Thursday, July 04, 2013

A Rejected Independence Day

A long told story addresses the river town of Vicksburg, Mississippi. A Confederate stronghold, Vicksburg surrendered to Union general Ulysses S. Grant's interminable siege on July 4, 1863. Independence Day would not be celebrated there for the next 81 years. Even then, the holiday would be downplayed, if not ignored completely, displaced in favor of other holidays like Memorial Day.

Many who fought for the South believed they were fighting the second American Revolution. The result was far bloodier than the first conflict, the one we celebrate today, which had begun four score and seven years before. North and South had, only the day before, settled the war's turning point in rolling Pennsylvania farmland. The simultaneous losses of Gettysburg and Vicksburg left behind resounding bitterness and resentment.

A 1997 article reposted in the Baltimore Sun, speaks to the feelings that remain, years afterwards.
"There was nothing for us to celebrate for a long, long time," says Gordon Cotton, local historian and director of the Old Courthouse Museum, where the community's relics are on display. "Even the post office stayed open for a number of years on the Fourth of July." By the time the wound had scabbed over, Vicksburg was used to not observing the Fourth. Even today it seems unable to get the hang of it.
History may be written by the victors, but it is never forgotten by the vanquished. Even though I recognize the evils of slavery and the foolishness of the rebel cause, I still retain a strong sympathy in spite of myself. Stripped of the terrible context, in a gauzy, romanticized way I climb aboard the bandwagon. My emotions have temporarily taken the place of my intellect. I do so in the same way as I would with a Cinderella sports team. Nothing stirs our hearts more than an undersized unit fighting to survive against all odds.

We may place our emphasis upon the initial volleys of gunfire and the birth-pains of freedom. I often choose to celebrate Independence Day for all the times our nation nearly came unglued, but somehow survived. We are a marvelously resilient nation despite ourselves. We could have split apart a thousand times before, but yet we continue. One of war's great ironies is that it seeks to neatly tie up loose ends, but its wounds continue well beyond the signing of treaties and the battlefield. The conquered may acquiesce to force, but they retain the memory and the humiliation for eternity.
In 1945, when the Allies had conquered Nazi Germany and were about to defeat Japan, Vicksburg, like the rest of the country, had an attack of patriotic fever. "They started celebrating again," Cotton says. "But they didn't call it the Fourth of July or Independence Day. They called it the Carnival of the Confederacy. They had parades and floats and all that, and they had a pretty girl to represent each Southern state."
Two hundred and thirty seven years later, what does Independence Day mean to us? Our freedom was obtained, as we know, with cannon-fire and musket shot. In every military venture we launch, we create lasting impressions on our enemies. Often the bitterest of wounds are those inflicted upon civilians. The soldier may have prepared himself or herself for the horror of conflict, but those who stay behind have not. They are the walking wounded, haunted storytellers for the rest of their lives.

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