Essential Pittsburgh
8:29 pm
Wed July 3, 2013

Unsung Heroes of Western Pennsylvania During Civil War

Pittsburgh's Martin Robison Delany became highest ranking African American officer of a field regiment during war in U.S. history
Pittsburgh's Martin Robison Delany became highest ranking African American officer of a field regiment during war in U.S. history
Credit Wikimedia Commons / National Portait Gallery Washington

While Pittsburgh was never a battleground during the Civil War, there are many little known “unsung heroes” from the Pittsburgh area that made a significant impact in the 1860’s. Heinz History Center's "Pennsylvania's Civil War" lead curator and historian, Leslie Przybylek, shares the stories of three Pittsburghers that you may not have read about in your history books.

Martin Robison Delany

Born to a free African American mother and an enslaved father, Martin Delany’s success stemmed from his determination, his need to succeed and most notably, his mother.  While living in Virginia, Delany’s mother decided that she wanted her children to be literate.  At the time, however, teaching African Americans how to read and write was illegal in the southern state.  Delany moved to Pittsburgh around the age of 19 for school and stayed in the Steel City for a number of years as an advocate for African American voting and civil rights.  He worked on projects with Frederick Douglass and enrolled in Harvard Medical School. Despite his deep intellect and drive, he was asked to leave Harvard because he was African American.  Delany then decided that perhaps America was not the best place for a black man at the time and traveled for a number of years around Europe and Africa.  He became very vocal about the relocation of freed black slaves back to Africa during this period until the Civil War began.

“The Civil War was the only way he would have ever come back,” explains Przybylek.  Delany strongly supported the idea of using African American troops to fight for the Union cause. And he devoted much of his time to recruiting young black men to fight for the North.  In 1865 Delany met President Lincoln and suggested that there should be African American officers to lead the African American regiments.  Lincoln agreed and was so impressed with Delany that he bestowed the rank of Major with the 104th Infantry Regiment of Colored Troops.  Speculation suggests that the meetings Lincoln held with influential African Americans such as Delany and Frederick Douglass motivated the President to issue the Emancipation Proclamation at a time when he was not politically popular.

Jane Grey Cannon Swisshelm

To many Pittsburghers, the name Swisshelm evokes the neighborhood adjacent to Regent Square and Swissvale. Indeed, Swisshelm Park in the southeast corner of the city was named after the family of publisher and journalist, Jane Grey Cannon Swisshelm.  The daughter of a merchant, Swisshelm was, according to Przbylek, “incredibly strong-willed and extremely well educated.”

Around 14 years of age, Swisshelm became a schoolteacher and by 21 she had married James Swisshelm, moved to Louisville, Kentucky and began to witness the realities of slavery firsthand.  Against her husband’s wishes she moved back to Pittsburgh to take care of her mother and started an advocacy newspaper called the Saturday Visiter.  Writing in support of abolitionism and women’s rights, Swisshelm found success in the city of St. Cloud, Minnesota during much of the Civil War. She wrote extremely controversial pieces in St. Cloud.  After printing a story about a political boss with slaves in slavery-free Minnesota, Swisshelm came to her office one morning to find that the boss had “ransacked her offices and destroyed printers.”  She returned to Pittsburgh, unscathed and met with her old friend and Secretary of War, Edward Stanton.  While she was not originally a supporter of President Lincoln, she felt he was “too much of a compromiser,” she changed her mind after  meeting him and his wife. She eventually became the first female federal clerks in the U.S. Government. 

Governor Andrew Gregg Curtin

Famous for organizing the Pennsylvania Reserves into combat units, and overseeing the construction of the first Union military camp for a training militia, Andrew Gregg Curtin is perhaps most famous for inviting 13 northern free state governors to Altoona, PA for the Loyal War Governors Conference.  The “secret” meeting became a “voice of support for the announcment of the Emancipation Proclamation” as well as a discussion for leaders in the northern states on how to best help President Lincoln and the war effort.  Ultimately the governors issued a declaration signed by 12 of the 13 in attendance (the Maryland governor held off in signing the declaration seeing as slavery was still legal in the state) that showed great political support for the president in a time when he really needed it.