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Civil War treasures rescued from time's ravages

Friday, December 08, 2000

By Cindi Lash, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Correction/Clarification: (Published Dec. 9, 2000) Springfield rifles used by Union troops during the Civil War are displayed in a Civil War museum in the Andrew Carnegie Free Library in Carnegie. A story that appeared in yesterday's editions incorrectly referred to those rifles as the type used by U.S. troops in World War I.

Pausing slightly as a flurry of black paper flakes fell onto her work table, paper conservation expert Wendy Bennett painstakingly pried boards away from the back of a battered wooden frame to reveal the prize it contained.

Paper conservation expert Wendy Bennett examines a fragile Civil War attendance roster. (Tony Tye, Post-Gazette)

Inside lay a daily attendance roster kept by a long-dead soldier who, in elegant spidery handwriting, recorded the actions of his company of artillerists through the last days of the Civil War and the first days of the peace that followed.

As Bennett prodded and poked with tiny steel tools to lift the roster from the frame, Civil War re-enactors James White and Keith Kammenzind peered over her shoulder and gasped aloud at the crisp, dark writing now visible on its back and inside pages.

"This is the first time in more than a century that anyone has laid eyes on this," said White, poring over the roster that, until yesterday, had hung in the Civil War museum in the Andrew Carnegie Free Library in Carnegie.

"It's so exciting to be here to see this."

The roster is one of hundreds of aging documents, photographs and relics stored in the museum that, since 1879, have been damaged or threatened by excessive light, extremes in heat and humidity and a leaking roof that has sent water pouring down the walls.

Working to save those relics from further deterioriation is the 9th Pennsylvania Reserves, a Carnegie-based group of re-enactors that meets in the library and is raising money to restore the museum and properly display its artifacts.

Using a $10,000 state grant and $9,000 they raised themselves, members of the 9th Pennsylvania Reserves have hired Bennett, who runs Fine Art Paper Conservation in Squirrel Hill, to begin the first phase of what they intend to be a reconditioning of both the museum and its contents.

"There are things here that are as fine as you would find [in any other battlefield or museum]," said Kammenzind, pointing to collections of weapons, uniforms, medals and books that line the museum's walls. "People should always be able to come here and appreciate them."

The first phase of the project calls for Bennett to remove paper documents, photographs and other relics from their original frames and their wood or paper backing materials, which contained acids that caused the paper to become yellow and brittle. Using miniature steel spatulas and probes, Bennett started her work yesterday, carefully pulling away nails driven long ago into the wood frames and lifting away layers of century-old tissue or newsprint.

Sometimes she stopped long enough to exclaim over the contents of the newspapers themselves. "Look, here's my grandfather's store," she exclaimed after spotting an advertisement for Gusky's haberdashery on Market Square, Downtown, that appeared in a 1903 edition of The Pittsburgh Press.

Bennett wrapped the paper relics in layers of acid-free tissue, then boxed them away from light that could fade and damage them further. Eventually, all of the documents will be remounted and matted with acid-free papers, replaced in the original frames behind light-resistant glass and rehung under special lighting, Bennett said.

Members of the Ninth Pennsylvania also have arranged for Fonda Thomsen, a textile-preservation expert from Sharpsburg, Md., to examine flags and other cloth relics and offer advice on how best to restore and display them.

Other experts will examine the room itself and assess the cost of repairing leaks, cracks and damaged windows and plaster, said White, who is curator of art and principal research scholar at the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation at Carnegie Mellon University.

"This whole room is a time capsule," Bennett said. "When this room is [completed], it should look just like it once did."

The museum was created by a group of Carnegie-area men who in 1879 opened a post of the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization for veterans who'd fought for the Union in the Civil War. The post was named for Capt. Thomas Espy, an Upper St. Clair native who commanded Company H of the 62nd Pennsylvania Volunteers until he was fatally wounded in 1862 at the Battle of Gaines Mill in Virginia.

Seeking a home for 176 flags, weapons and other treasured items they'd brought home from the war, the aging members of Espy GAR Post No. 153 in 1906 obtained permission to use a second-floor room in the Carnegie Library to hold meetings and house their collections.

Stored in the shelved cabinets they built is a Civil War collection that rivals some found at National Military Parks and Battlefields. To be sure, it has its share of minie balls, cannon balls and rusting belt buckles that can be found in just about any museum or souvenir store.

But it also has several frayed but still colorful battle and unit flags, including a company flag purchased by Espy for $46.25 before he left home in 1861. Bayonet-tipped Springfield rifles, used by U.S. troops primarily in World War I, are stacked in the corners as they would have been after a battle.

The room still contains the leather-seated chairs, the ornately carved organ, the enameled spittoons and the tables with bases designed to resemble cannons that the original Espy Post members chose to furnish their meeting room.

A highlight of the collection is a copy of the Vicksburg, Miss., Daily Citizen, printed the day after Confederate soldiers ended a lengthy siege of the city by surrendering to Union troops on July 4, 1863. The newspaper was printed on the blank side of wallpaper -- by then, the only paper available in Vicksburg -- and included a sarcastic note added by Union soldiers who raided the newspaper office after the type was set.

Some items hint at the sentiment they must have triggered in the men who brought them home. In a corner cupboard lie trays of faded battle ribbons and medals that veterans bled and died to earn. On another shelf is a chip of granite that a soldier hewed from the rock where well-regarded Col. Strong Vincent of Erie fell and died at Gettysburg.

Some items are simply odd, like the intact hornet's nest that was formed around a canteen that a soldier left tucked into the crook of a tree.

Under the terms of its agreement with the library, the Espy Post's furnishings and collections became the library's property when the last post member died in 1937. The library kept the room sealed, with a cupboard over its door, for nearly 50 years before another group of area re-enactors expressed interest in exhibiting the contents, White said.

Those people, however, weren't able to muster the time or the funds needed to restore the room, which had not aged well. The patterned carpet was blackened and threadbare, the single-pane glass windows were warped and broken and the plaster ceilings were cracked and crumbling, thanks to repeated water leaks.

For the next 10 years, the room was open only occasionally for community festivals and tours. During that time, White said, a uniform coat worn by Espy and other weapons and other relics disappeared from the room, which lacked adequate security.

In 1994, the Ninth Pennsylvania's members stepped in, moving their meetings to the library's adjacent lecture hall and starting to raise money to restore the room and its relics. History buffs all, they could see that the room's collection was in danger of deteriorating past repair if they didn't act to preserve it, White said.

Earlier this year, the Ninth Pennsylvania raised more than $9,000 toward that effort by staging a production in the library's music hall of "Our American Cousin," the play that President Abraham Lincoln was watching when he was assassinated. They also obtained the $10,000 grant with the help of state Sen. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, and state Rep. John Pippy, R-Moon, and held a reception for other legislators in an effort to persuade them to allocate more money to the restoration project.

Kammenzind, a graphic designer from Brookline, said he's also contacted national organizations that raise money to preserve Civil War sites and battlefields but hasn't been able to persuade them to donate money for the museum. The project is expected to cost as much as $250,000, but Kammenzind said he and other members of the Ninth Pennsylvania are determined to complete it.

"Those [national] organizations express interest, but they haven't gotten back to us," he said. "But we have to find a way to do this. This is our history. If we lose what we have here, we lose a lot."

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