Civil War history hides in, around Pittsburgh |

Civil War history hides in, around Pittsburgh

Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Douglas Moore of Castle Shannon, tunes up his 1845 replica banjo as he takes part in the encampment at Old Economy Village Saturday, June 8, 2013. The village was presenting the 150 anniversary of 'The Panic of 1863'.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
John Canning (left) of the North Side and David Grinnell of Observatory Hill, vice-president and secretary of the Allegheny City Society, will be hosting a tour of where Pittsburgh's Civil War redoubts were located. The first stop is in Union Dale Cemetery where Fort McKee was believed to have been built.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
From left, Schae Tippett, 17 of Monroeville, Andrea Nelson, 16, of Penn Hills, Tyrone Evans, of Verona, and Lavaughn Lane, of Penn Hills, check out an 1862 Civil War (original) cannon that was on display at Old Economy Village Saturday, June 8, 2013 during a 150th anniversary presentation of 'The Panic of 1863'.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Vistors to Old Economy Village look over the encampment of the 63rd PA Volunteer Infantry unit during a presentation of the 150th anniversary of 'The Panic of 1863' Saturday, June 8, 2013.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Allegheny City Society's Ruth McCartan of McCandless, president, John Canning of the North Side, vice-president, and David Grinnell of Observatory Hill, secretary, will be hosting tours of five sites where they believe the city's Civil War redoubts were built. The last stop will be here at St. Nicholas Cemetery in Reserve.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
The Alleghey City Society will be holding two tours on June 22nd to show people where the city's Civil War earth works or redoubts were believed to have been built. This one, called Fort Brunot or Fort McKeever , is on the Pressley Ridge School grounds Tuesday, June 11, 2013.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Sue Przybylek of Sarver, portraying a civilian of the 1860's and Scot Buffington of Beaver, portraying a colonel, take part in Old Economy Village's 150 anniversary of 'The Panic of 1863' Saturday, June 8, 2013.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Eric Woodward of Polish Hill, takes part in the 150th anniversary of 'The Panic of 1863' at Old Economy Village Saturday, June 8, 2013. Woodward was portraying a soldier from the 63rd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Some of the belongings of a soldier from the 63rd PA Volunteer Infantry encamped at Old Economy Village Saturday, June 8, 2013 during the 150th anniversary of 'The Panic of 1863'.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Members of the 19th Ohio LIght Artillary unit demonstrate how a Civil War cannon is loaded and shot during the Old Economy Village's 150th anniversary of 'The Panic of 1863' presentation Saturday, June 8, 2013.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
The Byrne family of Rochester, New York, mother Malinda, father Stephen, son Eli, 4, and daughter Maggie, 6, portraying general civilians of the 1860's, take part in the Old Economy Village's 150th anniversary of 'The Panic of 1863' Saturday, June 8, 2013.

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].

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