City had crucial role in Civil War

A Confederate soldier falls at Gettysburg during this month's reenactment of Pickett's Charge.
A Confederate soldier falls at Gettysburg during this month's reenactment of Pickett's Charge. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 23, 2013

By Oliver St. Clair Franklin

Despite the oft-repeated references to the intentions of the founders in today's political rhetoric, knowledge of U.S. history is at an all-time low in our country. There are many reasons for this, but there is little question that it is a significant threat to our democracy if we don't know what those founders thought and why, what forces have shaped us since, and the meaning of the critically important events that have occurred during our more than 200 years of history.

The Inquirer's exciting series on the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg demonstrated that history can be compelling, inspiring, and appealing to a wide range of people. The stories of the people who fought and those who led them, of strategy and the context for that three-day battle, were told from a variety of angles, which helped link the past to the present.

Another important part of the story was the connection to Philadelphia. While no battle was fought here during the Civil War, in large part the Union won because of Philadelphia's capacities as an industrial, medical, financial, and transportation powerhouse.

Ammunition, locomotives, uniforms, and ships from Philadelphia flowed south and west to the battlefronts. A Philadelphia banker, Jay Cooke, sold more than a billion dollars in bonds, which financed the Union's efforts. Camp William Penn, just outside the city in Montgomery County, was the first and largest training camp for the U.S. Colored Troops, who help turn the tide for the Union. There were 10,000 hospital beds for the wounded in the city, where the vast majority of the surgeons from North and South trained before the war.

Those are just a few of the stories of Philadelphia and the Civil War.

Philadelphia is also at the center of the "Treasures of the Civil War" exhibit currently at the Gettysburg Museum and Visitors Center. The "treasures" in the exhibit are almost all from the collection of the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia. The city museum shares with Gettysburg a commitment to the critical importance of using the power that resides in authentic objects to bring events alive and, perhaps even more important, connect with the emotions of those who lived this history. The Civil War Museum's special partnership with Gettysburg over the last three years, while the museum is closed, continues a connection shaped by the Union officers who fought at Gettysburg and elsewhere and who founded Philadelphia's Civil War Museum.

The Civil War has been called the second American Revolution. Those bloody and terrible years made it possible to truly begin the work to "secure the blessings of liberty" for all our citizens and to "form a more perfect union" that could stand the test of secession and civil war. Philadelphia not only played a crucial role in crafting our founding documents, but it also helped realize the promises in the preamble to the Constitution and preserve the Union 150 years ago.

Oliver St. Clair Franklin is chairman of the Board of Governors of the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia. E-mail him at

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