At sunrise, three dozen cannons fired across the northern tip of Roanoke Island, North Carolina. To one soldier, their boom “sounded very much like war times, and appeared to arouse the very fish in the waters.” The band played several tunes, and by the time a Union regiment began marching to the accompaniment of a drum corps, several thousand people had assembled. It was July 4, 1865, just months after the end of the Civil War.

William Brown, a member of the United States Colored Troops, witnessed the first postwar celebration of Independence Day with a pride that only grew when his regiment’s chaplain delivered an oration from beneath a shade tree. The chaplain, Brown later wrote in an African-American newspaper, paid “the nation’s flag a glorious tribute” and said that “as soon as God would knock down the wall of prejudice between the whites and blacks sectional divisions would crucible into dust throughout the entire Globe.”

Not everyone found inspiration in the oration. “He handled his subject in a masterly manner,” Brown wrote, “[but] the secessionists that heard him looked wild at its conclusion.”

During the Civil War era, such differences in response to Fourth of July commemorations became magnified. When the war ended, many white southerners stopped celebrating the holiday for years or, in some cases, even decades. African Americans found new resonance in Independence Day, and northerners used the holiday to celebrate the Union’s victory.

“The Fourth became a day to argue about who counted as an American and what that meant,” said Paul Quigley, director of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies at Virginia Tech.

To foster insights into that volatile period, Quigley has joined with David Hicks, a professor in the School of Education, and Kurt Luther, an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science, in launching Mapping the Fourth of July in the Civil War Era, a crowdsourced digital archive of primary sources.

“We wanted to understand how Americans celebrated Independence Day even as their nation was falling apart,” said Quigley, who is also the James I. Robertson Jr. Professor in Civil War Studies in the Department of History. “We realized the answer lies in the tens of thousands of Civil War-era sources, from newspaper articles and speeches to private letters and diaries.”

Visitors to the website, which is funded by a National Archive grant through the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, are invited to become “citizen historians,” by transcribing, tagging, and discussing primary sources. Quigley believes the website will prove to be an excellent teaching tool that opens up discussions into issues of race, citizenship, and identity.

“It was on one particular day each year that a range of Americans – northerners and southerners, whites and blacks, women and men, immigrants and native born – gave voice to typically unspoken beliefs about national identity,” Quigley said. “Mapping the Fourth allows students, teachers, and members of the public to find out for themselves what Independence Day meant to the generations who lived through the Civil War.”

Written by Paula Byron