In May 1865, the Civil War had finally ended. More than 700,000 Americans had died in the bloody struggle that decided the future of course of the Union.
Few places in the North were hit harder by the sorrows of war than Schuylkill County. The county sent thousands of men to war in 1861. Hundreds never returned home, and those who did lived with the physical and emotional scars of the conflict for the rest of their lives.
But in June 1865, there was a celebration to be had. The Union had prevailed through the darkest moment in our nation’s history. And the soldiers who made that victory possible were beginning to return home to their friends and family.
The Miners’ Journal of Pottsville published this editorial in those heady months, detailing the emotions that swirled in the air as the boys in blue made their gallant return to the Coal Region.
“Johnny Comes Marching Home.”
Throughout the length and breadth of this broad land of ours, in humble homes or in well appointed households, there are hearts throbbing anxiously for the return of those who have borne the burden of the march, and camp and heat of the battle to gain the priceless boon of peace which is now dawning upon the country. The ties of home have been woven firmly by letters or messages throughout the long period of absence, and they are about to be woven still more closely by the return and actual presence of the absent heroes. When they left their homes and their loved ones, the country was disturbed by the shock of war, and honor and patriotism alike forbade that any who could, should remain in the enjoyment of peaceful scenes while so great a peril existed as then threatened.
Our hard sons of toil left their farms and workshops, enrolled themselves under the Banner of Liberty, and went forth to battle for their country’s honor. They enlisted in a glorious cause and have, or will meet with their reward. Those who return will be welcomed with an ardor which will more than compensate them for the hardships they have endured, and the peacefully disposed resume their respective vocations, conscious in having performed their duty, and in having gained the esteem of their fellow-citizens. But it is not the public welcome which will touch the tenderest chords in their hearts. It is the home welcome – the close embrace of father, son, husband, and lover with the objects of their affections – that rewards the soldier for his labor. It is that scene of all domestic spectacles upon which no cold strange eye should intrude, but one which may not inappropriately be contemplated from afar.
Here is the mother who gave her son to his country, with the injunction to return with his shield, or be borne upon it. She has watched every avenue of tidings of that boy during his long years of service; has anxiously scanned the roll of victims to wounds, prisons, or honorable death; has felt a sense of relief at the absence therefrom of her son’s name; has, with throbbing heart, watched for the expected, welcome letter and has cried with joy when tidings were received of her boy…
She it is who has nursed a store of affection which, when the moment of meeting comes, will overflow itself in tears of joy, and cause that son to feel that he has been amply repaid for all that he has undergone.
Here again is a little family – a wife and the mother of young children prattling about her knee. She has, like the mother, watched anxiously for tidings from the absent one, and when her heart has been strained almost to bursting in her grief or anxiety for his safety, has gathered those little ones to her throbbing bosom, and bestowed their ringlets with her scalding tears.
Now he is coming home. She weeps for joy as she tells the glad tidings to her little family, and looks with pride upon the lovely brood who will soon aid her in welcoming their father. The brief furloughs he has spent at home have compensated in part for his absence, but now she feels she shall have him with her always and then how happy will be their lives! During that long absence she has formed many plans for the future, and disciplined her mind to be worthy of him. If her resolves are kept, that home indeed will be a happy one.
Here again is the sister, perhaps a young girl just entering upon her teens when her “big brother” left for the war. She, in her anxiety for his return, wonders if he will remember her now that she has grown almost into womanhood and worries her little head with mad-cap schemes for giving him a surprise. Her fingers have been busy in the construction of some trifling gifts for him, and their hiding place is frequently visited to see that they are safe, and perhaps a tear is shed in grief that they are not better or more valuable than they are. But the smile returns to her cheek when she reflects that after all they are her own handiwork, and her dear brother will think all the more of them for that. Perhaps her romantic brain has pictured him as an officer, promoted since his absence for some gallant deed. If he has been, as many who went forth as privates have been, her joy will be all the greater, and then she will look forward to the day when she shall, leaning upon his arm, be the proudest, happiest of mortals, as she introduces him to her little circle of friends. Perhaps, too, she has, during his absence, selected one particular friend whom she dearly loves, and who she hopes may learn to love him, too. Then she will be supremely happy. Perhaps he has found and cherished some friend – young and handsome, and an officer, too – to whom he will introduce her with just such matrimonial intentions as infest her own active brain. Can anything more natural well be imagined?
Here again is the sweetheart. The affection she entertains for the returning hero is unlike that of the others. It is indescribable, and we will not attempt to mar it by failure. No one doubts, however, but that her little heart will throb with joy when she meets the long absent object of her affections, or that, in the interim, as the day of meeting grows on space, she does not pay frequent visits to the trusting place where their loves were plighted, and to the safe repository, where are the treasures – gifts and letters from him – she has so sacredly guarded. He may have been wounded; she cares not, so long as he returns and still loves her and she will gather him to her heart with rapture and experience the acme of bliss when he begs her to name an early day when he shall be all her own.
There are homes where sorrow will be mingled with joy. There will be vacant chairs in the chimney corner; empty cradles and pillows no longer pressed by the lovely cherubs which had scarcely learned to prattle when the man become a soldier; newly made graves to visit and weep over; and the many sorrows and griefs which ofttimes crowd themselves within comparatively brief periods of absence. Let us hope that there are few of our returning braves who will find no homes to shelter them, no mother, wife, sister or sweetheart to welcome them. Such as these must feel that they have indeed made a sacrifice for their country for which compensation can scarcely be made during their lifetime.
Those who returned began their struggle to reintegrate into society. Many succeeded. These men found success in the mines, workshops, and industries of the post-Civil War Coal Region. They married their sweethearts and started families.
Many did not find this post-war bliss. These men struggled with their painful scars. They drank too much, a practice learned while at war. They turned to violence in their homes and in public.
If you want to read more about the struggle of Union veterans as they returned home, we highly recommend Brian Matthew Jordan’s Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War.
Featured Image: A scene at the Grand Review in Washington, DC in May 1865 (Library of Congress)
2 thoughts on “When Schuylkill County’s veterans came marching home – June 1865”
Well done, Jake!
Marching Home an excellent book. Well worth the read.