As it were

July 4 feted even amid Civil War

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As the United States approached the 88th anniversary of its independence in 1864, it might seem the country was not particularly in the mood to celebrate.

The country was entering the fourth year of a Civil War that many people -- North and South -- had thought would be over in a matter of months. Instead it had become, and still remains, the bloodiest war in American history.

People living in the North had assumed that a band of rebels could not stand for long against the assembled economic and military might of the North. The South assumed that the strength and spirit of southern determination would eventually lead to victory over a war-weary North.

Both sides were wrong.

For three years, the South had won a series of stunning victories over the larger numbers of men, guns and wealth of the North. Despite these setbacks, the fighting spirit of the North remained strong and northern leaders such as President Abraham Lincoln remained confident of final victory.

By the middle of 1864, that final victory actually seemed to be within reach.

In an editorial on July 4, 1864, the Ohio State Journal newspaper in Columbus talked of a victory based on "Three Burghs." It noted the success of Union armies at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July 1863 and how these victories began to turn the tide in favor of the North. Now a quick victory at Petersburg outside Richmond, Va., would spell the end of the Confederacy.

The newspaper was quite right in one respect. The ultimate victory at Petersburg would lead to the defeat and surrender of Robert E. Lee and his beloved Army of Northern Virginia. But what no one in Columbus knew in July 1864 was that a victory in Petersburg was many months away.

One might think a place like Columbus, Ohio -- a state capital in the heart of the Midwest -- might not be in the mood to do all that much celebrating of national independence in the midst of a long, difficult and deadly war.

One would be wrong. Columbus seemed to be quite ready to celebrate.

Columbus in 1864 was a city of more than 18,000 people. Because of its central location in Ohio, the state capital had also become a major center of transportation and trade.

Railroad lines came into Columbus from all four corners of the state. They made the city a place of stockyards, warehouses and factories that complemented the state institutions for the blind, deaf, mentally ill and criminally confined that had been here for years.

Adding to the mix was Camp Chase. Created in 1861 and originally located in Goodale Park, Camp Chase had moved to the far west side of Columbus and become a mobilization and training center for more than 26,000 Union troops. Because of the presence of those soldiers, Camp Chase was designated to be the site of a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp.

Opened in 1862, the prison camp was designed for 2,000 men. By 1864, the place held many thousands more. Many died there. More than 2,300 men are still buried there, making it one of the larger Confederate cemeteries in America.

Despite the difficulties imposed by the war, it seems most people in Columbus were looking forward to a holiday. According to the Ohio State Journal, residents gathered at Wagner's, a local meeting hall, for a fireworks display on which large sums of money were spent.

"The Fourth of July passed off pleasantly in this city. Pic-nics were the order of the day, and at night there was a demonstration of fireworks in front of Wagner's. We learn that the children, alone, bought $156 worth of fireworks, while the grown gentlemen invested only about $40. Young America is predominant at the Capital -- they are the pride and hope of future generations," the story said.

Celebrations were held across the nearby area as well. On July 2, the Ohio State Journal noted, "Arrangements have been made for a celebration by the people in the grand old fashioned way at Dr. Wetmore's Grove (now the Beechwold neighborhood in north Columbus). All are invited to come with their baskets and bring their wives and babies. The Grove is a beautiful one, and a jolly good time may be expected. The Doctor's tenant, Johnny Goodman, is chock full of enterprize and patriotism, and will see that no one goes away disappointed."

For people not interested in picnics or jolly good times, there were always local restaurants and theaters where the featured players included Duprez and Green's Minstrels, or at Naughten Hall -- "The Great War Show or the Polopticorama." What the Polopticorama exactly was should probably be another story for another day.

Suffice to say, in the midst of a terrible war, the people of Columbus still took time to remember how our country came to be.

Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As it were column for ThisWeek News.

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