We trace our nation to July 4, 1776, but on that day we only defined who we were not. As trying as it was to say we were not Englishmen and wrest ourselves away from an empire, the struggle to say who we are was longer, more vicious and far bloodier. By a happenstance of history or perhaps as a beseeching reminder from God, the concept of the United States of America gained its meaning 87 years to the day after John Hancock gave his signature.
War had raged for two years, the violence of it far more terrible than either side had expected. The conflict grew from two related and fundamental disagreements: could a moral nation condone slavery and how should we make that decision, as a nation or as separate states? Our present agendas compel us to argue which of those two questions claimed preeminence, but what does it matter? The truth is self-evident. We fought over a state’s right to regulate slavery. The South conceived that right as essential to its livelihood so it was willing to bear arms in defense when earlier questions of tariffs or land acquisition allowed for compromise.
In truth, this fight had built for almost a century. As brilliant as the founding fathers were, they could not solve the problem at the constitutional convention. Generations of statesmen who followed crafted compromise after compromise but could never excise the tumor. So we found ourselves in wool uniforms dealing with a brutal summer’s heat and humidity in Pennsylvania’s Cumberland Valley and the northern reaches of the Mississippi Delta.
Calls for peace had been growing and Robert E. Lee hoped to provide a rallying point for them. So he swung his magnificent Army of Northern Virginia northward for the second time to strike a blow on Union soil, to live off the bounty of northern farms and to rattle the Union’s leadership. At the same time, Abraham Lincoln and his western commander, U.S. Grant, well understood the need to exploit the strategic advantage the manufacturing capacity of the North gave them. To do so they had to choke off the vital supply line that dissected the continent, the Mississippi River. An accident of geography, a bend in the river at Vicksburg, had long been seen as the place to do it.
U.S. Grant was not a brilliant tactician yet he understood the South’s tactics. By choosing to engage only when they had a decided advantage in numbers and geography, the South had time and again won morale-boosting victories. Grant’s remedy had been to fight; to engage as often as possible, knowing that the toll of repeated battles would eventually be too much for the South to bear. So that spring he wreaked havoc across Mississippi and closed in on the prize at Vicksburg.
The city, however, sits on a bluff that is easily defended. Twice Grant’s forces drove the hill, each time repulsed with horrific losses. Where other commanders had reported losses to Washington and chose to fight another day, Grant decided to lay siege to the city. The first problem Grant encountered was that he could not reach his dead and injured in the Confederate-held territory around the city. The stench and constant wailing of the dying motivated John Pemberton, the Confederate commander and ironically a Northerner, to offer truce for their removal. Grant originally declined, not wanting to exhibit weakness.
Eventually though, Grant gave way to human decency. Under white flags both sides sent soldiers to retrieve their casualties. Under an eerie silence the men mingled, spoke and shook hands as if in a common effort. At the end of the day with the task complete, both sides withdrew and Grant returned to the cruel calculus that would eventually win the war.
Almost a 1,000 miles to the northeast, General Lee’s men had drawn closer to the Army of the Potomac. The sides were nearly equal in size, numbering a combined 200,000 men. The armies had mirrored each other as they slid north; the blues always careful to keep themselves between General Lee and Washington and Baltimore. Lee was a supreme commander with the full loyalty and support of his men, officers, and civilian leadership. Lincoln had no such luck in finding an equivalent general; the Army of the Potomac had seen five generals-in-command over the past 18 months and its current leader, fighting Joe Hooker, was under fire from the cabinet. In late June, Hooker succumbed to the politics and Lincoln reached for a relative unknown, giving General George Meade command.
Lee and Meade both eyed Gettysburg, a farm hamlet that could be approached from almost every direction because good roads sprang from it like so many spokes on a tire. And each general had the same idea, to find a spot that provided defensive advantages and encourage the other to attack; failing that, to catch the other in a spot of defensive disadvantage. Lee had repeatedly proven himself superior in this type of chess; the Army of the Potomac had become adept at humiliating retreats successful only in that they protected Washington. In late June, however, Lee was in a different spot for two reasons. This would be the first battle since Stonewall Jackson had fallen at Chancellorsville and Jeb Stuart was missing. Stuart remains legendary as a cavalry commander for good reason. Lee had come to depend on Stuart completely to provide intelligence on the enemy and Stuart had never failed him.
Gettysburg proved different. At the start of the campaign, Stuart had made an end run around Hooker but had encountered repeated difficulties in reconnecting with Lee.
Thus, the bulk of Lee’s cavalry would not arrive in Gettysburg until July 2nd. Until then, Lee was unsure of the exact positioning and composition of the force he was to face. Worse, despite Lee’s orders to the contrary, the fighting started in earnest on July 1st. 200,000 well-provisioned men began crashing into each other in a melee that Lee had not been able to engineer completely to his liking.
