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  • Jake Wynn

"We had cause to rejoice" - Diary reveals how Harrisburg celebrated news of Confederate surrender

In April 1865, news reports from the battlefields in Virginia suggested the Civil War may finally be reaching its denouement. The Confederate capital at Richmond had fallen into the hands of the United States Army and rebel forces were in full retreat.

Illustration from Harper's Weekly showing the fall of Richmond on April 3, 1865.

By April 9, 1865, Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia were cornered at Appomattox Court House. Finally faced with the total annihilation of his forces, Lee surrendered the Confederacy's most vaunted military force. News of the surrender swept through the US Army's lines in Virginia and soon flashed across telegraph wires to all points in the North. People poured into the streets to celebrate the reports of Lee's capitulation and imminent end of the Civil War.

Thanks to the Historical Society of Dauphin County and digitization efforts at Penn State University, we have an opportunity to read the words of someone who experienced these joyful moments firsthand.

Sallie Simonton was a life-long resident of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; she was born in the state capital in 1832. In the early months of 1865, Simonton kept a journal that recorded her family's activities and events of local importance. But on the evening of April 9, 1865, national events intruded into the journal of Sallie Simonton. She recorded the impromptu celebrations of Lee's surrender in Harrisburg. Below are short excerpts from the Simonton journal, courtesy of the Historical Society of Dauphin County and Penn State's "The People's Contest" project:

April 9

Sunday. Not well today. Was not out to church morning or evening. In compliance with the request of the Governor the Pastors of various churches donated a part of the day in giving thanks for our recent victories.

This 9th day of April, 1865 just as we were all snugly laid in our beds and just falling asleep we were suddenly aroused by the ringing of the Court House bell immediately followed by those of various churches; everyone started exclaiming each to the other, "It's not fire. I wonder what the news is?" We looked out of the window and hailed the first passer by but so was the suspense that every moment seemed an hour and the passer a long time in appearing.

The announcement came at last. General Lee and his Army surrendered to General Grant. It was not long before the people were completely aroused and running to and fro with general rejoicing.

A number of houses on Third street were illuminated, all the bells of the city ringing-- a large bonfire in the Square-- the various fire engines drawn up in procession ringing their bells and headed by citizens and soldiers parading the town with drum and fife playing Yankee Doodle, etc.-- not a house the windows of which were not thrown open and joyful faces appeared waving handkerchieves, nightcaps and whatever soonest attainable on short notice--Indeed we had cause to rejoice and everyone seemed to know and feel it and enter in at the zeal warranted by the occasion.

April 10

The rejoicing still continues-- cannons were fired this morning on the Capitol grounds and this afternoon two were placed in the park opposite our house and fired a hundred rounds. It was grand to hear the sound as it reverberated along the distant hills on the opposite side of the river.

Simonton provides us with an incredible eyewitness account of a momentous night in American history. Unfortunately, the celebrations of Confederate collapse were destined to be short-lived. Within a week, John Wilkes Booth shot and killed President Abraham Lincoln and the nation plunged into mourning.

Simonton's journal stops on April 13; it fails to tell us of her experience of living through the mournful aftermath of the Lincoln assassination. In a way, her family journal provides a brief snapshot of the joy and excitement that came with the close of the Civil War, before a devastating act of violence by an avowed white supremacist took place at Ford's Theatre on April 14, 1865.




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