How Pottsville commemorated the first anniversary of the Confederate army’s surrender – 1866

On the cold, crisp morning of April 9, 1866, hundreds of people gathered in downtown Pottsville to commemorate the one year anniversary of Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. 

Celebrations began close to dawn with the firing of a cannon salute that echoed over the coal-rich hills surrounding the Schuylkill County seat. It was to be a day filled with parades, pageantry, and patriotism, filled out with speeches, dancing, and a large quantity of alcohol. 

Pottsville during the Civil War era (NYPL)

Members of local militia companies, the National Guard forbearers of the 19th century, assembled alongside members of numerous Schuylkill County fire companies for a parade that crisscrossed Pottsville in the morning hours of April 9 beneath American flags, colorful bunting, and to the cheers of thousands of on-lookers. Many of those who participated in the parade were themselves veterans of the Civil War. They basked in the glow in the celebration, something that was scheduled a year earlier, but was cancelled in the wake of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln just five days after the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered in April 1865. The one year anniversary of Appomattox was to be the long-delayed celebration the local veterans and citizenry wanted but had not yet hosted. 

The parades marched with 18 battle flags, worn and tattered by hard service and combat, that had carried with local regiments on battlefields throughout the Civil War. 

48th Pennsylvania’s second state colors

The parades ended at the American Hotel on Centre Street, near the town’s railroad depot. The parade participants and spectators gathered to hear speeches given on this weighty occasion. 

American House Pottsville
An 1864 map of downtown Pottsville. The American House hotel stands at the corner of Centre and Union streets. (LOC)

Colonel James J. Conner, a manager of collieries in Schuylkill County and briefly an officer in an emergency regiment formed during the 1863 Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania, spoke first after being introduced by General Henry Pleasants, the famed leader of the 48th Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteer Infantry. 

Conner gave a long, winding address that was heavy on name-dropping ancient Greek and Roman figures and rhetoric, but short on substance. His speech started like this: 

To you, my fellow-citizens, who, when this old flag was trampled in the dust, when the federal laws were defiled, when Sumpter fell, when the shrill cry that American blood was shed on American soil was ringing through the land, left your counters, your ploughs, your workshops, the pulpit, the farm and the bar, and marched forward to vindicate the insulted majesty of the laws, I intend to say a few words.

It was you who stood like a wall of fire and breasted the desolating tempest like the heroic men of Greece. When danger threatened and peril beset them, their last rallying point was the pillared fame, and their last prayer was said under the glittering aegis of the blue-eyed Minerva.

Your rallying point was Washington, (a name now as historic as the Grecian Cane.) Each of you carried his life in his hand and went prepared to say your last prayer under the dome of the Capitol of the American Republic…

After Conners stepped down from the speakers’ platform, he was replaced by Colonel David B. Green, the former adjutant of the 129th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, a nine-months regiment that served from 1862 until 1863, seeing action most famously at the First and Second Battles of Fredericksburg. Green’s speech was powerful and directly addressed the questions hanging heavy in the air in the spring of 1866.

D.B. Green
David B. Green

How would the Civil War be remembered? How would the Union soldiers be honored and commemorated? What did it all mean for the future of the United States of America? All with a heaping helping of scorn for former rebels who Green and many others in that crowd viewed as the aggressors in a conflict fought in an ill-begotten effort to preserve Southern institutions – slavery and white supremacy. Below is Green’s speech in full, as provided to the Miners’ Journal of Pottsville: 

One year has now elapsed since the Confederate armies under General Lee surrendered to the Federal forces under General Grant. That event virtually closed the rebellion, and established the rightful authority and power of the general Government over the whole of the United States. A four years ’war, terrible in its earnestness, vast in its expenditure of treasure, and fearful in its sacrifice of human life, had come to a sudden yet glorious close. Fitting it is, therefore, that those who had participated in that war; that those veterans who had returned home crowned with laurels of victory – nay, that everyone whose heart beats for the unity and welfare of that blessed land we call our own, should meet together and commemorate the anniversary of so important an event.

