This Day in US History…1865: Lighting Up the Night to Celebrate

We continue this month’s series of diary entries from Isabella Wunderly Campbell, who became Wyoming’s first lady in 1872. Isabella was a 19 year old  living in Washington, D.C., during the eventful April of 1865. Her daily diary entries give insight into her experiences during the final days of the Civil War, which ended 150 years ago this month.

April 2-9
April 10

April 11, 1865 (WSA Isabella C. Wunderly diary, Campbell Collection, C-1049)

April 11, 1865
(WSA Isabella C. Wunderly diary, Campbell Collection, C-1049)

Tuesday, April 11, 1865

The dampness continues but unless it rains I shall go out. 8 pm Have just finished lighting up the house. I have it all in a blaze, and the starry banner in the window. What an hour is this! I thank the gracious Giver of all things that I have lived to see this day. I called at Mrs. Robbins also at Mrs. Bradleys. Had a very pleasant visit the former place. Sewed quite a good deal. Mrs. Smith spent the greater part of the evening with us. I also had a visit from Hattie. She promised to come with her sewing. Uncle went out to see the illumination but as it was so damp I remained home.

“Illuminations” were often used to celebrate momentous events in Washington, D.C., in the 1860s. After dark, every light fixture in the house would be lit and candles placed in the windows, making the streets glow. People would then stroll through the avenues admiring the view. The streets were packed with carriages slowly touring the city, especially in front of the White House. At the time, Washington, D.C., was lit by gas lights but coal shortages had threatened to darken the city, making candles scarce as well. These illuminations were an optimistic celebration of the better times to come.


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