July 4,1863

Most Americans associate the first week in July with the Revolutionary War and Declaration of Independence.  However, there were two other crucial events in American history during the first few days of July 1863 during the Civil War.

Despite superior supplies and vast numbers of troops, the Federal Army of the Potomac was losing battle after battle to the Confederates under the brilliant leadership of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.  By May of 1863, President Abraham Lincoln had gone through a half dozen generals.  At one point, Lincoln even told the timid General George McClennan, “.. General, if you do not want to use the Army of the Potomac, would you loan it to me..?”

After two recent victories in the spring of 1863 at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, Lee decided on an invasion into the Northern State of Pennsylvania. Lee felt he could strike a final blow to solidify a European country and cotton customer as a Confederate ally and maybe even force a peace treaty.  Again, Lincoln appointed a new general, George Meade as commander of the Army of the Potomac to stop Lee, and more importantly protect Washington DC.


The two armies converged on July 1, 1863 at a Pennsylvania crossroads called Gettysburg. Lee’s normally able and reliable Cavalry headed by Jeb Stuart failed to provide adequate intelligence. Nevertheless, as elements of each Army collided, most feel the Confederates won this first day with aggressive tactics. On the second day, Lee tried to take further advantage by flanking both extremes of the battlefield. Many consider the day of July 2nd a draw, as Meade’s full Army of 80,000 troops finally arrived and assumed favorable positions to face Lee’s 70,000 troops. On the third day, Lee decided to march George Pickett’s reinforced Division across nearly a mile of open field to attack the middle of the Federal position on Cemetery Ridge. The confederates began with a massive artillery barrage.  However, due to the residual smoke, it was not effective. As Pickett’s men marched towards Cemetery Ridge, the mostly unbroken Union Artillery opened fire. Half of these Confederates were killed or wounded before reaching Meade’s well defended line. Historians have called this moment of the Civil War the “high water mark” of the Confederacy.  By the end of the day, when Lee began a retreat back to Virginia, he advised Pickett to organize his Division. Pickett’s reply, “..Sir, I have no more Division..”  By 1863, the South could no longer replace its losses

About one third of the 150,000 troops facing each other for three days at Gettysburg became casualties including over 11,000 dead.  While the North had its first major victory in two years of the Civil War, to Lincoln’s great disappointment, Gen Meade did not pursue Lee’s Army. The war in the East would last for two more very bloody years.


At the same time as Gettysburg, a very different type of battle was occurring in the West at a Confederate stronghold overlooking the Mississippi River at Vicksburg, MS. For over a year, another Federal general was achieving success fighting and winning smaller battles along the Ohio and other rivers in the West.  Ulysses S Grant was nicknamed “Unconditional Surrender” Grant following the successful Battle of Shiloh, Tennessee in April 1862. Federal strategy was designed to continue moving along the Ohio River towards the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg that protected the Mississippi River. A Federal victory at Vicksburg would split the Confederacy.  Rumors of drinking were attempted by rivals to diminish Grant’s character and leadership. However, Lincoln was heard to say… “Discover Grant’s brand of whiskey, and I will buy a keg for all my generals..”

With significant use of naval gunboats, Grant slowly positioned the Federal Army of the West in a siege around Vicksburg in May of 1863. Crossing parts of the Mississippi with over ten thousand troops became one of the largest amphibious operations until WWII.  Many thought Vicksburg was impregnable, but Grant had the city isolated from both land and the river.  After weeks of skirmishes, occasional battles, and continual bombardment, the citizens and soldiers of Vicksburg began to run out of food and ammunition. The Confederate Commander, John Pemberton, decided that he would obtain the best terms from Grant by surrendering on the 4th of July. While the casualties were but a small fraction of Gettysburg, the victory was almost as significant.  When Lincoln received the second piece of good news in two days, he had also found a general willing to fight, win, and finish the American Civil War.

In April 1865, Robert E. Lee finally surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant in Appomattox, VA.  The four years of fighting resulted in over 600,000 dead Americans. The combination of old battle tactics with more accurate and heavier weapons produced carnage on an industrial scale. In spite of yeoman efforts by physicians and nurses, the antiquated medical expertise was overwhelmed. Ironically, the Appomattox home was owned by the Mclean family who had moved to Appomattox from the location of the first battle of the Civil War (Bull Run) at Manassas, VA!