Vicksburg, Gettysburg battles similar yet different


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VICKSBURG, Miss. -- Same war. Same year. Same dates. Same result. The Battle of Vicksburg was profoundly different though, in tactical terms, from Gettysburg.

The river city was what today's militarists would dub a command and control center, the Confederacy's last bastion along the entire length of the Mississippi. Forcing its surrender was a slog, starting nearly nine months earlier, but when Union troops marched into town to raise the national banner on July 4, 1863, the South was severed. Lines of supply and reinforcement via the river were gone, joining the already decimated rail and road network.

There was reason for great celebration by the victors, but it didn't happen.

"The men of the two armies fraternized as if they had been fighting for the same cause. When [the Confederates] passed out of the works they had so long and gallantly defended, not a cheer went up, not a remark was made that would give pain. I believe there was a feeling of sadness among the Union soldiers at seeing the dejection of their late antagonists." So wrote Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in describing a cessation of hostilities wrought through blood, sweat and weariness much more than flashing swords or fearless attacks.

As the battles of Vicksburg and Gettysburg were vastly different, so are the parks that honor and commemorate events of 150 years ago. The Vicksburg National Military Park was created by Congress in 1899, largely as an outgrowth of almost annual reunions of combatants.

That's right. Soldiers from the North. Soldiers from the South. They routinely met for "Blue and Gray" picnics and music and to remember those lost to war. They also formed committees -- amateur battlefield historians -- to mark campsites and lines of battle. Their records, plus those kept officially, resulted in precise preservation of almost 3 square miles of land through which 16 miles of park road trace the Union and Confederate siege lines.

The park is a silent place, with simple to lavish markers and memorials to combatants from Maine to Texas and many cities and villages in between. There's a raised and restored Union ironclad, the only one in the world -- and a cemetery, the largest anywhere for Union dead. Its 17,000 headstones get an American flag every Memorial Day.

The people of this little river city in the South suffered as much as the soldiers. The first land assaults from the north, in October 1862, failed to knock the Rebels from the high ground, the steep hills that formed a natural fortress.

The next phase was to intensify bombardment from the river. Then, in spring, Grant and company approached from the east. They made spirited assaults before deciding on May 18 to dig in. The idea was to starve the soldiers of Gen. John C. Pemberton -- a Pennsylvanian -- and the townspeople into waving the white flag and negotiate terms, which they did on July 2 and July 3 as the battle in Gettysburg was raging.

When he visited Vicksburg on July 4, 1947, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the hero of D-Day and even then a potential presidential candidate, noted some commonalities of all wars and those who fight them. Noting it was the 84th anniversary of the city's fall, he employed a theme of national unity, which fit nicely with his plea for international unity.

"The Mississippian of today is just as proud of his heritage, is rightly devoted to the welfare of his state as any of the men who defended the redoubts of Vicksburg," Eisenhower said.

"It is clear to him today that the well-being and full security of the state can be achieved only within the larger concept of national interest, which comprehends at the same time the welfare of all of the states and all of the citizens."

And his takeaway quote: "In an interdependent world, the ultimate good of any part can be attained only with full regard to its relationship with the whole."

Even today, there are many and varied narratives purporting to describe Vicksburg, specifically the ethos of a defeated community.

One portrays the town and the townspeople as prideful, resentful. This one is "proved" by the oft-spoken and completely nonfactual statement that the city hasn't and doesn't celebrate the Fourth. It's just not true.

Another distances the city from the fighting. It invokes the fact that Vicksburg was the cotton-shipping seat of Warren County and that its prosperous merchants voted with the majority against secession, lest they lose their trading partners. This conjures a war coming to Vicksburg, not Vicksburg going to war.

Most prevalent and perhaps most sad is that most residents know there was a battle or something here 150 years ago and have chosen not to learn much more. That, of course, makes the town pretty typical.

As in and near Gettysburg, many events in and near Vicksburg have been occurring to draw attention to the Civil War sesquicentennial. In this process a few more will hear about the lives of their ancestors, what they believed, what they practiced, their hardships, their principles, their heroism, their sins against humanity. That will be a good thing. For better or worse, our past informs and defines us. It just doesn't make decisions for us.

Eisenhower concluded his remarks this way: Vicksburg "was a memorable part of a great transformation that has brought America to a destiny of opportunity and responsibility that involves all -- everywhere -- who seek to live in peace, respectful of their neighbors' rights as they are jealous of their own."

Although the soon-to-be president characterized the transformation as complete, we know better. Owing to events in Gettysburg and Vicksburg and countless other times, dates and places, America remains a work in progress.

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Charlie Mitchell grew up in Vicksburg and worked more than 30 years there as a community journalist. In 2010, he was named assistant dean of the new Meek School of Journalism and New Media at the University of Mississippi. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or email cmitchell43@yahoo.com. First Published July 4, 2013 4:00 AM


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