Sunday, February 19, 2012

Washington's Brithday, February 22, 1862

This weekend, as we are bombarded by television and newspapers ads of Washington and Honest Abe touting presidential savings on cars and dishwashers, I want to reflect on how Washington's birthday was observed 150 years ago in the midst of the Civil War. As I noted in a previous post, both Northern and Southern leaders sought to link their respective causes with the legacy of George Washington.  These efforts can best be seen in the February 22, 1862 observances of Washington's birthday observances in the Union and Confederate capitals. 


In Richmond, the Confederate Government chose  February 22nd as the date for Jefferson Davis's second inauguration.  Taking the oath of office in front of the Washington statue on the Virginia Capitol grounds, Jefferson Davis noted that "on this the birthday of the man most identified with the establishment of American independence, and beneath the monument erected to commemorate his heroic virtues and those of his compatriots, we have assembled to usher into existence the Permanent Government of the Confederate States."

The Washington National Republican took great umbrage at Richmond's attempts to hijack Washington's birthday:  "In the rebel States, the illumination will be in honor of the inauguration of their traitor President ... there are those in the Federal capital who strongly sympathize with him and his purposes and there will be no means of distinguishing between the loyal and the disloyal by a mere illumination"  The paper's indignant editors therefore challenged its readers to display the old flag of the Union conspicuously in addition to illuminating their homes.

Lincoln, no slouch when it came to the importance of symbolism in public imagination, ordered that "the 22nd day of February 1862, be the day for a general movement of the Land and Naval forces of the United States against the insurgent forces."  (Click here for a copy of General Order #1).  Frustrated with General McClellan's inaction, Lincoln hoped to jolt the complacent Young Napoleon to advance despite poor road conditions.  What could be more symbolic than choosing the birthday of the country's original military savior?  Ultimately, McClellan pushed back against the President and proposed a seaborne campaign via the Virginia Peninsula instead to begin in the early spring.

Lincoln  abstained from observances of Washington's birthday as he was mourning the death two days earlier of his cherished 11 year-old son Willie.  Although Congress had appropriated $5,000 for the evening illumination of public buildings on Washington's Birthday, legislators rescinded this resolution out of respect for the Lincolns' loss. Horatio Nelson Taft noted in his diary that only some private dwellings and businesses were illuminated that evening.  


In 1862, the Senate began a tradition, that continues today, of assembling to hear a reading of George Washington's 1796 Farewell Address on Washington's Birthday.  Senator Andrew Johnson of Tennessee noted that "in view of the perilous condition of the country .... the time has arrived when we should recur back to the days, the times, and the doings of Washington and the patriots of the Revolution, who founded the government under which we live."

Congressional invitation to the Reading of Washington's Farewell Address. (Library of Congress)

There were also smaller observances of Washington's Birthdays in the various Union encampments surrounding Washington.  Artillery units fired salutes in honor of George Washington.  The Rhode Island 2nd Infantry Volunteers, posted at Camp Brightwood near Ft. Stevens, held a concert and various athletic contests including sack-races.

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