Editor’s Note: I am having a lot of fun editing and compiling all these old articles. I hope you are enjoying the process.
The following excerpt fomes from Paul Quigley’s book Shifting Grounds: Nationalism & the American South, 1848-1865:
“White Southerners marked the Fourth of July, 1848, as they had for decades, by coming together in cities, towns, and rural communities to commemorate the American Revolution. They picnicked, they paraded, they listened to speeches. Above all, they congratulated themselves on being principal members of what was surely the greatest country under the heavens: the United States of America. Although 1848 marked the beginning of what we have come to call the Civil War era, white southerners celebration of the Fourth of July that year suggest they were little aware of the fact.”
I reviewed the book here last month.
In 1848, the South was an enthusiastic participant in the patriotic cult of American Nationalism. There was growing sectional tension, but little sign of the storm ahead. There was a small and growing disaffected minority in South Carolina, but overall, the vast majority of White Southerners considered themselves American patriots including Jefferson Davis and most of the other future leaders of the Confederacy.
Then along came the 1850s which was a decade of intense sectional polarization: the Compromise of 1850, the demise of the Whigs, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Bleeding Kansas, the rise of the Republican Party, the Dred Scott decision, the John Brown raid at Harper’s Ferry, the splitting of the Democratic Party and the culmination of it all in the triumph of “Black Republicanism” in Lincoln’s election.
In hindsight, it is easy to forget that the John McCains and Mitt Romneys of that day – war heroes with no principles like Gen. Zachary Taylor, or milquetoast doughfaces like Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan – presided over America during that polarizing decade. These presidents are barely remembered because they were more or less figureheads of Southern dominance within the Union which was waning as the demographic balance of power shifted toward the North.
The overt act that brought about disunion was the John Brown raid on Harper’s Ferry. After John Brown, there was no turning back in South Carolina. Disunion went viral in the reaction to that event in the Lower South which took on an unstoppable momentum.
The celebration of July the 4th evolved after secession and the formation of the Confederacy:
“For instance, secessionists were more likely to venerate the Constitution — comparatively friendly toward slavery — than the Declaration. But even the Declaration could be remembered in particular ways that bolstered secessionists’ agenda. Thus they minimized the document’s second paragraph, with its troublesome phrases about equality and natural rights; the Virginia secessionist Edmund Ruffin described “the indefensible passage in the Declaration of Independence” as “both false & foolish.” Secessionists preferred — for obvious reasons — to remember the Declaration as a cool, political act of separation founded on the principle of self-government: “more a separation of States,” as one Charleston orator put it in 1859, “than a social and political revolution.” Southern secession from the Union would re-enact the colonists’ secession from the British Empire decades before. ..
Across the South that July, the question of how the Fourth ought to be celebrated — if at all — remained unsettled. Members of Charleston’s ’76 Association were not the only ones who were ambivalent. This remained true throughout the war. Celebrations were muted, as one would expect, by the distractions and pressures of the conflict. One young Louisiana woman forgot all about the Fourth until she wrote the date, July 4, 1862, in her diary. And anyway, she noted, “we have no time now to celebrate the birthday of a liberty which we had nearly lost and are now struggling so hard to maintain.” Many others forgot the holiday entirely. Although many white Southerners continued to claim the legacy of the Fourth, on the whole their efforts were half-hearted and sporadic, symbolizing a general confusion about the place of American history in the Confederacy.”
The meaning of July the 4th was transformed in the South under the Confederacy. There was a great ambivalence about whether to celebrate the holiday, but for the most part, it was still remembered as a great assertion of states’ rights and a struggle for self government by our forefathers shorn of all the Northern ideological baggage about universalism and equality. The Confederacy sought to create a Patrician Republic more congenial to the culture of the Cavalier.
“In 1865, Northern claims to ownership of the American nation — including the Fourth of July — prevailed. For the moment, at least, white Southerners relinquished control of the Fourth. In Columbia, S.C., Emma LeConte reported in her diary, “The white people shut themselves within doors and the darkies had the day to themselves — they and the Yankees.” What was being celebrated that day was the triumph not just of the Union military but also of the interpretation of Independence Day that white Southerners had strived to resist. The sight of former slaves openly celebrating the Fourth signified a fundamental transformation in the meaning of the holiday. This became especially clear when the Emancipation Proclamation was read out alongside the Declaration — dual symbols, in this newly triumphant version of Independence Day, of the radical ideals of the American revolution.
