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Remembering the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia

Posted on Wednesday, June 26, 2019

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Civil War Museum of Philadelphia

Civil War Museum of Philadelphia (former site at 1805 Pine Street)

Overview

Outside of the former Rittenhouse Square townhouse which formerly housed the Civil War Museum at 1805 Pine Street in Center City Philadelphia, there is a plaque commemorating John Page Nicholson (1842-1922) who was a decorated veteran of the Civil War. Page was also a leading miltary historian who served as the Editor and Compiler of the two volume Pennsylvania at Gettysburg treatise. In addition to being active in preservation efforts at Gettysburg and Valley Forge, Page founded The Civil War Library & Museum in 1888.

Over the course of time, The Civil War Library & Museum was renamed twice including as the Civil War and Underground Railroad Museum of Philadelphia and most recently as the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia. On August 2, 2008, the Civil War and Underground Railroad Museum of Philadelphia permanently closed its Museum at 1805 Pine Street in anticipation of moving to The First Bank of the United States building on 3rd Street between Chestnut and Walnut Streets. As detailed below, that move never took place and ultimately the Civil War Museum's vast collection was entrusted to the stewardship of the Gettysburg Foundation and the National Constitution Center

Civil War Museum of Philadelphia (former site at 1805 Pine Street)

Civil War Collection

One of Philadelphia’s most significant and unknown cultural institutions, the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia, owned what many believed to be the largest inventory of Union Army materials outside of government stewardship. The Civil War Museum had a priceless collection of treasures that included 7,000 original photographs, a library of approximately 13,000 volumes, and over 2,900 artifacts that included firearms, edged weapons, uniforms, paintings, accouterments, flags, and other artifacts related to the "War of the Rebellion."

The Civil War Museum of Philadelphia served as the oldest chartered Civil War institution in the country, and its Museum on Pine Street previously offered three floors of exhibits from 1922-2008.

Included in the collections were many rare items such as Ulysses S. Grant’s death mask and dress uniform, and the pike (a pike is a weapon with a long wooden shaft ending in pointed steel heads) that John Brown brought to Harper’s Ferry. Even though the 1805 Pine Street row home location was too small to display its entire collection, the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia featured one room filled with mementos, portraits and documents about Lincoln’s assassination, and another room which was dedicated to Philadelphia’s own General George Gordon Meade.  While the focus was on the Union Army, there were also materials on the Philadelphia home front, important Confederate objects, and African American items. For more than 30 years, one of the most popular displays at the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia was the mounted head of Old Baldy, General George Meade's war horse, and today Old Baldy is on display at the Grand Army of the Republic Museum & Library in the Frankford area of Philadelphia. 

History

The origins of the Civil War Library and Museum date back to 1865 just after the Civil War ended when veteran officers of the United States Army, Navy, and Marine Corps gathered in Philadelphia to form the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States ("MOLLUS") as the first chartered Civil War institution in America. 

In 1888, the organization incorporated as the War Library and Museum to preserve its members’ military and personal items in perpetuity. 

Civil War Museum of Philadelphia (plaque still remains at the former site at 1805 Pine Street)

In 1922, the War Library and Museum purchased a townhouse at 1805 Pine Street to display its items and to serve its members as a private club.

In 1976, in honor of America's 200th Birthday Bicentennial Celebration, the War Library and Museum opened its doors to the public.

In 1987, the War Library and Museum changed the name to The Civil War Library and Museum. 

Over the years, the organization had been unable to attract enough visitors or to raise sufficient funds to operate as a professional museum. The Pine Street townhouse home was inadequate for a public museum because it was too small to display and store collections, was not handicapped accessible, did not have modern environmental and security systems to protect the museum's priceless collections and visitors, etc. The building was also located in the residential area of the Rittenhouse Square section, as opposed to Museum Mile on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, or in the Historic District encompassing the Independence National Historical Park area. 

In February 2000, the Civil War Library and Museum’s Board of Governors publicly announced the planned transfer portions of its collections to The Tredegar National Civil War Foundation that was creating a new Civil War museum in Richmond, Virginia.  In response, Philly's political and cultural leaders filed a lawsuit in Orphan’s Court Division of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas in order to stop the transfer of the museum's collection.

In November 2003, the litigants agreed to a settlement that called for a new Board of Governors charged with creating a new Civil War Museum of Philadelphia. 

During that litigation, the facility at 1805 Pine Street had remained open to the public. A number of volunteers helped operate the museum, and two museum professionals had been retained with the planned hiring of an Executive Director who was being recruited through the Diversified Group. Grant proposals had been submitted for a comprehensive inventory and condition assessment of the Museum's collection which was to be managed by the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts, the region’s leading collections care organization.

