Past Exhibits

Philadelphia 1861: A Coming Storm 

“It is indeed a threatening state of affairs…What prospect is there of filling up these rents and gaps, of subduing these animosities, of restoring peace? I can see more.”

—Sidney George Fisher, 1861

A storm was coming. No one knew where or when it would strike, and no one could have predicted how devastating it would be. The tensions leading up to the outbreak of the Civil War were acted out in the newspapers, at the social clubs and churches, and on the streets of Philadelphia. The Coming Storm tells the story of the Philadelphia home front with political memorabilia, newspaper headlines and cartoons, portraits, books, the hat that Lincoln wore while in disguise and the first-person accounts of city residents. During the critical first months of 1861, the city engaged in the national debate, hosted a president-elect and responded to the call of “War! War!! War!!!”

Philadelphia 1862: A City at War

By 1862, the Civil War had touched the lives of every Philadelphian. Thousands of men streamed through the city on their way to fight and waves of them returned, wounded and sick, from the battlefields and camps.  A City at War focuses on the home front, as Philadelphia’s citizens responded to the war with their money and their time. They cooked. They sewed. They raised funds to support the troops. They nursed the sick and wounded. Public figures continued to debate and disagree. Was the war justified? Was it well fought? Philadelphia was now, in all ways, a city at war. The exhibit includes objects rarely seen by the public, not only from the Union League’s collection but also from collections of partner organizations in Philadelphia and beyond, including the Thomas Jefferson University Archives, the First Regiment Infantry, the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia, and the York W. Bailey Museum at St. Helena Island, South Carolina.

Philadelphia 1863: Turning the Tide

The year 1863 was the mid-point of the Civil War and its most important year. On January 1, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, changing the future focus of the war and that of American history as well. In Philadelphia, the newly organized Union League was establishing itself as the foremost patriotic society in the country. It quickly attracted hundreds of members, reaching 1,000 by the end of the year. It established numerous operating committees, including a Military Committee, which raised 20,000 soldiers and a Board of Publication, which printed more than 2 million pro-Union pamphlets by the end of the war.

In June, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton issued an order officially allowing the recruitment of African-Americans as soldiers by establishing the United States Colored Troops, thus fulfilling the promise of emancipation. The Battle of Gettysburg, July 1–3, at last proved the Union army’s fighting ability and dispelled the myth of the invincibility of the Confederate army and Gen. Robert E. Lee. Abraham Lincoln closed the year with his thoughtful and poignant Gettysburg Address. Delivering the speech at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery on November 19, Lincoln used the opportunity to redefine the purpose of the war. This exhibit will focus on these specific events of 1863 and how they formed the course of the war and American history.

Philadelphia 1864: The Year of Decision

The exhibit Philadelphia 1864: the Year of Decision will highlight the bloodiest and most brutal year of the Civil War and includes stunning artifacts and documents from the period.  Learn the true story of General William T. Sherman’s “March to the Sea” and see the frockcoat he wore on this campaign.  Visit the Great Central Fair of 1864, a historic project that was led by League members and the women of the League (spouses, daughters, and sisters).  Understand how the dark horse, Abraham Lincoln, won the presidential election which insured Union victory.  The exhibit will also draw attention to the growing activities of the League, notably the erection of the Broad Street building, and its other activities through the year.

1865: Triumph and Tragedy

The exhibit focuses on two days in April 1865, which remain among the most triumphant and tragic in American history. On April 9, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Union General Ulysses S. Grant effectively ending the Civil War. Five days later, on April 14, John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln, who died the next day. The Union League, Philadelphia, and the nation, mourned. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers returned home and looked for ways to rationalize, remember, and memorialize the four years of death and destruction. On December 6, the 13th Amendment was ratified by the required number of states. Slavery was legally abolished. The United States of America forged in Philadelphia in 1776 was gone, and it was unclear what kind of country would emerge from the ashes of the war.

Sweep the Country: Political Conventions in Philadelphia.

The Abraham Lincoln Foundation of The Union League of Philadelphia (“the ALF”) opens its latest exhibition, Sweep the Country: Political Conventions in Philadelphia.  Presented in partnership with the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, the exhibition covers the 11 political conventions held in Philadelphia between 1848 and 2016.

Sweep the Country: Political Conventions in Philadelphia is rich in historic objects, and includes items from the Union League and Philadelphia History Museum collections, as well as private and institutional collections from the Philadelphia region.  The objects and images tell the stories of the conventions, and the important, and often contentious issues and platforms relevant to each convention.  The exhibition places the conventions in their historical, cultural and material context over the three centuries in which they were held. Issues such as slavery, immigration, civil rights and the role of business and government were debated – and these debates subsequently impacted and shaped our nation and world.

While the issues were serious, the conventions were and are often more about celebrations, and fun and festive parties.  From the Philadelphia History Museum collection, which loaned a total of 35 items, there is a box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese Dinner with pasta shaped like stars and elephants, the symbol of the Republican Party.  From the Union League collection, there are two presidential campaign handkerchiefs, 1856 Fremont and Dayton and 1900 McKinley and Roosevelt; these handkerchiefs were the bumper stickers of their day.

The exhibit also includes a new series of videos with leading scholars (Allen Guelzo, Gettysburg College, Randall Miller, St. Joseph’s University, Terry Madonna, Franklin and Marshall College) discussing the political context of these conventions and their impact on our nation.

Discovering Art in Philadelphia, Treasures from Private Collections

If art reflects its creator’s historical time, place and sensibilities, it also reveals much about those who value and collect it. Discover the influence and inspiration of artists and patrons on collecting trends of Philadelphians for more than two centuries. Beyond private exhibitions and museums, Philadelphia was host to many events which inspired broader audiences to appreciate and be stimulated by art. This exhibition is arranged in an order referencing the significant cultural and historical events in the city and environs that inspired the collecting interest for these works. Discovering Art in Philadelphia includes pieces from European masters, Pennsylvania Impressionists, mid-century and contemporary Philadelphia artists. The artists and paintings in this exhibition celebrate Philadelphia’s artistic identity and reflect, in part, the Union League’s own collection which originated through the influence and patronage of its membership and their collecting interests.