…Tensions between region and nation long persisted, of course, and well into the 20th century some white Southerners refused to celebrate the Fourth, seeing it as a Yankee holiday. But beginning after the war, and certainly in our own time, white Southerners have mostly had to worry about which fireworks display to attend or whether they can manage one last hot dog — not, as they once did, about whether they should be celebrating the Fourth at all.”
The darkest day in the history of the celebration of July the 4th in the South was unquestionably July 4, 1865 when free blacks and Yankee soldiers paraded through the ruins of cities like Charleston and Atlanta and the Emancipation Proclamation was read aloud alongside the Declaration of Independence in front of mobs of starving White people. There will be more on that in future articles.
For obvious reasons, July the 4th was most bitterly remembered in Vicksburg, which didn’t celebrate the holiday for 70 years:
“For 70 or so years after the surrender of Vicksburg to the Union army on the Fourth of July, 1863 (150 years ago this year), Independence Day wasn’t celebrated in Vicksburg.
There were no fireworks, no picnics, no days off work. The post office didn’t even close on the Fourth of July in Vicksburg for decades.
All of that indifference was in deference to the fact that July 4 was the day Gen. Pemberton of the South chose to surrender the city to Gen. Grant of the North.
Grant took aim on Vicksburg early in the war. Lincoln had declared Vicksburg to be the key to winning and said whoever had the key in their pocket would come out on top. So Grant set out to get that key.
In April of 1862, a full year before he crossed the Mississippi River at Bruinsburg, heading his army eventually to the doorsteps of Vicksburg, Grant won the Battle of Shiloh in southern Tennessee just north of Corinth, Mississippi. His aim was to cut the rail lines between Memphis and the east foremost, but also to start clearing a path toward Vicksburg.
That path clearing and maneuvering took Grant’s army all over the Delta’s waterways during the winter of 1862 into 1863, trying to find a way to get to the city.
Most disastrous of the attempts was Gen. Sherman’s landing on the Yazoo River above town and marching his army across the flooded lower Delta to the bluffs above Chickasaw Bayou just after Christmas of 1862. Sherman lost the battle. But his loss set the resolve of the Union just that more to take the city.
After months of failures, the final plan was to march down the Louisiana side of the river, cross somewhere below Vicksburg and come back up on the east side of town, bypassing the impregnable high bluffs protecting Vicksburg from the river to the west.
After coming ashore at Bruinsburg (which no longer exists) on April 30, 1863, Grant’s army fought battles at Port Gibson, Raymond, Jackson, Champion Hill (between Bolton and Edwards), the Big Black River and finally Vicksburg.
There were two attempts made to storm the city. Both attempts to crash through the Confederate lines failed. So Grant surrounded Vicksburg and starved it out. It took 47 days for the town to be completely void of food and to give up, but the inevitable finally happened.
Pemberton took advantage of the fact that Independence Day was upon them. He chose that day to hand over the city thinking he’d get better surrender terms on the holiday from the Union army. I guess he did: The Southern army was paroled and not taken captive. And the Union army shared their food with the starving people of Vicksburg.
But the Fourth of July holiday was not celebrated in Vicksburg any more until after the Allies won World War II. Some big-name politicians came down from Washington for a few years and gave speeches on the Fourth. Dwight Eisenhower was the last of them in the late 1940s.
The celebration died down again and never really revived to levels approaching what it is today—until the nation’s Bicentennial in 1976. From about that time on, Vicksburg rejoined the Union in celebrating Independence Day to the point it is once again useless to try to buy stamps at the post office on the Fourth.
It wasn’t until well into the 20th century that July the 4th came to be celebrated in the South as it has been in recent decades. Many Southerners never celebrated July the 4th again after the scenes of that day in 1865. It was considered a Yankee holiday or a black holiday.
The moral of the story: the cult of American Nationalism collapsed in the South in the span of a decade as a result of Yankees antagonizing the South over slavery, the celebration of July 4th was transformed under the Confederacy and it didn’t really recover its present meaning in Dixie until after World War II. The experience of the World Wars in the 20th century had a unifying effect that depolarized the country for a time, but the old fault lines are still there and as active as ever.
Personally, I think the Union is more divided in our times than it was in the 1850s because even back then while Northerners and Southerners were divided over slavery there was still a strong basis for reunion in a shared history, a shared ethnic background and a shared religion.
Note: For more on the state of Southern patriotism under Reconstruction, check out Southern History Series: Swallowing the Dog.