Senator Vincent Fumo, the former Democratic Chair of the Appropriations Committee of the State Senate of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, had pledged support towards the operating costs of the Museum. In addition, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s Fiscal 2004 Capital Budget included an appropriation of $15 million for construction of the new Civil War Museum of Philadelphia facility at The First Bank of the United States.

The First Bank of the United States - In 2004, This Historic Building was Slated to Become the New Home of the Civil War and Underground Railroad Museum of Philadelphia

Since 2002, the Civil War and Underground Railroad Museum of Philadelphia was a participant in the Civil War History Consortium that was comprised of more than 20 regional institutions. Organized in approximately 2002, the Consortium conducted a survey of Civil War materials in the Greater Philadelphia region which uncovered an extraordinary quantity of diverse Civil War objects that can be showcased in exhibits. The Consortium also began to discuss the region’s ambitions for Civil War’s Sesquicentennial that was held in 2011.

2004 Vision - Move to Independence National Historical Park Near the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall

In 2004, it was envisioned that the new Civil War and Underground Railroad Museum of Philadelphia would tell the story of Philadelphia’s role in the Civil War and Underground Railroad, and their collective continuing legacy in the life of the city within a national context.  

Home to Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell and the place where The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States were crafted, Philadelphia came to symbolize the two goals of the Civil War: preservation of the Union and the abolition of slavery. Philadelphia’s factories fueled the Civil War effort, and its hospitals cared for more of the sick and wounded than any other city.  Home to the largest and wealthiest African-American population in the nation, Philadelphia and her residents, both black and white, hid slaves escaping along the Underground Railroad and provided critical services to military personnel and their families. 

At the time in 2004, the Civil War and Underground Railroad Museum of Philadelphia’s themes were anticipated to make for an exciting array of permanent displays and changing exhibitions and would feature inventive and interactive exhibits built from a lively mix of authentic materials: paintings and ornaments, relics and diaries, surgeon’s instruments, women’s clothing, photographs, and soldiers’ uniforms.  These materials were envisioned to be drawn from the Museum’s own collections, private collections, historical societies, and other Philadelphia area museums. 

It was further envisioned that the Civil War and Underground Railroad Museum of Philadelphia would complement and cooperate with the Center for Civil War Studies at the Union League of Philadelphia, the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, PA, Gettysburg National Military Park, State Museum of Pennsylvania, and other outstanding sites throughout Pennsylvania and beyond. 

On August 7, 2007, the Museum announced that it would relocate from 1805 Pine Street near Rittenhouse Square to the former First Bank of the United States building, just a few blocks from Independence Hall. Philadelphia Mayor John F. Street presented the Museum with a check for $1.2 million to assist in its relocation to its new First Bank home in Independence National Historical Park.

On August 2, 2008, the Pine Street location permanently closed, and the Museum planned to reopen in its new location in 2011.At the time of its closure in 2008, the Civil War and Underground Railroad Museum of Philadelphia attracted on average about 6,000 visitors per year. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Sharon Smith, the Museum president, forecasted that the Civil War and Underground Railroad Museum of Philadelphia would attract 100,000 visitors per year at its new home in Independence National Historical Park.

In 2009, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell canceled the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania's portion of the funding needed to relocate the Museum, prompting the National Park Service to withdraw its offer for the Museum to use the First Bank of the United States building.

Since 2010, the Museum's collection has been cared for by the Gettysburg Foundation, and some of the Museum's collection was displayed at the Gettysburg National Military Park's Museum and Visitor Center

On May 4, 2016, the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia announced an agreement with the Gettysburg Foundation and the National Constitution Center which will provide future generations with access to the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia's world class collections.

“There is no more iconic and authentic place for learning about the Civil War,” said Oliver St. Clair Franklin, chair of the Board of the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia. “Millions of people visit each year from across the country and across the world. The staff at Gettysburg knows better than anyone else how to care for and preserve these artifacts.”

The Board of the Civil War Museum approached Gettysburg after it evaluated its prospects for building a new museum for the collection in Philadelphia and it became clear that it would be both a challenge to build it and an even bigger challenge to sustain it over time. “As stewards of this world class collection, the Board of the Civil War Museum felt a strong ethical and historical responsibility to developing a partnerships that would both protect this collection and ensure that it is accessible to the public and researchers in both Gettysburg and Philadelphia into the future," said Franklin.

On May 9, 2019, the National Constitution Center opened the brand-new exhibit entitled "Civil War and Reconstruction: The Battle for Freedom and Equality" which tells the story of what some call America’s “Second Founding.”  The display is the first in America devoted to exploring the constitutional debates regarding the Civil War and Reconstruction. The new exhibit will be a permanent addition to the Constitution Center, and as such, the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia's legacy lives on for future generations in the City of Brotherly Love.

National Constitution Center - Home of the Civil War & Reconstruction Exhibit

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