First National Bank, summer of 1863

Alyssa BentzGBH is happy to re-introduce Alyssa Bentz, our newest Historian at Wells Fargo. This is her second post, and it’s timely; a 150th anniversary for the Wells Fargo history blog. (CR)

On June 20th, 1863, the First National Bank of Philadelphia received its charter from the newly formed Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. The charter was the first of its kind under the National Currency Act. Signed by President Lincoln three months before, it created a network of national banks to address some of the economic strains caused by the expensive Civil War. The bank opened during one of the most pivotal moments in the Civil War.

Since the summer of 1862, the Confederate Army had won several victories, and was gaining a reputation as undefeatable by some. The newspapers in Philadelphia, and other Northern cities, were regularly releasing details of the newest victory of the Confederate Army and the most recent defeat of the Union forces. After victory at the battle of Chancellorsville in Virginia, General Lee of the Confederate Army decided the time had come to try and invade the north. That June, the Confederate Army crossed the Potomac into Maryland and marched into Pennsylvania. At the same time that the office of the Comptroller sent Charter No. 1 to Philadelphia, the city was preparing for attack.

As news of the Confederate Army’s advance reached Philadelphia by telegraph, the city went into a state of emergency.  The movements of the Confederate troops were not completely understood, but Harrisburg and Philadelphia were considered the most likely destinations. Some chose to leave the city with what precious objects they could carry, but many stayed behind and prepared for the city’s defense, and the defense of the state capital, Harrisburg. On June 16, The Mayor of Philadelphia, Alexander Henry, released an announcement stating:

“Citizens of Philadelphia: In view of the urgent need for instant action to protect the Capital of your State, and to secure the safety of your own homes, I do hereby earnestly appeal to all citizens to close their place of business, and to connect themselves without delay with the existing military organizations for the defense of the City.”

National Bank charter 1That same day, the First Troop of Philadelphia City Cavalry gathered and resolved to join efforts to resist the Rebel Army. The cavalry unit was almost stopped in its tracks by a lack of funds, but  Owen Wilson Davis, president of the newly organized and soon-to-be chartered First National Bank of Philadelphia, supplied the money to buy horses for the cavalry. The next morning, the cavalry loaded into railroad cars and traveled by train to Harrisburg, where they were ordered to proceed to Gettysburg.

The Confederate Army never made it to Harrisburg or Philadelphia. The Confederate and Union armies met at Gettysburg, on July 1st. Over the next three days, and after 50,000 casualties, the Confederate Army was repelled. The undefeatable army had been stopped, and the tide of war shifted. In Philadelphia, as news trickled into the city of the Confederate defeat, business began to return to normal, and the First National Bank of Philadelphia opened on July 11th.

The First National Bank of Philadelphia merged with several Philadelphia banks eventually becoming the First Pennsylvania Banking and Trust Company in 1955. After several more mergers, its heritage is now part of Wells Fargo. Today, Wells Fargo operates under Charter #1.

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