Lee Surrendering to Grant, NPG

This day carries us back again to the past. We review in our minds the many events which have crowded our recent history, and made it memorable for all time to come. No man reviewing the events of the past can say that under no circumstances, that fearful struggle could have been avoided or prevented. It must have come sooner or later. The antagonism of the two vital principles of liberty and slaver, which had commenced with the very organization of the Government, and been continued with more or less bitter feeling and sectional animosity ever since, had at length been brought to a fearful issue.

Compromise, that weak expedient for battling off gigantic evils, was no longer possible, and these two elements stood face to face, frowning upon each other, neither willing to yield.

That spirit of conciliation and compromise which inclines to peace and which would rather yield much than come to blows, had been invoked time and time again, generally with success until the conscience of the North had become blunted, and slavery, always aggressive, had nationalized itself and perched itself high up above the Goddess of Liberty that surmounts the Capitol of our country. Compromise had at length been exhausted under the new demands of a monster iniquity, and liberty itself was in danger. The time for the deadly conflict, irrepressible in its very nature, was at hand, and naught but good and sturdy blows and an overruling Providence could decide the conflict now.

The guns fired upon devoted Sumpter’s walls echoed through the valleys and over the hills of the North. It kindled into an ardent flame the patriotism slumbering in the bosoms of a loyal people, and the cry was to arms. That cry rang through every town and village of the land. The farmer deserted the plow, the mechanic laid aside his hammer, and the professional man shut up his books to take up the musket and the sword in order to rescue an imperiled nation from destruction. Money flowed in abundant streams into the National Treasury. The heart of the nation beat true and firm to liberty and to those immortal principles which have found expression in that charter of our freedom, the Declaration of Independence. History has nothing to record grander than that uprising of the American people when treason fired upon its flag, and attempted to haul it down from its place among the stars.

Fort Sumter
Confederate assault on Fort Sumter, April 1861

It would be too long to tell of the various events which marked that deadly conflict. They are too fresh in your memories to need any recital here. You yourselves were actors in the great scene and you had the world for your witnesses. For four long bloody years the war went on. It was one of alternate success and disaster. But the true men of the land, undismayed by defeat and gathering new courage with every disaster, only worked the harder when the emergency demanded. This vast northern hive sent forth again and again its hundreds of thousands of men to take the places of those who had fallen, and the appeals of the government for means to carry on this gigantic war always found a ready response from a patriotic and devoted people.

But who shall tell in fitting terms of that matchless valor, that endurance, that suborn resistance which plucked success and safety out of the very jaws of death and defeat? Who shall record the sacrifices and hardships endured by the soldiers in the hard march, the wet bivouac, the bloody battle, or in the dungeon and in the prison? Laying aside al the comforts and luxuries of home, they went forth in the pride of their manhood, risking everything for the safety and perpetuity of the republic. The bloody battlefields of the Peninsula, of Fredericksburg, of Gettysburg, around Richmond, of Murfreesboro, Chattanooga, and of hundreds of other places, attest the bravery with which they sealed their devotion with their lives.

50th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry

Alas! How many fell. Those dead heroes lie buried in Southern soil. Their dust mingles with the dust of every Southern State, making it richer and preparing it for that crop of loyalty and allegiance which must spring up, after the rank weeds of secession and disunion shall have been thoroughly rooted out. Those nameless heroes, lying in unforgotten graves, shall prove the living seed from which shall spring new institutions which shall cover that beautiful land and make it also the home of the free and the refuge of the oppressed.

How shall the vast debt of gratitude which this nation owes to its volunteer soldiery ever be repaid? Who shall estimate its amount, and what compensation could be given that would be adequate?

Soldiers Grave Virginia
Soldiers digging a makeshift grave for a comrade in Virginia during the Civil War

But the stone-hearted endurance and the high devotion to principle which marked the conduct of the war, met with success at last, and this day one year ago, the chief army of the rebellion, headed by its chosen leader, that had withstood the assaults of our armies as a wall, laid down its arms and surrendered to its great antagonist, the gallant Army of the Potomac. The power of the rebellion was broken, and one after another of its armies laid down their arms and surrendered, until none remained to contest the supremacy. The great contest was over, and the victorious banners of our armies once more waved over a free and a united land.

