All across the United States, people celebrate Independence Day on the Fourth of July. Although the signing of the Declaration of Independence took place over a period of weeks, the Fourth of July has been the focus of celebrations.
The South, particularly Virginia, was well represented in the War for Independence. Richard Henry Lee made the motion in the Continental Congress that the colonies should strike for independence rather than reconciliation under King George III. A fellow Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, primarily wrote the Declaration of Independence. What that document proclaimed was achieved by the military leadership of the Virginian George Washington.
Yet with all the Southern involvement and contributions in the War for Independence, there was a time where the holiday fell from grace in parts of the South.
While people gathered for speeches, flag waving, patriotic songs, and picnics, for many years Vickburg, Mississippi, quietly and sullenly ignored the day. Even the post office remained opened on that day. Given the intense patriotism and flag waving associated with Southerners, it might seem odd that many Southerners turned a deaf ear to the speeches heralding independence.
There is a defining story behind this Southern Ebenezer-Scrooge-like “bah-humbug” response to the Fourth. It had nothing to do with the significant Loyalist minorities in the South. It was in no way demeaning of Washington, Jefferson, and a host of other Southern founding fathers. It was, instead, a response to what was sometimes called “The Second War for Independence,” better known as the Civil War.
July 4, 1863, marked a critical turning point in the War. Determining “turning points” involves post-war historical examinations. The Civil War continued for another nineteen months, and there were still diminishing possibilities of a Southern victory or a stalemate up until Lincoln’s re-election in November of 1864.
Southerners living in July of 1863 might not have known it was the turning point of the War, but they knew it was a grim time. The early days of July witnessed the great defeat of the Army of Northern Virginia at the then little-known town of Gettysburg. Lee’s second invasion of the North led to the confrontation of the rival armies in Pennsylvania for the three days of battle. That battle culminated in Pickett’s Charge on the afternoon of July 3.
From that time to the present, all three days of Gettysburg, and especially that third day, was enough of a disaster to spread blame to almost every Southern commander in the field. Even Stonewall Jackson, who had died a couple of months earlier, has been credited for the loss as well. Many Southerners and historians have pondered what would have happened there if Jackson had been in command of his corps at Gettysburg.
The glory of the Army of Northern Virginia, some of the best troops and commanders, and the aura of invincibility of Lee’s army all perished that afternoon. Some Southerners had dreamed, just days earlier, of the South achieving its independence on the historic date of July 4. That was not to be.
For Lee’s army, July 4 was a day to absorb the shock and magnitude of their defeat. There was still a hope, however, that there would be another chapter to the story. There was still the possibility of a Confederate counter-stroke, an evening of the score, a retaliation for the humiliation.
Throughout the War, attacks were followed by counter-attacks. A force having been mauled was always vulnerable to complete annihilation. Perhaps the North would go on the offensive. The War could have ended that day had the Union army swept down the ridges on to the crippled Confederates.
A risk taker leading the Union army might have sought to bag the entire prize and finish off Lee’s army. It would be a gamble, and it was a gamble Lee longed to see happen. Lee and, even more so, his Old Warhorse James Longstreet, were masters of the defensive rebound. A Northern frontal attack might have well offset the Southern losses from Pickett’s charge.
President Lincoln was eager to see General George Meade, the commander of the Northern army, aggressively follow up on Lee’s disaster. But Meade opted for his most basic personality trait—caution. His victorious army had been pretty badly mauled and worn down by the past three days. He was too wary of the Gray Fox’s opposing him to take such a risk.
The Fourth of July around Gettysburg was spent resting and recovering, tending the wounded, and burying the dead. There would no balancing of the scales, no payback, no chance to redeem Lee’s misjudgment.
About a thousand miles away, the South suffered a defeat equally as devastating as Gettysburg. This was the surrender of Vicksburg, Mississippi, the key city preventing the North from controlling the Mississippi River. The earliest Northern strategic vision for winning the War, devised oddly enough by a Virginian, General Winfield Scott, involved dividing the Confederacy by controlling the Mississippi River.
New Orleans had been taken by Northern forces much earlier in the War. Northern gunboats patrolled large portions of the Mississippi River. But as long as Vicksburg remained in Confederate hands, control of the river was still a point of dispute. Vicksburg became the most sought-after jewel, and the man who devised and executed the capture was Ulysses S. Grant.
Even the most unreconstructed Southerner has to admit the pluck and military genius of Grant in his campaign against Vicksburg. Sitting atop a series of hills, the guns along the city forbade any invasion directly by the river. To the northeast of Vicksburg, a series of tributaries, swampy lands, and forests prevented a land invasion. Lands east of Vicksburg were all under Confederate control.
After a number of failed attempts to get to Vicksburg, Grant became more audacious than ever. He took his army across the river to Louisiana and marched through the wooded areas south of Vicksburg. Then a group of gun boats and transport vessels ran past the Vicksburg artillery batteries to connect with Grant’s forces.
After crossing the river back to the Mississippi side, Grant swung around and to the back of Vicksburg. Virtually cut off from supplies, Grant’s army was forced to live off the land. Grant positioned his forces between the more mobile Confederates units in Jackson and the troops protecting Vicksburg. After nullifying the threat from Jackson, Grant began tightening a vice-like grip around the army defending Vicksburg.
For six weeks, the Confederate army at Vicksburg as well as the citizens there were surrounded on the eastern side of the city and under bombardment by water and land as well as by attack from the encircling Union troops. As the victims inside Vicksburg became ever more desperate, they resorted to eating leather and digging holes in the ground to survive.
By July, it was clear that that Confederate troops to the east would not be able to relieve the garrison at Vicksburg. The pounding of artillery, scarcity of supplies, and lack of any way of escape all brought the army to its last leg. The Confederate commander at Vicksburg, General John Pemberton, was actually a Northerner who sided with the Confederacy. Despite murmurings of his disloyalty to the South, he gave all he had to Vicksburg’s hopeless defense.
After making contact with General Grant, General Pemberton surrendered Vicksburg on July 4, 1863. There were only a few remaining Confederate holds on the Mississippi River.
The memories of that surrender stayed with the citizens of Vicksburg for decades. There are conflicting stories about when the town resumed celebrating U. S. independence again. Some say it was not until World War II. Other accounts indicate that there were celebrations in the first decade of the twentieth century. As much as the Fourth has come to symbolize American independence, that same day in 1863 symbolized the loss of hope for Southern independence.
More Pictures from “The Dismal Fourth of July, 1863”