By Ronald E. Shaffer
Many Philadelphians, including Old Pine’s minister (1837-1866) were caught up in acts of patriotism during the Civil War years when thousands of Union troops mustered in Philadelphia…and later when the wounded arrived by train loads. In the mustering years, a group of well-intentioned men rented a house boat and had it docked at the foot of Washington Street (now Avenue) on the Delaware River. It was a place where soldiers could come in off the street to be fed before boarding a troop train taking them to battlefields. This hospitality effort became “The Union Volunteer Refreshment Saloon,” a place where troops could get a good free meal equal to what any well-appointed hotel would serve.
Thanks in large part to Dr. Brainerd’s ability to get benevolent people involved, the Saloon increased in size and services by adding a hospital, bathing rooms, offices and day rooms where departing soldiers could pen letters home. Even stationery and stamps were supplied free. Money rolled in under the energetic Committee spearheaded by Brainerd. Merchants donated furniture and tables. Walls were adorned with pictures. Interiors were brilliantly illuminated with gas. The Saloon, staffed round the clock, glowed with patriotism.
The corresponding secretary for the Committee, Samuel B. Fales on January 12, 1863 recorded, “after a heavy snowstorm today, Dr. Brainerd arrived at the Saloon on horseback to hand in $40 he had just collected. Being pressed for time, he did not dismount, forcing me to write a receipt by pressing a piece of paper to the horse’s shoulder.” Some time later, Samuel Fales commissioned artist Edward Moran to paint a series of Saloon views. He specifically requested that one show Dr. Brainerd and his horse in the snow storm.
(Advancing the clock)…On the Saturday and Sunday following the Battle of Gettysburg, train loads of wounded Union soldiers were brought to Philadelphia and taken to various hospitals. That Sabbath morning, Dr. Brainerd was preaching at Old Pine when a man came forward and handed him a note from the Union Saloon urgently requesting linens, bandages and change of clothes for 750 men. Brainerd read the message aloud, said the benediction, cancelled afternoon services and spent the rest of the day collecting supplies. He personally drove two wagon loads of supplies to Washington Avenue.
Between 1861 and 1865, the Union Volunteer Refreshment Saloon provided more than one million free meals, not only to soldiers but also to sailors, refugees, freedman, Confederate prisoners…and even Union deserters. All of this was accomplished by public benevolence with no support whatsoever from city, state or federal governments.
In 1865 when the Saloon buildings closed, the Committee presented Dr. Brainerd with two mementos…one of the diner castors used on the dining room tables and…a fine large stuffed eagles, a gift to the Saloon from an appreciative departing soldier later killed on the battlefield. Never were two relics more cherished!
Noteworthy: The Union Volunteer Refreshment Saloon may have been the inspiration for the founding of the USO (Unites Service Organization) in 1941 and still in operation today providing assistance to men and women in the U.S. armed forces and their immediate family members.
A mystery…a number of brass buttons from Union soldier coat sleeves were recently dug up in Old Pine’s graveyard by a metal-detector hobbyist. Several were found, along with coins of the era, at a depth of six to twelve inches. Grave records, however, do not list a single Civil War soldier buried here! Then why so many buttons? Supposition has it that soldiers, awaiting orders to be shipped out, visited our historic graveyard and, in an act of patriotism, cut off a sleeve button and placed it on the gravestone of a Revolutionary War soldier. As for the coins…the soldiers may have placed a coin on a gravestone in lieu of cutting off a button. Or…they simply may have had a hole in their pocket!