Monday, July 1, 2013

A New Birth of Freedom

Battle of Gettysburg from Harper's WeeklyAs the nation prepares to celebrate Independence Day, Americans also commemorate the 150th anniversary of the two key turning points of the Civil War - Gettysburg and Vicksburg.  Lee had planned his second invasion of the North to be a "Yorktown" for the Confederacy's war for independence.  Striking a major blow in Pennsylvania and possibly capturing its capital would have sent shock waves in the North and may have forced Lincoln to negotiate, possibly even accept compromise.  However, Lee's plans were thwarted at Gettysburg and those final charges from Seminary Ridge on July 3rd represented the "high tide of the Confederacy," the subtitle of historian Carl Smith's book on the battle.  Never again would Lee command such a force and never again would he have such an opportunity to win the war making the secession of the southern states permanent.  The losses at Gettysburg were staggering with casualty numbers approaching 50,000 lives.  While devastating to both sides, the Confederacy had more to lose.

Though Gettysburg remains the more famous of the two turning points, especially because of Lincoln's immortal address there four months later, the capture of Vicksburg also on July 4th, 1863 is just as significant in turning the tide in favor of the Union in the Civil War.  Vicksburg was the Confederacy's last stronghold on the Mississippi and after months of a difficult siege, General John C. Pemberton saw no other option but to surrender the city to Ulysses S. Grant.  With this capture, the Union now firmly controlled the Mississippi River, surrounding the Confederacy and literally starving it into eventual surrender as control of the waterway severed the cattle supply from Texas.  As Lincoln later remarked, "the Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea" undoubtably noting the importance of the river to the commerce of the entire region (Goodwin, Team of Rivals, 2005).Surrender of Pemberton to Grant

These two Confederate losses culminating on such an important day of heritage for both sides delivered a crushing blow to southern morale and effectively doomed any realistic hope for southern independence.  More importantly however, these two federal victories brought about a change in Union tactics that would ultimately lead to victory, a victory that secured a "new birth of freedom," the ending of slavery, and proved that our republican form of government would "not perish from the earth."

A century and a half later, Americans are learning about these key events in a variety of ways.  On Twitter, I followed a lecture delivered at Gettysburg by my former Civil War professor, Dr. Aaron Sheehan-Dean now of the University of West Virginia.  I shared several quotes from his lecture with my followers this past weekend.  With the advent of the History Channel, social media and other sites, more Americans are easily able to engage in history and examine artifacts that a few decades ago were only accessible to a small number of historians.  This makes for a very exciting anniversary and one in which ordinary Americans can gain a better appreciation for the consequential decisions of the Civil War that brought the nation from the brink of schism and on a path of dramatic growth in the years to follow.


Twitter hashtags: #CW150 #Gettysburg150 #Vicksburg150

Recommended to follow: @prologuepast, @gettysburgNMP, @SmithsonianCW, @CWTrust150

Technology on the Gettysburg battlefield

A Cutting Edge Second Look at the Battle of Gettysburg

Photographs of the Civil War from the Library of Congress

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