Anyone who knows me knows how much I love history. My passion for the past is a result of my father’s particular love of the Civil War. I recall my first trip to Getttysburg as a child because my dad wanted us to experience what that battle had been about.
A family car trip ensued during the hot month of July. A stop at every cannon and battlefield marker in the intense heat could not dampen his enthusiasm, nor to my surprise my own budding appreciation for what transpired there nearly 100 years before.
Now, 150 years after the battle, I have visited that site many times, but it is not Gettysburg I want to write about, but rather another battle that took place at the same time – the siege of Vicksburg. Under appreciated and less well known, the siege of Vicksburg was a tremendous victory for the North, resulting in the surrender of nearly 30,000 Confederate forces to Ulysses Grant on the 4th of July, the day after Gettysburg ended. The southern commander, General John Pemberton, knew the terms of surrender could not be more advantageous to him than on the 4th. A Northerner by birth, he knew Grant would be generous on the holiday. The city of Vicksburg, Mississippi would not celebrate it again for 80 years.
The result of Gettysburg was that Lee never again ventured North in a serious attempt to fight the Union on its own soil. The result of the fall of Vicksburg (and the subsequent fall of Port Hudson several days later) was the North’s ability to take complete control of the Mississippi River, cutting off Confederate forces in the west from reinforcing General Lee in the east. The Confederate army under Pemberton surrendered to Grant, while Lee’s army limped away escaping capture from General Meade to fight another day and prolonging the war. It was one of the reasons why Lincoln chose Grant over Meade to command the entire Union army. Grant was promoted to Lieutenant General – the first officer to attain that designation since Washington.
From Gettysburg we traveled to Washington, DC and from there to Williamsburg, Virginia. Both cities were equally hot that 4th of July weekend. It is interesting to note how July 4th was such a crucial date in our country’s founding as well as it’s rebirth. Again my father, a photography buff, insisted that we stop at every monument in DC and gather around every colonial re-enactor in Williamsburg to have our pictures taken. We grumpily acquiesced, wishing only to get out of the heat and into air conditioning.
My father passed away June 17th. He didn’t quite make it to the 4th or his 81st birthday a few weeks later, but I still have the slides from our family’s trek – grumpy, hot faces, staring into the camera with a look that demands air conditioning. I plan to view them over and over again as a reminder – not of the heat – but of my love of history, and the father who instilled in me that love.