Anthony Hodges is a board member of the Friends of Chickamauga-Chattanooga NMP.
For the majority of Southerners who associated themselves with the Confederate States of America in the 1860s, the Fourth of July presented a paradox.
They were citizens of a new nation, and this was a holiday that celebrated the birth of the nation they were fighting to separate themselves from. Should this day of celebration be forgotten in favor of more Southern holidays?
Some residents of the Confederate States certainly felt that way. One soldier wrote in his diary on July 4, 1861, “Once the Sons of the South hailed its coming with joy, but now we heed it not, as the United States are no more.”
Another advocate of this position was Chattanooga’s wartime Confederate newspaper, the Chattanooga Daily Rebel. In a July 1863 editorial, the newspaper heaped scorn on both the holiday and the North: “The Congress that convened in old Independence Hall passed the great declaration on the 4th of July 1776. The Congress which met in the capitol in Washington, and passed all the odious measures of this war — its bills of confiscation [and] its bills of abolition [and] its bloody schemes first of subjugation and then of extermination — came together on the 4th of July 1861. Compare the two historical notes ... [the 4th of July’s] bloom has faded away and the traces that used to inspire us are all gone. ... We are sad to feel we cannot lift it up out of its prostituted state.”
However, not all residents of the new Southern nation were ready to cut ties with the holiday. In diaries, letters, speeches and newspapers, many Southerners agreed that the Confederacy had a strong claim to the holiday based on what they saw as similarities between 1776 and 1861.
In an editorial, counter to the opinion of Chattanooga’s Rebel, a Louisiana newspaper opined: “The Yankees have robbed us of too much already. We have no idea of giving up the national holiday — not a bit of it. The Fourth of July is ours. The Declaration of Independence declared and reiterated the doctrine for which we are today fighting. It was drafted by a Southern man and advocated by Washington and a host of other Southern heroes.”
No matter which side of the debate members of the Confederate generation agreed with, it is apparent today that the Fourth of July 1863 was the major turning point in the life of their infant nation. Some of them realized it immediately, for others it required hindsight of months or years.
The silence was ominous for residents of Vicksburg, Miss. For 47 days there had been the constant boom of cannon and incessant roar of musketry. The residents had been forced to flee their homes and live in caves they dug in the dirt of the Vicksburg hillsides. Food had become so scarce some of the city’s residents and defenders had to subsist on fried rat and parched peas.
Everyone realized the silence on this Fourth meant surrender after so much sacrifice.
Gen. Pemberton, who defended the city, felt he could get better terms by surrendering on the “national holiday.” Most defenders and residents preferred to fight on rather than give the Yankees the satisfaction of surrendering on Independence Day.
A thousand miles away, in the Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg, it was silent also. However, for the Pennsylvanians, the silence was cause for celebration. It meant Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia was retreating from the town after three days of bloody conflict. The silence was replaced by cheers when Gettysburg’s residents and defenders realized their victory.
In Chattanooga, Gen. Braxton Bragg arrived at the head of his retreating army. Most residents had left the city by then. Very few had any faith in Bragg being able to defend Chattanooga and morale was at a low point with so much of Tennessee given up without a fight. It is probable the editor of the Rebel was the only Chattanoogan to notice the holiday.
After 1865, most Southerners eventually celebrated the Fourth. For some that occurred quickly; for others it would take time. When the old Confederate soldiers met in reunion for the first time in 1890, they chose Chattanooga, and they included the Fourth of July as a meeting date with the stated purpose of showing that they were loyal Americans.
For Vicksburg’s citizens, it would take longer. Not until 1944, with Mississippi’s sons fighting for the United States across the globe, would the river city again celebrate the Fourth.
For more information, visit chattahistoricalassoc.org.