John Tebbutt was a farmer and amateur astronomer near Sydney, Australia and on the night of May 13th he discovered what would become known as the Great Comet of 1861 or Tebbutt’s Comet (C/1861 J1).
Writing to the Sydney Morning Herald Tebbutt made the announcement of his discovery through a letter to the editor.
“ Sir,” he began, “will you kindly allow me, through the columns of your valuable paper, to apprise your astronomical readers to the presence of a comet.”
Tebbutt referenced a star chart after his first viewing but saw no indication of a star for that part of the sky. “I immediatly conjectured it must be a comet, " he wrote. "I did not observe the slightest appearance of a tail."
C/1861 J1 is classified as a long-period comet because it takes 409 years for the comet to orbit the sun. Tebbutt’s Comet reached perihelion (its closest point to the sun) on June 12 but would not be visible in the Northern Hemisphere until June 30 as it made its closest approach to the earth. At that time the tail of the comet had become so long and so bright that it cast shadows in the darkness. The comet was visible for three months during the summer of 1861
On the night of July 1, 1861 Sarah R. Espy who lived near Centre, Alabama in Cherokee County peered toward the Northern horizon. That day her cousin Olivia was helping another cousin Columbus, a Confederate soldier, prepare for a trip to Hunstsville. That night Espy made the following entry in her diary:
Light rains this morning, I went with Mrs. Brewer, to visit Mrs. Hampton. O. busy, preparing C. to attend a camp-drill of some weeks above here. A brilliant and beautiful comet appeared tonight... the train of this is the longest that I ever saw, pointing directly upwards.
Federal soldier James E. Love of Missouri described the comet in a love letter to his fiancée Eliza Mary “Molly” Wilson on July 2nd:
Just now 10 P.M. it shines like a flash of sunlight half across the heavens, or like one of the most brilliant streamers of the Northern lights. its nucleus being low down in the red sun set of the N.West. while its tail extends to the Zenith - or nearly over¬head & sometimes I fancy I see wavy undulations rung along it, & even as if it was forked.
That summer Northerners and Southerners alike were mobilizing for a war that few thought would last very long. But the New York Herald saw an ominous sign with comet's appearance. The Herald ran an editorial in its Fourth of July edition:
The present is a year productive of strange and surprising events. It is one prolific of revolution and abounding in great and startling novelties. Our own country is resounding with war’s alarms, and half a million of Northern and Southern men are preparing to engage in a deadly conflict. And meanwhile all Europe is threatened with one tremendous revolution, growing out of our own, which will shake thrones to their foundations. The premonitory symptoms of change are already observable here and there. Even Russia will not escape; for the troubles in Poland and the emancipation of the serfs have already made her empire ripe for revolt. In China and Japan, too, the hand of revolution is also busy. This is indeed a wonderful year; for while all the world is more or less filled with apprehension and commotion, a luminous messenger makes its appearance in the heavens, to the consternation of astronomers…That we are entering, to say the least, upon a new and important epoch in the history of the world, all these wars and rumors of wars, these miracles on earth and marvels in the sky, would seem to indicate.
Perhaps the New York Herald was not wrong in linking the comet to the future and immediate political events- the American Civil War would last four years, claim more than 750,000 American lives and herald the end of slavery in North America.