One Quiet Pittsburgh Neighborhood Is Home To A Civil War Fort
Stanton Heights is filled with brick houses, families walking dogs, and lots of trees. It's also home to a 150-year-old piece of history.
Good Question! listener and Stanton Heights resident Chris Comeau heard rumors about a Civil War battery near the intersection of Stanton and Morningside avenues.
“I was curious about Fort Croghan,” he said. “I heard that there were some remains in the woods on the private property of the elderly folks home there.”
Pittsburgh’s wartime contributions
Imagine it’s 1863, the middle of the American Civil War. Pittsburgh workers are churning out ammunition at sites around the city, including Allegheny Arsenal and the Fort Pitt Foundry. Michael Kraus, curator at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum, says they were producing munitions, canons and leather goods for the war effort.
“Pittsburgh was an important town,” Kraus said.
The city was developing its reputation as an industrial and manufacturing center and its location on the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers made it ideal. Pittsburgh's workers assembled and shipped out nearly 1,200 guns, or about 15 percent of the wartime artillery. About 25,000 Allegheny County men enlisted and were sent to the battlefield.
“Of those, about 3,000 wouldn’t come home,” Kraus said.
In late June 1863, the Confederate Army was making headway and Pittsburghers were nervous. Their fears were further realized when word of the Gettysburg Campaign arrived.
“That sent shock waves across the state, including here, because they thought that Pittsburgh could be invaded, as well,” he said. It was decided that 37 fortifications should be built around the city to protect it from a potential southern invasion.
Fortifying the Steel City
Through word of mouth and newspaper announcements, plans to build the forts spread and all able-bodied young men were recruited to help. According to Civil War Pittsburgh: Forge of the Union by Len Barcousky, nearly 7,000 workers "were digging fortifications on Mount Washington, Squirrel Hill and more than two dozen other locations."
“They closed all the businesses, closed the bars,” Kraus said. “It’s hard to motivate people with the bars open.”
Kraus said many of the forts, or redoubts, were earthworks--just several feet of dirt fashioned into mounds, to give soldiers a strategic view of the invading army. A map, called “A Sketch of the Defenses of Pittsburg” was created, showing the sites throughout the North and South Sides, as well as the East and West Ends.
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“You want an open plane in front of you, with good visuals,” Kraus said. “That’s where you’d look for to set up an artillery position.”
The fort built in Stanton Heights was on the estate of William Croghan, a wealthy lawyer who had built a mansion for his only daughter, Mary. She would go on to wed a British officer named Edward Schenley and become one of Pittsburgh’s most well-known philanthropists. But Mary Schenley never lived in the mansion her father built for her. Still, the location was ideal for the military because from the high elevation, troops would have a good view of any invasion coming down the Allegheny River.
The Confederate Army was turned away at Gettysburg by July 3, and the “Emergency of 1863,” as Kraus said it was known, was over. The forts were mostly abandoned.
Returning to nature
After the war ended, little was done to preserve the makeshift forts. On Mount Washington near Emerald View Park, one redoubt has been preserved, and embedded in the housing development surrounding it.
In Stanton Heights' woods near the Morningside Garden is a raised patch of land, buried in leaves. It's located deep in the dense growth of trees, away from the street and the adjacent facilities. The fort site itself is about 50 feet wide and horseshoe-shaped.
The curved feature, Kraus said in an email, was known as a "lunette," French for "little moon." They were structures where artillery pieces, like canons, were placed in the direction of where soldiers thought the enemy would be. The fort has weathered over the years, but still protrudes from the surrounding land.
“It’s like nobody’s been back here to build anything in quite some time,” Comeau said.
There are no plans to preserve the former Ft. Croghan, but there haven’t been proposals for development there, either. For now, the site remains, slowly settling back into the earth.