Holidays On This Day

July 4th Vicksburg and Beyond

A piece of paper with a cyphered message accompanied by a small glass bottle

Independence Day is in the eye of the beholder. Meaning depends on who you are and the state of the world around you, as Frederick Douglass so piercingly noted when he declared in 1852 that “I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary,” of American independence. National observances, like monuments, embody far more than just the narrow definitions they may carry on their surfaces. Ask John Favill of the 57th New York Infantry. Ask William Independence Rasin. Ask the freedpeople at Davis Bend in Mississippi. 

Each of these people marked July 4th during the American Civil War, but none of them did it the same way. Some laughed at their own misfortune. Some joined the festivities for the first time. Another probably hated it altogether. 

Today we are observing July 4th again, but each one of us will do it differently, and it will mean something different to everyone. What does it mean to you? 


Half-plate ambrotype with applied color of a man, standing facing camera, looking at camera, in double-breasted uniform frock coat with three gold tinted buttons visible on subject's right side, waistocat open with three buttons visible on the right, and hankerchief handibng out of pocket on left side; shirt,with necktie and turned down collar, loose trousers with belt and round belt plate, watch chain at waist, cavalry boots, kepi, cocked to subject's right, short hair, goatee, cheeks and lips tinted pink; left arm hanging by side, right arm by side with right hand placed on the top of a spindle chair back, which is positioned to the side, plain back drop visible; oval gilt mat, embossed beading around oval; preserver stamped with foliate scroll design; gilt scrollwork in interior leather edging, embossed-leather-covered wood case with gem and foliate motif, door section of case missing, brass latch hooks intact.
Ambrotype of William Independence Rasin – a man who took his independence seriously. (ACWM)

Starting in Maryland, 1842 

Robert Hancock, Director of Collections

The United States was not yet seventy years old when William Independence Rasin was born on July 4, 1842. By the age of eighteen, Rasin was a vocal partisan of the Southern Confederacy, and many considered this new rebellion a second war for independence, this time from the United States itself. 

Imprisoned in Missouri and his native Maryland for his secessionist sympathies, Rasin escaped to Virginia, where he recruited a company of soldiers that became part of the 1st Maryland Cavalry (Confederate). He proved a contentious Confederate, too, and was “in arrest” on unspecified charges in late 1864. Rasin’s company clashed with the enemy at Appomattox, and he refused to surrender and take the oath of allegiance to the United States: belligerently independent to the end. 


Harrison’s Landing, VA, 1862

John Coski, Historian

On the Fourth of July 1862 Major General George B. McClellan, U.S.A., issued a congratulatory message to his Army of the Potomac. “Your achievements of the last ten days have illustrated the valor and endurance of the American soldier,” he began. “Attacked by vastly superior forces, and without hope of reinforcements, you have succeeded in changing your base of operations by a flank movement, always regarded as the most hazardous of military expedients…. Your conduct ranks you among the celebrated armies of history.  No one will now question that each of you may always say with pride, ‘I belonged to the Army of the Potomac.’”

The soldiers and officers of the Army of the Potomac knew full well that ten days earlier they were seven miles outside of Richmond, poised to capture the Confederate capital city and possibly crush the “rebellion.” Driven back by fierce counterattacks, the Army of the Potomac bloodily repulsed an enemy attack at Malvern Hill on July 1st. Inexplicably, the army followed up its victory by continuing its retreat to Harrison’s Landing on the James River, 25 miles east of Richmond. 

Gibson & Co. Major Genl. McClellan
. [?] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress

“On this our nation’s birthday,” McClellan concluded his congratulatory message, “we declare to our foes, who are rebels against the best interests of mankind, that this army shall enter the capital of their so-called Confederacy; that our national Constitution shall prevail, and that the Union, which can alone insure internal peace and external security to each state, must and shall be preserved, cost what it may in time, treasure, and blood.”

“The fourth has come and gone, but brought no fight, and our great Republic has passed another anniversary, if not in safety, in integrity, for its flag yet floats over the loyal men of every State,” wrote Surgeon Alfred Castleman of the 5th Wisconsin Infantry in his diary that evening. “But for the bombast of General McClellan’s proclamation of to-day, we should feel sad. That makes us laugh. Shut up in a little bend of the James River, not yet daring to venture a single mile from his encampment, he commences digging and peeping from his ditch to see that Lee is not in sight, he cries thus: ‘On this, our Nation’s birthday, we declare to our foes, who are rebels against the best interests of Mankind, that this army shall enter the Capital of their so-called Confederacy.’ Stuff! Has he forgotten that last winter he promised that under him we should have no more defeats?”

