Very few anniversaries of the America’s Declaration of Independence hold as much significance as that celebrated in 1863. A civil war had been raging in the United States since 1861 over differing interpretations of the Constitution. Though the tides of that war shifted one way and then the other, there had been very little recognizable progress toward resolution during the two years of bloodshed. That is, up until July 4, 1863.
Meeting under an old oak tree, Confederate John C. Pemberton surrendered his forces to General Ulysses Grant, ending a month-and-a-half siege of Vicksburg, Miss. In addition to the 29,495 Confederate soldiers who laid down their arms on that day, another 3,202 had been killed or wounded during the fighting surrounding the city. Just in terms of manpower, it was a serious blow to the Confederacy. Though celebrations of the victory amplified the 87th anniversary of the Union, neither general knew at the time, however, how significant that day was in the war’s history.
VICTORY IN PENNSYLVANIA
On July 4, many miles and states to the northeast of Vicksburg, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia under the command of General Robert E. Lee, limped across the Potomac River towards the relative safety of Virginia. For the three days prior, 71,699 men under Lee’s command fought almost 94,000 Union soldiers for control of the land surrounding Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Three days earlier, when forward elements of the two armies collided on the ridges northwest of Gettysburg, Lee urgently concentrated his forces as Union cavalry gave way. Lee’s Confederates assaulted two hastily form hastily deployed corps of Union infantry, sending the Yankees retreating through the town and regrouping on hills just to the south. Lee had plenty of reason to be optimistic. Though his supplies were stretched to the point of breaking, he had hopes of living off the Pennsylvania countryside.
During the night of July 1, troops continue to converge on the outskirts of Gettysburg. General George Gordon Meade ordered his Union army to take up defensive positions. Following the contour of the hills south of town, the Union line resembled a fishhook. By late afternoon of July 2, when General Lee launched a heavy assault on the Union left flank, the defenses were not adequate. Fierce fighting raged for control of Little Round Top, the Wheatfield, Devil’s Den and the Peach Orchard. About two miles away on the Union’s right flank, Confederate demonstrations devolved into full-scale assaults on Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill. Though the Confederates had several opportunities to break the lines, the Union defenders held their lines despite significant losses. The day ended in a draw.
Fighting resumed on Culp's Hill on July 3 as cavalry battles raged to the east and south. These actions, paled, however, by the dramatic infantry assault of 12,500 Confederates against the center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge—it would later, and forever, be known as Pickett’s Charge, named for the Virginia general who conceived and led the attack. Entrenched Union infantry and artillery repulsed the attack and delivered a crippling blow to the Confederate army. During the evening of July 3, General Lee decided to withdraw from the bloody ground at Gettysburg and return to Virginia with the tattered remains of his army.
The Union Army’s jubilation on the morning of July 4 was tempered by the torrential rains that soaked the battlefield—and the realization that nearly 7,500 men lay dead around them. More than 27,000 wounded—both Confederate and Union—added to the three days’ carnage. Though relieved that a fourth day of fighting did not seem imminent, there was little cause for celebration.
FOURTH OF JULY CELEBRATED ON MISSISSIPPI
A little more than a thousand miles to the southwest, the night sky above Vicksburg, Miss., was erupting with fireworks on July 4, 1863. Union troops were celebrating the capture of the important Confederate river community.
Vicksburg lay on the east side of the Mississippi River. It was built high above the water on a rocky cliff. As the river flowed past Vicksburg, it turned in sharply at the base of the cliff and then continued on to the Gulf of Mexico. It provided a natural fortification for protecting navigation on the river below. The Confederates had placed cannon all along the sharp turn in the river. Union ships were easy targets.
General Ulysses Grant began the campaign for Vicksburg in late 1862. His army was located west of the Mississippi River. To effectively attack Vicksburg, he would have to first move his army to the eastern side of the river.
His first attempt to cross the river left his supply lines vulnerable. Confederate forces recognized this and launched an attack that forced Grant to withdraw back across the river. He planned a second attempt to cross the river and take Vicksburg.
During the spring of 1863, Grant took his army south of Vicksburg where he planned to cross the river and launch an attack. The cannons on the bluffs, however, would have to be neutralized for any large-scale movement to pass by safely.
When Grant’s army of 40,000 men marched to a point about 10 kilometers from Vicksburg, the General ordered them to stack arms—which he replaced with digging tools. The general asked his soldiers to build a canal—a canal that could be used to carry them all safely past the heavily fortified turn in the river and outside the range of the Confederate cannon.
Digging through mud and wet clay, the Union soldiers worked for weeks. Working in the humid swampland, many succumbed to disease. After more than a month of digging, Grant’s engineers decided that the canal would not work. This did not deter the general. He ordered his men to dig another canal. This, too, failed. Grant was not moved from his opinion of how to approach the city. He ordered his men to begin a third canal.
