Vicksburg 1863: America’s most important July 4th (besides 1776)

VicksburgThe Fourth of July has always been an important day in the U.S. It marks the day in 1776 when the colonies issued the Declaration of Independence from the British Empire. A new nation was born, at least for a little while.

In 1861 that nation was torn apart by a bloody Civil War that saw its turning point on another fourth of July, that of 1863. On that day the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg on the Mississippi River surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant.

The Union army had been trying to take it since the beginning of the war. The fortified city was the key to the Mississippi River. If the North could control the river it would cut the Confederacy in half, leaving Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and the Indian Territory cut off from the rest of the rebellious nation. The Confederate west was a major source of supplies and men, especially Texas, which had overland access to Mexico and the only reliable contact with the outside world thanks to the Union navy’s effective blockade.

It took General Grant many months and thousands of lives to take the city. He managed to capture Jackson, Mississippi, an important railroad connection, and then surround Vicksburg on the landward side. Then he launched two massive assaults on the fortifications, only to lose hundreds of men.

Grant was not one to repeat mistakes, except for the mistake of drinking too much. He decided not to waste any more men and settled in for a siege. He kept up a constant bombardment on the city as the civilians and rebel soldiers dug in. Eventually the defenders were reduced to eating rats and dogs. One local newspaper ran out of paper and issued the news on wallpaper.

%Gallery-127185%On July 4, 1863, the Confederates had had enough. Their commander John C. Pemberton surrendered, figuring the Union troops would be more merciful on that day than any other. The final and much smaller Confederate stronghold on the river, Port Hudson, surrendered on July 9. Robert E. Lee had lost the battle of Gettysburg on July 3. For the North, winning the war was now only a matter of time.

As the telegraph lines sent the news across the North, there were huge Fourth of July celebrations. There weren’t many in the South, though, and in fact July 4th wasn’t celebrated in Vicksburg again until World War Two made the locals realize that the USA wasn’t such a bad thing after all.

Vicksburg National Military Park is one of the nation’s most impressive battlefields. Parts of the city’s six-and-a-half miles of defenses can still be seen and reconstructions make you feel like you’re back in the nineteenth century. There are living history demonstrations every day as well as visits to the USS Cairo, an ironclad Union gunboat that’s been raised from the water.

So if you’re not sure where to go this Fourth of July, you might consider taking a road trip to either Philadelphia, where this country was formed, or Vicksburg, where this country was saved.

[Photo of Vicksburg graves courtesy user Matito via Flickr]

Civil War secret message decoded

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A coded message sent to the beleaguered Confederate commander of Vicksburg has been cracked, the BBC reports.

The Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond has had the message in its collection for more than a century. It had never tried to decipher the code of seemingly random letters until this year, when they sent it off to retired CIA codebreaker David Gaddy. While Gaddy is trained to break sophisticated modern codes, this early cipher was still tough enough to take him several weeks.

It turns out the message was sent to Confederate General John Pemberton telling him he wouldn’t be getting any reinforcements. The city was the key to the Mississippi River and had been under siege by Union forces for months. The message was dated 4 July 1863, the same day Pemberton surrendered. The bad news was probably the last straw. With his men short of food and munitions and the city in ruins, Pemberton’s last hope was getting reinforcements.

The fall of Vicksburg opened up the Mississippi River to Union gunboats and cut the Confederacy in half. It was one of the turning points of the Civil War.

[Photo courtesy U.S. Army]