Tomorrow is the Fourth of July, a holiday celebrating our nation’s independence from the Great Britain. Fireworks will be lit. Beer will be drunk. BBQ will be eaten. And watermelon will be devoured. The more pensive among us will also think, if only briefly, about the institutions that the rebellion produced: a constitution protecting individual rights, an electorate that governs instead of being governed, checks and balances, and a culture of compromise.
That culture of compromise, though, led to the institutionalization of slavery at the federal level, and a large-scale war just 72 years after the implementation of the federal republic over the issue of slavery. (As an aside, my favorite analysis of the founding of the republic is David Hendrickson’s Peace Pact: The Lost World of the American Founding.) One of the most important battles of this large-scale war was the Siege of Vicksburg, which began on May 18, 1863 and ended with a rebel surrender on July 4 of that same year.
There are better play-by-play analyses of the Battle of Vicksburg out there, so I’ll outsource to them, but the gist of Vicksburg is a Union victory in Mississippi, led by Ulysses S. Grant, and the effective splitting in half of the Confederacy. Grant’s success led to even more success in the future, including in federal politics, and the South was never able to recover from its loss at Vicksburg. The sea opened up to northern traffic, the Confederate army became geographically, as well as numerically and technologically disadvantaged, and the victory of Union troops on a Fourth of July disheartened the Confederacy as a whole.
The losing general, John C. Pemberton, was vilified by the Southern press. The media went so far as to suggest that Pemberton, born and raised in Philadelphia, had joined the Confederacy solely to betray the rebellion when the time was ripe. Conspiracy theories were more well-received by both the general public and elites alike in those days. (Indeed, historian Bernard Bailyn points out in his magnificent 1967 book The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution that conspiracy theories played an important role in the founding generation’s thinking.) But Pemberton’s decision to join the Confederacy, and thus take up arms against his two younger brothers in the Union Army, had more to do with the fact that he married a Virginian and fell in love with the Southern way of life after fighting, with distinction, in the Seminole Wars and the Mexican-American War (Pemberton also fought against Sioux in Minnesota, Mormons in Utah, and Canadian militiamen in New Brunswick).
The press can be harsh, especially in the midst of a war, and it may be more fair to say that the Northerner from Philadelphia was simply outgunned, outmanned, and outgeneraled by Grant and his army.
Less reviled by the press, but not by Jefferson Davis, was General Joseph E. Johnston, a Virginian who also earned distinction for his participation in the republic’s wars against the Seminoles and Mexico. Johnston, unlike Pemberton, was a blue blood and his name was often mentioned in the same company as Robert E. Lee (who he graduated with at West Point) and Charles F. Smith. He was a protege of Winfield Scott, a fellow Virginian who nevertheless took the side of the North, and a prominent West Point strategist. Johnston was a tactician’s general, and he usually retreated when confronted with superior manpower and firepower on the battlefield. This of course was done so that Southern troops could live to fight another day, but to Jefferson Davis’ mind, Johnston was a lousy military leader.
As Union forces began their siege of Vicksburg, Johnston urged Pemberton to abandon the city and join forces with his own (which would have given the Confederates a rare numerical advantage), but Pemberton was under direct orders from Jefferson Davis himself to hold the city. Johnston, too, had been ordered to Vicksburg, but relief never came. Johnston held out, believing that his force, smaller than Grant’s, would be sacrificed in a vain effort to secure a whimsical outcome.
Davis was furious, but Johnston had friends in high places, including the confederacy’s senate, and while the two traded public barbs about who was to blame for the loss of Vicksburg, Johnston was never relieved of his command. Accusations of cowardice, by Southerners, dogged the general for the rest of his days, but he was highly regarded by Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman (as well as subsequent West Point tacticians), and the three became friendly acquaintances after the rebellion was stamped out in its entirety. Johnston died of pneumonia in 1891, in Washington D.C., and his last post as a public servant was that of the railroads commissioner. Then President Grover Cleveland, who paid a Polish immigrant to take his place in the Civil War, appointed Johnston.
This Fourth of July, while you celebrate among friends and family alike, I hope you will take a moment to yourself to give pause and reflect upon the republic’s rich and deep history. We are the guardians of the world’s oldest constitution. Wars large and small, have been fought to preserve (or sometimes expand) a way of life that is for all intents and purposes a radical one, based as it is on the idea of freedom. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.