Union Soldiers Fondly Remembered the Hospitality of the Cooper Shop and Union Volunteer Refreshment Saloons
The city of Philadelphia was an important transportation hub for the Union Army during the Civil War. Thousands of soldiers passed through the city on their way south to Washington DC and Virginia by rail and to the East and Gulf coasts by sea; as well as the return trip home. In May of 1861, local businessman William M. Cooper and his business partner H.W. Pearce, owners of a manufacturing building that was conveniently located between the Delaware River docks and railroad connections, turned the building into a place serving food and drink to hungry troops passing though the city. The Cooper Shop Volunteer Refreshment Saloon, as it was known, remained open throughout the rest of the war, serving hundreds of thousands .
The Cooper Shop (which ironically was named not just after its owner, but also due to its previous incarnation as a barrel factory) was run by a committee of civic minded citizens and was supported entirely by donations and volunteer labor. When operating at full capacity, the Cooper Shop could feed 1000 men an hour. At the same time the Cooper Shop opened, a similar facility called the Union Volunteer Refreshment Saloon opened up nearby. Though run by separate organizations, they cooperated in dividing up incoming troops so they could be fed in the fastest and most efficient manner.
With some soldiers arriving in ill health or wounded, both the Cooper Shop and Union Refreshment Saloons opened hospitals. As with all other aspects of the refreshment saloons, doctors volunteered their services in these hospitals.
Much of the work of preparing and serving the meals and gallons of coffee, as well as tending to the patients in the hospitals, was performed by the women of Philadelphia. Contemporary historian L.P. Brockett paid tribute to them in his book “Woman’s Work in the Civil War: A Record of Heroism, Patriotism, and Patience”:
But noble and patriotic as were the labors of the men connected with these Saloons, they were less deserving of the highest meed of praise than those of the women who, with a patience and fidelity which has never been surpassed, winter and summer, in cold and heat, at all hours of night as well as in the day, at the boom of the signal gun, hastened to the Refreshment Saloons and prepared those ample repasts which made Philadelphia the Mecca to which every soldier turned longingly during his years of Army life. These women were for the most part in the middle and humbler walks of life; they were accustomed to care for their own households, and do their own work; and it required no small degree of self-denial and patriotic zeal on their part, after a day of the housekeeper’s never ending toil, to rise from their beds at midnight (for the trains bringing soldiers oftener came a night than in the day time), and go through the darkness or storm, a considerable distance, and toil until after sunrise at the prosaic work of cooking and dish-washing.
The soldiers who benefitted from this hospitality greatly appreciated it and often praised the Refreshment Saloons in their memoirs and regimental histories. The 50th Massachusetts Infantry spent December 20th, 1862 to January 7th, 1863 in Philadelphia before departing by sea for duty in the Port Hudson Campaign in Louisiana, as reported by the unit’s regimental historian:
The companies were marched to comfortable barracks on Swanson Street near the wharf, where we remained during our stay, being furnished with meals from the Union and Cooper refreshment saloons near by, where we received every attention and the most generous hospitality.
Connected with these saloons was a hospital and an ample room where facilities were furnished for reading and writing. Words can hardly express the kindness lavished upon the soldiers by the people of this patriotic city during the war…
On occasions as at Christmas and New-Year’s Day, elegant and cultured ladies took possession of the refreshment rooms where we dined, and served to us the delicacies of a holiday dinner. Whenever we chanced about the city, every one had for us a kind word, and was ready to show us every attention.
The 14th New Hampshire Infantry arrived in Philadelphia in October, 1862 on the way to its first deployment of the war near Washington DC as the regimental historians noted:
The regiment was ordered to move, and in five minutes was marched into that grandly historic “cooper-shop,” which has rung with the grateful comments of more than a quarter of a million of the country’s defenders, who therein feasted, to the fill of satisfaction, upon the most liberal spread laid for volunteers in all the land…A pint of excellent coffee, plenty of nice bread and butter, boiled ham and beef, crackers, cheese, and often pickles, constituted a truly bill of fare for clamorous soldier stomachs.
In September 1862, the 7th Rhode Island Infantry Regiment stopped at the refreshment saloons on its way to joining the 9th Corps in Maryland. William P. Hopkins of Company D recalled:
Upon arrival at these saloons arms were stacked, knapsacks were unslung, and suitable attention rendered. Long rows of wash basins were most welcome objects after long journeys by rail and weary marches through dusty streets. Soap there was, too, and snow white towels in abundance. Those who were entertained at the Union were then conducted into a capacious though not very high hall, bearing here and there traces of removed partitions…Fie long tables reached well-nigh from end to end. They were neatly covered with white cloth and set with plates, tin cups, castors, and such other things as are essential to the comfort of five hundred men…When the men lined up to their tables, they found them beautifully spread with nice bread, hot coffee, cold meats, pickles, cheese, and fruit…There was also an annex where a sick or wounded soldier could be nursed, and where writing materials with postage stamps were issued for free.
Home state Pennsylvania regiments also enjoyed the hospitality of the refreshment saloons. In mid November, 1861, the 97th Pennsylvania Infantry passed through Philadelphia on its way to Fortress Monroe, Virginia and then on to the South Carolina coast. Captain Isaiah Price of Company C wrote:
Arrived at West Philadelphia at 12:45 P.M. Marched thence to the Cooper Shop Refreshment Saloon, at Otsego Street and Washington Avenue (four miles), and were there refreshed by the kind hospitality of that committee and of the Union Refreshment Committee, whose united efforts to provide for the comfort of of the soldiers passing through Philadelphia were crowned with such remarkable success as to have placed the loyal liberality of her citizens most prominent as a feature of importance during the war, rendering those places dear and familiar to the hundreds of thousands who refreshed by the way, both going to and returning from the front.
Returning home in early June 1865 and after having been present at the surrender at Appomattox Court House two months earlier, the 20th Maine Infantry stopped at the Philadelphia refreshment saloons, as recorded by Private Theodore Gerrish:
The Philadelphians gave us a royal welcome…They never thought to inquire of a soldier, or regiment of soldiers, what state they were from; it was enough for them to know that they were soldiers in the service of the Republic, and all their wants were supplied by a most generous hand. We marched to an elegant refreshment saloon, where a fine dinner was served to us “without money and without price.” We gave three ringing, hearty cheers for our generous hosts, and, amid the cheers of thousands of spectators, we departed for New York…
On August 28th, 1865, the Cooper Shop fed the men of the 32nd United States Colored Troops, and 104th Pennsylvania Infantry. They were the last of an estimated 600,000 who were fed there during the war. The Cooper Shop closed operations at noon that day.
A Memorial of the Great Rebellion: Being a History of the Fourteenth Regiment New Hampshire Volunteers by Charles P. Hall, John W. Sturtevant, Samuel L. Gerould, and Francis H. Buffum
Army Life: A Private’s Reminiscences of the Civil War by Theodore Gerrish
History of the Cooper Shop Volunteer Refreshment Saloon by James Moore
History of the Fiftieth Regiment of Infantry Massachusetts Volunteer Militia in the Late War of the Rebellion by William B. Stevens
History of the Ninety-Seventh Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry During the War of the Rebellion 1861-65 by Isaiah Price
The Seventh Regiment Rhode Island Volunteers in the Civil War by William P. Hopkins
Woman’s Work in the Civil War: A Record of Heroism, Patriotism, and Patience by L. P. Brockett.