Vicksburg or Gettysburg?

The United States defeated the Confederacy's Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg, Pa., on July 3, 1863. That same evening, Gen. John Pemberton agreed to surrender the Confederate army holding Vicksburg, Miss., to Ulysses S. Grant.

The next day, when news of both Union victories began to spread throughout the nation, was surely the most memorable Independence Day in American history after the first one. Historians have been arguing ever since over which victory was the more important one.

This July Fourth, visit whichever park is closer. If you're at Vicksburg, tell the ranger that Gettysburg was the more important victory; at Gettysburg, suggest Vicksburg. Then enjoy the result.

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Which one do you think is more important?

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The Mississippi victory may have been more telling. After Richmond, Va., the Confederate capital, Vicksburg was perhaps the most strategic single place in the South because it simultaneously blocked U.S. shipping down the Mississippi River and provided the Confederacy with its only secure link to the trans-Mississippi West. Vicksburg's capture led to the capitulation of the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi—Port Hudson, La., 130 miles south—five days later. This reopened the Mississippi River, an important benefit to farmers in its vast watershed stretching from central Pennsylvania to Northwestern Montana. Abraham Lincoln famously announced the victory: "The Father of Waters again rolls unvexed to the sea." In the wake of the victory, thousands of blacks made their way to Vicksburg to be free. No longer was slavery secure in Mississippi, Arkansas, or Louisiana. Many whites from these states and west Tennessee also now joined the Union cause.

But perhaps the Pennsylvania victory was more important. It taught the Army of the Potomac that Robert E. Lee and his forces were vincible. Freeman Cleaves, biographer of Gen. George Gordon Meade, victor at Gettysburg, quotes a former Union corps commander: "I did not believe the enemy could be whipped." The impact of the victory on Northern morale was profound, reflected in the immortal words of the Gettysburg Address.

If you go to Vicksburg on Independence Day, visit the Illinois monument—a small marble pantheon that somehow stays cool even on the hottest July day. In Gettysburg, don't miss the South Carolina monument. It claims: "Abiding faith in the sacredness of states' rights provided their creed here"—a statement true about 1965, when it went up, but false about 1863. In 1860 South Carolinians were perfectly clear about why they were seceding, and "states' rights" had nothing to do with it.

The twin victories have also influenced how Americans have celebrated the Fourth of July since 1863. Living in Mississippi a century later taught me about the muted racial politics of the Fourth of July. Blacks celebrated this holiday with big family barbecues, speeches, and public gatherings in segregated black parks. White supremacists could hardly deny blacks the occasion to hold forth in segregated settings, since blacks were only showing their patriotism. Both sides knew these gatherings had an edge, however. Black speakers identified the Union victories with the anti-slavery cause and the still-unfinished removal of the vestiges of slavery from American life. This identification was the sweeter because in the 1960s in Mississippi, die-hard Confederate loyalists, still mourning the surrender at Vicksburg, did not want to celebrate the Fourth at all.

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Popular belief says Gettysburg. Many historians say Vicksburg. Which one is it?

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Muted racial politics also underlie changes on the landscape at both locations. In 1998 Gettysburg dedicated a new statue of Confederate Gen. James Longstreet, Lee's second in command. For more than a century, neo-Confederates had held Longstreet responsible for the defeat. He did try to talk Lee out of the attack, thinking the U.S. position too strong, and his forces did take a long time getting into place. But the attack on Longstreet stemmed more from his actions after the Civil War. During Reconstruction he agreed that blacks should have full civil rights and commanded black troops against an attempted white supremacist overthrow of the interracial Republican government of Louisiana. Ironically, ideological currents set into motion by the civil rights movement help explain why the military park at Gettysburg can now honor Longstreet.

When I lived in Mississippi in the 1960s and 1970s, a state historical marker stood a few miles south of Vicksburg at Rocky Springs that read: "Upon the occupation of Willow Springs on May 3, 1863, Union Gen. J.A. McClernand sent patrols up the Jackson road. These groups . . . encountered no resistance beyond the icy stares of the people who gathered at the side of the road to watch."

Actually, the area was then and remains today overwhelmingly black. "The people," mostly blacks, supplied the patrols with food, showed them the best roads to Jackson, and told them exactly where the Confederates were. Indeed, support from the African-American infrastructure made Grant's Vicksburg campaign possible.

In about 1998, Mississippi took down this counterfactual marker. Or maybe a vigilante stole it—no one seems to know. Either way, the landscape benefits. Today at Vicksburg as well as at other sites along the river, the role blacks played in Grant's extraordinary operations against Vicksburg now get more honest treatment.

Contributing writer James W. Loewen is the author of the best-selling book, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.


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Do you think Vicksburg was a more decisive battle than Gettysburg?

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