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Lee Benson: The second best Fourth in Vicksburg, Mississippi

Published: Friday, Aug. 28 2015 1:33 a.m. MDT

Mississippian Mary Stovall Richards is an associate professor of history at Brigham Young University. She says it took people in Vicksburg, Miss., a long time to celebrate Independence Day. (Richards family photograph) Mississippian Mary Stovall Richards is an associate professor of history at Brigham Young University. She says it took people in Vicksburg, Miss., a long time to celebrate Independence Day. (Richards family photograph)

This past March my family and I took a trip to a town in Mississippi called McComb where my wife’s parents are serving an LDS mission. McComb is not far from another town on the banks of the Mississippi River called Vicksburg.

Vicksburg, I remember thinking, “Didn’t something happen there in the Civil War?”

Which was like asking about the beaches of Normandy, “Didn’t something happen there in World War II?”

It turned out I knew much more about the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and about World War II for that matter, than I did about the one between the states that threatened to tear the country in two.

My trip to the South clued me into the news that if it hadn’t been for what happened at Vicksburg, along with what happened concurrently at the much better known Gettysburg, it’s more than a little bit likely that I might have needed a passport to enter Mississippi.

Brigham Young University history professor Matthew Mason calls July 4, 1863, Brigham Young University history professor Matthew Mason calls July 4, 1863, "the second most important" among Independence Days in American history. (BYU photograph)

I bring this up because this week marks the 150th anniversary of the Union Army’s triumphs at Vicksburg and Gettysburg.

It was at Vicksburg on July 4, 1863, that Lt. General John Pemberton of the Confederacy surrendered his troops to Major General Ulysses S. Grant.

And it was on July 4, 1863 that 1,000 miles away in Pennsylvania the citizens of Gettysburg awoke to a silence that shouted out the news that General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army could now be found running backwards south of town.

The two Union victories turned the war. Momentum, up till now belonging almost entirely to the South, switched sides.

Robert E. Lee, undefeated and considered unbeatable, the Nick Saban of his day, was repulsed from the home field of the North.

Ulysses S. Grant, reputed to be a drunk and a has-been, captured Vicksburg at the end of a 47-day siege and gained control of the Mississippi River, effectively breaking the Southern defenses in half.

It would take two more years, and another half-million lives, but the Union would in due time be preserved and slavery would not.

I asked Professor Matthew Mason of the Brigham Young University history department where July 4th of 1863 should rank among the nation’s Independence Days.

The professor preceded his answer with a little context.

“The months leading up to that July 4 had been terrible for Union morale,” he said. “The Emancipation Proclamation of Jan. 1 had divided the Union even as it gave many Northeners new purpose in the war. The eastern theater had seen military disaster after military disaster. The North had to brace for another invasion of Union soil by Robert E. Lee’s troops, which was demoralizing. Meanwhile, the siege of Vicksburg (in the west) seemed to drag on endlessly, adding to the Union’s morale problems.

“In that context, receiving word of both victories, and on July 4 to boot, was of enormous political and thus military significance for the Union. That conjunction of events of course had the obverse effect in the Confederacy. Also the victory at Vicksburg elevated Ulysses S. Grant’s reputation, which had suffered enormously up to that point.

“For all these reasons, I would rank this particular Fourth as the second most important in history — it’s hard to beat that first one!”

Professor Mason’s colleague at BYU, Mary Stovall Richards, whose specialty is 19th-century Southern history, seconded that notion.

She quoted Josiah Gorgas, chief of ordnance for the Confederacy, who immediately after the outcomes at Vicksburg and Gettysburg said presciently: “Yesterday we rode on the pinnacle of success — today absolute ruin seems to be our portion. The Confederacy totters to its destruction.”

Professor Richards grew up in Greenville, Miss., 80 miles north of Vicksburg. She noted that where she came from the outcome at Vicksburg wasn’t always considered a victory.

“As a Mississippian, I might add that the surrender of Vicksburg on July 4th changed the meaning of that holiday for the city until well into the 20th century,” she said. “July 4th for Vicksburg symbolized defeat, not independence, and as a result the city did not celebrate the holiday for many decades.”

But time heals, or at least buries, all wounds, and in 2013 major celebrations are planned all this week at Vicksburg, as at Gettysburg.

“If we were in the East or the South, the significance of these anniversaries would be obvious,” said Professor Richards. “But the sesquicentennial of the Civil War has been somewhat neglected here since Utah was so far removed from much of the war.”

Removed, but no less affected. One hundred and fifty years later, twin victories once announced on the nation’s birthday continue to reverberate across the United States of America, emphasis on united.

As one not-uninterested observer put it back in 1863 upon first hearing the news, “I cannot, in words, tell you my joy over this result. It is great, it is great.”

Abraham Lincoln had an instant appreciation for what it would take some of us much longer to understand.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. EMAIL: benson@deseretnews.com

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