Happy Independence Day!!! As I write this, the fireworks have finished, and the heavy heat and humidity are certain to be followed by a thunderstorm, probably around 3 a.m. or so… But that, plus a mid-week Independence Day celebration, hasn’t kept people down. [Also, apologies for the break in the Operation Barbarossa coverage; that will resume soon.]
What to do as a blog post for a day like this? I’ll begin with this really magnificent painting of Ulysses S. Grant on July 4, 1863, at Vicksburg. Called Glorious Fourth, painted by renowned artist Mort Künstler, it captures the second of two great Union victories that signaled the turn of the Civil War.
Künstler has long been one of my favorite artists, certainly one of my favorite war artists, and I remember as a kid being somewhat puzzled at this celebration of a campaign that you rarely hear about…Of course, while Gettysburg is more famous, it is generally understood in academic circles that the Civil War was won and lost in the west, rather than in the Washington-Richmond corridor, and Grant’s campaign to break all Southern control of the Mississippi River has long been regarded as a masterpiece of strategy and operations. As James M. McPherson wrote some years ago: “the fourth of July 1863 was the most memorable Independence Day in American history since that first one four score and seven years earlier.” It should be noted that most of the American public, and Washington D. C. society in particular, really didn’t know what had happened until the 6th or 7th, as I learned some years ago from perusing Fanny Seward’s diaries, reposing in Rochester’s Rare Books Library. Yet McPherson still summarizes the basic challenges of Grant’s operations best:
“The gunboat fleet might be destroyed or crippled. Even if it survived to ferry Grant’s soldiers across the river, they would be virtually cut off from their base, for while the ironclads and even some supply transports might get past Vicksburg downriver with the help of a four-knot current, they would be sitting ducks if they tried to go back up again. The army would have to operate deep in enemy territory without a supply line against a force of unknown strength which held interior lines and could be reinforced.” (Battle Cry of Freedom, 627) A pretty straightforward map of the situation can be found here:
The most complete web coverage of the campaign, aside from Wikipedia of course (hey, it has to be said…), is probably on the Civil War Trust website, though not all the links work. Somewhat more general is the National Park Service’s page.
The campaign was also notable, or perhaps notorious, for the Southern armies’ encounters with black Northern regiments, at Millikin’s Bend on June 7, at Port Hudson on May 27. Grant was apparently moderately impressed with what these units could do with substandard equipment and the weight of much prejudice stacked against them, though Assistant Secretary of War Dana was more ebullient in his praise.
There are those who still like to denigrate and run down Grant’s generalship, though that tired old saw has been dealt a few blows over the years. Strategically, Grant was a far superior brain than anything the South had, and operationally, as he demonstrated at Vicksburg and again in 1864 against Lee, not bad operationally either. Ethan Rafuse does a good job of examining the latter in his essay on George Meade, in volume two of Woodworth’s Grant’s Lieutenants. And Simpson tries to tackle the “butcher” myth in an essay from The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History. Anyway, that’s one aspect of July 4th in American history.
Another aspect, one often forgotten in retellings of the Civil War, is Lincoln’s July 4 1861 address to the special session of Congress (actually read on July 5) requesting more money and men for the war. It is a very remarkable document, spelling out at great length his official stance on the rebellion and his obligations for meeting it with force. Some quotes are worth repeating at length. On the issue [Immediate dissolution, or blood]:
And this issue embraces more than the fate of these United States. It presents to the whole family of man, the question, whether a constitutional republic, or a democracy—a government of the people, by the same people—can, or cannot, maintain its territorial integrity, against its own domestic foes. It presents the question, whether discontented individuals, too few in numbers to control administration, according to organic law, in any case, can always, upon the pretences made in this case, or on any other pretences, or arbitrarily, without any pretence, break up their Government, and thus practically put an end to free government upon the earth. It forces us to ask: “Is there, in all republics, this inherent, and fatal weakness?’’ “Must a government, of necessity, be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?’’
The opening salvo against the sessionists’ states rights doctrine:
They invented an ingenious sophism, which, if conceded, was followed by perfectly logical steps, through all the incidents, to the complete destruction of the Union. The sophism itself is, that any state of the Union may, consistently with the national Constitution, and therefore lawfully, and peacefully, withdraw from the Union, without the consent of the Union, or of any other state. The little disguise that the supposed right is to be exercised only for just cause, themselves to be the sole judge of its justice, is too thin to merit any notice.
He goes on at considerable length attacking the concept of individual states’ sovereignty.
On the Southern states’ declarations and constitutions:
Our adversaries have adopted some Declarations of Independence; in which, unlike the good old one, penned by Jefferson, they omit the words “all men are created equal.’’ Why? They have adopted a temporary national constitution, in the preamble of which, unlike our good old one, signed by Washington, they omit “We, the People,’’ and substitute “We, the deputies of the sovereign and independent States.’’ Why? Why this deliberate pressing out of view, the rights of men, and the authority of the people?
