As we remember the sesquicentennial of our civil; war and took back 150 years ago to the first week of July 1863 we are reminded of the two major battles that changed the course of the Civil War and our Nation.
Robert E Lee had led the Army of Northern Virginia into Northern territory at the battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The Union army under Gen. George Meade who had just been appointed to lead the Army of the Potomac three days before July 1,1863 was able to push the Confederates back across the Potomac where they would never re-attack the North. After a three day battle at Gettysburg, General Lee and his troops would head back South on Friday, July 3, 1863 having suffered a major defeat.
In the West. a rising general of the Union armies, Ulysses S Grant would successfully complete the siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi which began on May 19, 1863. The soldiers and townsfolk of Vicksburg were living in caves. Starvation had struck the city so that the residents were eating rats, dogs, and cats. On July 3, 1863 General Grant had sent a very short letter to General John C. Pemberton, the commander of the Confederate forces at Vicksburg which stated: “Surrender by 9 AM on July, 4, 1863 or we begin bombardment of the city of Vicksburg.”
Vicksburg surrendered on Saturday, July 4, 1863, and for many years after the war the citizens did not celebrate the Fourth of July.
The capture of Vicksburg gave the Union control of the entire Mississippi River from Minnesota to New Orleans. The fall of Vicksburg split the Confederacy and cut the Eastern states of the Confederacy off from their food supply in the West.
These twin battles in the early days of July, 1863 gave Pres. Lincoln and the North new hope that the war would soon end. However there were still 21 more months of devastation and death before General Lee surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia on April 12, 1865.
Until these two battles, politicians in the South had believed that the North would tire of the war because of the loss of life and treasure. They felt that Lincoln would be forced to negotiate a peace treaty.
Southern politicians also believed that winning a major battle in the North such as Gettysburg would encourage the European countries to recognize the Confederacy as a separate country.
Lincoln however utilized the twin victories and in particular Gettysburg as a opportunity to press for emancipation of the slaves. Even though he had issued the Emancipation Proclamation as an Executive Order on January 1, 1863; it wasn’t until his Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863 that he clarified the importance of his earlier Proclamation,
Lincoln spoke for just over two minutes, and reiterated the principles of human equality espoused by the Declaration of Independence and proclaimed the Civil War as a struggle for the preservation of the Union in opposition to secession. He described “a new birth of freedom that would bring true equality to all of its citizens”. Lincoln also redefined the Civil War as a struggle not just for the Union, but also for the principle of human equality.
Pres. Lincoln also recognized that he had a General that could fight and win; his name was Ulysses S Grant. It wouldn’t be until the spring of 1864 that Pres. Lincoln selected Lieutenant General Grant as the military leader of the Union forces.
During this week historians and commentators will talk of the battle at Gettysburg and may recognize the importance of the surrender of Vicksburg.
As we watched the reenactment of these major battles on our cell phones, Ipads, Internet feeds and television sets; the significance of these two battles that took place 150 years ago may not be appreciated.
In 2013 we can read of civil wars around the world and gasp at the terrible loss of life; but we must remember that our country went through almost 4 years of civil war in which it is estimated 600,000 Americans of both the North and the South were lost.
Our democracy and our republic style of government was put to the test by the Civil War.
Grant and Lee, the two generals who fought each other from May of 1864 until April 12, 1865 were both decent and honorable men who recognized that despite the 4 years of conflict they were Americans and brothers again.
On this 4th of July 2013, we should remember those Americans who fought so valiantly and from whom I peace was forged and that we remained the United States of America.
I currently perform twp plays in my “sesquicentennial – The Civil War Remembered.”
I perform General Robert E Lee as the 63 year old President of Washington College in 1870 only a few months before he passes away on October 12, 1870.
I also perform General Ulysses S. Grant at the age of 61 in 1883 as he gathers with the other graduates of the Unites States Military Academy for “The 40th Reunion of the class of 1843”.
I’ve spent years researching both Generals and have visited many of the Civil War battlefields and towns where they resided prior to the Civil War in order to better understand the war and the era in which they lived.
Each time I perform these plays I attempt to emulate these men and feel their character, their passion and their pain.
I have concluded that the United States of America was truly blessed by having General Grant and General Lee resolve the conflict on April 12, 1865 at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. General Grant, after conferring with Pres. Lincoln at City Point, Virginia met with General Lee and offered very reasonable terms of surrender in which the Confederate soldiers would be paroled but not imprisoned and be allowed to return home so long as they took an Oath Of Allegiance to the United States of America.
As for General Lee, he had been urged by some of his officers to conduct a guerrilla war throughout the South and thus extend the war for years to come. Genera Lee rejected that choice and made the decision to surrender the Army of Northern Virginia.
On this 4th of July, 2013, as we look back at the battles that took place 150 years ago, we should be proud that our country was led by two exceptional Americans and West Point graduates who came together on Palm Sunday, April 12, 1865 and resolved our nation’s Civil War.
May everyone have a safe holiday; but do take a moment to reflect on our wonderful country and thank our forefathers for the United States of America.