Walter Rodgers

July 4 is important -- but so is July 3

Two events on July 3, 1863 matter as much to human rights as July 4, 1776.

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Perhaps only in small Yankee towns like this one in Connecticut are we reminded that the Fourth of July is about two other anniversaries at least as important as 13 English Colonies thumbing their noses at a British king.

The fate of our beloved country hung in the balance those first few days of July 1863 because of the mortal threat posed by the Confederate States’ insurrection and rebellion. Without the epic Union Victory at Gettysburg, Pa., on July 3, 1863, and the Confederate surrender of their “Gibraltar” at Vicksburg above the Mississippi River the same day, we might have reverted to being dominated by an English monarch instead of becoming citizens of the greatest republic in the history of the world.

There are two civil-war monuments in Winsted, Conn. One is bronze; the other is granite. Both show Union Civil War veterans gripping their weapons. The granite memorial records the names of the battles they fought in: “Antietam, Cold Harbor, Petersburg, and Port Hudson”

Its inscription leaves no doubt that those who lived through the War of the Rebellion knew what was at stake: “In honor of the patriotism and to perpetuate the memory of these 368 brave men who went forth from this town from 1861 to 1865 and periled their all that the nation might live this monument has been erected....” Almost 1 in 5 soldiers from this small town, 68 souls, didn’t survive the war.

Standing there on a warm June day nearly 150 years later, I felt a shiver. If we have forgotten how important the Vicksburg and Gettysburg victories were, the eminent Civil War historian James McPherson reminds us in his book “Battle Cry of Freedom”:

“Lincoln appeared at a White House balcony to tell a crowd of serenaders that this ‘gigantic Rebellion’ whose purpose was to ‘overthrow the principle that all men are created equal’ had been dealt a crippling blow.”

It might be unnecessary to remind ourselves of this had not Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell recently tried to re-create the fiction that there is something glorious about Americans slaughtering Americans in numbers approaching 700,000 men.

Governor McDonnell’s original proclamation for Confederate History Month warmly noted the “sacrifices” of Confederate soldiers but failed to mention the abomination of slavery. He later apologized for that omission. But political bumbling is not the issue. Rather it is the myth that there ever was a glorious lost cause of the Confederacy.

The scale of the war’s violence is hard to fathom. A majority of Mississippi veterans lost an arm or leg. In 1866, 20 percent of the Mississippi budget was used for artificial limbs.

On the eve of the Civil War’s sesquicentennial commemorations next year, we need to get it right and not let the “losers” shape our sense of history.

We ought not denigrate the sacrifices or bravery of those of Southern birth, but the steely truth remains: They were on the wrong side of history, defending an immoral cause.

By canonizing Confederate commander Robert E. Lee, the South has ignored his hubris. Few recall that Lee had the highest casualties of any general, north or south. America’s most popular general, Dwight Eisenhower, once observed that Lee should have been relieved after ordering the suicidal, foolish frontal assault at Gettysburg.

American schoolchildren need to be reminded that not only did Lee own slaves but he occasionally ordered them whipped if they misbehaved.

History is rarely pretty when we look closely. But the Civil War was about preserving the United States of America and eradicating the permanent stain of human slavery. The mendacities and myths of the past must not be perpetuated.

When I was a university graduate teaching assistant in Illinois in the early 1960s, a young black woman timidly raised her hand in my history class and said, “Mr. Rodgers, you sure don’t teach history like they teach it in Arkansas.” Her name was Minnijean Brown. She was one of nine black children who, with the protection of US Marshals, integrated Little Rock Central High School. Like millions of others, she, too, was a victim of American history mistaught.

On the twin anniversaries of the Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, we owe an unspeakable debt of gratitude to the Union soldiers who were on the right side of history.

Standing at the base of the bronze monument nearby, a smile crossed my face.

A class of fifth-graders came scrambling up from the elementary school down the hill. There were three or four black boys and a black girl frolicking among some 20 white children, oblivious to the statue of the Union soldier towering above them. I watched as they drank from the same water fountain.

It was an eloquent tribute to the Union Blue Coats who fought and died at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, for it again breathed life into the vision of the first Fourth of July – that all men are indeed created equal.

Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column.

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