill, he said. Fort Kirkwood, built in Millvale, was in sight of the Allegheny Arsenal in Lawrenceville, which was turning out 40,000 bullets a day for the war effort.
Although the Southern invaders never came here, the threat was real, historians said.
“In 1863, the Confederate Army was rolling up on anything in front of them,” said Michael Kraus, curator at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Oakland.
About 10,000 men were leaving Western Pennsylvania to fight at Gettysburg, Kraus said.
Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg helped end the fear of invasion. Work on the forts continued into July, McCartan said, but the fortifications were abandoned and now beckon history buffs.
“The majority of people who study, research and document the Civil War are not professional historians,” said Eric J. Wittenberg, a Columbus, Ohio, attorney and Civil War historian. “They’re amateurs, like me, who are dedicated to telling these stories and to keeping these memories alive. Without their efforts, there are too many stories that would otherwise go untold.”
The lessons learned in 1863 and in 1963 had to do with the deterrent value of good preparations, said Andy Masich, chairman of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and CEO of Senator John Heinz History Center in the Strip District.
No weapons were fired from the forts surrounding Pittsburgh, nor missiles launched from one of 14 Nike sites across Western Pennsylvania. The sites housed the country’s first guided surface-to-air missiles and a primary defense against a Soviet nuclear attack.
“Did the enemy think twice?” Masich asked.
Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or [email protected].