The Twilight’s Last Gleaming: Fireworks & Grand Illuminations

Reprinted from July 2, 2012:

The day will be most memorable in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival . . . It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade . . . bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore.

President John Adams

John Adam’s words of July 3, 1776 are as true now as they were then, and it is rare to find someone who does not love fireworks. They began in China, and came to Europe with Marco Polo. For years the best fireworks were Italian in origin, and were used by all major European nations to celebrate any grand occasion.

Nevertheless, fireworks seem so . . . American! Early settlers at Jamestown used black powder explosions to frighten native people, and bonfires were set at various places to illuminate the colony for celebrations. Nearby Williamsburg repeated the process, adding to it the custom of putting a candle in every street-facing window on specific days such as Christmas, to light up the entire town.


By the time of the American Revolution, fireworks were an established part of colonial life. The Marquis de Lafayette brought a literal boatload of fireworks with him, when he arrived on colonial shores, as a gift to the fledgling American government. Americans loved the noise and color of fireworks quickly and well: early colonial delinquents in Rhode Island made life so miserable for the law abiding folks that the colony finally established a ban on them (the fireworks, not the delinquents) in 1731.

The first fireworks set off in celebration of Independence Day were fired in 1777, six years before the colonists even knew whether or not their efforts at independence would be successful. Washington’s inauguration in 1789, however, was accompanied by a beautiful pyrotechnic display.

In many accounts of the Civil War, there is a reference, somewhere, to “illuminations.” Illuminating something simply means to light it up, but a formal Grand Illumination in the middle of the 1800s was much more than that: it was a fireworks display, a window-lighting, or a combination of both, usually involving the entire town, or at least Main Street.

Politicians used fireworks to announce a speech or celebrate a holiday–the 4th of July, Washington’s Birthday, Christmas and New Year’s, various state anniversaries–any old occasion would do. The presidential election of 1860, with four candidates and the South in a state of near-hysteria, was the perfect time for fireworks and Grand Illuminations in every town at which a stump speaker was present, and plenty of towns where they were not.

As Elmer Ellsworth’s U. S. Zouave Cadets made their six-week tour of the northeast, they were met at almost every city by a barrage of aerial bursts and cannon salvos, and as Lincoln’s February Inaugural Express wound its way through the North to Washington, D. C., the train depots were draped with static displays of such wonders as Niagara Falls and Old Glory. Cannons were consistently fired in celebration of the new president. As the train chugged into the night, Lincoln and his party often passed single homesteads with all their windows lighted, a small beacon of hope for the future.

Washington, D.C. herself was not to be outdone in the fireworks department. Evening parades of torch-bearing Wide-Awakes marched behind huge transparencies of Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin, and of such “historic scenes” as Abraham Lincoln splitting rails. On the evening of the Inauguration, huge spinning Catherine Wheels were lit at every corner of the major streets of the city. Aerial bursts were reflected in the Potomac, and set pieces again were fired along parade routes.

One of the biggest honors given to anyone was a Grand Illumination of the city. Every professional building in D. C. had every window lighted in honor of a variety of generals, battlefield success, or political triumph. Large, contained bonfires were lit on the corners. There are mind-boggling accounts of Grand Illuminations in D. C. wherein the Treasury Building, as well as other state buildings, and the White House are completely lit up.

Today, Grand Illuminations occur when luminaries are lit at each grave in a cemetery, as at Shiloh or Fredericksburg, for Memorial Day or a battle anniversary. They are as moving now as they were in earlier times.

1800s 4th of July
1800s 4th of July

A static display, or set piece, is a design created in fireworks. The piece is threaded together on green wood or water-soaked bamboo, in the shape of, let’s say, an eagle. Mineral salts, which burn in different colors, are added to the powder in the hard paper shells so that the eagle will burn in patriotic colors. Assembling the design is called lance work, and can be very intricate.

When a set piece is fired, it is done so from several points in the design. This is so that the entire piece will be firing at the same time. When there is movement to the set piece, such as our eagle proudly flapping her wings, the piece itself is moved, or even more intricate lance work is done that controls the timing of the firing, creating an illusion of movement.

Set pieces are rare today, as our fireworks shows need to be seen from a distance. I had only read about them. When my then-husband was stationed at Fort Huachuca, in Arizona, we saw several years of grand celebrations for the 4th of July, and it was here that I saw set pieces for the first time. And yes, it was amazing to see the eagle fly, the Spirit of ’76 march, and Niagara Falls cascade the entire cross distance of a high school football field!

Shiloh Illumination

When the War came (do those words give you goosebumps like they do to me?), and the city was deluged with soldiers for the new army Lincoln had begun, there were even more parades, and the scenes in the set pieces began to reflect the battles and generals of the Union Army. As long as it was able, Richmond did the same. But, as the war went on, it seemed there was less and less heart behind the celebrations. It should be noted that there were no firework celebrations for funerals.

The last big celebrations of the war came with Lincoln’s second election, and Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. The great parades that were planned for the returning, victorious Union Army were, however, subdued by the Good Friday assassination of President Lincoln. There were still plenty of fireworks, of course, and bands, and set displays of the flag, the Liberty Bell, and the Spirit of ’76. Transparencies of Grant and Sherman were plentiful, and the Catherine Wheels spun at blinding speeds, throwing sparks in the shapes of circles and stars. When the “boys” returned to their hometowns, fireworks welcomed them back, and everyone felt happy, whether Johnny or Billy was marching home, or was hobbling on a cane or being carried by his friends.

Alas, fireworks sputter out. There are a few last flashes, some burning embers, then a spiral of smoke to mark that they were there. The War sputtered out as well, leaving burned out wreckage of the land, the people, and the spirit, of an America that had been.

Like the phoenix, a new America would rise, creating a country of almost undreamed-of opportunity. The Gilded Age was just around the corner. You know which corner– the one with the Catherine Wheel spinning on the street post.

5 Responses to The Twilight’s Last Gleaming: Fireworks & Grand Illuminations

  1. What a wonderful article, I never gave much thought to the use of fireworks during the war. I assumed that once hostilities began that novelties like fireworks would fall by the wayside. Thanks for enlightening me to another aspect of the Civil War I hadn’t thought about.

    1. Steve, Mike, et al–if it wasn’t for me, this site would just be full of information about various battles, insightful biographies, an understanding of strategy and tactics, examinations of the effect of the war on slavery, economics, and the home front, and in-depth analysis of the Civil War as a whole! Joke.
      Thank you–I try.

  2. I am always simultaneously torn by the sight of fireworks: they seem like such a huge waste of money, yet they also stir and inspire and wow me. Head vs. heart, I guess!

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