Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A Year of Turning Points: July 4th, 1863, In Diaries

Gettysburg. Vicksburg. Names that would go down in American history, remembered for the frightful cost in lives they exacted on the two sections of the divided United States.

Gettysburg is often referred to as the turning point of the war, but at the time it had yet to gain that distinction. Battered, hungry, and tired, on July 4, 1863, Lee's Army of Northern Virginia and Mead's Army of the Potomac eyeballed each other. Sporadic musketry would break out on occasion but it was of little consequence. Lee would slip away late in the day under cover of darkness and rain.

Vicksburg, Mississippi had been been the target of Ulysses Grant's Army of the Tennessee for several, unfruitful months. After finally getting below the city and over to the east bank of the Mississippi River, Grant was able to chase Confederate John Pemberton's Army of Mississippi back into the defenses of the town after fighting at places like Champion Hill and Big Black River. After two bloody assaults on the citys works May 19 and 22, the siege of the city began. Vicksburg fell this July Fourth.

Needless to say, the events at these two places dominate many of the diaries and letters for this July 4 and the days following, but not all of them.

William Bircher had difficulty even entering the army in the summer of 1861 due to his age and small stature. In October, with the aid of the captain of company K, Second Minnesota Volunteer Infantry and the permission of his father who also joined, the lad entered the service as a drummer.

The Second was a part of William Rosecrans' Army of the Cumberland and was engaged in the Tullahoma Campaign. July 1-3 had been passed marching and fighting Braxton Bragg’s rear guard. His diary entry of July 4, 1863, gives little indication that he knew anything about the happenings at Vicksburg or Gettysburg:

My seventeenth birthday. A salute of one hundred guns was fired—not on account of my birthday, but the birth of the republic. Marched four miles out on the Hillsboro road.”

Bircher would not mention Gettysburg at all in the next few days, but wrote that rumors abounded in camp that Lee had been captured with 2500 men. He does not acknowledge the fall of Vicksburg until his entry of July 8. In fact he gave more notice to John Hunt Morgan and his excursion through Indiana and Ohio during the same month than to either of the major Union victories.[1]

Ebenezer Wescott of the Seventeenth Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry had a front row seat at Vicksburg and in a letter to his mother dated July 7 he writes:

...the Rebels marched outside their breastworks, stacked their arms and laid their colors across them then marched back again. We had guards in the line. They marched up and took possession of their arms, and we formed our line and marched into the city to the music of more than three hundred cannon, beside fife, and drum, and brass bands.
It was the finest Fourth of July celebration I ever attended and will probably never attend another equal to it.” [2]

The two above accounts show that patriotism was alive and well in Federal ranks, but Wescott of Wisconsin most likely could attribute much of the fanfare to the victorious end of a long, hard campaign, but the significance of the day was not lost on the troops.

Mrs. Henrietta Fitzhugh Barr, the Confederate lady from Ravenswood, West Virginia, is still
keeping her diary. Her angst toward the Federal soldiers is unabated from 1862.

Saturday, July 4. A new Co. from Parkersburg (Captain Devin's) are here to drill the militia (a sort of a trap to get the poor men to enlist to fight for the Union.)

Not a word about July 4 until, almost as an afterthought, she sets down the following:

Sunday, July 5. Yesterday passed off so quietly I hardly knew it was the “Glorious Fourth”. People have to much to occupy their attention in these diggings to think of celebrating the anniversary, etc. The Yanks have all left today and we are once more in possession of our homes, which was not the case while they were with us. A rumor reaches us of a great battle at Gettysburg. Of course Gen'l Lee is victorious although the Yankee papers are not willing to give him full credit for it. We also hear that a division of the Southern Army is at Beverly where they had an engagement with the enemy and crushed them. A report that Vicksburg has fallen I do not credit. I must have better proof than mere hearsay.” [3]

Even in 1863 the Confederacy was still clinging to the hope of their own eventual independence. Why would any “true Southerner” doubt that their armies had been victorious? For that matter why would they believe “rumors” of disaster befalling their armies? It is an interesting aspect to the times that people would still cling to their cause and beliefs despite mounting evidence otherwise. In the days following Mrs. Barr still had trouble believing that Gettysburg was less than a Confederate victory and that Vicksburg had indeed fallen. She dismisses the notions as false due to the fact that the sources of such talk were “Yankee”.

Captain Stephen Minot Weld, leaves us a most poignant reflection on this Independence Day, 1863. His diary entry for the day laments:

This year I expected to spend the Fourth in a battle, and find myself instead in Philadelphia. Were it not for the errand that brought me here I should have enjoyed the day very much.
We started for Mr. Landis's house, 1829 Spruce Street at 6A.M. From here the body was taken to the Lancaster depot, and placed in a private car. Only the generals brother and sister and staff were present. We reached Lancaster at about 12 M., and there found an immense crowd of women, men, and children waiting at the depot. We got into some old wagons and drove to the cemetery. Here a chapter of the Bible was read, and prayer delivered, and then poor General Reynolds disappeared from us for some time to come.” [4]

Weld was an aid to Major General John F. Reynolds at Gettysburg. Reynolds had dispatched him with a message to Major General George G. Meade to hurry the Army of the Potomac along. The Confederates were advancing, in strong force, and beginning to drive Brigadier General John Buford’s cavalry pickets in along Chambersburg Pike to the north and west of town. Reynolds was ahead of his troops (First Corps) but would bring them up as quickly as possible. He declared he would fight the Rebels, through the streets of Gettysburg if necessary, but Meade must hurry. Weld covered the 14 miles to Taneytown in one hour and twenty minutes on a blown horse and delivered the message to Meade. On the return trip he met the ambulance bearing Reynolds' body. The general had been killed shortly after Weld had left him.

A braver man or a better soldier than General R. never lived.”  Weld would declare in a letter to his father dated July 3.

Perhaps at this point in the war the observance of Independence Day was getting a little shopworn. Although two of the soldiers record “national salutes” that day in their diaries, there is not much beyond that. As we see, the lady rebel forgets the day, and the next day states the people are just to busy to observe it. It must be remembered that she was in the minority in the town of Ravenswood, but she makes no mention of the Unionists marking the day with celebration either. It had “passed quietly”. It appears that two years of bloodshed had taken the luster from it. 1864 would be little different, and in ways, much worse.

The Picket


1- Bircher, W. (1889) A Drummer Boys Diary, St. Paul, Minn. St. Paul book and stationary co. Page 67

2- Wescott, M. Ebenezer (1909), Civil War Letters, 1861-1865, [Mora? Minn.] Letter No. XIII

3- Barr, H. Fitzhugh, The Civil War Diary of Mrs. Henrietta Fitzhugh Barr (Barre), 1862-1863, Ravenswood, Virginia (West Virginia): Marietta, Ohio :Marietta College, 1961 Page 26

4- Weld, Stephen W., (1912) War Diaries of Stephen Minot Weld, 1861-1865, Privately printed, The Riverside Press, Cambridge Mass.

Sources 1-3 retrieved from http://www.hathitrust.org/

Source 4 retrieved from http://openlibrary.org/

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