Sunday, July 1, 2012

July 4th, 1861 in Diaries

Independence Day in the United States is always filled with food and fireworks as the citizens celebrate the day our forbears declared we were to be a sovereign nation and no longer willing to be governed by England. The day was observed in both sections of the country over the course of 84 years. 1860 would see the last July 4th celebration with the nation whole and undivided. During the years 1861- 1865 the populations of both sides, civilian and soldier alike, would at least remember the day.

The following extracts were gleaned from diaries of soldiers and civilians, soldier letters, and regimental histories. They are for the year 1861.

July 4, 1861 had yet to see much of war. Fort Sumter had surrendered in April, but beyond a few very minor skirmishes not much had happened since and the First Battle of Manassas was still nearly three weeks in the future. There was nothing yet to show what lay ahead and almost every one believed it was going to be a short war.

Private Edward H. Basset of the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry writes in his diary that:

A national salute was fired here on July 4th. In the evening some fire ballast rockets were set off over Washington and Alexandria. We were 7 or 8 miles from Washington, and the light from some of the balls thrown was enough to read by.” [1]

First Bull Run would be the baptism of fire on “the altar of Mars” for the boys of the First Minnesota.

A musician in the Nineteenth Ohio Volunteer Militia, a ninety day outfit, offers glowing reflection on the founding fathers in his regimental diary and includes the following line: the true sons of those noble old sires are contending for the rights guaranteed to them by the Declaration of Independence against foes that are far more unprincipled and dangerous than the minions of Geo. III in the days of '76, but may they, as the enemies of our country did at that time, be made to feel that the arms of freemen are long and strong and Tyranny shall feel their power.” [2]

Eloquent to say the least, and if one did not know the source of this, it would leave the impression a Southern Confederate may have written it. Such was the reverence of the day and the foundation it provided for the country as a whole. And such was the passion that led people of both sides to proclaim resistance to tyranny made theirs a noble cause.
The Nineteenth O.V.M. would participate in the Battle of Rich Mountain July 11, its only action of consequence, before it mustered out in August, 1861.

Jesse W. Reid, a private in the Fourth South Carolina Volunteer Infantry wrote in a letter to his wife on July 2:

We are all anxiously awaiting the Fourth of July; it is only two days off. After it is over it will not be long till we know what to depend on.”

The South Carolinian was very aware that the United States Congress was set to convene on Independence Day. The next line Reid betrays his apprehension as to what course that body would choose to follow.

A great many men here seem to flatter themselves that there will be but little fighting done. I can't say how it may be, but I very much doubt that doctrine. We will all soon know more about it.”

In a letter dated July 5, Reid tells his wife:

On yesterday, the Fourth, the ladies and gentlemen of Leesburg and surrounding country came here in great numbers. The ladies presented us with a beautiful flag. A Virginia officer made the presentation speech in the name of the ladies. The acceptation speech was made by
Warren T. Wilkes, of Anderson, in the name of the regiment. We all agreed that it should never trail in the dirt. The Fourth is over. We will soon know what to depend on.”

The Fourth South Carolina Infantry would soon be fighting at First Manassas. In a letter to his wife written three days after the battle he concludes:

Although the fight is over the field is yet quite red with blood from the wounded and the dead.” [3]

It would appear that Reid, Basset, and “The Musician” now knew what they “could depend on.”

That first Independence Day of the war was still viewed by the country with the naivete of children. Independence for the South would surely be secured or the Union preserved before the next July 4th arrived, long before the turning of the calender to 1862 even. Remembered by both sections, July 4th still had meaning to both and neither fully comprehending what was about to unfold.
Bull Run was only a faint rumble of thunder over the horizon, a spectre of horror as yet unseen.

The Fourth of July would be different for the United States forever after.

The Picket


1- Basset, E.H., Basset, M. Harrison, Bull Run to Bristow Station Page 6-7

2- “A Musician” (1861) Three Months in Camp and Field:Diary of an Ohio Volunteer, Page 42

3- Reid, J. W., (1892), Diary of the Fourth Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers, Page 16-17, 26

All retrieved from

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