July 4th marks America's Independence Day, and let me tell you, we love that day. Freedom from tyranny, plus BBQs, and fireworks galore, what's not to love?
But even after 1776, the date has been significant in our history, most notably in 1863 in the midst of the American Civil War. I think it's safe to assume that even most non-Americans have heard of the Battle of Gettysburg. It was a three-day bloodfest (it's the deadliest fight in the history of the Western Hemisphere), and the Confederate Army (for non-Americans: the southerners who were defending slavery) finally surrendered on July 4.
But less-well known even amongst Americans was the other decisive surrender on that exact same day, 1,000 miles southwest of that field in Pennsylvania.
Down in the western theater of the war, Ulysses Grant had been working towards securing the waterways for the Union (not only to ensure the Confederates did not have access, but also to restore trade because the Confederates had used the rivers to blockade Union trade). By early 1863, the Mississippi River was under complete control of the North except for...Vicksburg. Grant tried to take the city by battle but was unable to do so, so he regrouped and began a six-week siege on the city. Vicksburg finally surrendered....on July 4. This was incredibly important because it meant that that the Union now had complete control over the Mississippi River, and had effectively split the Confederacy in half. It also so impressed President Lincoln that he soon made Grant the General of the entire Union Army.
The American Civil War has always been one of my "favorite" wars to study (I use quotation marks only because it seems a bit tactless to say that I enjoy learning about a human tragedy on such a huge scale). It is also a war that is still very much felt in American culture today, despite the fact that it happened more than 150 years ago. There is no other equivalent in our history.
It was also an incredibly deadly war that killed 2% of the entire country's population. Not just the military, the whole population. More Americans died in it than in every other American war combined until halfway through Vietnam. Back in college/university, I even wrote a paper on the impact of this scale of death on the American psyche.
Due to this interest, I have always liked visiting Civil War battle sites. Like all Civil War battle sites (I think anyways, correct me if I'm wrong in the comments please), Vicksburg is run by the National Park System, as a National Military Park. There is a well done visitor's center that explains the town before, during, and after the war, and, of course, a detailed explanation of the siege itself.
Most Civil War sites have a theme: a well done visitor center/museum, cannons everywhere, picketed-fences, earthworks, monuments (everywhere, monuments), all of which can be seen from the little ring road that they've made for your car. At Vicksburg, it took us about an hour to drive the road with the various stops.
The day that we went to the site was a foggy, foggy day in early February. I would say that it wasn't the best weather to visit but you know what, it actually was. Nearly 5,000 people died here, I'm glad that it was a gloomy winter's day. Fog, dead trees, brown grass, it was perfect for the solemnity of the location.
As we drove past the various monuments, we stopped and looked at any that had interesting designs. And the one pictured, which isn't that interesting to look at but is dedicated to the soldiers from Minnesota. There were placards and pull-outs along the way, so that you will understand what it is you're looking at.
From a unique standpoint, one thing that Vicksburg has that I have never seen at any other Civil War site was an ironclad ship (see photo at right). The 19th century saw the transition between wooden and iron ships, and the American Civil War was the first major conflict that saw the use of these new ships. At Vicksburg, they have one of these early iron ships (The USS Cairo). I was with my mother for this trip, and upon realizing she was going to see an ironside she about lost her mind. They are a really cool thing to see, especially because these ships were quite flat in order for them to have been river weapons. The Cairo itself was sunk in the Mississippi River in 1862. As she sank, she settled into/was buried by the Mississippi mud and silt, which protected her from severe deterioration. The result of this was that by the time it was rediscovered 95 years later, it had been preserved to a damn good degree.
We left the park after about two hours (spent between the visitor center, driving around, and looking at the ship). We drove through Vicksburg itself, but due to time constraints were unable to stop at any of the other Civil War sites in town. But we did see this sign, anyways. Ah, the Bible Belt.
And to bring it full-circle back to the 4th of July, Vicksburg did not celebrate the holiday until World War Two, eighty years later.