150 years ago on the Fourth of July, the Siege of Vicksburg ended in a glorious American victory, and the secessionists lost their last bastion on the Mississippi River. With the Army of Northern Virginia also being beaten back from the ridges and hilltops of Gettysburg, July 4, 1863, was the day when Dixie started its fall.
I am a son of the South and grew up steeped in its legends, its loyalties and its lore. I am proud of the courage my slaveholding ancestors displayed, though sad that such courage was devoted to so sorry a cause. I am deeply grateful to Abraham Lincoln for doing what my ancestors could not do on their own: freeing their slaves from the curse of bondage and freeing my family from the curse of slave owning.
The Civil War was a war of liberation, not a war of conquest or aggression. That terrible war began the liberation of the white south as well as the black south, and more and more southern whites have come to understand that as the generations have passed.
Some of my first political memories date from the centennial of the Civil War, when the Civil Rights movement was reaching its climax and the post-Reconstruction settlement of southern politics was going down to the same ruin that the slaveholding south faced in 1865. My family like many other families was bitterly divided by that movement, a fading echo of the bitterness of the Civil War itself.
It was fitting that Vicksburg fell on July 4; it was fitting that the great Civil Rights bills were passed during the Civil War’s centennial — and it is fitting that America observes the 150th anniversary of the war under the leadership of an African American president. I don’t like all the decisions our President makes, but I would not want to live in a country where a person of color was barred, formally or informally, from holding the highest office in the land.
For many generations, the feelings of many white southerners about July 4, 1776 were shadowed by their feelings about April 1865 when they ‘drove old Dixie down’. Lots of people knew the words to “Good Old Rebel:”
I hates the yankee nation, and everything they do I hates the declaration of independence, too; I hates the glorious union, tis drippin’ with our blood; I hates striped banner, I fit it all I could.
Southern whites weren’t and aren’t the only people with a complicated relationship to our national history, of course. The feelings of many black southerners about 1776 were and are also clouded: by 90 years of slavery and another 90 years of cruel discrimination and race rule. Healing is slow; that is the nature of deep wounds.
The fall of Vicksburg was a step towards the fulfillment of the promises made in Philadelphia. 150 years later, we should remember, gratefully, this glorious day in the annals of our nation, and spare a moment from our celebrations to remember the brave men who gave their lives so that the promise of the Revolution would not be lost.
Michael Beschloss has posted a photograph of a Union fortification outside Vicksburg, taken soon after the city’s fall. Take a look, and remember that July 4 was only the beginning of a very long and complicated story that is still unfolding in our time.