Off the Cuff: July 2013

The Civil War’s Battle of Gettysburg represented a defining time in which Philadelphia did its part to help when the nation hung in the balance. But could the same be said about our city today?

I was on the elevator in our office building at 19th and Market a few weeks ago with three well-dressed men I didn’t know. One of them recognized me and said, “I read your column every month, and I have a question. Is there any chance you could write about something a little more … optimistic?

I told him I would try, but that it’s not easy, given the current state of things. The country is so divided, and we can’t seem to solve any of our pressing problems.

But I saw his point, and started thinking. Then it hit me: This month is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, the turning point of the Civil War. When I began to take a look at this city’s role in that battle, I came up with an answer for my elevator companion’s desire for something upbeat. In the 19th century, Philadelphia was a great and influential city, and its people helped turn the tide of the war.

General Lee’s army was headed north from Virginia in late 1862; the Confederates were determined to get a foothold in Pennsylvania. Really, Lee wanted much more—to take Harrisburg, then march east and conquer Philadelphia. Had that happened, the South would have controlled what was perhaps the nation’s most important city. In the North, frustration and weariness with the war could have doomed the United States for good.

Philadelphia was a divided city. Our great manufacturing base needed the South; we were the country’s largest textile producer, for example, so importing cotton was paramount. And as a southern Northern city, we were approximately 30 miles from Delaware, where slavery was legal. Many Philadelphia Democrats—known as Copperheads—were dependent on Southern labor, and were sympathetic to the South.

At the same time, our Quaker tradition had produced a strain of abolitionist fervor and a strong and abiding belief in American nationalism. Hence the formation of the Union League in 1862, where mid-century movers and shakers could socialize and press their case for keeping the Union together.

The fear that Philadelphia was a realistic target of the Confederacy had both Abraham Lincoln and Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin calling for all hands on deck. Within hours of newspapers asking for volunteers and proclamations being posted, recruiting booths sprang up citywide. Independence Square, which had been a haven to Southern sympathizers, suddenly looked more like an armed camp of ready Union soldiers. The Union League itself created three regiments.

As summer 1863 neared, with Lee’s army only four miles from Harrisburg, a Philadelphian named Mary Ashurst captured the mood of the moment in her diary: … Great is the alarm in Phila: people are trying to get away. The next day, her husband Lewis wrote in his own diary: Dreadful excitement in the community and fear of the advance of Lee’s army on Philadelphia. The banks and other institutions preparing to send off their valuables.

On the morning of July 1st, the Union Army, under the command of Philadelphian George Meade, met Lee’s troops just west of Gettysburg. The carnage over three days is hard to fathom: 28,000 Confederate casualties and some 23,000 for the Union. In the end, Lee’s army was forced to retreat south, across the Potomac. With that, the war turned irrevocably in favor of one nation.

Philadelphia would remain the country’s most important city until it was overtaken by New York over the course of the 19th century, and before the events of the 20th century conspired to make it what it is today. But my friends in the elevator at 19th and Market don’t want me to get into all that. Let’s just say that at a time when this city and nation hung in the balance, Philadelphia did its part to help win the most important battle of our bloodiest and most difficult war. It’s really quite a story.

Happy Fourth of July, everyone.