“On this our nation’s birthday,” McClellan concluded his congratulatory message, “we declare to our foes, who are rebels against the best interests of mankind, that this army shall enter the capital of their so-called Confederacy; that our national Constitution shall prevail, and that the Union, which can alone insure internal peace and external security to each state, must and shall be preserved, cost what it may in time, treasure, and blood.”

“The fourth has come and gone, but brought no fight, and our great Republic has passed another anniversary, if not in safety, in integrity, for its flag yet floats over the loyal men of every State,” wrote Surgeon Alfred Castleman of the 5th Wisconsin Infantry in his diary that evening. “But for the bombast of General McClellan’s proclamation of to-day, we should feel sad. That makes us laugh. Shut up in a little bend of the James River, not yet daring to venture a single mile from his encampment, he commences digging and peeping from his ditch to see that Lee is not in sight, he cries thus: ‘On this, our Nation’s birthday, we declare to our foes, who are rebels against the best interests of Mankind, that this army shall enter the Capital of their so-called Confederacy.’ Stuff! Has he forgotten that last winter he promised that under him we should have no more defeats?”

“We were a good deal amused at [McClellan’s] Napoleonic and spread eagle address,” agreed Lt. John M. Favill of the 57th New York Infantry in his diary, “but the men cheered it on parade, and seemed to think it very fine.” A beautiful day that did not bring the feared renewal of Confederate attacks, the 4th of July “was just the kind of day to cheer up and animate the battered and worn-out soldiers,” wrote a soldier in the 63rd Pennsylvania Infantry.

Whatever they thought of their commanding officer’s “spin” on the campaign just passed, the soldiers and officers in the Army of the Potomac and the Northern public wondered about the future. “The President, I see, has made another call for three hundred thousand men,” Surgeon Castleman noted in his diary on July 4. “Before this war is over, we shall have to resort to drafting.” 

Indeed, before the Army of the Potomac left Harrison’s Landing in mid-August, it was clear that the United States would have to do more to defeat the Confederacy. In mid July, the U.S. Congress passed a Confiscation Act that paved the way for emancipation of enslaved African Americans. As the Army of the Potomac completed its retreat from Richmond, President Abraham Lincoln had written a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. The supposed triumph that General McClellan trumpeted in his Fourth of July message proved to be a failure that changed the nature and scope of the Civil War.


Vicksburg, MS, 1863 and Davis Bend, MS, 1864

Kelly Hancock, Public Programs Manager

 “July 4th.  Gen’l Pemberton: You can expect no help from this side of the river.  Let Gen’l Johnston know if possible, when you can attack the same point on the enemy’s line…”  

Thus begins a coded message that had remained in a vial in the Museum’s collection until being removed and opened in 2009. The communication was never delivered to General John C. Pemberton of the Confederate Army because it was on that very day—July 4, 1863—that he surrendered the city to Ulysses S. Grant. Confederates in Vicksburg had nothing to celebrate that day, and indeed for decades afterwards, the white citizens of the city were loath to observe the national holiday. This was not the case for the U.S. Army or for the African-American population, the majority of whom had been enslaved.  

A piece of paper with a cyphered message accompanied by a small glass bottle
Message in a bottle, with a lead bullet as a sinker, sent but never delivered during the Siege of VIcksburg in 1863. (ACWM)

The Vicksburg Campaign resulted in Union control of the Mississippi and in the liberation of thousands of enslaved people in the area.  At Davis Bend (about three hours down river from Vicksburg via steamboat), on property where Jefferson Davis and his brother Joseph owned plantations, Grant determined that a freedmen’s community be established, complete with schools and a hospital.  A year after Vicksburg’s surrender, on the Fourth of July, “a party of teachers and their escorts and other friends of the Freedmen” traveled down river to Davis Bend for a grand celebration.  Although the focus of the gala was to celebrate that thousands of enslaved people had been “brought out from the House of Bondage,” apart from the guard of United States Colored Troops there to provide protection, Freedmen were given no role in the festivities.  However, in the years immediately following the Civil War, it was African Americans who took the lead in celebrating Independence Day in the South, preserving traditions of parades, speeches, and songs.