The other Fourth of July

Australians know that the Fourth of July 1776 holds a special place in the history of the United States as the date of the Declaration of Independence. But the Fourth of July 1863 is an equally significant date for both American and world history, as it was the day when the American Civil War took a decisive and irreversible turn.

That Independence Day witnessed the surrender of the Confederate town of Vicksburg, a busy riverboat port that had been besieged for six weeks by Union forces under General Ulysses S Grant. After more than two years of war, Vicksburg was the last bastion on the mighty Mississippi River still defying Union forces since the fall of New Orleans the year before. Its capture would ensure Union control of the Mississippi river system, a vast network of waterways with vital strategic and economic importance to both the North and the South.

Confederate General John Pemberton’s surrendering Vicksburg to Grant ended a long siege of the town. By the end of it Confederate troops and civilians were starving, exhausted and cut off from any relief. Townspeople hid in caves in the hills around the town to evade the constant Union shelling, and were forced to eat rats and their own horses and pets to survive. 

To the 30,000 defeated rebel soldiers and the inhabitants of the town surrender brought immediate relief from their privations and suffering, but left scars that still haven’t healed completely. So bitter was the memory of that hot July day that it was another 81 years before Vicksburg rejoined the rest of the United States in celebrating Independence Day. Even now in the town there is still quiet resentment toward the Yankees.

Bitter and bloody though it was, Grant’s victory at Vicksburg effectively cleared the Mississippi of Confederate resistance, splitting the Confederacy itself into two, and securing Union supply lines. President Abraham Lincoln said soon after, with great satisfaction and relief, that “The Father of Waters again runs unvexed to the sea”.

Yet that wasn’t the day’s only significance. Grant didn’t yet know that the Fourth of July, 1863, also confirmed that the Union had won another decisive victory, far to the north outside a rural Pennsylvanian village named Gettysburg. There, over the preceding three days, a hard-pressed Union army checked and then repulsed legendary General Robert E Lee’s invasion of the Northern states. After three days of mighty efforts and vicious combat, climaxed by a suicidal rush against Union defences remembered as Pickett’s Charge, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia retired from Gettysburg and on the Fourth was retreating back into Confederate territory.

Gettysburg ended the last offensive push of the Confederacy, and had the victorious General George Meade pursued Lee after Gettysburg he could have all but ended the war. Over the next two years many battles were to come, including a year-long defence by Lee of the Confederate capital Richmond, and many thousands more on both sides would die. But for the rest of its troubled existence the Confederacy was permanently on the defensive.

What soon became clear was that Fourth of July, 1863, marked the beginning of the end of the American Civil War itself. With the Mississippi gone and its seaports blockaded, the agrarian Confederate economy was crippled. With Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg, the last hopes of Confederate president Jefferson Davis that his country would gain recognition from Great Britain and France evaporated. As much as they depended on Southern cotton, Gettysburg and Vicksburg allowed the European powers to leave the Confederacy to its ultimate fate.

Just as importantly, from July, 1863, Lincoln was able to hold his own and the Union’s political course, effectively consolidating the war aim he set with his Emancipation Proclamation earlier that year – the ending of American slavery and giving true meaning to the Declaration of Independence’s clarion call that “all men are created equal”. Yet surely even Lincoln could not conceive that the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg and Vicksburg would be on the watch of the first black American president.

The United States’s subsequent history was far from smooth, not least because the painful integration of millions of freed slaves and their descendants into American society was to take another century. But by ensuring that the North and South ultimately would reunite, the events of July 4, 1863, matter a great deal to Australia and the world. 

Within years of the end of the War Between the States, the economic and industrial might of the North, rejoined with the agricultural resources of the South, were opening up the vast western territories of the continent, millions of immigrants were being welcomed from the Old World and the United States rapidly was becoming a global political and industrial power.  Just four years after the war ended, this manifest destiny was symbolised by the completion of the great transcontinental railway linking the Atlantic and the Pacific.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the United States was on her path to becoming the superpower of our own time, a torchbearer for freedom and democracy that has lit the darkness for generations. Yet without the emphatic twin victories of Gettysburg and Vicksburg the United States this may never have happened.

Had the Confederacy succeeded in obtaining international recognition and survived – and on a number of occasions before July 1863 that possibility was tantalisingly close – two or even more nations could yet have stood in place of the United States, competing with each other for continental power and dividing Americans to this day. The world we know today would have been a very different and much less certain place.

So it isn’t merely those eccentric American Civil War re-enactors who should be marking the 150th anniversaries of Gettysburg and Vicksburg this week.  The Fourth of July 1776 created the United States, but the Fourth of July 1863 secured her future, a future that has benefited the Anglosphere and the world at large. Let’s all celebrate the self-evident truth that those distant battles helped ensure the United States became a powerful force for good in our world as, in the words of the American Pledge of Allegiance,  “one nation, indivisible, with freedom and justice for all.”

Terry Barnes is a policy consultant and former ministerial adviser with a strong interest in American history

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