It wasn’t until April when General Grant finally abandoned the idea of circling around Vicksburg without a fight. Reluctantly, he admitted that the city would have to be attacked head-on. He marched the bulk of his army down the west side of the river to a steamboat landing 30 kilometers below Vicksburg. He planned to sail his Navy gunboats past the city under the cover of darkness.
It took three weeks for the Union soldiers to reach the steamboat landing. Rough roads, swamps and mud took its toll, forcing the Army to wait while engineer troops cut trees to lay corduroy roads and build bridges.
Under the cover of darkness on the night of April 16, Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter commanded the eight gunboats and three empty troop boats that floated down the dark river with their engines silent. The Confederates, however, had built fires along the river. When they recognized the Union ships attempting to pass, they opened fire, easily hitting most of the ships but only sinking one. The damaged flotilla safely reunited with Grant’s land army below the city at Hard Times, La.
In the largest amphibious operation ever conducted by an American force prior to World War II, Grant and Porter transferred 24,000 men and 60 guns from the west bank to the east. They landed unopposed at Bruinsburg, Miss., and began marching toward Port Gibson and Grand Gulf, towns north along the river. Four divisions encountered a Confederate brigade along Bayou Pierre near Port Gibson on May 1, resulting of casualties to each side of between 700 and 900 men, but the two river towns were captured without further significant fighting. The rest of Grant’s army, under General William T. Sherman, then crossed the river at Grand Gulf, bringing his force to over 45,000.
With his full army on the east side of the Mississippi, Grant decided to drive north toward Jackson before attacking Vicksburg. He easily captured Jackson where he left a small force to destroy enemy supplies. With the rest of his force, he turned back toward Vicksburg.
Grant attacked Vicksburg several times. Each time, his troops were thrown back. The city's defenses were too strong. Grant then decided to surround the city and wait until its food was gone. He encircled the city with men and artillery. Nothing could get out and nothing could get into the surrounded Confederate stronghold.
Weeks passed as the Union army kept up a steady shelling of the city. The Confederate Army responded, but only briefly, and without much effect. Ammunition, food and morale all plummeted.
Finally, the Confederate commander, General John Pemberton, decided it was better to discuss terms of surrender than to watch his army and the residents of Vicksburg starve. He sent word to Grant. Meeting under a flag of truce, Grant demanded unconditional surrender. Pemberton rejected the demand.
Pemberton wanted Grant to immediately parole the surrendering Confederates, telling Grant that his men would promise to stay out of the war if he permitted them to return to their homes. If not, Pemberton told the Union commander, his men would continue to fight.
Grant agreed to let the Confederate soldiers go home. He and Pemberton signed the surrender agreement on July 4, 1863, ending the 47-day siege.
Never had a Union army won such a victory. President Abraham Lincoln had once observed, “Vicksburg is the key, the war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket.” With Vicksburg in Union hands, the North controlled the whole length of the Mississippi River. Grant had removed about 30,000 soldiers from the Confederate war effort. In addition, he captured about 60,000 firearms and 170 cannon. This was a blow to the Confederacy from which it would never recover.
A THIRD REASON FOR CELEBRATION
Major General Benjamin Prentiss, command of the District of Easter Arkansas, had headquartered Helena, Ark., with about 20,000 troops. To assist in the attack on Vicksburg, General Grant ordered Prentiss to send all but 4,000 of his men. Though Prentiss had built an impressive array of defenses of Helena, his greatly reduced force was hardly sufficient to man them.
Lt. Gen. Theophilus H. Holmes, commander of the Confederate District of Arkansas, planned a coordinated attack from three sides on the weakened Federal fortifications surrounding Helena. He believed the attack would relieve pressure on Vicksburg and also prevent Helena being used as a Union base from which to strike deeper into Arkansas.
In the early dawn hours of July 4, Holmes launched a three-prong attack on the scantily defended Union breastworks. A combination of poor communication and faulty coordination led to a serious Confederate defeat by day’s end. The Battle of Helena left 206 Union and 1,636 Confederate casualties. More importantly, any Confederate threat on Helena disappeared, allowing the city to become a base of operation for the successful campaign to take Little Rock, Ark., later that year.
NEVER FULLY RECOGNIZED
Compared to today, news traveled slowly in 1863. Even as the bluffs around Vicksburg reverberated with celebration on the evening of July 4, 1863 (though it would be more than 100 years before the residents of the city would willingly celebrate the birthday of the United States), back east, news of the victory at Gettysburg had just reached Washington, D.C.
As people engulfed the White House in celebration, President Lincoln was reluctant to believe any stories of victories until it was confirmed by his sources. More than two years filled with disappointments from a string of commanding generals had hampered the president’s willingness to celebrate any good news.
