It was a Fourth of July unlike any other in the nation’s history.
Independence Day 1865 — exactly 150 years ago — was an uneasy mix of joy, relief, resentment and unhealed wounds as Americans sought reasons for celebration after a war that nearly tore apart the country.
Three months earlier, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at a Virginia courthouse and, days later, John Wilkes Booth fatally shot President Lincoln in a Washington theater. Texas slaves learned of their freedom just weeks earlier, and Booth’s co-conspirators sat in a military jail cell with three days until their appointment with the gallows. Richmond and much of the rest of the South were in ruins, ruled by the U.S. military, while an untested President Johnson was trying to find his way forward.
But for the first time in more than four years, Independence Day dawned without Americans on the battlefield trying to kill other Americans.
Contemporary accounts and newspaper stories depict a subdued, at times somber celebration in a country struggling to recover a sense of normalcy. In some places, the holiday was barely observed at all.
The Emancipation Proclamation was read alongside the Declaration of Independence across the country. Freed blacks celebrated American independence for the first time. Northerners commemorated their victory over the Confederacy and urged reconciliation.
In the South, broken people were struggling to rebuild their lives.
A writer for the Charleston Courier in South Carolina tried to argue that the South could embrace Independence Day despite the outcome of the war.
“The ‘Fourth of July’ is, in all its greatest lessons and associations, an inheritance of the Confederate States,” the article read. “It had originally nothing to do with the relations of American states to each other, but asserted their independence against foreign rule. It is rightfully ours, and we must regard it so.”
Johnson looked to the Fourth of July as a launching point to reunify not just the states, but also the hearts and minds of their inhabitants.
“Of all the anniversaries of the Declaration of Independence, none has been more important and significant than that upon which you assemble,” he proclaimed. “Let us trust that each recurring Fourth of July shall find our nation stronger in number, stronger in wealth, stronger in the harmony of the citizens, stronger in its devotion to nationality and freedom.”
The president apparently spent the day in the White House, having canceled plans to travel to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, for a memorial service because he was “indisposed.”
In the years preceding the Civil War, political tensions created clashing interpretations of the Fourth of July and its significance in the national story.
At least three ideas prevailed. For the South, the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence represented sovereignty and the right to rebel. To the North, it marked the creation of a unified nation. To blacks and abolitionists, the day represented a celebration of freedom.
Despite the Confederacy’s claim on the Fourth of July, celebrations during the war were muted by the demands of battle. Crowds were smaller because most of the men were at war, and the customary military processions were noticeably absent as well.
The atmosphere was more somber than usual. An article in The New York Times described the 1861 July Fourth commemoration as akin to “the anniversary of a divorced couple’s wedding.”
In 1865, many of the war’s restrictions were beginning to lift two months after the formal end of combat.
For many in the North, the day was an excuse to celebrate a victory without reservation, and the spirit was not always magnanimous to the defeated. The Rev. Andrew L. Stone, in a speech to mark the holiday in Providence, Rhode Island, exulted that the “peers of the new usurping realm” now “sit in sackcloth and ashes” as the “baleful fires of the rebellion [have] died out.”
“We are today one nation again,” the cleric said. “The seat of government is the national capital, and not an arena for swaggering Southern bullies.”
Although some Southerners reluctantly embraced the holiday and the union, others found it too bitter a pill to swallow.
Washington, often viewed as straddling the divide between North and South, observed Independence Day with normal fanfare and celebration, according to coverage the next day in The Washington Evening Star.
“The dawn of another Independence Day was ushered in yesterday by the usual firing of guns by men, and rattling of fire-crackers and toy artillery by the children,” the newspaper wrote. Afterward, “the young folk and a large portion of their elders had arranged for an exodus from the dust and heat of the city to the shady groves in the surrounding country.”
The Colored People’s Educational Monument Association honored Lincoln with a memorial on the grounds of the U.S. Treasury, the first national celebration by black Americans.
In the evening, the Star reported, “the display of fireworks in the grounds south of the President’s House was exceedingly fine and attracted an immense throng.”
The author added, “The magnificent spectacle passed off without any occurrence whatever to mar the enjoyment of the scene.”
Farther South, observations of the day ranged from full-scale celebration to sullen indifference.
The Southern Watchman of Athens, Georgia, reported that the city rejected the notion of celebrating entirely because it was “deemed inexpedient, in view of our recent humiliation, our great loss of property, and more especially of men, to attempt a celebration this year.”
The Macon (Georgia) Telegraph observed in its July 4, 1865, edition that “our people are in no condition to engage in hilarity and festivity. Where plenty once smiled upon us, we now see the impoverishment and exhaustion resulting from four years of war.”
By contrast, The Baton Rouge Gazette expressed desire that “the coming anniversary be celebrated as of old, when Maine and Louisiana gloried in it together and when one people from Lakes to Gulf claimed it as their own.”
The July 5 edition of the Columbia Daily Phoenix in South Carolina perhaps best captured the conflicted feelings across the old Confederacy.
The only official observation of the holiday was organized by blacks, who were joined by a much smaller group of whites. Despite the lack of an official celebration, the local government declared that day that it was “the duty of the people of the South to accept, and acquiesce in the result, and to submit in good faith to the authority of the United States government.”
Esther Hill Hawks, a New Hampshire-born physician working in South Carolina with freed slaves, lamented the lack of public displays like she would have seen back home.
“It seemed like Sunday, everything was so still, not a gun, not a boy with a snap-cracker to indicate the ‘day we celebrate,’” she wrote in her diary.
The Daily Phoenix, in the same issue, reported that a man killed himself because “he could never live under the United States Government.”