York Town Square

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Civil War Easters 1861 & 1865: Hope for the world is constant in past and present wars

Henry E. Niles, newly installed pastor of York, Pa.’s, Presbyterian Church gave community-wide funeral address as part of a nation-wide funeral observance of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. The address was later published and rests in the files of the York County Heritage Trust archives. Also of interest: Easter stories of sacrifice & selflessness and Easter in York County, 1919: Sadness, joy, hope and York freedman Aquilla Howard chosen to honor slain Abraham Lincoln.

The York Sunday News editorial (4/24/11), which I wrote, combines themes of Easter and war.

In some ways, Easter 150 years ago arrived as a normal Sunday.
A nationally known scholar and minister, the Rev. John W. Nevin of Lancaster, was to be in town to preach at the German Reformed Church on West Market Street.
East on that street, the magnificent First Presbyterian Church was under construction, soon to be one of York’s finest buildings.
But as routine as the preparations seemed for this Easter – it came on March 31 in 1861- a bit of tension and uncertainty hung over York.
York County was readying for war, at least as it understood such a conflict at that point.
In the previous few days, the Worth Infantry, for example, was practicing bayonet drills. The unit had gained proficiency, according to a newspaper, in “this beautiful drill.”
Crowds gathered to watch their native sons go through such military pageantry.
Some seemed not to fully understand – in those days before the Confederate firing on Fort Sumter two weeks hence – that fighting men from south of the nearby Mason-Dixon Line would be at the receiving end of those bayonets.
And vice versa.
Four years later on Easter Sunday, the just-concluded horrid Civil War was more than a reality.
Indeed, a nightmare.
York County residents – like the rest of the nation – now understood the ravages of war.
At least 500 native sons were dead.
And overshadowing those military sacrifices came the death of President Abraham Lincoln the day before.
People celebrating Easter – the day Christians observe the life, death and the resurrection of Jesus – were greatly conflicted that day.
For Christians, it’s the greatest celebration of the year.
And then, the grand man, who had led the nation through the war and was poised to head its reconstruction, was struck down by an assassin’s bullet.
In an address in York as part of a national day of funerals for Abraham Lincoln, Presbyterian pastor Henry E. Niles described Easter 1865:
“And what an Easter Sabbath was that, when, all over the land, bells that a few days before, had been ringing out their joy peals on the festal air, were tolling the knell of a nation’s Hopes – When flags, which had blossomed out from every window in the sunshine of victory, were fringed in crepe – their exultant folds gathered with bands of funeral black . . .”
And soberness – usually reserved for Good Friday in observance of Jesus’ crucifixion – extended into the churches that Easter.
People wore “badges of mourning,” and “drapery of woe” hung in the churches, the Rev. Niles observed.
“What a Sabbath, when, instead of swelling anthems of Praise,” he proclaimed, “we called for dirges of Grief . . .”
Pieces of the national and international scenes in 1861 and 1865 rest with us today.
The nation is at war in several theaters.
There’s much uncertainty about the future stemming from the devastating earthquake in Japan and the unresolved threat of the nuclear power plants there.
A national debt in the trillions that promises to encumber grandchildren and great-grandchildren clouds the future.
Christians believe that the problems facing the world might change but that the hope for the world, celebrated today, Easter, is constant.
That view was reflected in the Rev. Niles’ closing remarks to loyal Americans in 1865: “Today, shall they pledge themselves anew, amid the music of funeral hymns . . . trust in the President of the Universe, our fathers’ God, to guide us safely through this whirlwind of confusion and over this sea of blood, into the fair haven of an honorable, a lasting and a glorious Peace.”

Also of interest
Other holiday-related posts:
Pre-World War II Thanksgiving holds lessons for York countians today and Henry Laurens’ Christmas in York Town: ‘I will not quit my post, although I … fear that I may perish on it’ and ‘Sandpaper Sisters’ rubs readers right way.