The Civil War Museum of Philadelphia

The Civil War Museum of Philadelphia

The Civil War Museum of Philadelphia

The Civil War Museum of Philadelphia, which was established in 1888 by Civil War veterans, stands as a tribute to those who fought to uphold American sovereignty in the face of insurrection. Prior to settling in a townhouse close to Rittenhouse Square from 1922 until 2008, when it was forced to close due to financial difficulties, the organization, originally named as the War Library and Museum, operated in many locations throughout Philadelphia.

With relics also on display at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, the museum transferred its three-dimensional collections to the Gettysburg Foundation in 2016. Artifacts that were once thought of as memorial relics, like items from Generals Ulysses S. Grant (1822–85) and Abraham Lincoln (1809–65), as well as from lesser-known soldiers and officers, were reimagined in their new settings as part of modern exhibits about slavery, racism, and the causes and effects of the Civil War as a whole.

The Civil War Museum of Philadelphia
This 1893 photograph shows the MOLLUS Commandry of Pennsylvania posing outside General George Meade’s headquarters at Gettysburg. (Library of Congress)

The idea for a Civil War museum in Philadelphia came from the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States (MOLLUS), a fraternal organization for Civil War veteran officers established in 1865 at the Union League in that city. Initially created in the wake of Lincoln’s murder out of concern that the Civil War would not end, the association’s focus shifted to commemoration once that concern passed. In 1888, when the War Library and Museum was founded, it was a sign of new efforts to remember the Civil War. This was partly because the veterans were getting older, but it was also because after Reconstruction, the Civil War seemed to be in the past.

The War Library and Museum was established by members of MOLLUS, particularly John Page Nicholson (1842–1922), who had assumed charge and resurrected the group a decade earlier, with the mission of gathering, preserving, and maintaining literature and artifacts related to the “War of the Rebellion.” The US Army and Navy soldiers’ memories were being recorded by the library and museum as part of a bigger effort to preserve history before it was lost. The desire to gather artifacts from veterans and to record and publish their memories came from a competition to choose who would be assigned to write the history of the American Civil War.

Funding From Retired Veterans

The War Library and Museum’s early history was mostly focused on obtaining a location for itself, while collections developed throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, primarily as a result of donations from soldiers and MOLLUS members. If MOLLUS could fund an additional $100,000, the State of Pennsylvania would be willing to pay $50,000 toward the construction of a structure.

The committee created plans for a great building that would hold offices, banquet halls, the library, and the museum throughout the 1890s. They also drafted pleas, looked into potential locations, and pursued them. The veterans wanted a place where they could gather to share stories and reminisce, as well as a museum with historical artifacts.

The Civil War Museum of Philadelphia
General Lewis Merrill, shown in this photograph published between 1880 and 1920, was a cavalry officer during the American Civil War and later served on the Board of Governors for the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia. (Library of Congress)

At various points, MOLLUS sought residences in the Independence Hall council chambers, nearby buildings, and a structure on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, but none of these proved to be practicable. The group first rented space in the Flanders Building at Fifteenth and Walnut Streets in 1907, and in 1922 it moved into a townhouse at 1805 Pine Street as its permanent residence. Although the decision to choose a less luxurious residence was disappointing, building money was able to support the institution as an endowment for the majority of the twentieth century.

The items were publicly on display for the first time at the Flanders Building. A uniform worn by General George Meade (1815–72) at Gettysburg; a Tiffany sword and scabbard that General Ulysses S. Grant received after the Vicksburg battle; and casts of Abraham Lincoln’s hands and face created by sculptor Leonard Wells Volk (1828–95) just before the war began were among the items on display.

Additionally, visitors could see the cane that Abraham Lincoln used to enter Ford’s Theater, the tree that a cannonball struck at Gettysburg, the recruitment drum that was played in front of Philadelphia’s enlistment headquarters in 1861, and the smoking jacket made of paisley that Jefferson Davis wore when he was captured by Union troops in 1865.

Other Civil War memorials in Philadelphia at the time, including the equestrian sculptures of Meade and General John Reynolds (1820–63) and the Smith Memorial Arch in Fairmount Park, contrasted dramatically with the ephemeral artifacts and other personal treasures contributed by Union veterans. Nicholson and Mollus intended the library and museum to be equally monumental, but the museum’s collection was a mix of official military history recorded by the uniforms and weapons of commanding officers and a more subdued memory of the Civil War fueled by commonplace artifacts donated by people (although mostly officers) that revealed alternative, more personal histories.

General Lewis Merrill (1834–96), a member of the museum’s Board of Governors, said that an institution like theirs “will be a more lasting memorial than any that is built of stone or metal, and will be more important in showing the truth of history and giving credit to those who fought for it.” 

The Private to the Public

In the 1920s, there were discussions on whether the library needed to be better interpreted because veterans (who could recall their own experiences) were passing away and because MOLLUS membership was passing to descendants, but no catalog to direct visits ever materialized. The exhibits in the members-only museum were mostly left to speak for themselves, and although the library and archives were accessible, they weren’t fully organized or maintained.

