I spent Independence Day with my grandchildren in Baltimore where we watched fireworks, ate barbecue, and rarely spoke of the significance of the day. They’re still young and I trust they’ll learn in time what happened on July 4, 1776, and why …
I spent Independence Day with my grandchildren in Baltimore where we watched fireworks, ate barbecue, and rarely spoke of the significance of the day. They’re still young and I trust they’ll learn in time what happened on July 4, 1776, and why it’s important.
But my mind that day kept reverting to the second most important July 4 in American history, of which this year marks the sesquicentennial. One could say that what was begun on July 4, 1776, was completed on July 4, 1863. It was not a pretty thing to see.
The Civil War had raged for two years with neither side gaining a decisive advantage. The Mississippi River was a key supply route for the Confederate troops which Union troops had tried in vain to cut. But that changed on July 4, 1863, when General Grant’s army took the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi, and its bluff overlooking the river.
Grant had twice tried to take Vicksburg six weeks earlier, but his troops couldn’t claw their way up the hills surrounding the city. Well-armed rebel troops repelled the Union attackers from within the city by raining gunfire down upon them.
Then Grant had a better idea. With reinforcements, he was able to build entrenchments, surround Vicksburg — and wait. He said he was sick of the loss of life and would simply “outcamp the enemy.”
The Confederates found themselves boxed in. Munitions were plentiful in Vicksburg but gunpowder was no substitute for food. By the end of June, half the Confederate soldiers were suffering from scurvy, malaria, dysentery or diarrhea. They began to eat their animals, including rats they trapped. Some ate their shoes. They dug caves for safety from the constant Union bombardment and perhaps in search of edible insects. Union soldiers began referring to Vicksburg as “Prairie Dog Village.”
Vicksburg fell to the Union army on July 4, 1863. Never again would the Confederacy control the nation’s main north-south artery.
On the very same day, 600 miles to the northeast, the Confederate army under Robert E. Lee began a wearied retreat following its stinging defeat at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The Confederates would never push that far north again. Although the war continued for another two years, the fall of Vicksburg and the defeat at Gettysburg had sealed the fate of the Confederacy.
All that was on my mind two weeks ago as I watched the fireworks and ate my barbecue in Baltimore.
The youngsters I grew up with in Kentucky in the 1950s could tell you the names of forebears who had fought on both sides. Although my father had served in World War II, when reference was made to “the war,” we all knew it wasn’t my father’s war that was meant.
We kids played at fighting the Civil War with our toy rifles. Although Kentucky had not seceded from the Union, none of us wanted to be a Union soldier, so we were all rebel troops fighting a Union army conjured up in our imaginations.
Much has changed in 60 years. Kids today no longer fight the Civil War, even here in the Heart of Dixie. It’s something they learn about in school.
But let us not forget what happened 150 years ago this month. It made America one nation. Prior to the Civil War, our ancestors referred to their country in the plural — “the United States are” — suggesting a group of distinct political entities. After the war, they began saying, “The United States is,” indicating a single nation.
And of course, the Union victory also led to an America more tolerant, more integrated, and more diverse (though not immediately and not yet completely — but that’s another story).
Painful though the siege of Vicksburg and the defeat at Gettysburg were for the South, the right side won, and I am glad southern schoolboys no longer fantasize about fighting those battles again.
Correction: I erred in last week’s column when I said grits is not an effective pesticide. My wife says she has often poured uncooked grits on fire-ant mounds and the ants have run off every time and not returned. That’s not the first time she’s set me straight about something.
Richard H. Schmidt is a retired Episcopal priest, editor and author who lives in Fairhope. He can be reached at email@example.com.