After Decades of Refusing to Do So, Vicksburg is Again Celebrating Independence Day
On July 4, 2013, the 150th anniversary of the end of a great Civil War battle fought for possession of the city, Vicksburg, Mississippi celebrated in style.
According to the Vicksburg Daily News, the city had an “Independence Day firework extravaganza,” concerts, a “battle of the bands” with one group dressed in Confederate gray and the other in Union blue, and other events “too many to mention.” The News made a point of reporting that “most of Vicksburg was there” for the celebration, and that “a very large number of businesses and residences” in the city were decorated with American flags.
Those facts are significant, because Independence Day has not always been acknowledged with such pomp in Vicksburg. In fact, for most of the last 150 years it was not officially celebrated at all. That’s because of what happened in Vicksburg on July 4, 1863.
Vicksburg: a Confederate fortress that surrendered to U. S. forces in the Civil War
At that time Vicksburg was a Confederate stronghold guarding the Mississippi River. Both sides in the Civil War considered possession of the city to be a crucial key to victory. During the spring and summer of 1863, Union General Ulysses S. Grant mounted a massive campaign to take the city. Finally, after a siege that lasted seven weeks, General Grant’s forces overcame Vicksburg’s defenses and took control.
During the siege, the city was bombarded every day. Residents were forced to live in caves to avoid the shelling. By the end, the starving population of the town had been reduced to eating mules, dogs, cats, and even rats.
When General Grant began his campaign, the citizens of Vicksburg, along with almost the entire population of the Southern Confederacy, had been supremely confident in the fortress’s ability to hold out. So, when the end came, and soldiers of the United States marched into their town as conquerors, Vicksburg residents felt a deep sense of humiliation. And they never forgot it.
For decades Vicksburg refused to celebrate the 4th of July
That’s why the city of Vicksburg did not officially celebrate the 4th of July again for the next 81 years. Over the decades, it was memories of 1863, and not 1776, that came to define that day in the minds of many residents. As local historian Gordon Cotton put it in a 1997 article reprinted in the Baltimore Sun, “There was nothing for us to celebrate for a long, long time.”
Through the years, some individual Vicksburg residents did celebrate the 4th. For example, the Vicksburg Daily Commercialof July 5, 1877 points out that on Independence Day of that year, “The colored population turned out in large force.” Yet, the article goes on to characterize the observance among the majority of residents as “slight,” noting that, “there was no general suspension of business…no prolific display of fire-works on the streets.”
It was not until 1945, amid the patriotic fervor that arose as World War Two drew to a victorious close, that Vicksburg again officially celebrated Independence Day. But even then, the memories of 1863 still colored the observance.
“They started celebrating again,” historian Gordon Cotton says. “But they didn’t call it the Fourth of July or Independence Day. They called it the Carnival of the Confederacy.” And even that didn’t last. After a couple of years, Vicksburg lapsed back into its Independence Day indifference.
Even as recently as 1997, according to the Baltimore Sun article cited above, although they celebrated Memorial Day and other patriotic occasions, Vicksburg continued to show little interest in Independence Day. The article reports what a Vicksburg merchant found when she looked at the city’s calendar of events that year to see what was planned for the 4th of July. “Nothing,” she said. “Nothing special going on in Vicksburg.”
A new day in Vicksburg
But things have begun to change. As the Vicksburg Post reports, in 2013 “Tourists and locals alike crowded downtown Vicksburg…not only to celebrate the Fourth of July, but to commemorate the sesquicentennial anniversary of the end of the Siege of Vicksburg.” One aspect of the sesquicentennial observance seems particularly significant. Leading up to the Independence Day celebration, the Bonnie Blue flag of the Confederacy hung from a window in the top of the courthouse. But on the 4th of July, 150 years to the day after Vicksburg surrendered to General Grant, the Confederate flag came down and was replaced by an American flag.
It is said that time heals all wounds. In Vicksburg, it may have taken 150 years, but the healing now seems well under way
Ron Franklin is a pastor, writer, radio broadcaster and producer, computer programmer, and musician. Now the founding pastor of Covenant Community Church in Harrisburg, PA, he was an engineer and manager for high-tech companies such as IBM and EDS. He is a graduate of the University of Tennessee and Denver Theological Seminary.