Documenting the Defenses - A Photographic Look at Pittsburgh's 1863 Fortifications
During the Summer of 1863, a network of 37 earthen defenses were constructed on the heights surrounding Pittsburgh in an effort to fend off a potential attack from the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. With General Robert E. Lee's army on the move, uncertainty and panic swept across the state of Pennsylvania. In an effort to fortify the city of Pittsburgh, approximately 16,000 citizens committed themselves to erecting earthen defenses between mid June and early July, while the Federal Army of the Potomac engaged Confederate forces at Gettysburg.
While the defenses were not used in any military engagements, they stood as a testament to the fear that loomed over Western Pennsylvania during the 1863 Confederate invasion of the North. As time passed, these earthen structures deteriorated and, in many cases, fell victim to development in a growing metropolis. As a result of the expeditious construction of the defenses, their lack of use, and the progression of the war, there are no known wartime photographs of the Civil War forts of Pittsburgh. The earliest photographs of the remaining forts weren't taken until the mid 1890s by artist and author, Dr. David R. Breed.
Dr. Breed was a teacher and minister by trade - holding a professorship at the Western Theological Seminary in Allegheny City, and serving as Pastor at the historic First Presbyterian Church in downtown Pittsburgh between 1894 and 1898. What some may not have known about Breed was the fact that he was an accomplished inventor and photographer, who developed an advanced process for coloring lantern slides during the late 19th century. It is a process which he used widely for lectures and lessons, as well as international exhibitions. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Breed displayed these colored lantern slides locally at places such as the First Presbyterian Church and the Carnegie Institute, while presenting discourses on art and photography.
At the onset of the American Civil War, Breed was attending Oakland's Western University of Pennsylvania (current University of Pittsburgh), however, his brother Henry served as 2nd Lieutenant in Company F, 155th Pennsylvania Infantry. On June 15, 1863, with the armies on the move, the boys' mother wrote a letter to Henry, describing a busy scene on the home front:
"A meeting had been held Tuesday evening about the rebels coming here — that they were at Chambersburg — and this morning all the factories and boundaries and works of all kinds were stopped to have them men work on fortifications. And they are now at work on Heron’s Hill and out at Turtle Creek. I will send you what is in the Gazette about it. For my part, I can’t feel afraid but I think we should be prepared to give them a suitable reception..."
These very fortifications described by David Breed's mother are the same ones he would photograph nearly 30 years later. In 1929, Dr. Mary Bidwell Breed, the daughter of Henry Breed, donated her late uncle's photographs to the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh as she retired from what is now Carnegie Mellon University. The photographs remain in the collection to this day.