The first week of April 1865 coincided with the happiest — and likely most accurate — headlines that residents of Portland (Maine) had read in four years.
“Glorious News,” the John Adams-edited “Eastern Argus” proclaimed on page 2 on Tuesday, April 4. “The Rebel Capital Fallen! Petersburg in our Possession. The Stars and Stripes Again Wave Over Both! The Backbone of Rebellion Really Broken!”
Set in large and variable type and enhanced by art of a firing cannon, a swirling national flag, and a shako-wearing soldier, the collective headlines lured readers into the accompanying article about city-wide celebrations that swept Portland on Monday, April 3. The telegraphed news about the dual captures of Richmond and Petersburg saw the streets “thronged with eager, happy people, and at noon the bells rang out the general joy.”
Ecstasy swept the city because “after four years of dismal, dreary war, the light of peace appeared to be breaking in upon us,” Adams wrote in his April 4 edition.
The Wednesday, April 5 edition carried more headlines, such as “The Great Union Triumph” and “Lee’s Lines of Retreat All Cut Off.” Reality intruded amidst the joyous news; a typesetter flowed into the column beside the outstanding war news a long list of Maine soldiers wounded during the recent fighting.
The April 6 edition of the “Eastern Argus” carried a detailed account of the Battle of Five Forks, as well as some information about the Union pursuit of Lee’s west-ward fleeing army.
Then came Palm Sunday, April 9, and with its first Holy Week edition on Monday, April 10, the “Eastern Argus” bellowed “Great News. The Republic Triumphant. Gen. Lee and his Whole Army Have Surrendered!” Other headlines proclaimed “The [death] Knell of Rebellion” and “The Dawn of Peace.”
But Adams and his paper were not telling Portlanders anything they did not already know.
Shortly before 11 p.m., April 9, the telegraph lines into the Forest City hummed with astounding news; “the glad tidings were received that Gen. Lee and his whole army had surrendered to the Union forces under Gen. Grant,” an “Eastern Argus” reporter wrote for Monday’s edition.
“The news spread through the city like wild-fire” — and what a wild fire it was. Cheering lustily — the typical phrase would be “Huzzah! Huzzah!” — men and women emptied their rental rooms and owned houses, clustered in crowds great and small, and celebrated the victory.
Whatever could burn (and be appropriated without raising a cry of thievery) went into street-corner bonfires. Men fired pistols and rifles (“guns,” according to the paper), and “rockets” (fireworks) went zooming into the night sky to explode over the peninsula and Portland harbor.
“Houses were illuminated and the streets were crowded with people exchanging congratulations” about Lee’s surrender, the paper reported.
The gray clouds obscuring Monday’s sunrise failed to dim the brilliant red, white, and blue hues adorning Portland. An astounded “Argus” reporter claimed that “the display of bunting was beyond anything ever before witnessed in the Forest City” and wondered “where all the flags and materials came from.”
Even “the shipping in the harbor was gaily decked,” he noticed.
Lee’s surrender made for strange bedfellows in Portland that morning. “Men for the time seemed to forget all past political differences” and momentarily “buried the political hatchet and tomahawk,” the “Argus” claimed.
The decibels trended upward as church bells pealed across the city and the soldiers in the Casco Bay forts and sailors aboard the “revenue steamer Mahoning” fired blank cartridges from the “big guns” defending the city, the paper reported in its Tuesday edition.
Meeting hastily at 11 a.m., local merchants approved a suggestion to close businesses; Portlanders abandoned their workplaces and children their schools to pour into the streets and join the unfettered festivities. People watched an impromptu parade comprising the band from the Army’s 17th Infantry Regiment (assigned to guard Portland) and several companies of new recruits from Camp Berry take to the downtown streets in the morning.
The “Argus” reporter described the regular Army musicians as looking “quite neat” and the Maine recruits as “decidedly awkward in their bearing.” He did not mention that the recruits would not be going to war; they would soon depart military service without firing a shot.
Past noon and into the afternoon, “almost uninterrupted explosions” rolled across the city as people fired “old muskets, miniature cannons, pistols and fire crackers,” according to the “Argus.”
A hastily organized, yet well-planned official observance began in Portland City Hall at 2:30 p.m., Monday. The 17th Infantry’s band played “patriotic and soul-stirring strains” as thousands of people — “a goodly portion of whom were of the gentler sex” — watched and applauded in the “densely packed” building, the reporter commented.
Every Portland politician and power broker worth his patriotic salt attended the observance, which featured several ad hoc speeches and the Army band playing “America.” As its strains took note, “the audience then rose,” the “Argus” reporter noted.
“The effect was very impressive, the grand old anthem swelling to heaven from the lips of more than two thousand grateful and patriotic men and women of Maine,” he wrote, possibly with a lump in his throat and a tear in his eye.
More city leaders — the reporter identified at least six — stood and delivered “brief addresses.” Soon afterward the meeting ended with onlookers providing “three rousing cheers” for American soldiers and the 17th Infantry band thumping and trilling away at “Yankee Doodle.”
Organizers scheduled “a grand illumination throughout the city in the evening” and asked that Poppenburg’s Band perform outside City Hall, too. Church bells resumed pealing a cacophonous, yet jubilant din at 7 p.m. and competed in out-bonging and -clanging each other for the next hour.
Rain swept into Portland with the night, “but not in sufficient quantities to seriously damped the enthusiasm,” the “Argus” opined. Almost every Portland home “was illuminated in some form or other, and bonfires were blazing in the streets.
Poppenburg’s Band evidently did not appear that night; instead the 17th Infantry’s weary musicians stood and played in “the unpleasant drizzle” and brought “a large crowd” at City Hall, the “Argus” noted.
Up went myriad fireworks, and afterwards “a procession of citizens was formed” in front of City Hall, the paper reported. Escorted by the tired but tootling Army musicians, the crowd “marched through some of the principal streets” of intown Portland.
Actually “the demonstrations of the day virtually ended” with the parade, the reporter explained. Exhausted Portlanders went home; the banks had kindly suspended loan payments for the day, but business would resume as usual with dawn on Tuesday.
Perhaps reflecting a touch of editor John Adams’s creativity, the “Argus” concluded its coverage with the statement that “April 10th will hereafter be among the days that will be remembered in this great republic.”
Next week: Appomattox Road: Chamberlain accepts the surrender
Brian Swartz can be reached at email@example.com. He would love to hear from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war