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Independence Day - 1861 Style

Fourth of July in 1861


This year marks the beginning of the 160th Anniversary of the Civil War. What were soldiers and civilians doing on Independence Day in 1861?

Some communities and soldier camps had relatively normalized celebrations with readings of the Declaration of Independence, parades, speeches, music, gun salutes, and firecrackers. (There's even a notice in one of the Boston Newspapers about not shooting excessive amounts of fireworks since it disturbed the neighbors!) Both sides used the holiday related to the nation's founding to support their beliefs, inspire recruitment, and keep morale high.

In the rest of this email, you'll find primary source quotes from newspapers or diaries of the era, giving voice to the feelings on both sides during the Fourth of July in 1861.


Will you donate to save Civil War battlefields this holiday weekend? Preserving this land where history happened helps to ensure that the multi-layered stories from our nation's past are remembered and shared with every generation.


In Fredericksburg...

Betty Herndon Maury wrote in her diary on July 4, 1861, noting the quietness. Apparently, Fredericksburg did not have a typical celebratory day that year. Not a gun have I heard this morning. I hope our old national holidays will not be dropped by the Southern Confederacy...


Arguing from History?

Meanwhile, more publicly vocal supporters of secession and the Confederacy used the example of Independence Day and the American Revolution as historical precedence for their own movement and interpretations; this perspective looked at the Revolutionary War as a secession movement from Britain. The following excerpt comes from the Richmond Enquirer and was reprinted on September 10, 1861: "Independence Day is to this hour their highest festival. Of real secessionsists there were not more than two millions and a half. Is there a man in all America who does not glory in the Declaration of Independence, from Abraham Lincoln upward or downward. On what principle of morality or common sense, then, can any one of them deny the right of the of Southerners to proclaim their independence from the North?"

Woodcut from a Southern Envelope, cropped. (Library of Congress)


Preservation of the Union?

Meanwhile, in the North, citizens of Fall River, Massachusetts were encouraged to celebrate Independence Day with special patriotism and focus on the preservation of the Union. (Fall River Daily Evening News, June 29, 1861) "There has been no Fourth of July since the institution of the Government more worthy of celebration than this; and we wish every city and town and village, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, would observe it in such a manner as to give renewed energy to al the efforts that are now being made for the preservation of the Union, and the complete defeat of the leaders of the wicked rebellion which has burst forth..."


An Anti-Slavery Gathering

For those who actively supported the abolition of slavery, Independence Day was a patriotic rally with deeper meaning. William Lloyd Garrison's newspaper, The Liberator, in Boston, carried the following excerpt in the days leading up to the holiday. "The usual Anti-Slavery Celebration of Independence Day...will be held in the beautiful and commodious Grove at Framingham, on Thursday, July 4th, under the director of the Managers of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. Hitherto, it has never failed to secure a multitudinous gathering of the truest friends of universal liberty, from various parts of the Commonwealth; and the circumstances of the times are such as to warrant the expectation, that the number will be largely augmented at the approaching anniversary."


Art from a Civil War era envelope, cropped. (Library of Congress)


In Camp...

Elisha Hunt Rhodes enlisted in the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteer Infantry on June 5, 1861, after receiving permission from his mother. The nineteen-year-old spent the Fourth of July in camp and wrote in his diary about the activities. "Camp Clark, July 4, 1861—Our first Independence Day in the army and we have had a grand celebration. Rev. Augustus Woodbury, Chaplain of the First Rhode Island Detached Militia read the Declaration of Independence to both the First and Second Rhode Island Regiments at nine A.M. Prayer was offered by Chaplain Jameson of the Second Rhode Island Volunteers and a fine oration delivered by Rev. Father Quinn, Assistant Chaplain to the First Rhode Island. Captain Cyrus G. Dyer, Company "A", Second Rhode Island Volunteers followed with an excellent poem. At twelve noon a national salute was fired by the Light Battery and we were invited to a fine dinner. Prof. Benoni Sweet, a member of Company H, Second Rhode Island gave an exhibition of tight rope walking. Our camp has been full of people all day. In fact we are in the habit of seeing many distinguished men at our parade. Night before last (July 2) there were present the Hon. Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury, Colonel John C. Fremont the great path finder, James F. Smith, Esq. of Rhode Island and others."


Parting Shot

(Photo by Sarah Kay Bierle, 2021.)


Central Virginia Battlefields Trust's mission is to preserve, protect, and educate about Civil War hallowed ground at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, The Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House.

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