A Glorious Fourth of July
On July 4, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln stood at a White House balcony and told a crowd of hopeful Americans that the “gigantic Rebellion” had been dealt a severe blow. On that sacred day which all Americans revere, news had reached Washington revealing that the Army of the Potomac had beaten Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at the Battle of Gettysburg. It was not only at the crossroads town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania that the Union had triumphed. On July 4, the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg, Mississippi surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant. For those fighting to re-establish the Union and to extend freedom to all, it was truly a “glorious Fourth” of July.
Where so many other commanders had failed, General George Gordon Meade finally succeeded. Under Meade’s leadership, the Army of the Potomac defeated Robert E. Lee and his invincible Army of Northern Virginia at the Battle of Gettysburg. When the two armies clashed on July 1, 1863, Meade was only in his fourth day of command. Despite being placed in this tremendous position of responsibility on the eve of a great battle, Meade proved that he was the right man for the Job. The unfazed commander directed a skillful defense against repeated Confederate attacks and inflicted a punishing defeat on Lee’s army. The three-day battle cost the Army of Northern Virginia at least one-third of its numbers and Meade’s army lost one-fourth of its manpower. With an estimated 51,000 casualties across both sides, Gettysburg was the bloodiest battle of the entire war. Many good men fell during the Army of the Potomac’s finest hour, but those sacrifices were not in vain. Lee’s invasion of the North had failed, once and for all.
The climax of the Battle of Gettysburg came on the afternoon of July 3, 1863, when a Confederate assault force spearheaded by General George Pickett’s division struck the center of the Union line at Cemetery Ridge. The attack was repulsed and barely half of the Confederates who made the assault survived. Painting by Mort Künstler. (Photo: americaremebers.com)
General Ulysses S. Grant’s triumph at Vicksburg was just as important as Meade’s victory at Gettysburg. After 47 days of siege, Confederate General John C. Pemberton surrendered to Grant on July 4, 1863, ending the 18-month campaign for Vicksburg. Grant’s campaign to capture the Rebel stronghold, which lay on the east bank of the Mississippi River, halfway between Memphis to the north and New Orleans to the south, was a grueling challenge. Success required tremendous perseverance from Grant and his soldiers. During one three week span, Grant’s men marched 130 miles, fought and won five battles against separate forces, and penned the Confederates up in the Vicksburg defenses. When Vicksburg was finally taken, the Confederacy was broken into halves, giving control of the Mississippi Valley to the Union, and inflicting a wound that would ultimately prove mortal.
Kurz and Allison portrait depicting the Siege of Vicksburg. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The war would still rage on for another twenty-one months, but the Federal victories at Gettysburg and at Vicksburg were major turning points for the Union. While the Confederacy would continue to fight hard, it was never able to fully recover from those two losses. Union soldiers would continue to carry the spirit of 1776 into battle, fighting until the country could be made whole again.
Civil War Trust: Gettysburg.
History.com: Vicksburg Campaign.
National Park Service: The Siege of Vicksburg.
The Civil War by Bruce Catton.
Tried By War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief by James M. McPherson.