July 4, 1863, was 'An Auspicious Day' in Wheeling
Having recently heard the church bells of Wheeling ring for the 150th anniversary of statehood, I found myself wondering how the capital of the new 35th state marked the Fourth of July just two weeks later, while the nation struggled to survive, when the future seemed so uncertain.
It turns out it rained.
"To-day is the eighty-seventh anniversary of American freedom," reads the Wheeling Daily Intelligencer's editorial "An Auspicious Day" from July 4, 1863. "Let us feel glad, for the news is cheering all along the line. How different is the situation when compared with this day one year ago. Last 4th of July the nation was oppressed with the disastrous tiding that the army of the Peninsula had been defeated and perhaps destroyed. Everything looked dark around us and above us. It seemed as if our country's birth day was soon to be a thing of memory. With heavy hearts the people went forth to the groves to seek relief from their painful anxieties and their g[l]oomy forebodings."
Updates from Gettysburg filled the papers. Gen. Robert E. Lee had tried to take the war into the North. By July 4, Lee's army was in retreat, and the tide of the war appeared to have turned.
"To-day the scenes are changed and the prospects also," the Wheeling paper continues. "We have met with new defeats since then. Our hearts have been made to touch the very nadir of depression. We have had very little to cheer us all the year through. But all at once there has come a glorious change. From every side comes up good news."
The big July 4 gathering appears to have been near Littleton in Wetzel County. The people there and at Burton Station organized a picnic at a flat spot by Eaton's Tunnel on the premises of Adams & Co. They built a beautiful bower 110 feet long decorated by the ladies with wreaths of pine and flowers, the paper reported on July 8.
"The morning of the 4th was most unpropitious, the rain pouring down in torrents, drenching the ground and the hopes of the people; continuing almost uninterruptedly to fall until about 11 o'clock A. M.," writes the correspondent A.B. Gordon, apparently elected secretary for the event. The sun came out and a train from Cameron arrived.
"... and in an incredibly short space of time the grounds were covered with people; the surrounding hills and valleys being fully represented, each and all bringing their quota of good things in boxes and baskets; and a table some eighty feet long soon groaned beneath a load of plenty and variety."
Organizers planned to have speeches first and then lunch, but the crowd had other ideas.
"...the rain having caused the dinner hour to arrive too soon after operations commenced, hunger trampled over forms, and the people set to and did full justice to the occasion and the good fare before them," Gordon wrote.
J.E. Boyers of Wheeling, secretary of state of the new West Virginia, was there, as was the state auditor Mr. Crane, also of Wheeling.
"Rev. J.G. West offered up a most fervent prayer for our distracted country, and the Declaration was read by James W. Hays."
"...Suffice it to say that the remarks of the various speakers, though differing in the mode of hastening and insuring success, all agreed that our country must stand 'one and inseparable,' under 'one flag and one destiny'."
Three rousing cheers were given for the Union.
Miller, the Gazette's editorial page editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.