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Today is October 30, 2020

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Seventy years without a Fourth of July

Seventy years without a Fourth of July

The clock tower at the Old Courthouse in Vicksburg would have made a great target for Union guns during the siege, if Union prisoners had not been housed in the courtroom below. If not for that, we may not have the Old Courthouse Museum today. Photo: Walt Grayson

    For 70 or so years after the surrender of Vicksburg to the Union army on the Fourth of July, 1863 (150 years ago this year), Independence Day wasn’t celebrated in Vicksburg.
    There were no fireworks, no picnics, no days off work. The post office didn’t even close on the Fourth of July in Vicksburg for decades.
    All of that indifference was in deference to the fact that July 4 was the day Gen. Pemberton of the South chose to surrender the city to Gen. Grant of the North.
    Grant took aim on Vicksburg early in the war. Lincoln had declared Vicksburg to be the key to winning and said whoever had the key in their pocket would come out on top. So Grant set out to get that key.
    In April of 1862, a full year before he crossed the Mississippi River at Bruinsburg, heading his army eventually to the doorsteps of Vicksburg, Grant won the Battle of Shiloh in southern Tennessee just north of Corinth, Mississippi. His aim was to cut the rail lines between Memphis and the east foremost, but also to start clearing a path toward Vicksburg.
    That path clearing and maneuvering took Grant’s army all over the Delta’s waterways during the winter of 1862 into 1863, trying to find a way to get to the city.
    Most disastrous of the attempts was Gen. Sherman’s landing on the Yazoo River above town and marching his army across the flooded lower Delta to the bluffs above Chickasaw Bayou just after Christmas of 1862. Sherman lost the battle. But his loss set the resolve of the Union just that more to take the city.
    After months of failures, the final plan was to march down the Louisiana side of the river, cross somewhere below Vicksburg and come back up on the east side of town, bypassing the impregnable high bluffs protecting Vicksburg from the river to the west.
    After coming ashore at Bruinsburg (which no longer exists) on April 30, 1863, Grant’s army fought battles at Port Gibson, Raymond, Jackson, Champion Hill (between Bolton and Edwards), the Big Black River and finally Vicksburg.
    There were two attempts made to storm the city. Both attempts to crash through the Confederate lines failed. So Grant surrounded Vicksburg and starved it out. It took 47 days for the town to be completely void of food and to give up, but the inevitable finally happened.
    Pemberton took advantage of the fact that Independence Day was upon them. He chose that day to hand over the city thinking he’d get better surrender terms on the holiday from the Union army. I guess he did: The Southern army was paroled and not taken captive. And the Union army shared their food with the starving people of Vicksburg.
    But the Fourth of July holiday was not celebrated in Vicksburg any more until after the Allies won World War II. Some big-name politicians came down from Washington for a few years and gave speeches on the Fourth. Dwight Eisenhower was the last of them in the late 1940s.
    The celebration died down again and never really revived to levels approaching what it is today—until the nation’s Bicentennial in 1976. From about that time on, Vicksburg rejoined the Union in celebrating Independence Day to the point it is once again useless to try to buy stamps at the post office on the Fourth.
    Thanks to Gordon Cotton, of the Old Courthouse Museum in Vicksburg, for the yarns from which this tale was woven.

    Walt Grayson is the host of “Mississippi Roads” on Mississippi Public Broadcasting television, and the author of two “Looking Around Mississippi” books and “Oh! That Reminds Me: More Mississippi Homegrown Stories.” Contact Grayson at walt@waltgrayson.com.

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