Pittsburgh and Southwestern Pennsylvania played a major role in the American Civil War although no battles were fought in the region. The Pittsburgh area strongly supported the Union cause politically and physically. Many volunteer Union regiments would come from the Pittsburgh area. A large portion of the weapons and ammunition for the Union side would also be made in the region. Even prior to the war, Southwestern Pennsylvania was active in the resistance to slavery and the abolitionist movements. Pittsburgh and Southwestern Pennsylvania was a Union stronghold and the work done in the region would help shape the war.
On April 12, 1861, the idea of a war between the states became all too clear, when Fort Sumter in South Carolina began taking cannon fire from Rebel troops. Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Gregg Curtain made Pennsylvania the first state to pledge in favor of the Union. In that time period, the United States did not have a standing army, they would recruit an army in a time of emergency and dismantle it as soon as that emergency was over. The Union had officially entered into war against the rebellion. President Lincoln made the call for 75,000 union troops to be sent from the northern states. Each state had a quota that was then assigned to cities, boroughs and townships. Allegheny City was given a quota of 1,609 men, 5,709 men signed up, Pittsburgh had a quota of 3,277 men, and 11,187 men signed up. The quota for the entire state of Pennsylvania was 14,000 men, and just under 28,000 signed up to fight. Allegheny County made up most of those numbers. Pittsburgh and Allegheny City had ten volunteer companies in place when the war started. The companies were largely unorganized and unarmed. By April 18, 1861, 20 companies, which is 2 full regiments from Pittsburgh and Allegheny City had received marching orders. There were 40 companies that remained together in Allegheny County, even after being denied federal coverage and pay.
Even before the war began, local militia units had started to converge on Pittsburgh, these militia companies had not been formally enrolled in the army, and therefore could not be paid using military funds. This created a crisis in the City of Pittsburgh which had troops pouring into the city starting on April 27, 1861. The city organized the Citizens Committee of Defense which would be led by Judge William Wilkins. The aim of this committee all of the volunteers who would fight for the Union cause. Judge Wilkins and other local leaders sent an application to Governor Curtin asking to form a camp within the city to house and care for the volunteers who had flooded into the city. Until an answer came from the Governor and Legislature, the city would house and care for the volunteers at the Pittsburgh Fairgrounds, in what is now Pittsburgh’s Strip District. On April 29, 1861, volunteers from Outside of Pittsburgh were ordered to take up residence at the Fairgrounds which would now be called Camp Wilkins.
On April 30, 1861, Colonel P. Jarrett of Lock Haven, Pennsylvania was appointed as the military head of Camp Wilkins by Governor Curtain. After reviewing the grounds and troops, Jarrett decided that only six of the companies from Allegheny County currently housed at Camp Wilkins could be accepted under the federal mandate. This became a point of contention among the companies that had already organized. Reorganization of these units with different commanders caused some significant uproar, a group of men called the Lawrenceville Union Guards left Camp Wilkins with the intent of maintaining their own organization. By May 2, 1861, Camp Wilkins still had not officially been opened. Colonel Jarrett had selected his units that would be housed at the camp and fall under the federal mandate. Colonel Jarrett accepted: The Iron City Guards, Chartiers Valley Guards, Pittsburgh Rifles, Duncan Guard, Garibaldi Guard, and the Anderson Guards. Company commanders for the units that were rejected by Colonel Jarrett met in Council Chambers in Pittsburgh. The groups proposed disbanding but agreed that a committee of three men be appointed to organize the companies into regiments with officers. As soon as these regiments were organized, the regimental officers should submit a plan for further action. Lincoln and his advisers did not want to appoint more troops because they felt that the war would be over quickly.
When the soldiers arrived at Camp Wilkins, troops were housed in the buildings at the fairgrounds that were prepared as well as they could be in a short period of time and with little money available to do so. Some troops were housed in the stalls where animals were kept during fairs. As troops from around the state and other Northern states began to flow through Pittsburgh, there was a need for more places to house these troops. Pittsburgh was a prime railroad hub and a large inland port for troops traveling by boat. In late July 1861, Camp Scott was opened in what is now South Oakland. In August 1861 Camp Fremont was opened in what is now the Oakland section of the city. In June 1862, Camp Howe opened in Oakland. In October 1862, Camp Montgomery opened in Oakland. In August 1863, Camp Copeland opened in the town of Braddock. In June 1863, Camp Swearinger opened in 1863 opened in what is now the Shadyside section of the city. In June 1863, Camp Brooks opened in Allegheny City.
In May of 1861, Camp Wright was opened along the banks of the Allegheny River in the Borough of Oakmont about 10 miles upriver from Pittsburgh. The new camp sat a short distance from Hulton Station along the Allegheny Valley Railroad. Approximately 5,000 Union recruits passed through Camp Wright. The camp was convenient because it sat at the edge of the Allegheny River and along the railroad line, making the movement of troops incredibly easy by train or riverboat.
During the Civil War thousands of soldiers received their training in and around Pittsburgh in makeshift training camps. Residents of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, worked in kitchens and other positions to make sure that the soldiers that stayed in Pittsburgh or passed through were warm, fed and clean before they continued on. Pittsburgh’s industry assured that there were weapons and ammunition for them on the battlefields. While the nearest battle was over 200 miles away, Pittsburgh’s industry and hospitality played major parts in the Civil War.