More than 25 years after the end of the American Civil War, Columbus veteran and local historian Alfred Emory Lee summed up the mood of the city as the conflict entered its second calendar year in January 1862.
More than 25 years after the end of the American Civil War, Columbus veteran and local historian Alfred Emory Lee summed up the mood of the city as the conflict entered its second calendar year in January 1862:
"The year opened rather cheerlessly. The vast volunteer host which had so nobly responded to the various calls of the President had as yet experienced but faintly the inspiration of success. A few minor triumphs had been won, but serious and bloody reverses had been suffered.
"A huge army lingered inactively on the Potomac while the Confederate flag floated within sight of the national capital … Hope was mingled with apprehension, confidence with dread."
As Capt. Lee suggested, it had been a hard eight months since forces loyal to seceding South Carolina had opened fire on the federal garrison at Fort Sumter, S.C., on April 12, 1861. President Abraham Lincoln's call first for 75,000 volunteers and then for 300,000 more was successful. States such as Ohio provided many more men than they had been asked to supply. The real concern became how to feed, house, clothe and arm all of these men.
The problem came sharply into focus in Columbus. As the state capital and a railroad hub, Columbus was the logical place for men to meet and mobilize for service. But at first, there was simply no place to put all of them in a town of 18,000 people with only a few hundred hotel rooms.
Soon the hotels were full and men were sleeping on the Statehouse floor. For a time, Goodale Park was pressed into service. But even the park was too small to hold all of the men coming to Columbus.
In the summer of 1861, a new, very large facility, Camp Chase, had opened on the far West Side of the city. By fall, more camps had opened at what is now Fort Hayes and near Hudson and High streets on the far North Side. In all, more than 10,000 men were in or near Columbus on any given day and more were coming.
It took a while, but the town finally began to adapt to life as a military center. The prices of food, clothing and tenting material had returned to a relatively normal level as government contracts began to force the market to respond more rationally. The residents of Columbus became accustomed to seeing many men in blue uniforms on the streets of the city and even an occasional man garbed in gray. This was possible because captured Confederate officers who promised to be good and come back to custody were permitted to shop and dine in downtown Columbus.
It was a time when a gentleman's word was his bond.
While Columbus was adjusting to wartime difficulties, one thing that perplexed many local residents was why the war was still underway at all after more than eight months. A major Union army in the East, commanded by Columbus native Irvin McDowell, had been soundly defeated in July at the First Battle of Bull Run. In the wake of that defeat, Gen. George McClellan left his post in Ohio to rebuild the shattered force. In January 1862, he was still building.
Presumably, so, too, were large armies in the central Midwest and along the Mississippi River. That was the assumption because, as Alfred Lee had noted, these western armies had seen little action. In fact, the Army of the Potomac commanded by McClellan would not march into action for some time. Eventually, an exasperated Abraham Lincoln would tell a friend that he intended to ask McClellan if he could borrow the army if it were available for a bit of battle. McClellan was not amused.
What most people in Columbus did not know in January 1862 was that if the war in the East was stalled, the war in the West was about to change.
On the day before Christmas 1861, a notice appeared in a Columbus paper. It read simply, "Special Order 78 Brigadier General U. S. Grant is hereby placed in command of the District of Cairo including the southern part of Illinois, that part of Kentucky west of the Cumberland and the southeastern counties of Missouri. (signed) J. C. Kelton, Assistant Adjutant General."
In the very near future, Grant would move south and with him would be a large number of young men from central Ohio who were itching for a fight. Soon they would have more than one.
But for all the marching and planning and preparations for war, the holiday season at the end of 1861 and the beginning of 1862 was much like many other years in the town's history. People attended restaurants, theaters and concerts and many large gatherings of family and friends were held. A local paper noted, "The day passed off very pleasantly. The weather was mild and agreeable, and the streets presented a lively and cheerful appearance. Though the Police Court was patronized this morning a little more fully than usual, yet the disturbances were slight and unimportant."
And for all of the comings and goings of troops and contractors, it says something about how small Columbus really was that every single one of those arrests mentioned by the paper were reported in detail in adjacent column: "Fielding Peters was arrested for intoxication and disorderly conduct, fined $2 and costs. Michael Bristenham was fined $3 and costs for being drunk and disorderly - the disorderly consisting of a rude handling of the hair of his wife than is necessary for ordinary toilet purposes."
And the list went on with a description of the "foibles of character" of six other men. A similar report was filed on the day after New Year's in 1862. It was reported on the day after because the newspaper did not print on Christmas or New Year's Day.
The big news locally on the day after New Year's, in fact, had little to do with soldiering. Columbus had a new post office. The old one on State Street had been left behind and a new office in a building on High Street across from the Statehouse was opened. A paper described it:
"The first place reached through the hall is the Gentlemen's Delivery. This is upon the right and is exceedingly convenient. Next upon the right as we advance is the General Delivery for Ladies. Then to the right and in front are the boxes and drawers. The office has 900 boxes and 198 drawers."
And to celebrate the opening and the New Year, the people of Columbus had some delectables waiting: "GREEN APPLES - Our friend Tracy, corner of Broad and High streets, received today one hundred and fifty barrels of fine winter apples of different qualities and good condition. Also a fresh supply of those famous Baltimore oysters."
Green apples and oysters … now there is a taste treat no longer enjoyed on First Night - and perhaps with good reason.
Ed Lentz writes a history column for ThisWeek.