In Mississippi, the horror of siege was in full evidence. Earlier that month, Pemberton had tried to cut Grant’s supply line and force a withdrawal. His troops had come across a Union division protecting that line that was short on supplies, training and weapons. Given General Johnston’s refusal to engage, this chance encounter was Pemberton’s one path out of the trap. But in the Battle of Miliken’s Bend, the largely African-American Union troops from Illinois fought with heart and fervor; sustaining huge losses but repelling the effort to lift the siege. From that point on, Pemberton admirably dealt with the endless shelling from the Union Navy stationed on the river. He had no answer for the scurvy, malaria, dysentery and hunger that raged through the fort and town. By late June the fruit of the city’s gardens had been consumed. Soldiers and citizens alike were reduced to shoe leather for sustenance. Surrender became inevitable.
Lee’s forces at first fared much better. On the first day of the engagement the Union had more backbone than in earlier fights, but it had not yet brought its full force to bear. So the rebels enjoyed a rare numerical superiority that they used with chilling effectiveness. Time and again, rebel lines advanced into a hail of Union fire. Those who remained standing would return volley and charge. As the pattern repeated, the Confederates stretched their lines far enough to flank the Union, compelling slow retreats. Every ridge, boulder and fence was hard fought; chaos reigned in the smoke. But slowly the Union line withdrew through the town and into ridges behind it. As night fell, the grays had enjoyed the better of it but had pushed the blues right to were General Meade wanted to be–a superior defensive position from which they would be almost impossible to dislodge. More than that, Meade now had his Army fully in place with reserves available to plug any gap that Lee could find or create.
After a lull on the morning of the 2nd, Gettysburg fairly exploded in an orgy of violence. Confederates hurled themselves against Union positions expecting a repeat of earlier battles. The Army of the Potomac, however, was now defending its own ground and it did so savagely. At times the fighting was hand-to-hand and at other times, artillery roared. The losses were immense and indiscriminate. Commanding officers fell as rapidly as privates; entire units were swallowed up. By the evening, Lee’s attempts to repeat the success of the first day by flanking the Union had bought him no ground.
As generals gathered that night, Lee decided on a full assault at Meade’s center. Lee’s chief infantry commander, James Longstreet, argued that they faced a situation reverse of what they were accustomed to; that the attack would be ruinous. At an opposite campfire, Meade accurately predicted what was coming and made his own arrangements.
July 3rd was the day that the war changed. In Mississippi, Pemberton finally replaced futile hope with action and sent word to Grant that he would ask for peace in return for giving up his position. True to his nature, Grant first demanded total surrender which would have met Pemberton’s almost thirty-thousand troops would be prisoners of war. As the day wore on, Grant realized the obvious. Dealing with thirty thousand prisoners of war would cripple his own army. He agreed to a turnover of arms and order from Pemberton to the troops that they return to their homes and not fight again. Vicksburg and the Mississippi now belonged to the Union.
To the North, fifteen thousand of the South’s best waited for George Pickett’s order to charge. While they waited, an artillery barrage the likes of which man had never seen occurred. Unbeknownst to the assembled rebel infantry, inferior equipment and leadership meant their fusillade had been more impressive for its display than its effect. The Union position had not been harmed when in the early afternoon the call to advance came. The rebels got as far as a low stone wall around which some could take cover. But the superior position and firepower from Meade could not be overcome; almost any man above a crouch was cut down. With casualties approaching 50%, the South retreated.
On the Fourth of July that was “four score and seven” from the nation’s founding, the fields of Gettysburg were filled with the dead and dying. And those may have been the lucky ones; amputations by the hundreds without the benefit of anesthesia or adequate pain killers were happening in both camps. A combined 8,000 men died on the field and 32,000 more were wounded. Those numbers are staggering enough until we remember the nation, including the Confederacy, was a tenth the size of America today. In other words, a battle of the same magnitude today would mean 400,000 casualties. The Vicksburg campaign added 50% to these numbers as well as an example of cruelty that would be impossible for generations of southerners to forget.
And to what effect? What ends could possibly justify these means? It seems a question impossible to answer. Yet, out of this conflict, so central to our history, grew an idea. Being an American was more important than being a Virginian or a New Yorker. Guided by Lincoln’s wisdom and God’s grace, a nation unlike any other rose; a nation that finally gave meaning to its founding concept: “All men are created equal.” Our failings too often obscure a sure progress to that ideal, but it is there. This weekend, as the fireworks explode and the music plays, a hundred heritages and a million viewpoints will celebrate together. Americans first and foremost, the only people not defined by race or station.
It might not have been if the events of Gettysburg and Vicksburg unfolded differently or if Lincoln had been a conqueror rather than a healer. So this Fourth of July, just for a moment, hold all of them in your thoughts. I am confident that across history, all that the fallen would ask is that our conduct honor their sacrifice. It is a small price to pay. Happy July 4th and God bless the United States of America.