Civil War Profiles: Commemorating Independence Day during wartime


In April 1861, the outbreak of conflict between the states cast a dark shadow across the land. On July 4 — the 85th anniversary of the American colonies declaring independence from the British realm — a Delawarean ably expressed the fears of the nation:

“Today Congress meets to hold the most important session since [it] consecrated the day as our national anniversary. I hope [they] may consecrate it anew to our love and reverence and that their councils may be guided to results that will create … a new feeling of loyalty and patriotism that will preserve our country from the perils that now threaten its existence.”

These hopes would go unfulfilled by the 86th anniversary in 1862, as reflected in the assessment that “The National Anniversary is celebrated today amidst doubts and fears such as never clouded it before.” This resulted from the withdrawal of the Union army from in front of the Confederate capital at Richmond, with a decided loss of prestige.

As a result, “At no time since the war began has our future seemed so doubtful and uncertain.”

The situation prompted President Abraham Lincoln to call for 300,000 more troops to put down the rebellion. The initial enthusiasm to enlist, however, was gone, and the offer of bounties was necessary to entice men to join the service. The mood of “discouragement everywhere prevails.”

Feelings of doom and gloom were somewhat dispelled by July 4, 1863, following defeat of the Rebel invasion of Pennsylvania. A congratulatory letter from President Lincoln to Union commander Maj. Gen. George G. Meade upon his repulse of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army after three days of hard fighting, at great loss to both sides, set the tone for encouragement of the Northern population:

“[W]e hope the horizon is brightening and draw a deep breath of relief as we feel that the tension of the last few days is a little relaxed.”

As the war dragged on into its fourth year, the mood of the nation, as mirrored here in Delaware on July 4, 1864, remained optimistic, yet it was clear the populations in both the North and South were weary of continuous warfare and longed for an end to the carnage.

A week later, however, alarm was sounded just west of Washington, D.C., as a strong Rebel force, under Maj. Gen. Jubal Early had surreptitiously appeared at the doorstep of the Northern capital.

Although he was forced to retreat before any serious damage was done, Early’s maneuvers demonstrated that the Confederate army was alive and well, and not yet ready to submit to the much stronger Union army.

Yet, by the following year, submit they would, as the major Rebel armies, one by one, laid down their arms, beginning in April 1865 and continuing through the month of June. July 4, 1865, would once again witness all the American states reunited under one flag.

An article in “Delaware History” (April 1961) contributes this perspective on the first peacetime anniversary in four years:

“[It] brings to mind more vividly the contrast between peace and war, and the present time and the four preceding anniversaries. …. [We] knew little what experiences were before us, and what lessons even the most favored of us had to learn in the school of War — of anxiety, fear, suspense and horror.”

Ten days later, on July 14, 1865, as reported in the Delaware State Journal and Statesman, Mayor Joshua Maris greeted the remaining brave men of the 1st Delaware Veteran Volunteers as they returned home to Wilmington — a scene replicated throughout the cities and towns of the North.

The 1st Delaware’s chaplain, the Rev. Thomas G. Murphy, spoke in simple but grateful terms in response to an immense number of well-wishers who came out to greet the surviving heroes. He alluded to the “inspiring history” of his unit during their four years of faithful service.

Bethany Beach resident Thomas J. Ryan is the author of recently released “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” and “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War.” Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com, or visit his website www.tomryan-civilwar.com.