July 4, When Independence Was Both Declared and Lost

In general, most rebellions against government authority result in failure—which is what makes the successful ones stand out as much as they do. The American Revolution, which is celebrated in the United States every year on July 4, involved a loose confederation of colonies in a distant location undertaking an independence movement from one of the preeminent military powers in the world. But, in order to succeed, the rebellion needed a few key factors, including foreign assistance (from France and Spain); a willingness to accept horrendous losses in personnel (American battle casualties were almost always higher than those of their better-trained, equipped, and disciplined opponent); and an ability to withdraw from conflict at times (such as in winter quarters at Valley Forge). Whereas July 4 is celebrated as Independence Day in the United States, it carries a different significance when applied to the American Civil War.



The Confederate States of America, like the American colonies of a century earlier, consisted of a loose alliance of states, each with its own demands and objectives. However, it failed to secure any significant foreign assistance, despite major efforts to leverage economic relationships with Britain and France into military intervention. The Confederacy did not have the capacity to accept more casualties than its opponent—it was already heavily outnumbered at the beginning of the war, and had the additional challenge of maintaining control over millions of potentially rebellious chattel slaves. Finally, the Confederacy had no real capacity to withdraw from the fighting—there was no place for Confederate troops to go that they could not be followed by Union forces, regardless of the season or the situation.

July 4, 1863, should be considered the day the Confederacy lost any chance of winning its independence through force of arms. Although the war dragged on for nearly two more years, in hindsight, the events of the spring and early summer of 1863 doomed the Confederate cause, once and for all. In the Eastern Theater, General Robert E. Lee attempted to follow-up the Chancellorsville campaign with an invasion of the North. Repeating his move of the previous summer, which had ended ignominiously at Antietam, Lee ordered his Army of Northern Virginia to invade Pennsylvania. By doing so, he hoped to draw Union forces away from their invasions of the South, to subsist his army on Northern soil through foraging and requisitions, and to potentially threaten an advance on a major Northern city. Capturing Philadelphia, for example, might have induced the Union to sue for terms of peace, rather than continue a costly war with no end in sight. Likewise, a major victory on Union soil might not only embolden his own forces, it might trigger foreign intervention by demonstrating that the Confederacy had the capacity to win the war. In this belief, Lee was trapped by the legacy of the American Revolution—Patriot forces won a major victory at Saratoga in 1777, forcing the first surrender of a British field army in four centuries. That victory triggered French intervention into the war, and set the conditions for a successful independence movement.

In 1863, however, Lee’s forces moved slower than he hoped, while the Union response to his invasion was faster than anything he had previously experienced. Major General George Meade quickly swung the Army of the Potomac into action, forcing Lee to consolidate his forces at Gettysburg. Once there, Lee flung his outnumbered troops into a series of headlong assaults against entrenched Union forces—and paid a ruinous price to accomplish few of his tactical objectives. After the brutal fighting of the first three days of July, Lee spent July 4 entrenching his forces, under the assumption that Meade would launch an assault to take advantage of his success in the opening phases of the battle. Meade’s failure to do so frustrated President Lincoln, who felt that a Union attack might have destroyed Lee’s army in a single blow on July 4. But Meade knew his own limits, and those of his army, and realized that such an attack might give the opening Lee needed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Instead, Meade chose to accept the victory he had already attained, rather than risking it all on a renewed engagement.

While the armies in Pennsylvania stared at one another on Independence Day, another major turning point of the war occurred in the Western Theater. On July 4, 1863, Confederate Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton surrendered his entire force to Union Major General Ulysses S. Grant. Pemberton’s army had spent the preceding months desperately trying to withstand the siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi, the last Confederate bastion on the Mississippi River. They had stymied Grant’s attempts to capture the fortified position for months—but eventually, after running so low on food that rat carcasses were sold by the pound in the city’s butcher shops, Pemberton contacted Grant to ask for surrender terms. Grant had previously forced the surrender of Forts Henry and Donelson in 1862, earning the sobriquet “Unconditional Surrender” Grant by refusing any concessions in exchange for surrender. At Vicksburg, Grant initially maintained the same insistence—but on July 3, signaled his willingness to allow the defenders of Vicksburg to go on parole (remaining at liberty but out of the war until formally exchanged) rather than being shipped off to prison camps. Pemberton, knowing he had no other options, formally surrendered his entire force of more than 30,000 troops the next day.

The twin victories at Gettsyburg and Vicksburg dealt a pair of blows to the Confederate hopes that could never be undone. Britain and France, which had both seriously considered intervention on behalf of the Confederacy, despite their citizens’ ardent disdain for slaveholding, refused to get involved in what they both saw as a lost cause. The ability of Confederate states to cooperate was seriously hampered by the inability to move anything across the Mississippi River, effectively removing Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas from the war effort. The pride of the Confederate military, the Army of Northern Virginia, was shattered by its losses at Gettysburg, and soon went on the defensive for the remainder of the war. And, the most aggressive and successful Union commander, Grant, soon came east to assume command of the entire Union force. Thus, while July 4 is forever revered as the date on which the United States declared its independence from Britain, it should also be remembered as the date on which the Confederate hopes of splitting the United States into two nations became an impossible dream.