And some ruminations on the larger themes of the conflict:
This is essentially a People’s contest. On the side of the Union, it is a struggle for maintaining in the world, that form, and substance of government, whose leading object is, to elevate the condition of men—to lift artificial weights from all shoulders—to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all—to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life. Yielding to partial, and temporary departures, from necessity, this is the leading object of the government for whose existence we contend.
…Our popular government has often been called an experiment. Two points in it, our people have already settled—the successful establishing, and the successful administering of it. One still remains—its successful maintenance against a formidable [internal] attempt to overthrow it. It is now for them to demonstrate to the world, that those who can fairly carry an election, can also suppress a rebellion—that ballots are the rightful, and peaceful, successors of bullets; and that when ballots have fairly, and constitutionally, decided, there can be no successful appeal, back to bullets; that there can be no successful appeal, except to ballots themselves, at succeeding elections. Such will be a great lesson of peace; teaching men that what they cannot take by an election, neither can they take it by a war—teaching all, the folly of being the beginners of a war.
…In full view of his great responsibility, he has, so far, done what he has deemed his duty. You will now, according to your own judgment, perform yours. He sincerely hopes that your views, and your action, may so accord with his, as to assure all faithful citizens, who have been disturbed in their rights, of a certain, and speedy restoration to them, under the Constitution, and the laws. And having thus chosen our course, without guile, and with pure purpose, let us renew our trust in God, and go forward without fear, and with manly hearts.
Fascinating and thought-provoking prose. It was widely printed in Southern newspapers, and picked apart word by word. Some reactions from North Carolina Papers can be found here, courtesy of the Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library at UNC Chapel Hill. In some respects, it reminds me of a recent, admittedly rather inflammatory, article by Sarah Robinson on June 28, at Alternet.org, which I read recently courtesy of a friend. Robinson says we are currently in a battle, and have always been in a battle between two ideological poles–a more democratic, morally-obligated “Yankee” pole, and an aristocratic, militantly elitist “Southern aristocracy” pole. Quite bold claims, and as usual with such things rather distorted in parts–Woodrow Wilson, for example, was in many respects hardly the noble sort of “Yankee” man she indicates, and “Yankee” meritocrats such as Lodge, Rockefeller, et. al. could often be, by her definition, “Southern elite”. Monoliths only work for a limited time, and for limited reasons, and both North and South were complex. Her remarks on what “freedom” means in a Southern context, however, are not too wide of the mark:
In the old South, on the other hand, the degree of liberty you enjoyed was a direct function of your God-given place in the social hierarchy. The higher your status, the more authority you had, and the more “liberty” you could exercise — which meant, in practical terms, that you had the right to take more “liberties” with the lives, rights and property of other people. Like an English lord unfettered from the Magna Carta, nobody had the authority to tell a Southern gentleman what to do with resources under his control. In this model, that’s what liberty is. If you don’t have the freedom to rape, beat, torture, kill, enslave, or exploit your underlings (including your wife and children) with impunity — or abuse the land, or enforce rules on others that you will never have to answer to yourself — then you can’t really call yourself a free man.
When a Southern conservative talks about “losing his liberty,” the loss of this absolute domination over the people and property under his control — and, worse, the loss of status and the resulting risk of being held accountable for laws that he was once exempt from — is what he’s really talking about. In this view, freedom is a zero-sum game. Anything that gives more freedom and rights to lower-status people can’t help but put serious limits on the freedom of the upper classes to use those people as they please. It cannot be any other way. So they find Yankee-style rights expansions absolutely intolerable, to the point where they’re willing to fight and die to preserve their divine right to rule.
As I said, somewhat simplistic and distorted (I’ll invoke my medievalist credentials here and include the mention of Magna Carta in that), but generally correct in the broad strokes, I think. It certainly meshes fairly well with what I recall of McPherson’s For Cause and Comrades, though Robinson totally omits the honest belief in the South (and, with some misgivings, not unknown in the North), in state sovereignty and states’ rights–which really complicates the monolithic structure she is trying to create. A very serious omission. Assigning monolithic motivation to millions of people is always risky–even Lincoln’s ideas on race and slavery were hardly uniform or unchanging over time, and the debates over reconstruction leading up to July 4, 1864, showed how disunited “The North” was on those and other issues.
Yet–there’s always a “yet”–if I had to choose between two poles of remembering the Civil War and Independence Day, I’d choose Grant’s triumphant gesture on his way to greet Admiral Porter, and Lincoln’s rhetoric, over The Myth of the Lost Cause. Among those who know me, it’s not much of a secret that, over the years from teenager to adult, I moved from a pro-South to a pro-North view of the war. It all depends on the type and quality of history to which you’re exposed–if anything shows the value and importance of the historical profession, and the ease with which historical memory can be manipulated for less than noble purposes, it’s the number of myths that have sprung up around the Civil War. From Grant’s supposedly poor generalship to the supposed non-issue of slavery to, heck, even the Southern cavalry’s supposedly complete superiority over Union troopers (now I’ve stepped on some toes…). But on this Independence Day and the morning after, I prefer to remember Lincoln’s 1861 statements and Grant’s triumph at Vicksburg.