Saturday, July 4, 2009

Flashback Moment: July 4, 1863

Two years ago I had the opportunity to visit Vicksburg, Mississippi and see the actual site where General Grant met General Pemberton between the Union and Confederate lines to discuss surrender. The monument placed there is an upturned cannon that is humbly, yet incorrectly, marked. It says the two generals met on July 4, 1863, when actually they met on July 3rd. The actual surrender was conducted on the 4th.

It has always seemed strange to me why General Pemberton allowed his Vicksburg army to be surrendered on the Fourth of July. Surely, he would have known what the act would mean symbolically to the Federal forces, and how they would capitalize on its historical significance...but he chose to go through with it anyway. Pemberton, a transplanted Northerner, caught more than his fair share of criticism by Southerners for the surrender well past the war years.

Maybe we let presentism and hindsight creep into our judgement of Pemberton. He was certainly in a pickle if there ever was one. He had all but given up hope for assistance from Joseph E. Johnston, who did not act with a sense of urgency. And, with about 10,000 of his soldiers sick or unable to perform their military duties due to wounds and malnutrition, Pemberton was expecting a major assault on the city's defenses that he felt he couldn't hold back due to a lack of men and supplies. The city itself has been shelled by Grant's forces for days and many of the people had become gophers; living in dugout caves to protect themselves from the artillery bombardments.

So, on July 3, Pemberton sent out a squad under a flag of truce to deliver a message to Grant that he wanted to discuss surrender. At 3 PM the generals met under the shade of an oak tree that had somehow survived the combat and there they talked. The meeting ended without resolution, but through the staff officers of the two generals, and correspondence later in day, an agreement was finally reached.

The following morning, July 4, the Confederates marched out of their trenches, stacked their arms. furled their flags, and were formally paroled. The 47 day siege of Vicksburg was over. When informed of the fall of Vicksburg, President Lincoln exclaimed, "The Father of Waters [the Mississippi River] again goes unvexed to the sea."

The victory at Vicksburg effectively split the Confederacy in two. And, along with the significant defeat of General Robert E. Lee's army at Gettysburg the day before, the Confederacy had reached its high tide. Vicksburg was yet another feather in Grant's cap. Only the victory at Chattanooga lay ahead before he was transferred East to command all Union armies.

The people of Vicksburg were defiant to the end. They had suffered through so many privations and sacrificed so much, only to see the "Bluff City" surrendered. And, while the myth that Vicksburgers did not celebrate the Fourth of July until World War II is not entirely true, fireworks must have caused a certain amount of ill feeling to those that survived the siege.

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