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All American History Pivots On Events Of Our Civil War

We Americans celebrate several important anniversaries and commemorate a number of others, most recently the 60th anniversary of V-E Day. But a significant date went by last month with very little notice, in the press or otherwise. April 9 marked 140 years since Robert E. Lee, commanding general of the Army of Northern Virginia, surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant, commander in chief of all United States forces, at Appomattox.

I have noticed that the older I get, the closer the Civil War seems to be. It was certainly brought home last month, very near that April 9 date, when I visited the National Military Park in Vicksburg, Miss. Vicksburg is situated on high bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River and, in 1863, the configuration of the river required boats to slow down when coming past it downriver. It was heavily fortified by Confederate troops and, with its tactical advantage, was considered to be impregnable. So long as the South held Vicksburg, the North was denied access to traffic on the river. “Vicksburg is the key,” Lincoln said. “The war can never be brought to a close until the key is in our pocket.”

In May, after a series of battles and skirmishes, Grant was able to move his army across the Mississippi onto the eastern bank and then march northward to surround the city. Union forces tried a number of assaults, all of which were repulsed, and eventually Grant settled in for a siege. It lasted until July 4 when, his men exhausted, starving and nearly out of ammunition, John Pemberton, the Confederate commander, capitulated. The people of Vicksburg did not celebrate July 4 again for 81 years.

Today the battlefield is marked by monuments erected by the states whose soldiers fought there: the southern states on the inside of the ring, on the high ground, with their backs to the city; and the northern states on the outside of the ring, facing west and uphill. Many of the artillery emplacements are still there, and a broad selection of weapons. Local guides, employed by the Park Service, escort visitors.

It is not possible to miss the Illinois monument. It sits on a hill above a long set of stairs, and rivals the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. Other states have impressive monuments, but nothing like this one. It is an enormous circular building. Inside, the circle narrows until it nears the top, where it is open to the sky. A plaque above the entrance contains the likenesses of Grant and Lincoln, both from Illinois. Because I am also from Illinois, I was especially interested in this monument and asked our guide to explain why it is so impressive.

The answer: General Grant had a force of 75,000 men at Vicksburg, and more than 36,000 of them were from Illinois! Inside the monument, the names of every one of them are inscribed in bronze. The acoustics are astounding. Once inside, our guide asked, “Shall we sing?” We began to sing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” By the time she got to the “Glory Hallelujah” refrain, we were all singing, and the song resonated in that space as if the entire Illinois contingent were singing with us. That song has always moved me anyway. In that setting, it was powerful beyond description.

The day before the news of the victory at Vicksburg arrived in Washington, Lincoln had learned of the Union victory in the great battle at Gettysburg. Two crushing defeats for the Confederacy, two equally great moments of triumph for the United States. It would take nearly two more years before that surrender at Appomattox, but the outcome of the war was no longer in doubt. Had things gone otherwise, it is entirely possible that Lincoln would not have been re-elected in 1864.

And speaking of anniversaries, only six days after the surrender at Appomattox, on April 15, 1865, Abraham Lincoln died from an assassin’s bullet. John Wilkes Booth thought that he was striking a blow for the South. He could not have done it more harm.

It is said that one cannot understand America until one understands the Civil War. So true.

Howard L. Chapman is an attorney and Adjunct Fellow of Discovery Institute.