A rebellion, the most wicked and the most gigantic the world ever witnessed, had been crushed under the heel of our gallant armies. The institutions which it had been organized to protect and perpetuate had like been wiped out before the sweeping march of the legions of liberty. Infatuated with the idea of founding a great empire whose cornerstone should be human slavery, these base men had appealed to the God of battles in order to accomplish their wicked purposes. That appeal was made in vain.

Virginia Slave Market
A slave market in Virginia in 1853 (Library of Virginia)

A just and true God had no attribute which could side with them in such a conflict. Destruction and desolation marked the track of an avenging host, and exhaustion, bitter poverty and humiliation became their lot. Thanks be to our gallant men who fought this brave fight! Thanks be to a people who, in the midst of discouragement and defeat, could still keep their hearts true and steady, and conduct this war to a successful issue! Thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory and maketh the right to prevail!

This day we look to the past. We see again those marching legions, that bright array, the martial music, the guns of the battlefield, the long line of battle, and the squadrons of cavalry. Our hearts beat time to the music, the martial ardor thrills us once more, and we feel like telling o’er and o’er again the story of the conflict in which so many of us have been at one time or another participants. But we must not linger o’er these scenes. The war is over, and peace once more reigns throughout the land. The armies of the Republic have been disbanded, the soldier has laid aside the musket and the sword, and has again resumed the hammer and the plough – he has stepped out from the ranks and became once more the plain citizen.

Grand Review 2
The Grand Review at the end of the Civil War, May 1865

The implements of destruction have been replaced by those peaceful industry and production. If the uprising of the people when called to arms to rescue an imperiled nation was sublime, not less sublime was the manner in which that host of men laid aside its arms and resumed their places in the quiet walks of civil life. It was not always so. When the legions of ancient Rome came back to their capitol laden with the spoils of conquest, they did not quietly give up the power that was in them in obedience to law. No! They came back fierce as a whirlwind, and filled with the lust of conquest and power, they overturned the government itself, and set up a military dictatorship in its place. Liberty was gone and a licentious soldiery ruled the land.

Not so with us. Our armies were disbanded; our soldiery again put on their civic garments, and the wheels of government rolled on in their accustomed paths without jar and without confusion. The free institutions of this land instead of being destroyed or weakened, had become strengthened.

They rested for their security upon the hopes and affections of an intelligent and freedom-loving people. The Government had come out of the conflict strong and powerful, and men felt a more lively interest in its welfare and perpetuity, because they had fought and suffered for it. ‘He who suffers for the truth comes to love it with a double attachment.’ So he who has fought and suffered for his country, feels a deeper attachment than if he had been simply a recipient of its blessings and its protection. If the time shall come, and I hope it may not come, when the bugle shall call once more to arms to defend this sweet land of liberty from either foreign invasion or from civil war, I doubt not that those who have already served will again be found in the front ranks of her defenders, willing again to sacrifice everything upon the altar of our common country.

But the rebellion is now a thing of the past. Perhaps we are yet too near to those events, perhaps the sacrifices we have suffered, perhaps the shadows which have crossed the threshold of our homes, are yet too vivid in our minds for us calmly and justly to contemplate what Providence has in store for this great land. But still our vision is becoming clearer and the veil of futurity is being lifted. What tongue can tell what imagination can conceive the future glories of this land! We shall see a country, no longer discordant, belligerent and anarchical, but united, free, and harmonious.

We shall see institutions springing up, homogeneous in their character, based upon the principles of liberty and justice, and covering the whole of this broad land. We shall see laws in operation in all the States of this Union fostering education and giving equal chance for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We shall see bitterness and rancor gradually disappear from out the hearts of a disappointed people and they shall vie with us in laudable rivalry in the grand race of civilization and progression. A happy and contented people shall dwell in the land, destined to number one hundred millions in the lifetime of some who hear me.

Social - Freedmen Teachers
Residents of Pottsville funded a school for formerly enslaved people in Tennessee after the Civil War

The arts and the sciences shall be fostered, and the world will stand amazed at the energy and vitality which shall tread a continent, and throb from pole to pole. The waves of ocean shall be whitened by the sails of American commerce, and that starry flag, the flag of the free, under which you have fought will be the emblem of a power which shall command respect and admiration wherever it is unfurled. Who would not be an American citizen? And who cannot unite in the hope that that sun which shines in yon firmament, shall rise and set upon a land in which liberty, justice, and equality shall prevail?”

