July 4, 1863 was “Moving Day” in the American Civil War. While the battle of Gettysburg actually took place over the three-day period of July 1 through 3, culminating with the ill-fated Pickett/Pettigrew Charge against the Union forces on Cemetery Ridge, the longer term impact on the war arguably occurred the next day.
With the possible exception of April 12, 1861 (Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter) and April 9, 1865 (Robert E. Lee’s surrender of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse), no date looms as large in the military history of the American Civil War as July 4, 1863.
On that “Four Score and Seventh” (87th) anniversary of our nation’s Declaration of Independence, Lee began his retreat/escape from Gettysburg, Pa., and would cross the Potomac to the safety of Virginia. Incredibly it would take Lee 10 full days to complete his escape, during which time his opponent, General George Meade, chose not to pursue him.
Simultaneously, on July 4, arguably the greatest Union military victory of the war came to a close at Vicksburg, Miss., when Confederate General John Pemberton surrendered his army to Union General Ulysses S. Grant.
Lee’s July 4 escape from Gettysburg was the culmination of a two-month game of “cat and mouse” between Lee’s Army and the seemingly rudderless Union Army of the Potomac. After losing both his nerve and the battle of Chancellorsville, the Union’s “Fighting Joe” Hooker had more or less waited listlessly to see what Lee would do next. Lee meanwhile, recognizing the need to give his beloved Virginia soil a rest from the ravages of war, chose to invade the north for the second time in less than a year.
In the West, Grant had been searching for a way to take Vicksburg (aptly named the “Gibraltar of the West”) for many months, including repeated setbacks and failed schemes. But his brilliant breakthrough had finally succeeded, and by mid-May he had surrounded and besieged the City and the enemy troops.
So Pemberton’s July 4 surrender to Grant had been recognized as a foregone conclusion for days, if not weeks, but the Confederates hoped they would receive favorable treatment by closing the deal on Independence Day. Notably, the residents of Vicksburg chose not to celebrate America’s independence for decades to come, based on bitterness and denial about the outcome of their failed cause.
Yet, 150 years later, our national back-story more generally recognized Gettysburg as our greatest Civil War victory, in fact the so-called turning point of the Civil War, while Vicksburg is not nearly so well known, except among historians, military students, and Civil War buffs.
But President Lincoln saw the outcomes of the two battles for what they were at the time: Gettysburg a brave and desperate stand against a Confederate attack, only to be followed by yet another major command failure at the Army of the Potomac (Meade following in the footsteps of McClellan and Hooker in failing to pursue and defeat Lee); and Vicksburg as nothing less than the most important victory of the war, opening the Mississippi River, severing the Confederacy into two parts, and eliminating a significant enemy army from the field of battle. Consider the difference between the President’s letters to his two commanding generals following the battles.
To Ulysses S. Grant, dated July 13, 1863:
“My Dear General,
I do not remember that you and I ever met personally. I write this now as a grateful acknowledgment for the almost inestimable service you have done the country. I wish to say a word further… (after reciting Grant’s tactical choices and comparing them with Lincoln’s own instincts)… I now wish to make the personal acknowledgment that you were right and I was wrong.”
To George G. Meade (who had replaced Hooker as commanding general of the Army of the Potomac on June 28), dated July 14, 1863 and signed but never sent:
“Major General Meade,
I have just seen your despatch to Gen. Halleck, asking to be relieved of your command, because of a supposed censure of mine. I am very — very — grateful to you for the magnificent success you gave the cause of the country at Gettysburg; and I am sorry now to be the author of the slightest pain to you… (Lincoln then goes into a recitation of the lost opportunities and slow movements that allowed Lee’s escape)…. Again, my dear general, I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of misfortune involved in Lee’s escape. He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war. As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely. If you could not safely attack Lee last Monday, how can you possibly do so South of the river, when you take with you very few more than two thirds of the force you then had in hand? I do not expect you can now effect much. Your golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasurably because of it.
I beg you will not consider this a prosecution, or persecution of yourself. As you had learned that I was dissatisfied, I have thought it best to kindly tell you why.”
OUCH! That Lincoln didn’t actually send this letter to Meade speaks volumes to both his decency and management skill, but nonetheless reflects his own accurate assessment of the strategic situation in the wake of three days of unprecedented bravery, sacrifice and bloodshed at Gettysburg.
On Nov. 19, Lincoln consecrated a narrow and costly Union victory with 272 immortal words about a “new birth of freedom” and government “of the people, by the people and for the people.”
But at the same time, the Army of the Potomac lingered again, until the following Spring it was again on the offensive, still commanded by General Meade, but this time under the watchful and aggressive eye of newly appointed General of all Union Armies, Ulysses S. Grant.
Patrick Teegarden, a legislative liaison for a governmental department, is an award-winning columnist for The Colorado Statesman. He has been writing about the Civil War during its 150th anniversary. He can be reached at Patrick@coloradostatesman.com.