Sunday, January 12, 2014

Intact GAR relics-meeting room in Pa.: A singular spot to share their war experiences

View today of Espy Room (©Bernadette Kazmarski)
And in 1911 catalog (Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall)

Item 48 in the collection of the Grand Army of the Republic, Capt. Thomas Espy Post 153, Department of Pennsylvania:
“Cotton: Was picked from the cotton bushes in 1881 by W. H. H. Lea, late Lieutenant of Co. I, 112th Reg., Pa. Vols., while on a visit to the Virginia battlefield, from the narrow strip of ground between the Union and rebel lines and directly in front of the rebel fort at Petersburg, Va., blown up July 30, 1864. Over this ground the charging columns passed. Almost every foot of this ground was covered with Union dead or stained by as brave blood as ever flowed from the veins of American soldiers.”

In 1906, Lea donated this clump of cotton for the GAR post’s new meeting room and artifact collection in a 24-foot-by-24 foot space in the upper floor of the Andrew Carnegie Free Library in Carnegie, a borough just west of Pittsburgh.

Cotton donated by Union veteran (©Bernadette Kazmarski)

While cotton may not seem a likely collectible, it must have meant something special for Lea to hold on to it for 25 years, well after the Civil War ended.

Each of the dozens of artifacts the members possessed or acquired – a rifle, drum, bayonet, Bible and even a canteen enveloped by a hornet’s nest – conjured to aging veterans who met in the handsome room for three decades a precious link to their service to country during the Civil War.

In 1937, the last member of the fraternal organization’s local post passed away.

“This was an outlet for them,” says Diane Klinefelter, who this month began serving as part-time curator for the Espy Post room. “Veterans today have a hard time talking about experiences to other than someone who went through it. These veterans were no different.”

Klinefelter’s duties at what is now called the Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall will include maintaining the artifacts collection and detailed manuscripts of the post’s operation, raising awareness of the room and organizing Civil War-related programming.

Portrait of Capt. Espy (Maggie Forbes)
Gavel made from trees at Gettysburg (©Bernadette Kazmarski)

“There are people who are lifelong members of the library who never come up and look at the Espy Post,” according to Executive Director Maggie Forbes.

The story of the mill town’s library and the Civil War room is remarkable, one that saw the charming building ensconced on a hill endure “water, age and poverty” until a rebirth about 10 years ago.

The Espy Room had been largely shuttered since 1937. Dozens of items disappeared, some perhaps taken as a “badge of honor” by local youth. Poor stewardship accompanied the deterioration of the building.

“Water was pouring (in),” Forbes recently told the Picket. “We were hanging on by our fingernails.”

An effort got underway to raise money – about $7.5 million has been netted so far -- to bring the venue, which includes what Forbes calls an acoustically superb performance center, back to its original glory. 

A Pittsburgh man originally from Birmingham, Ala., made a donation that largely covered the restoration of the Espy Post room, leading to is reopening in February 2010. The result is a faithful version of the original, down to even the wall color: Pumpkin chiffon pie.

The room, deemed a national treasure by the library, is open to visitors on Saturdays and by appointment.

Members of the post  circa 1904 (ACFLMH)

Company A of  9th Pennsylvania Reserves, a living history and re-enactment unit, helped launch the restoration and has participated in events at the library.
Company A of the 9th Pennsylvania Reserves 38th Pa. Volunteer Infantry - See more at:

Through the efforts of staff and volunteers, the community has honored an agreement issued more than 100 years ago by members of the GAR post.

“When every veteran of the Espy Post has answered his last roll call, we leave for our children and their children, this room full of relics hoping they may be as proud of them as we are, and that they may see that they are protected and cared for – for all time.”

There to give a helping hand

Within a few years of the Civil War, thousands of GAR posts were fixtures in communities that sent boys in blue to fight.

At its peak, about a half million veterans were part of an organization that served the needs of its members, widows and children. It quickly became a Republican-supporting political force, lobbying for soldiers’ pensions and voting rights for black veterans.

The Espy Post was a relative rarity – it was integrated.

Records of veterans' service ( ©Bernadette Kazmarski)

A photograph taken on Memorial Day in 1903 or 1904 of Espy Post members gathered outside the library depicts at least four African-Americans, according to Klinefelter. 

