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About the Project

Mission Statement

The People's Contest is directed by a team of scholars and librarians to advance scholarship on the Pennsylvania home front during the Civil War era.  The website is a resource station for the vast and diverse collections of archival material around the state—from local county historical societies to large state museums and libraries—and point scholars in promising new directions of inquiry.Through The People's Contest website, researchers have access (1) to bibliographic records for collections residing at libraries, archives, historical societies, and museums throughout the state with an emphasis on technologically hidden and unprocessed collections; (2) to images and transcriptions of research materials; and (3) to interpretive essays, scholarly projects and links to outside sources. The People's Contest is a collaborative project of the Richards Civil War Era Center, The Pennsylvania State University Libraries, Senator John Heinz History Center, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, and is part of a series of initiatives to commemorate the Civil War sesquicentennial.  


The website tackles two interrelated problems: the Civil War northern home front, particularly Pennsylvania, remains understudied compared to the Confederacy; secondly, important collections remain unprocessed and un-described and therefore underused for telling a broader story of the war beyond the battlefield, especially issues concerning politics, race, ethnicity, and gender. 

This project focuses on the complex and varied story of Pennsylvania during the Civil War era. Pennsylvania was a highly contested state before, during, and after the war and stands in sharp contrast with an overly simplistic image of the North as a unified region. Pennsylvania shows that the there were multiple experiences, not one. Philadelphia contained one of the most significant African-American communities on the eastern seaboard. In the lumber region of the northern tier, dissent was an important feature as deserters sought refuge there. In the northeast, labor issues erupted in the coal regions. Confederate soldiers not only invaded the south-central region, but also conducted raids on railroad bridges and burned a significant portion of Chambersburg. In Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, industrialization became important. Women were brought into the workforce and they were encouraged to help in fund-raising efforts such as Sanitary Fairs.

The People's Contest hopes to advance scholarship on the story of the Civil War away from the battlefield by identifying and revealing valuable materials held in archives and special collections across the state. 


The chronological boundaries for the project are 1851-1874. The first date corresponds with the Christiana Riot in Lancaster, Pennsylvania on September 11, 1851, an important example of the struggle over the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act and the escalating tension between the North and the South.

The riot began when Maryland slave-owner Edward Gorsuch arrived in Christiana, Pennsylvania to reclaim a runaway slave under the 1850 fugitive slave law. At the home of William Parker, a free black man who was helping hide the fugitive, a conflict ensued between Parker and his neighbors and Gorsuch and his posse. In the midst of the “riot” Gorsuch was shot and killed. Public opinion in Lancaster supported Parker, and no one was convicted in Gorsuch’s death. The latter date is considered by scholars the traditional end-point for Reconstruction.