My bête noir in the Archives reading room is a great soul who on occasion graces me with a sniff and slight curl of his lip when I tell him what I’m researching, indicating that my efforts are mere puppy-dribble in the field of serious scholarship, and I should go home and not bother the genealogists. “Oh, I’ve been hearing that since I was a child,” he said when I asked about Vicksburg not celebrating the Fourth of July after surrendering to Grant until “surrendering” to Eisenhower some ninety years later.
What he meant was that the purported myth is antediluvian chestnut, overworked, overdone and uninteresting. I on the other hand found it intriguing not for the supreme irony of Vicksburg, a city in rebellion against the United States surrendering on that nation’s Day of Independence from Great Britain, but because the situation offers some insight into Southern patriotism. When did patriotism become reestablished in Southern culture? How long was it after the Civil War and Reconstruction that Southerners came to identify with, support and yes perhaps even love the United States of America?
The fact is that Vicksburg did surrender to Grant on July 4, 1863. The city’s citizens and defenders were simply exhausted to the point of desperation by a siege that had lasted forty-seven days, and Pemberton, commanding general of the Confederate forces—himself a native of Pennsylvania—hoped for sympathetic terms from Grant by surrendering on Independence Day (Grant paroled the captured military, not because of the date, but because he never imagined in their dejected state that any would ever fight again; some, however, did). Thereafter for eighty-two years, until July 4, 1945, a scarce two months after Allied troops under Eisenhower accepted the surrender of the Axis forces in Europe, the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi held no public observance of Independence Day, and even then there were cries of “Sacrilege!” from older residents, and by all accounts the celebration was a muted affair. The following year some attempt was made to make the July 4th celebration more overt, but even then opposition was offered by those who clung to the memory of that summer morning in 1863 when the hungry, weary city garrison of 30,000 laid down its arms and the city silently watched as Grant’s Army of the Tennessee occupied a city draped not in bunting but in mourning.
Two years later in 1947 quite a different situation presented when General Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe and current chief of staff of the U.S. Army, accepted invitations from Senator James Eastland, Representative John Bell Williams and Governor Fielding Wright of Mississippi to make the Fourth of July address in Vicksburg. It’s conceivable that Eastland, Fielding and Wright extended the invitation in hopes of luring Eisenhower to run on the Democratic ticket, though it’s more likely that the three simply intended to make political hay out of the general’s visit. Ike, on the other hand, a committed scholar of military history, was eager to see the military park, which for the record had been established in 1899.
To be sure, Ike had likely been apprised of the holiday’s history in the city, but he was also already treading political waters. Later that month, on July 11, President Truman offered to run as Ike’s running mate on the Democratic ticket if Douglas MacArthur won the Republican nomination, but Eisenhower was still struggling to stay above politics, as had William T. Sherman had upon learning that he was being considered as a possible Republican candidate for the presidential election of 1884. (Sherman declined, saying, “I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected.”) Eisenhower had not announced any party affiliation and cited Army regulation 600-10.18.i forbidding partisan political activity by serving officers. Eisenhower eventually defeated Robert Taft for the Republication nomination in 1952 and won in a landslide that excluded the Solid South. His running-mate Richard Nixon was to flip that thirty years later.
It must be said that Southern patriotism was certainly well-established long before Ike came to Vicksburg in 1947. Florence King states that the rest of the nation was surprised at the numbers of Southerners who flocked to recruiting stations during the Spanish-American War (1898), but then Havana is on our doorstep, as was dramatically brought back home in October, 1962. Spanish-American vet Teddy Roosevelt—whose mother was a Georgia belle—built the biggest navy in the world and expanded U.S. influence over the globe, and the South was a strong participant in the various chauvinistic, jingoistic isolationist movements that swept the country in the periods leading up to the two world wars. But it wasn’t until after the Allied victory in World War II, and the return of Southern G.I.s from far-flung corners of the earth, that patriotism became solidly entrenched in the Southern Zeitgeist. Vicksburg’s surrender to Eisenhower stands as a watershed for that mindset, which is still solidly entrenched today.
So it was that on July 4, 1947, the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi, instead of laying down its arms, opened them for another U.S. general. An estimated 50,000 people attended the festivities, which included picnic lunches spread in public parks, plenty of florid speeches, miles of bunting and fireworks over the broad waters of the Mississippi River. The celebration also included a solemn noon-day salute to honor the memory of the Confederate casualties of the siege; the city had forgiven, but not forgotten.