Barzilai Brown, a grocer at the corner of Washington Avenue and Swanson Street in South Philadelphia, had a heart for weary Union soldiers marching past his store in the spring of 1861. He saw a lot of them from his location near the Navy Yard at the waterfront and also departing for the South on the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad.
Brown decided to do something. He gave food to traveling soldiers. His generosity grew and on May 27, 1861, the Union Volunteer Refreshment Saloon was established to distribute drinks, food, paper, and stamps. Seeing a need to not only feed troops, the saloon added a hospital to its services in September, 1861.
Another saloon also established in 1861, Cooper Shop Volunteer Refreshment Saloon, was located at 1009 Otsego Street near the railroad.
These volunteer establishments provided soldiers far from their loved ones with comforts of home: washing facilities, meals, writing materials, sleeping areas, directions, information on places of interest, army contacts, and hospital care. Dining halls contained long tables and dining bars where soldiers stood to eat.
Troops passed through Philadelphia at all hours of the day and night. “Fort Brown,” a cannon outside the Union Volunteer Refreshment Saloon, fired a signal shot to call women volunteers living near the Navy Yard to the saloon when regiments were expected.
Most of these ladies, though responsible for their households, came to the refreshment saloons to cook meals and wash dishes. They worked long hours—often all night—to feed soldiers, sailors, freedmen, and refugees.
The Cooper Shop Refreshment Saloon fed 400,000 men and cared for about 7,500 patients. Union Volunteer Refreshment Saloon served 1,025,000 meals to over 800,000 men with nearly 15,000 hospital patients. All this was paid for with donations—no government funds.
To think that one man started all this by doing what he could to meet the needs of exhausted troops. They were hungry—he had food in his grocery store.
Barzilai Brown sought to feed heroes … and became one himself.
-Sandra Merville Hart
Brockett, L.P. MD and Vaughan, Mary C. Woman’s Work in the Civil War: A Record of Heroism, Patriotism and Patience, Zeigler, McCurdy & Co., 1867.
“Civil War Volunteer Refreshment Saloons,” The Library Company of Philadelphia, 2017/07/03 http://digital.librarycompany.org/islandora/object/Islandora%3ACVVRS?display=list.
“Samuel B. Fales collection of Union Volunteer Refreshment Saloon papers,” The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 2017/07/03 http://hsp.org/sites/default/files/legacy_files/migrated/findingaid1580fales.pdf.