DOVER — Today, beginning at 3 p.m., bells will ring across the nation in commemoration of the conclusion of the United States’ bloodiest conflict.
For four years, the Civil War raged throughout the U.S., from Pennsylvania to what is now New Mexico. At the time, the U.S. had been split in two, with 11 states seceding to form the Confederate States of America.
Brother fought against brother as the two sides clashed, the Union battling to keep the country unified as one nation and the Confederacy fighting for independence.
On the morning of April 9, 1865, with his weary army surrounded by federal troops, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, triggering a final but largely formal months-long process that ended the War Between the States.
More than 600,000 died during the four years of the war, a conflict from which the United States emerged scarred but intact.
Delaware was not especially involved in the war, at least compared to nearby states such as Maryland and Virginia.
The First State remained a part of the Union despite Southern sympathies, and some Confederate prisoners were kept at Fort Delaware during the conflict.
Perhaps little-known today is the fact that President Abraham Lincoln developed a plan for the government to buy out Delaware slave owners, thus transitioning the state from a slave to a free state.
Alas for abolitionists, the legislature defeated the proposal.
Today, bells will ring to honor the sesquicentennial, or 150th anniversary, of the conclusion of the Civil War. Locations in at least 38 states will participate, including famous Civil War sites such as Gettysburg, Pa., Vicksburg, Miss., and Richmond, Va., the capital of the Confederacy.
At 3 p.m., Appomattox Court House National Historical Park will sound a bell, 150 years to the minute after Lee and Grant concluded their meeting.
Fifteen minutes later, bells will ring in every county in Delaware. Orchestrated by the First State National Historical Park, Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, the First State Heritage Park, the Lewes Historical Society and the Old Swedes Foundation, the bell-ringing will last four minutes, in honor of the four years of the war.
In Dover, the historic Old State House, John Bell House and Liberty Bell on the Green will host chimes.
While all those alive during the war have long since passed, the conflict still lives in the minds of many Americans.
“I think any civil war rips a country up and you can see inside it,” said Delaware resident and Lincoln historian Larry Koch.
For some, the war is remembered in a personal form. Two Delawareans who had ancestors in the conflict will participate in the bell-ringing at the New Castle Court House Museum.
Not only did ancestors of Kim Burgmuller and Russ Smith fight in the war, they were on opposite sides.
Ms. Burgmuller’s great-grandfather, Sgt. Robert Howard of North Carolina, joined the Confederacy in April 1864 at age 16.
Although the family knows very little about Howard’s involvement in the war, Ms. Burgmuller said he was in the Junior Reserves in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Initially supposed to be kept out of fighting due to their youth, members of the unit were pressed into action as the Confederacy’s numbers thinned, according to an article by the North Carolina Museum of History.
One other fact has been passed down through the decades about Howard: He walked home from Appomattox after the surrender, a journey of about 161 miles as the crow files. (According to Google, it would take 60 hours nowadays walking on modern roads).
Russ Smith’s great-great-grandfather, Pvt. Joseph Jackson, was from what is now Wilmington. He joined the 8th Delaware Regiment, part of Gen. George Meade’s Army of the Potomac.
Although Mr. Smith does not know why Jackson took part, he did share that his ancestor entered into the Union army in September 1864, less than a year before the conflict concluded. Jackson was involved in the pursuit of Lee’s army from Petersburg, Va., to Appomattox Court House in March and April 1865.
A Civil War buff, Mr. Smith was formerly a manager of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park in Virginia and the first superintendent of the First State National Monument park. Having previously mentioned his great-great-grandfather, he was contacted by the manager of the New Castle Court House Museum.
“It’s a great event to have so many people participating in this event across the country,” Mr. Smith said.
As for Ms. Burgmuller, she said she volunteered her participation after learning of the ceremony.
While they’ll be ringing bells, several Delawareans will be at Appomattox, the center of today’s remembrance. Approximately 15 re-enactors from the state will participate in mock battle and surrender exercises.
Not all of the 35-member 2nd Regiment Delaware Volunteer Infantry can make the trip, but Commander Bill Purdy is excited. The 2nd Delaware is part of Vincent’s Brigade, a group of re-enactment units from several states.
After appearing five years ago, the 2nd Delaware was asked by the National Park Service to attend the sesquicentennial event.
The 2nd Delaware was formed in 1861 and dissolved three years later, while the re-enactment group has been around for more than 20 years. Both groups fought for the Union.
The brigade is well-known for its historical accuracy, Mr. Purdy said, calling it a “functioning army” thanks to a command structure and an adherence to actual battle reports from the war.
“It’s a lot more involved than just a bunch of guys shooting guns at each other,” he said.
Officially, the war continued for at least another month after the Battle of Appomattox Court House, as news of Lee’s surrender reached units across the country. Small skirmishes continued for a time, while Confederate President Jefferson Davis was captured in May.
After four years, hundreds of thousands of dead and irreparable change to the United States, the war was over.
Jim Yurasek, public information officer for the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, said the brief ceremony is a fitting way to honor a transformative conflict.
“It’s a solemn thing that they’re doing,” he said.
Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at firstname.lastname@example.org