MOLLUS remained connected with the museum up until the 1970s, when it decided to separate from it so that each could concentrate more of its resources on its more focused objective. The museum first opened to the public on a regular basis in 1976, just in time for the Bicentennial. In the 1980s, special exhibits began to explain more diverse histories, such as those of women, African Americans, or even the rebel states, in addition to the permanent displays of the collections.

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Early in the new millennium, the museum’s viability was threatened by a shrinking endowment and falling attendance. Additional proof of the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia’s long-standing mismanagement came through legal actions taken against former curator Russell Pritchard Jr. (b. 1940) and his son for fraud and theft from a number of Civil War organizations, including the museum.

A loan of some of the collection to a future Civil War Museum in Richmond, Virginia, was one idea put out to remedy the museum’s current status. A proposal to establish a Center for Civil War Studies based at the Union League was born out of the opposition to that idea in Philadelphia, and it would have collaborated with organizations like the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, and the Philadelphia Historical and Museum Commission.

Beyond building a world-class network of research collections, the goal was to promote Philadelphia as a tourist destination for not only Revolutionary War tourism but also tourism focused on nineteenth-century history and the Civil War. Both such a consortium’s plans and another one that called for the museum to take up residence in Fairmount Park’s Memorial Hall never materialized. To add to the disappointment, the State of Pennsylvania promised $15 million for a new facility in 2002 but withdrew the money in 2009 due to the recession.

There is an emergence of a dual emphasis

The search for a new location indicated a desire for a more formal, authoritative organization, but respect also persisted for the little, eccentric museum on Pine Street that featured, among other things, the preserved head of General Meade’s horse, Old Baldy. But in 2003, the organization reemerged as the Civil War and Underground Railroad Museum with a new dual emphasis that reflected tendencies toward more inclusive histories of the Civil War era rather than developing either of these identities.

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Due to its small collection of African American artifacts, the museum turned to living history, using actors to recreate historical individuals like Absalom Jones and Harriet Tubman (c. 1822–1913). (1746–1818). A 2006 show titled “Faith and Freedom,” which was co-produced with black churches, was the outcome of a new outreach. In one episode, Jones’ “Thanksgiving Sermon” at the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas was portrayed by an actor.

A donation from the William Penn Foundation made it possible in 2004 to conduct the collection’s first comprehensive inventory, which turned up previously undiscovered items for the museum or the country. Along with the already well-known items from famous people, the inventory also uncovered items like a pocket watch with a bullet dent that belonged to Brevet Capt. John O. Foering (1843–1933), a jar of peaches from an orchard on the Winchester, Virginia, battlefield, the gravestone of John Butcher (1845–99), a veteran of the United States Colored Troops, and an 1872 first edition of William Still’s The Underground Railroad (1821–1902).

The Civil War Museum of Philadelphia
The Grand Army of the Republic Museum loaned the preserved head of General George Meade’s horse, known as Old Baldy, to the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia in 1979. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

However, none of these changes were able to prevent the museum’s closure in 2008. In 2016, the artifact collections were transferred to the Gettysburg Foundation—the private, nonprofit partner of Gettysburg National Military Park—with the assurance that the National Constitution Center would still display some of the artifacts in Philadelphia.

An attempt to work with the National Park Service to renovate the Second Bank in Old City to yield usable space also failed. Paintings, lithographs, and books that were loaned to the Union League and were still accessible to researchers were kept by the museum. Other items, like the Old Baldy head that had been borrowed from the Grand Army of the Republic Museum in Frankford, were returned to the GAR Museum. This helped preserve the Civil War in Philadelphia, though on a smaller scale.

In 2019, we saw the opening of the National Constitution Center’s “Civil War and Reconstruction: The Battle for Freedom and Equality” exhibit, which used items from the Civil War Museum to investigate the context, reasons for, and effects of the Civil War. The exhibit included the causes and effects of historical injustice and violence, including things like racism and slavery, as well as the Reconstruction amendments to the U.S. Constitution and their value and helplessness in the face of Jim Crow segregation.

In contrast, objects from the Philadelphia museum were used at the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum to depict the Civil War’s history from the viewpoints of both the Union and the seceding states. The new installations showed the difference between the polished Civil War tourism of the twenty-first century and the earlier museum’s role as a nineteenth-century reliquary and evocative home for family heirlooms. At the same time, the objects added authenticity to each institution’s interpretation goals.

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The Civil War Museum ultimately ran into a number of obstacles that it was unable to get over. Philadelphia museums, especially the smaller, less well-known ones, were struggling financially by the late 20th century. Despite having strong ties to that history, Philadelphia never managed to develop a Civil War identity or Civil War tourism, which made finding a place for the Civil War Museum difficult.

The collections, on the other hand, found a good final home at the National Constitution Center in an exhibit about the successes and failures of that document at the same time and a more critical memory of the Civil War for a new generation, if, as claimed in a fundraising appeal from 1891, the museum was meant to honor those “who gave their lives to the war that restored the Union and maintained the Constitution.” 

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