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My Research Adventures

Election Fireworks in 1848

Yardley-Taylor Map of Leesburg, Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Leesburg, VA celebrated the election of General Zachary Taylor as President with an illumination and fireworks in December of 1848. Mrs. Selina Lloyd Powell described the preparations in a letter to her daughters Rebecca and Minna (who were visiting family in Gloucester, VA) as follows:

"Your Uncle William[1] dined with us yesterday. He said Ellen [2] would come in this evening & bring Cathy [3] to stay all night in order to see the illumination we are to have in honour of General Taylor’s election – The Court House yard is to be beautifully illuminated & arches erected etc. & there is to be a torch light procession, and fireworks in the court house yard. Doctr Jackson [4] has been engaged in making rockets etc etc ever since the election, so you see we are to have a little bustle in our quiet little town as well as in the larger ones. Little Nina & Charlie are all a tip toe with expectation as you may suppose."

In 1848, Nina was 6-years-old, and Charlie was 9-years-old. Their delight in anticipating the illumination is charming and easy to imagine. Mrs. Powell later wrote to Rebecca and Minna to let them know how she and the rest of the family enjoyed the event:

"... at seven o clock we all went down street and we stayed at Miss Rebecca's [5] & Mrs. Wilderman's [6] till nearly ten – but we had a very poor illumination, only the court house yard and that indifferently lighted & the procession a very short one – the truth was the gentlemen did not enter with any spirit into it and only had what they couldn't help & the ladies were not willing to have the trouble of taking down their curtains to illuminate the houses. Mat's Store was the most amusing it seems he hadn't heard anything of it & waking up & finding what was going on he immediately proceeded to take a share by buying candles & giving them to a parcel of little boys to put all along the middle of the street from his house to Mr. Grey's corner. The fireworks were quite pretty and pleased the children and every body was out & it was a fine night, so we had quite a pleasant time."

The account gives an intriguing glimpse into Leesburg in the 1840s, the social lives of the residents, and into celebratory illuminations held at the time.



[1] William Hill Gray (1805 - 1890)

[2] Ellen Douglas Powell Gray (1812 - 1862), wife of William Hill Gray and sister to Charles L. Powell

[3] Katherine Gray (1843 - 1920) (various nicknames included Cathy, Catty, and Kate). Daughter of [1] and [2].

[4] Doctor Samuel Jackson, family physician and friend. In addition to his medical skills he appears to have had an enthusiasm for pyrotechnics. He's also known to have treated Robert E. Lee after a fall in 1862 as he traveled through Leesburg during the Civil War.

[5] Miss Rebecca Gray (1812 - 1883). See also "Serendipity in Leesburg."

[6] Mrs. Jane Hamilton Wildman (1796 - 1880). Mrs. Powell uses a different spelling.

Image: Taylor, Yardley, and Publishers Thomas Reynolds & Robert Pearsall Smith. Map of Loudoun County, Virginia. Philadelphia: Thomas Reynolds & Robert Pearsall Smith, 1854. Map. Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

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