By April of 1865, the nation’s bloodiest war had been headline news for four appalling years, but in Galena, Ill., people had reason to hope, and the reason was downright personal: One of their own was in command of the Union Armies — Ulysses S. Grant, Galena’s hometown general — and out in Virginia, he was pressing the Rebels hard.
At last, on April 9, in a farmhouse parlor at a place called Appomattox, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered the remains of his army to Grant, effectively ending the war.
When the news reached Galena, Grant’s neighbors and friends exploded in celebration. Now, on the 150th anniversary of the surrender, they’re about to do that all over again.
Starting April 9, this small Midwestern town will honor Grant’s victory with 11 days of special events, and visitors are invited to join in.
Galena’s “Peace in Union” celebration lasts until April 19, but its most emotional event is likely to come at twilight on the first evening. That’s when church bells will ring out all over town, just as they did when news came of the war’s end.
Yes: Those same bells, in those same churches. That’s the amazing thing about a well-preserved historic town, and Galena is one of the country’s best: History doesn’t just come alive in a place like this — it never died.
The small redbrick house where Grant and his family lived before the war still stands on High Street, overlooking downtown. And the big redbrick house, a gift from grateful citizens after he won that war, still gazes majestically back from across the Galena River.
The redbrick downtown in between hasn’t changed much, either, though Grant would surely be pleased that all the streets have been paved.
He once said that if he ended up as mayor of Galena, he’d build a sidewalk so he didn’t have to walk in the mud. By the time the general — and future president — finally got back home, in August 1865, the town had built him one.
But the central theme of Galena’s celebration isn’t just Grant or the war. It’s what people hoped would come next, and that is symbolized by the town’s most famous work of art: a gigantic oil painting called “Peace in Union.”
The 9-by 12-foot canvas depicts the surrender at Appomattox, with Grant extending his hand to Lee as top officers look on.
The painting was commissioned by a wealthy Galenian as a gift to the city in 1895 and is on permanent display in the Galena-Jo Daviess County Historical Society’s museum on Bench Street. It was painted by Thomas Nast, the famous cartoonist who invented the elephant symbol for the Republican party and created the now-familiar plump, jolly version of Santa Claus.
Peace is never as showy as war, but Nast managed to capture its quiet power in this giant work. Behind that simple handshake was Grant’s promise of parole, badly needed food and safe passage home for Lee’s soldiers. It’s recorded that Grant stepped outside afterward, ordered Union troops to stop cheering and told them, “The war is over; the Rebels are our countrymen again.”
Nast’s “Peace in Union” painting is considered so significant that the U.S. Post Office has put the image on a special stamp, the last in the current series of Civil War commemoratives. The stamp goes on sale nationwide on April 9 and will be honored in front of the original painting at the historical society’s museum at 10:15 a.m. Friday, April 17.
An original play called “Peace in Union,” written in Galena for the sesquicentennial, will be performed four times during the celebration. The play interweaves stories of local soldiers, Galena families, Ulysses and Julia Grant’s life during the war and after his presidency, and the creation of the great Nast painting itself.
The play will be presented at Turner Hall, just up Bench Street from the museum, on the evenings of April 10, 11, 17 and 18. Tickets are $10 and can be booked through the museum’s website, www.galenahistory.org, or by calling the museum at 1-815-777-9129.
A concert of Civil War music will be given by the First Brigade Band, a re-enactment group from Wisconsin, at 2 p.m. Saturday, April 18, in Turner Hall. The original band marched with Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman in Georgia and the Carolinas.
The restored home of Grant’s friend and supporter Elihu B. Washburne will also be open for tours. Washburne was a nationally known statesman and diplomat with a Minnesota connection: His brother Cadwallader founded the flour-milling company that became General Mills.
Other sesquicentennial events include a lamplight tour of Grant’s postwar home; walking tours of Main Street; programs on Civil War fashions and on prominent Galena women of the era; an art exhibit about all nine of Galena’s Union generals, and a Civil War worship service at 10:30 a.m. Sunday, April 19, in the church that Grant’s family attended, the United Methodist on Bench Street.
Catherine Watson is a former Star Tribune travel editor who teaches writing workshops in the U.S. and abroad.