Colonel John Wetherill followed Colonel Green and his message could not have been more different. Wetherill, a former officer in the 82nd Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteer Infantry, was a staunch Democrat, and despite his service in the Union Army during the Civil War, was apparently quite fond of the confederate cause.

John M. Wetherill

The Miners’ Journal editorial view of Wetherill’s speech was one of scorn: 

He spoke in opposition to negro equality and eulogized Lee and his army. His remarks were condemned by the auditory and by none more warmly than by several Democrats present who expressed themselves opposed to sentiments inappropriate to the day and the occasion… This mal apropos speech was the only unpleasant part of the celebration. We hope never to see a repetition of it on the occasion of any national celebration hereafter in Pottsville.

The Miners’ Journal noted in its rebuke of Wetherill that he had made similar remarks a year earlier at a meeting of the Democratic convention in Schuylkill County. On that occasion, the Miners’ Journal wrote this, which helps to contextualize Wetherill’s comments on April 9, 1866:

[Wetherill] read an address. We heard only the concluding portion. One of his ideas – quite original in its character – was that the day would come under Democratic auspices when the country would be as proud of the victories achieved by Stonewall Jackson and Lee, as of those won by Grant and Sherman.

Robert E. Lee
Robert E. Lee

We on the contrary hope that the day may be far distant when any great numbers of our people will commend acts which for awhile imperiled the very existence of the nation, and rendered treason and murder holiday sport. But modern Democracy thinks otherwise, and acts on the principle that the armed enemies of the Government did no wrong, and now that they have been conquered, should be reinstated in all their old rights and privileges, notwithstanding the fact that they entertain still a rebellious spirit.

But such is not the opinion of a large majority of the people. Rebellion must and will be entirely crushed, even if another contest should be rendered necessary. The people will not be cheated out of their dearly beloved rights, by tricksters and traitors…

While Wetherill’s thought may have been novel in August 1865 or April 1866, that confederate victories would be celebrated, by the early 20th century such a vision had taken national root, especially under President Woodrow Wilson.

Southerners honoring confederate soldiers at a monument in Arlington National Cemetery in 1917.

Following the speeches, the parade traveled to Pottsville’s town hall where the groups were formally dismissed. 

In the evening, the Good Intent Fire Company prepared for a grand ball to commemorate the anniversary. This began a tradition that was to be celebrated for decades on or around the April 9 Appomattox anniversary. The Miners’ Journal described the events and summarized the day like this: 

In the evening a grand ball was given at Union Hall by the Good Intent Fire Company. Between 500 and 600 ladies and gentlemen were present, and the varieties of color in dress presented, rendered the scene one of great beauty when viewed from the promenade balcony.

The sets had to be placed in the smallest possible compass, and we estimate that repeatedly during the evening there were at least 300 persons dancing at one time on the spacious floor. It was a very pleasant ball; everything passed off very satisfactorily, and the Company will as the result, place in its treasury a snug surplus after paying expenses, of $300 or $400.

All in all, the day was well observed in Pottsville.

We were sorry to see in the afternoon so many intoxicated men, and so much fighting in the streets caused by liquor. We have not learned, however, that any person was seriously injured, although there was an abundant crop of black eyes and bloody noses. It is to be hoped that on future holidays we may be spared the sight of as much intoxication as was seen on our streets on Monday afternoon last. Is it impossible for a man to enjoy himself without getting drunk?

Surely there are other and more rational ways of spending a holiday, affording exemption from the inevitable headache and general miserable feeling that succeed excess. We trust that in the future they will be adopted for the credit of the town, and the morals of the community.

Pottsville View - Lawton's Hill
Pottsville as it looked during the Civil War era

The events in Pottsville on April 9, 1866 set a precedent in Schuylkill County that was followed in the years that followed. April 9th was set aside as a holiday to mark, year after year, the day that Robert E. Lee surrendered his army. The speeches given on that first Appomattox Day presaged the battles over Civil War memory that would rage for the next century and a half, continuing on into our own time today. 

Featured Image: Lee Surrendering at Appomattox, April 9, 1865 

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