NUMBER 2: JULY 1999
THE CELEBRATION OF INDEPENDENCE DAY: A Southern Perspective
by G. Redding Wynne
The celebration of Independence Day in the American South has been largely overlooked among the multitude of historical and cultural differences that have distinguished the region from the rest of the nation. Long-standing philosophical differences between northerners and southerners regarding the nature of liberty and country helped to shape Southern history, and these differences were present well into the twentieth century.
After the American Revolution, the significance of the Fourth of July was recognized, but it was hardly the "Glorious Fourth" so often mentioned in Northern Literature. In the South, more attention was paid to the timing of the individual states' entry into the "Compact of the States" that made up the fledgling Union. Thus to southerners, the final reality of independence from Great Britain was not synonymous with the concept of Union: thirteen "states" effectively seceded from the British Empire on July 4, 1776. Many southerners viewed the Declaration of Independence as a statement of the obvious, and thus placed no great importance to its anniversary, despite the fact that its draftsman was the slave-holding Virginian Thomas Jefferson.
In subsequent years, after the rise of the Cotton Kingdom, the South regarded Independence Day with friendly indifference. Between 1830 and 1860, a state of "cold war" existed between the two sections, during which national institutions became suspect to many Southerners. The Fourth of July was most significant among southerners of this period as a non-work day. Throughout the South, most people simply chose to leisure themselves with eating and the quiet, lazy company of family members. Slaves were typically given the day off. As a "national" holiday, the Fourth of July meant, for Southerners, little more than a suspension of postal service for a day.
Southern perceptions of the meaning of the holiday changed somewhat with the outbreak of sectional hostilities in 1861. While Southerners certainly believed that they had every bit as much right to secede from the Union as the thirteen colonies had claimed when they "seceded" from Great Britain, they still placed little to no importance on the date itself. Rather, their movement was intended to be a new and distinct "American Revolution," with only theoretical ties to the original. Only among older Southerners, merely a generation removed from 1776, was there any spark of memory or affection for the Fourth. An anecdote from Robert E. Lee's headquarters near Gettsyburg illustrates this point. During the earliest part of the morning of July 3, 1863, while planning the day's offensive that would ultimately become known as Pickett's Charge, Lee asked a subordinate for the time. Told that it was after midnight, Lee remarked that the next day would be the Fourth, and noted the irony of the situation. The subordinate freely admitted that he had "quite forgotten."
Such memory lapses would become much less common in the South, for that following Fourth of July was a momentous one for the future of the region. July 4, 1863 was the occasion of two serious calamities for the cause of Southern independence. Not only did it mark the beginning of Lee's long and agonizing retreat back to Virginia after Pickett's troops failed to break the Union line the previous day, but that fateful Fourth was also the day that the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi fell to Union forces under Ulysses S. Grant, giving the Union control of the Mississippi River, and thus splitting the Confederacy. Most historians cite these two events as the beginning of the end for the Confederate war effort.
After 1865, with the war over and the South in ruins, there was little enthusiasm of any kind among white Southerners for resuming observation of July Fourth as a holiday. Indeed, Confederate Memorial Day (whose date of observation varied from region to region) eclipsed Independence Day as the patriotic holiday in the South until well into the twentieth century. For black Southerners, however, the holiday took on new life and meaning. Independence Day was widely celebrated by African Americans in the postbellum South. Evidence of this abounds in the correspondence of southern whites of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in which the holiday is often identified as a festive occasion "for the negroes." Over time blacks in many southern localities increasingly celebrated Emancipation Day on the Fourth in lieu of the "Juneteenth" celebrations popular during the Reconstruction period (1865-1877).
By the turn of the century, with the return of patriotic sentiment to much of the South after victory in the Spanish-American War, Southern attitudes towards observing Independence Day began to soften. As southern newspapers and politicians railed against shirkers who wouldn't "fight for their country," (a call that was dramatically heightened during the two World Wars), various areas of the South began to embrace the idea of observing the Fourth. The tradition died harder in some areas than in others; in Vicksburg, MS, where residents had endured the worst that war had to offer (some residents were forced to live in caves and sustain themselves with horsemeat), considerable bitterness remained. The city of Vicksburg did not officially recognize the Fourth of July as a holiday again until 1939!
During much of the twentieth century, Independence Day celebrations in the South gradually took on a resemblance -- albeit reserved in nature -- to Fourth of July observances seen elsewhere in the country. Southern enthusiasm for the holiday increased dramatically after the Bicentennial celebration of 1976, which added impetus to the ever-increasing homogenization of patriotic expression nationwide. This process of homogenization also owes much to the immense power of broadcast media; when the entire nation got a collective glimpse at the "Tall Ships" anchored in New York harbor, the dazzling fireworks displays, and the sight of Old Glory, southern hearts were warmed to a new appreciation and fondness for the festivities of the "Glorious Fourth."
Copyright © 1999 G. Redding Wynne
G. Redding Wynne is an historian and freelance writer. His first novel, Tobe (forthcoming in 2000), is a fictional account of the Civil War and its aftermath as seen through the eyes of a Confederate soldier. Click here for more information.
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