July 3, 2013
Fourth of July 1863

by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer

This week we once again mark the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. During that long-ago summer in Philadelphia, 56 men signed the Declaration and, “with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence,” they mutually pledged to each other “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”

That was no empty gesture. By the time the Declaration was signed, the war for independence had been going on for more than a year, and it was not going well for the Americans. The Continental Army under George Washington had suffered defeat after defeat at the hands of the powerful, professional British army.

We take it as a matter of faith now that the Americans went on to win the war, but in 1776, victory wasn’t just uncertain; it seemed unlikely. That summer, with national morale low, Congress voted to declare independence. The announcement of the Declaration had an electrifying effect on the people and on the army.

It would be overstating things to say that the Declaration turned the tide of the war, but as historian David McCullough wrote: “At a stroke the Continental Congress had made the Glorious Cause of America more glorious still, for all the world to know, and also to give every citizen soldier at this critical juncture something still larger and more compelling for which to fight.”

Since 1776, our nation has now seen the sun rise on the Fourth of July 237 times. The day has dawned during good times and bad, but this year marks the 150th anniversary of perhaps the most momentous Fourth of July since the very first one.

The year was 1863, and America was in the midst of its darkest hour – the Civil War. Just as the summer of 1776 had been a time of despair for the colonials, the summer of 1863 offered little hope for a nation beleaguered by what was already a long and bloody conflict.

Up to that point, the South had won every major battle of the war, and President Lincoln’s great hope of preserving the union and ending slavery seemed to be slipping away. But then two events occurred that changed everything.

The first took place in a small Pennsylvania town, where the Union Army met the Confederates in the Battle of Gettysburg. It was not a planned confrontation; Gettysburg had no great strategic value to either side. But the massive three-day battle that took place there changed the course of the war.

On the fourth morning, the defeated Southern Army under General Robert E. Lee moved out of Gettysburg. It was the beginning of the end for the Confederacy; after Gettysburg, they would never win another major battle. The date was July 4, 1863.

Out west, another battle was taking place, at the Mississippi River town of Vicksburg. The Northern forces, under Major General Ulysses S. Grant, had surrounded the city. After a siege that lasted more than forty days, Grant’s troops broke through the fortifications and took the city.

The victory gave the Union control of the Mississippi River for the remainder of the war. President Lincoln announced, “The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea.” Vicksburg surrendered to General Grant early on the morning of July 4, 1863.

As word of the twin Fourth of July victories reached the nation’s capital (the news of Vicksburg arrived July 7) spontaneous celebrations broke out around the city, and President Lincoln was compelled to give an impromptu speech.

As he appeared before the crowd outside the White House, Lincoln began by thanking “Almighty God for the occasion.” Lincoln clearly saw it as significant that both victories had come on the Fourth.

“How long ago is it? Eighty odd years since, upon the Fourth day of July, for the first time in the world, a union body of representatives was assembled to declare as a self-evident truth that all men were created equal. That was the birthday of the United States of America. Since then the Fourth day of July has had several very peculiar recognitions.”

Then he mused on another remarkable aspect of the Fourth of July: that Thomas Jefferson and John Adams had both died on July 4, 1826, 50 years after signing the Declaration.

“The two most distinguished men who framed and supported” the Declaration, Lincoln said, “Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, the one having framed it, and the other sustained it most ably in debate, the only two of the ... fifty-six who signed it ... who were ever President of the United States, precisely fifty years after they put their hands to that paper it pleased the Almighty God to take away from this stage of action on the Fourth of July. This extraordinary coincidence we can understand to be a dispensation of the Almighty Ruler of Events.

“And now on this Fourth of July just past, when a gigantic rebellion has risen in the land, precisely at the bottom of which is an effort to overthrow that principle ‘that all men are created equal,’ we have a surrender of one of their most ... powerful armies forced upon them on that very day.”

To the delight of the crowd, Lincoln finished by saying that after three bitter days of battle at Gettysburg, on the Fourth, “the enemies of the declaration that all men are created equal had to turn tail and run.”

That speech – unplanned and unpolished – planted the seeds for the far-more famous address Lincoln would give four months later at Gettysburg, with its immortal opening line – “Four score and seven years ago…”

Those words were not just used as a poetic flourish. They referred to the 87 years since the signing of the Declaration of Independence – with its message that “all men are created equal” – and Lincoln made it clear that it was time we lived up to the promise of equality.

That Fourth of July, 150 years ago, didn’t just change the course of the Civil War, it changed our nation’s history.

Happy Fourth of July everyone.