Among them is Jonathan Grinage, Company C, 8th U.S. Colored Troops. His descendants have visited the Espy Post in recent years. “To have his relatives here meant a lot to us,” says Klinefelter, who previously served as the library’s director.

The local GAR chapter was chartered in 1879 in memory of Capt. Thomas Espy, who died during the Peninsula Campaign of 1862 in Virginia. His portrait presides over the Espy Room.

The post met in several locations in Carnegie, then a railroad and mill town, before settling on the library room in 1906. “It conveyed a sense of importance and permanence,” says Forbes.

Diane Klinefelter shows ballot box ( ©Bernadette Kazmarski)

The library in Carnegie is one of only four libraries in United States endowed by industrialist and philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie. It opened in 1901. The borough, also named for the Scottish-born magnate, resulted from the 1894 merger of two communities, Mansfield and Chartiers.

The GAR meeting room clearly was a man’s domain, from pictures of Custer’s Last Charge (postwar) to spittoons neatly positioned on the carpeted floor.

The room features four double windows and 12-foot ceilings. Artifact cases and furniture are abundant. “It is very Masonic,” says Forbes, referring to an altar in the center.

A women’s auxiliary, Ladies of the GAR, eventually took on much of the post’s benevolent mission while the veterans concentrated on pensions and political matters.

( ©Bernadette Kazmarski)
Most members were middle class, with farming, carpentry, iron and mill work and blacksmith as listed occupations. Membership dues provided help to families.

“If you needed a shipment of coal, and you did not have the money, the post would chip in,” according to Klinefelter.

The veterans voted on those who would be allowed to join. While some veterans had legitimate service records, others were found to be impostors or dishonorably discharged.

The Espy Post had about 200 members over its lifetime.

The library still has the wooden ballot box that contains marbles. After a prospective member was interviewed, the members would drop either a white or black marble into the box, signifying their vote.

Two floors of the building contain the music hall (©Bernadette Kazmarski)

The GAR very much had a social aspect, woven into the fabric of the community.

“We also have their dishes,” Klinefelter says of the collection. “They were very big on potluck suppers. Baked beans and buttered bread were very popular.”

One of the curator’s favorite items in the relic collection is the commander’s gavel, “because it is quite unique.”

The head, containing a bullet, is from a tree at the famed Devil’s Den below Little Round Top at Gettysburg.

The handle is fashioned from wood from Spangler’s Spring, on the same 1863 Pennsylvania battlefield.

Another corner in the room ( ©Bernadette Kazmarski)
How it looked in 1911 (ACFLMH)

The gavel was featured in a commemoration last year for the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

The veterans’ soldierly eye for detail and organization is evident in the room’s manuscript collection of applications, membership information, financial records and correspondence.

While some may find the manuscripts dry, they are like a “time capsule” for researchers who want to learn more about the GAR, according to Klinefelter. A PhD candidate last year did some research at the Civil War room.

Forbes, Klinefelter and others are especially grateful for a 1911 catalog produced by the Espy Post. It includes photos of the room’s four walls and its artifacts – an invaluable guide to restoring the room after despairing conditions the veterans likely did not envision.

Epaulettes belonging to Capt. Espy ( ©Bernadette Kazmarski)

“Thank God for the post historian,” says Klinefelter. “They realized they all would be gone. Every artifact has a number. Some of the artifacts have heartbreaking stories for them.”

Splendor, years of neglect, rebirth

Item 52 in the collection of the Capt. Thomas Espy Post 153:

“Sword: Presented to Lieut. Samuel H. Davis by Company I, 112th Regiment, Pa. Vet. Vols., February,1863. Lieut. Davis was killed at Cold Harbor, Va., June 1, 1864. The sword was covered with his blood. Lieut. Thos. C. Sharp, while keeping the sword to be shipped to Lieut. Davis’s parents at the first opportunity, was killed at Petersburg, Va., June 17, 1864, while wearing the sword, and was covered with his blood. The sword was then shipped to Mr.George Davis, father of Lieutenant Davis, by Adams Express Co. to Pittsburg, Pa. Mr. and Mrs. George Davis being noted rebel sympathizers, refused to pay the express charges of one dollar on the sword of their loyal son who gave his life for his country….”

