2 forgotten anniversaries every American ought to remember

An American flag in Washington on  Dec. 15, 2020. Independence Day is also the anniversary of two major conflicts in American history — conflicts that live on to this day.

An American flag in Washington on Dec. 15, 2020. Independence Day is also the anniversary of two major conflicts in American history — conflicts that live on to this day. (Al Drago, Reuters)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Nearly a century after the Declaration of Independence was ratified by America's Continental Congress, the Fourth of July had become the most important secular holiday on the calendar.

The celebration of Independence Day — the casting off of the monarchy and establishing what President Abraham Lincoln later called "government by, for and of the people" — remains one of the most consequential decisions in human history, leading the way for other European colonies across the globe to similarly declare their independence.

While backyard BBQs, displays of patriotism and massive fireworks shows help Americans celebrate the birth of their hard-fought independence, there are two forgotten American anniversaries that also deserve the recognition and sober reflection of every single American.

For context, we turn the clock back to May 18, 1863, during the third year of the American Civil War.

Following a chain of victories, Union forces, commanded by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, began surrounding the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi, then called by Confederate President Jefferson Davis "the nailhead that holds the South's two halves together." It was a sentiment shared by Lincoln, who declared, "Vicksburg is the key! The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket."

Located along the eastern banks of the Mississippi River, the loss of Vicksburg would cut the Confederate States in two, separating Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana, and thus their supply lines and military forces, from the main body of the Confederacy in the east.

Unable to reinforce Vicksburg, and seeking to relieve pressure on Virginia by striking a crippling blow intended to force the Union to recognize the government of the Confederacy, Gen. Robert E. Lee, at the head of the Army of Northern Virginia, undertook a bold and doomed invasion of the North which would ultimately culminate near the small town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Between July 1 and July 3, 1863, more than 160,000 Americans battled for the soul of a young, experimental nation facing its greatest test.

Before it was over, nearly 1 out of every 3 participants, approximately 51,000 men, would be killed, wounded or reported missing. It remains the bloodiest and most costly battle in American history.

The bloodshed culminated in Lee's defeat and subsequent retreat to Virginia on the Fourth of July in 1863 — the very same day that Confederate Gen. John C. Pemberton and his army of 33,000 men surrendered to Grant's forces at Vicksburg, following a grueling month-and-a-half-long siege.

These twin battles are generally considered the final turning point of the American Civil War.

With Lee's forces routed, and the Confederacy cut in two, the Confederates would never again mount an offensive incursion into the North. Less than two years would pass before both the Confederacy and slavery, the institution the South had fought so hard to preserve, would finally collapse.

Division carries on

While the canons and gunfire have long fallen silent, the American Civil War never really ended completely. In some ways, the old divisions between the Union and Confederacy are still with us today — in some ways waning and, in others, finding renewed life.

Only last year, a Confederate statue was removed from the grounds at Dixie State University, which was later renamed Utah Tech University in an attempt to distance the institution from the Confederacy (southern Utah still carries the name Dixie).

Both of those changes came after the school had already changed the name of their sports teams, previously known as "the Rebels," in 2009.

Though the then-territory never participated in the Civil War, and the practice of slavery was never widespread within its borders, Utah, as the only western territory where slavery and slave sales were protected by territorial statute, has its own complicated history with the institution and the contest between the Union and Confederacy.

The echoes of Vicksburg and Gettysburg are evident in the ongoing debate over monuments. Those same echoes haunt every clash over racial and social equality and were apparent during the siege of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, when some carried the banner of the Army of Northern Virginia (commonly called the Confederate flag) through the halls of the U.S. Capitol.

Nearly 160 years after the end of the Civil War, in Texas (the largest state of the old Confederacy) whispers and threats of secession persist, with another bill presented to the Texas Legislature in early 2023.

Will history repeat itself?

There's remarkable poetic symmetry inherent in the fact that our annual celebration of the birth of American independence also coincides with the anniversaries of two of the most pivotal and consequential battles in American history — battles that pitted Americans against each other.

Perhaps there's an invitation and admonition to be found in this unique confluence of American anniversaries.

In his short but timeless address at Gettysburg, given five months after the historic battle there, Lincoln posed the question of whether this nation or any nation "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal" can long endure."

In a sense, we are still striving to answer that question.

The great irony of the Southern rebellion to preserve slavery is that less than one-third of free whites in the South are estimated to have lived in a family that owned slaves, and thus benefited from slavery. Most southern whites were, in fact, greatly disadvantaged by the institution of slavery, largely living in poverty and unable to compete with the economic might of slave plantations.

It's been argued that the emancipation of the South's slaves was, in fact, a "duel emancipation" — economically liberating impoverished whites, as well as millions of slaves. And, yet, the whole of the white South went to war to preserve slavery, often called America's "original sin," which bound and brutalized bond and free alike.

It begs the question: As Americans separate into factions, political and otherwise, and contend bitterly and with self-assured fervor against each other, are we truly serving the nation's, or our own, best interests? Or perhaps too distracted by tradition, resentments and partisan loyalties, are we unknowingly following in the footsteps of the majority of Confederates — enabling and protecting that which harms both the nation and ourselves?

Questions worth pondering after this and every Fourth of July.

Freed from the chains of monarchy, the future of the United States is firmly in the hands of the American people.

In Lincoln's words, Americans can only "nobly save, or meanly lose the last best hope of the earth. ... The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just — a way if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless."


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Mike is a writer, filmmaker and public speaker, who, along with his wife Michelle, owns and manages At Home in Wild Spaces Films, a film studio that produces informational outdoor adventure media and resources. Mike graduated from BYU with a degree in film and animation, and occasionally writes about entertainment and current events.


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