Furthermore, he was awaiting the outcome of the battle of Vicksburg. As far as he knew, that battle was still hanging in the balance. So rather than satisfying the crowds with a speech, he simply issued an Executive Order:
“The President announces to the country that news from the Army of the Potomac up to 10 o'clock p.m. of the 3d is such as to cover that army with the highest honor, to promise a great success to the cause of the Union, and to claim the condolence of all for the many gallant fallen; and that for this he especially desires that on this day He whose will, not ours, should ever be done be everywhere remembered and ever reverenced with profoundest gratitude.”
He had not yet realized that the victory at Gettysburg, combined with the fall of Vicksburg, constituted the turning point in the War. It wasn’t until July 7 when President Lincoln delivered his “Fourth of July” speech. The July 8, 1863, issue of the Washington Star recorded it for readers:
Fellow-citizens: I am very glad to see you to-night. But yet I will not say I thank you for this call. But I do most sincerely thank Almighty God for the occasion on which you have called. [Cheers.] How long ago is it? Eighty odd years since, upon the Fourth day of July, for the first time in the world, a union body of representatives was assembled to declare as a self-evident truth that all men were created equal. [Cheers.]
That was the birthday of the United States of America. Since then the fourth day of July has had several very peculiar recognitions. The two most distinguished men who framed and supported that paper, including the particular declaration I have mentioned, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, the one having framed it, and the other sustained it most ably in debate, the only two of the fifty-five or fifty-six who signed it, I believe, who were ever President of the United States, precisely fifty years after they put their hands to that paper it pleased the Almighty God to take away from this stage of action on the Fourth of July. This extraordinary coincidence we can understand to be a dispensation of the Almighty Ruler of Events.
Another of our Presidents, five years afterwards, was called from this stage of existence on the same day of the month, and now on this Fourth of July just past, when a gigantic rebellion has risen in the land, precisely at the bottom of which is an effort to overthrow that principle "that all men are created equal," we have a surrender of one of their most powerful positions and powerful armies forced upon them on that very day. [Cheers.] And I see in the succession of battles in Pennsylvania, which continued three days, so rapidly following each other as to be justly called one great battle, fought on the first, second and third of July; on the fourth the enemies of the declaration that all men are created equal had to turn tail and run. [Laughter and applause.]
Gentlemen, this is a glorious theme and a glorious occasion for a speech, but I am not prepared to make one worthy of the theme and worthy of the occasion. [Cries of "go on," and applause.] I would like to speak in all praise that is due to the the [sic] many brave officers and soldiers who have fought in the cause of the Union and liberties of this country from the beginning of this war, not on occasions of success, but upon the more trying occasions of the want of success. I say I would like to speak in praise of these men, particularizing their deeds, but I am unprepared. I should dislike to mention the name of a single officer, lest in doing so I wrong some other one whose name may not occur to me. [Cheers.]
Recent events bring up certain names, gallantly prominent, but I do not want to particularly name them at the expense of others, who are as justly entitled to our gratitude as they. I therefore do not upon this occasion name a single man. And now I have said about as much as I ought to say in this impromptu manner, and if you please, I'll take the music. [Tremendous cheering, and calls for the President to reappear.]
Perhaps it was caution—or humility—that prevented the president from boasting of the major blows recently dealt to the Confederacy. In a private letter to General Grant penned five days later, this humility comes through clearly:
Washington, July 13, 1863.
Major General Grant
My dear General,
I do not remember that you and I ever met personally. I write this now as a grateful acknowledgment for the almost inestimable service you have done the country. I wish to say a word further. When you first reached the vicinity of Vicksburg, I thought you should do, what you finally did --march the troops across the neck, run the batteries with the transports, and thus go below; and I never had any faith, except a general hope that you knew better than I, that the Yazoo Pass expedition, and the like, could succeed. When you got below, and took Port-Gibson, Grand Gulf, and vicinity, I thought you should go down the river and join Gen. Banks; and when you turned Northward East of the Big Black, I feared it was a mistake. I now wish to make the personal acknowledgment that you were right, and I was wrong. Yours very truly.
The nation never really celebrated that climactic Fourth of July. Ultimate Union victory had not been assured. That would come only after Lincoln’s reelection in 1864, and the erosion of Southern armies until they finally surrendered in April 1865. Even with the nation reunited, the scars would never fully heal.
Today, we are still a divided nation in many ways, split by the intense partisan politics and conflicting social and ideological values. In the past decade, the fight over different interpretations of the Constitution have grown louder—sometimes rivaling the discourse leading up to the secession of Southern States and armed conflict
Hopefully, the angry rhetoric of our times, which often approaches that of the years leading up to America’s Civil War, won’t result in another schism. Perhaps on this Fourth of July, Americans of all geographic locations, regional backgrounds and ethnic heritage can proudly salute the Stars and Stripes in unison. Perhaps rekindling the memory of the battles of Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Helena 158 years ago will temper any national rhetoric or dissension—if only for the honor of the day.
Happy Fourth of July.
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