I apologize for taking so long to make this promised entry in my series detailing the first biennial meeting of the Society of Civil War Historians held in Philadelphia’s Union League Club this past June. One thing led to another… you know how it goes. Anyway, in this concluding installment I’ll tell you a little bit about the venue, which was every bit as impressive as the program and the presenters.
The Club is situated on Broad St., south of City Hall (that’s the view to the municipal HQ), and is easily identified by its red hue and ornate double curving staircases. The Broad St. entrance is flanked on either side by monuments to two city militia regiments, the First Pennsylvania National Guard Infantry Regiment and, oh, somebody help me out with the other one:
I won’t go into great detail on the history of the Club/League. Suffice to say it was formed early in the war as a way for citizens of the city to publicly profess their support for the Lincoln administration. You can read a little about its founding on the historical marker above, and here is a commemorative book, published on the 40th Anniversary of the Club.
One is immediately struck by the massive art collection that adorns the walls of the club, much of it with a Civil War theme, which makes sense considering the League’s origin. And we ain’t talking Bradley Schmel or Don Stivers here. The club has the original oil paintings of Xanthus Smith’s USS Kearsarge vs. CSS Alabama and The Monitor and the Merrimac, paintings you’ve doubtless seen reproduced dozens of times. Right there, at eye level! Click on the thumbs for a larger image – click on the larger image for a ginormous one:
This being Philadelphia, favorite sons were prominent, including this massive full-length portrait of George Gordon Meade, and the Philadelphia Brigade HQ pennant used by Alexander Webb at Gettysburg:
The Union League raised nine infantry regiments and 5 companies of cavalry during the war, and this piece was commissioned to commemorate them:
But the club doesn’t limit itself to the collection of Civil War art. Check out this massive portrait of George Washington by Thomas Sully, and his original smaller study (sorry I didn’t provide a sense of scale – trust me, this sucker is HUGE):
The Union League is one of the few – maybe the only – private clubs in the nation to employ a full-time director of library and collections. Jim Mundy guided a tour of the club for conference attendees following the afternoon sessions on Monday, and about 40 or so opted to follow. Afterwards, he mentioned that he had a few more items in the club’s huge library (the general library, not to be confused with their very impressive Lincoln Library which houses the Civil War volumes) that he would be happy to exhibit to anyone who was interested. About ten of us took him up on the offer. If you were one of the 30 or so who chose to bug out, you might want to stop reading now.
First this very proper gentleman in a bow tie yanks out of some vault a printed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation which was one of 24 sold to raise funds for the war effort. And it was signed. By Sec’y of State William Seward. And Lincoln’s secretary John Hay (although it could have been Nicolay, I can’t remember). And oh yeah, by Abraham Lincoln, too – in a very firm hand. And I got to hold it. In my hands. In a frame, sure, but I held it, one of only 12 known to exist. It sold for $10 back in 1863. I offered Mr. Mundy $20. He looked at me like I had lobsters crawling out of my ears.
Next Mr. Mundy produced a home-made book, made up of paper sheets attached to each side of linen leaves. It was in very good shape, with clear handwriting. On April 14, 1865, after having been shot in Ford’s Theater, President Lincoln was removed to a nearby house owned by William Petersen. There Secretary of War Edwin Stanton began to interview eyewitnesses to the assassination attempt, in order to make some sense out of a developing and chaotic situation. The amount of information coming in was getting hard to handle, so Stanton sent out feelers for someone skilled in taking shorthand. Next door they found their man, James Tanner, a veteran of the 87th New York Infantry (aka 13th Brooklyn) who had lost both legs at 2nd Bull Run and learned shorthand to earn his living clerking at the War Department. As the evening wore on, Tanner took shorthand notes of the witness interviews, periodically taking breaks to transcribe the notes to long hand. The next day (the 16th, I think), Tanner copied all of his long hand transcriptions and gave them to Stanton. He kept the shorthand notes and original transcriptions. These were the pages attached to the linen leaves of the book. Very cool. Understandably this item was not passed around to the group.
Lastly another framed item magically appeared. The rustic display included newspaper clippings, handwritten notes, a couple of photographs, and a piece of cloth. All pertained to the story of a gentleman who helped prepare Lincoln’s body, at some point in its movements from the Petersen House to the White House, to the autopsy, to the embalming. I’m sorry, but I can’t recall the details. I was overwhelmed and had forgotten my notebook. The piece of cloth was one of six relics given to the gentleman and five companions who helped with the body: pieces of the President’s undershirt. For the rest of his life, the man wore the scrap pinned to the left inside of his coat, so it rested next to his heart. Upon close examination – yep, I got to hold this frame, too – I could make out the dozens of tiny pinholes. I think you can see them too, if you look closely:
The conference was a great success, and I’m glad I went. And it was very affordable. Consider membership – it’s open to non-eggheads like me and you. All the info you need is right here. The 2010 conference will be hosted by The University of Richmond.