The Fourth of July during the American Civil War

In the United States, the Fourth of July is another name for Independence Day, a time to celebrate our freedom.  But during the American Civil War, two separate events took place on that same day would lead to the end of the conflict between the Union and the Confederate States.

In early 1861, with war on the horizon, President Abraham Lincoln ordered his general-in-chief, General Winfield Scott, to begin building an army and training the recruits to fight.  Not long after the outbreak of hostilities, however, Scott’s health and political pressure forced the career officer to resign from his position.

After Scott’s retirement, Lincoln spent most of the war looking for the man who could end it.  Scott had recommended a replacement, a career officer and West Point graduate named Robert E. Lee (pictured).  Lee was torn between his belief in the Union and his loyalty to his home state of Virginia.  In the end, loyalty won and Lee became the commanding general of the Confederate army.


During the war, Lee would lead the South from one victory to another, until finally his run of luck turned.  After defeats at Antietam and Chancelorsville, where he lost his best commander, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, the war began to take a turn in favor of the Union.

For the second time during the war, Lee attempted to take the war into the North, to let them see the kind of destruction that was being done to women and children in the South.  He marched his army up along the western side of the Appalachian Mountains and headed into Pennsylvania.  Little did he know that his source of intelligence, cavalryman JEB Stuart, had been cut off by a Union army that was shadowing Lee along the eastern side of the mountains.

Lee’s army crossed into Pennsylvania in late June.  A few days later, they encountered Union forces near a small market town called Gettysburg.  After three days of fighting, the single bloodiest battle ever fought on American soil, Lee’s army retreated on July 4, 1863.


Meanwhile, in the Western Theatre of the Civil War, the siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi, was drawing to a close.  Admiral David Farragut and his fleet had fought their way up the Mississippi River in an attempt to open it for the Union from St. Louis, Missouri to the Gulf of Mexico.  The one town that had refused to fall to his bombardment had been Vicksburg.  Farragut’s ships were unable to overcome the high bluffs that protected the city from the river.  Control of the Mississippi River was crucial.  The only way the Union could gain control was for Vicksburg to fall.

While Robert E. Lee was retreating from Gettysburg, the city of Vicksburg was surrendering to a Union general named Ulysses S. Grant (pictured).  Grant was yet another West Point graduate, but without the stellar reputation of Robert E. Lee.  While Lee was seen as a gentleman and respected officer, Grant was criticized by his colleagues for riding about camp in his shirt sleeves and reeking of alcohol.

On May 19, 1863, Grant and his troops laid siege to Vicksburg.  The town did not go quietly.  For nearly two months, the city was bombarded from all sides.  All commerce to the city was cut off.  Local citizens still tell stories of people who lived in caves to escape the shelling, and point to cannon balls still lodged in the walls of many of the older homes.  The surrender of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863, resulted in the holiday being banned in the city for many years.

The surrender at Vicksburg drew the attention of Lincoln to Grant – he had finally found his man.  Grant brought together several generals and formulated his own plan for bringing down the Confederacy and ending the war.  Phillip Sheridan would push through the Shenandoah Valley while William Sherman marched across Georgia and the Carolinas.  The plan worked.  Within a year, Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia.  The war was officially over.

Kat Smutz

To learn more about the American Civil War, read The American Civil War: History In An Hour by Kat Smutz, published by Harper Press and available in various digital formats and audio.

See also article on the Gettysburg Address.

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