Wednesday, June 29, 2011

4th of July 1861

As we get ready to celebrate our country's 235th birthday, I wanted to look back at how July 4th was observed in Washington, D.C.  150 years ago.  The Union itself was in peril. 11 States had seceded and tens of thousands of soldiers from both sides were bivouacked in camps within a day's march of each other. Despite the troubled times, The Washington National Republican observed that "the fears that the national troubles would interfere materially with the celebration of the Fourth of have all been dissipated, and the probability is that the celebration of today will surpass anything Washington has seen."

Unlike the forecast for 4th of July 2011, the weather on this Independence Day 150 years ago was "delightful and very favorable" with little humidity.  The day began with artillery salutes fired at daybreak from batteries in and around the city and the tolling of church bells.  Later in the the morning, a parade of 20,000 New York soldiers marched down Pennsylvania Avenue and pass a Presidential reviewing stand.  Such a martial parade had never been witnessed in Washington before.  After brief remarks from the President and his Cabinet, an American flag was raised in Lafayette Square.  Flags and banners decorated residences and camps throughout the city on a scale never seen before.  Regiments throughout the city held open houses in their camps with dress parades, concerts, speeches by home state dignitaries, readings of the Declaration of Independence and festive meals.

Harpers' Weekly depiction of President Lincoln reviewing a parade of 23 New York regiments on July 4, 1861, one of many presidential review of troops in Washington during the spring and summer of 1861. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

At noon, the 37th Congress convened in a special session called by President Lincoln to secure Congressional appropriations for the raising and equipping of a 400,000 man army.  On this first day of the five-week session, new members, including those from the new state of Kansas, were sworn in, Galusha Grow was elected Speaker of the House, and the President's Special Message was read. (The NY Times website today featured a great analysis of Lincoln's speech by Lincoln biographer Harold Holzer)  In his opening prayer, the Senate Chaplain observed that although "new disasters have befallen us and darkness broods in the land, [this Independence Day] was a day tenfold more precious by reason of our present troubles."

Although the Ordnance Department did not put on its normal fireworks show due to wartime exigencies, Union soldiers and private citizens filled the void through their own fireworks and artillery salutes throughout the evening. (Such pyrotechnic enthusiasm today would earn one a stiff $1,000 penalty in the District.) Charles B. Hayden, a Michigan infantryman, wrote in his diary that "at night cannons were fired at the batteries and at the city and every camp had a bonfire ... the Potomac was lighted for miles by their blaze."

One Washington newspaper asserted that "the celebration of the Fourth of July, 1861 is an event long to be remembered by those who had an opportunity of enjoying the pleasures incident thereto in and around the Federal metropolis." It was probably well that the celebrations in and around Washington were such a resounding success as this would be the last joyous day in Washington for a long time.  The first significant bloodshed of the war was several weeks away and many still harbored romantic notions of what war would be like.    

An illustration of a flag raising in a Union camp on July 4, 1861.   In Union camps throughout the Washington area, bonfires were set, three loud cheers were given for the flag and patriotic tunes were played.  At Camp Anderson, the only complaint was that the fireworks that the New York 12th infantry had ordered did not arrive in time.  Across the river in Arlington, the New York 25th Regiment, made up of upstate New York men, marked the holiday by dedicating a new earthwork in  overlooking the Long Bridge as "Fort Albany."(Library of Congress)

Southern Observances

Confederate soldiers stationed at forward outposts in Northern Virginia undoubtedly were able to observe and hear fireworks and bonfires from the Union camps that evening.  Rather than rejecting the observance of the 4th of July, Southerners embraced it and waxed poetically about how their Confederacy was the true heir to the Founding Fathers' ideals. 

In occupied Alexandria, Henry B. Whittington, a mercantile clerk and fervent secessionist, expressed Southern sentiments when he wrote in his diary:  "This is a day clear to the hearts of Americans, and as I think the principles involved in the immortal Declaration of Independence, I am instinctively led to contrast our own present condition with the designs of our forefathers in this pledging life, fortune and sacred honor to secure to posterity the benefits it marks out as inherent in man, with those of Lincoln and his advisers, and the utter disgust excited within me at the retrospect induces me to pray heartily for deliverance from such a connextion as that we have heretofore enjoyed with them, and to desire Annihilation rather than Reunion."

The Daily Richmond Enquirer also sought to tie the Spirit of 76' to the South's present struggle :  "The deed which this day we celebrate, is a glorious and inspiring endorsement of the present attitude of the Confederate States... It only remains for us to prove the legitimacy of our descent by heroism and prowess in the field."

As the war progressed and Confederate prospects for victory dimmed,  many Southerners would exhibit greater ambivalence regarding the 4th of July.  An extreme example was the city of Vicksburg, which surrendered to Grant on July 4, 1863 and would not again officially observe the 4th of July until 1945.

The Garibaldi Guard marches in review before President Lincoln and Genral Winfield Scott on July 4, 1861.  The Garibaldi Guard was a New York unit made up of Hungarians, Germans, Swiss, Italians and French, many of whom had fled Europe after the failed revolutions of 1848.   Illustrated London News


  1. My great-grandfather, Pvt. Herman Holtz was in the 39th NYSV regiment aka. Garibaldi Guard. He was a bugler and was wounded in the stomach at the Battle of the Wilderness. We have all of his records and a uniformed picture. His offspring includes Jewish and Italian generations of deeply community oriented people including,artists and musicians, and soldiers who fought valiantly in WWII and also participated in the 9/11 recovery effort at ground zero at the World Trade Center. I am Leonard Holtz,