Over the years, the Davis sword, like dozens of other items – including Capt. Espy’s uniform -- went missing. 

Forbes one day got a call from an individual who would not give his name. He returned a rifle, shotgun and two swords.

One was the Davis sword.

( ©Bernadette Kazmarski)

Items that currently are in the collection include a Bible carried in knapsack of a soldier wounded at Cedar Creek, Va.; a bullet that stuck a cavalry soldier who donated it to the memorial hall in 1911; a pine knot with grape shot from Chickamauga; and a carbine found beneath the body of a Confederate soldier after the Battle of Shiloh.

The GAR was destined to die, because its charter called for membership of those who served during the Civil War. It effectively went out of operation in 1956. 

According to the Sons of Union of Union Veterans of the Civil War, its successor organization, “The final Encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic was held in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1949 and the last member, Albert Woolson died in 1956 at the age of 109 years.”

As members of the Espy Post became infirm or died away, the frequency of meetings upstairs decreased.

Replica corps flag with uniforms ( ©Bernadette Kazmarski)

When Woolson died, the Espy Room had been closed nearly 20 years. Over the next decades, water, mould, vermin and pilferers or artifact “borrowers” took their toll.

By 2003, the Carnegie facility was in rough shape. It had $136 in its checking account, according to Forbes.

Fund-raising began, eventually resulting in renewed splendor to the facility.

People ‘fall in love with it’

Item 173 in the collection of the Capt. Thomas Espy Post 153:

“Bayonet: Was found by James A. Boles, about 1891. Mr. Boles, while passing through the timber on the battlefield of Chancellorsville, Va., the bayonet was seen high up, sticking in the trunk of a pine tree. The tree was cut down and the bayonet and wood cut out. The theory is that a Confederate sharp shooter had stuck the bayonet in the tree to support his leg or used it for a rest for his rifle. The tree was in the Confederate lines, opposite the Chancellorsville house. …”

( ©Bernadette Kazmarski)

Half of the building today is a library. It has largely an older clientele, although youths from a public housing complex use it for school work.

The music hall, which also features theatrical productions, covers two floors. While it may seem unusual for a performance center and library to be in the same building, it was common in Carnegie libraries, according to Forbes.

“The building is very handsome,” she says. “People who come in for the first time fall in love with it.”

The restoration of the Espy Post room included work on the plaster walls and the installation of a new air conditioning system. The walls were dirty and gray; a paint sample from behind a heating radiator was sent off to a lab at Bryn Mawr so that its true color could be determined.

( ©Bernadette Kazmarski)

The carpet was replaced with one featuring a design that closely approximates the original. Remarkably, most of the furniture was in pretty good shape, although one chair was replaced.

Klinefelter’s curator position is funded by a grant through the Massey Charitable Trust. She has written two books about the conflict.

“To combine a library with a Civil War component and one of the last GAR posts that is intact is a chance of a lifetime.”

She hopes to form an advisory board and develop some programming related to the room. One idea is an educational workshop. “We have a very devoted, albeit small number of volunteers.”

The library is planning an April 5 living history in most of the building. Officials want to concentrate on the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg and its impact on townspeople. The day will include a photo exhibit to mark the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Petersburg in Virginia.

Various items in collection (ACFLMH)

Klinefelter says an examination of ledger books with biographical information about post members showed many served at Gettysburg in July 1863.

The curator, who has ancestors who fought on both sides, says she is interested primarily in the social context of the post and its vital part in the community.

“I don’t focus on the battle statistics. I am more of a social historian.”

Not used for events, the Espy Post room speaks to the public through its records and relics. The long-gone veterans might ask: Will people of today pay attention to stories of sacrifice and service?

Forbes hopes to see more visitors and perhaps expanded hours at some point. One thing is certain. 

The Civil War Room has captured a moment in time.

“There is an aura that you feel they just left the room.”


Espy Post hours: Saturdays 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. or weekdays by appointment. Groups interested in a tour should call, 412-276-3456, x5 to make special arrangements.

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