Fourth of July 2020 by Kevin Diehl
FOURTH OF JULY 2020
Once again it’s that time of year when we pause to celebrate the birth of our nation. During that long-ago summer in Philadelphia, when 56 men signed the Declaration of Independence “with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence,” they mutually pledged to each other “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”
That was no empty gesture; those weren’t just some fancy words on parchment. By the time the Declaration was signed, the war for independence had been going on for more than a year, and it was not going well for the Americans. The Continental Army, under General George Washington, had suffered defeat after defeat at the hands of the powerful, professional British army.
We take it as a matter of faith now that the Americans held firm and went on to win the war, but in 1776, victory wasn’t just uncertain; it seemed unlikely. That summer, with national morale low, Congress voted to declare independence. The announcement of the Declaration had an electrifying effect on the people and on the army.
It would be overstating things to say that the Declaration turned the tide of the war, but as historian David McCullough wrote: “At a stroke the Continental Congress had made the Glorious Cause of America more glorious still, for all the world to know, and also to give every citizen soldier at this critical juncture something still larger and more compelling for which to fight.”
Since 1776, our nation has seen the sun rise on the Fourth of July 244 times. The day has dawned during good times and bad. This year, we could be forgiven for believing that Thomas Paine’s abiding words apply – “These are the times that try men’s souls.”
2020 has thrown us some gut punches, no question. There’s no need to recount them here. It’s easy to lose hope and think that these are days of greater gloom than we’ve ever seen. But it’s simply not true. Our nation has seen far worse. And this year marks the 157th anniversary of what was, arguably, the lowest point in our history, and the most momentous Fourth of July since the very first one.
The year was 1863, and America was in the midst of its darkest hour – the Civil War. Just as the summer of 1776 had been a time of despair for the colonials, the summer of 1863 offered little hope for a nation beleaguered by what was already a long and bloody conflict. By the end, it would be – by far – the deadliest war in our history.
Up to that point, the South had won every major battle of the war, and President Lincoln’s great hope of preserving the union and ending slavery seemed to be slipping away. But then two events occurred that changed everything.
The first took place in a small southern Pennsylvania town, where the Union Army met the Confederates in the Battle of Gettysburg. It was not a planned confrontation; Gettysburg had no great strategic value to either side. But the massive multi-day battle that took place there shifted the course of the war.
On the fourth morning, after three days of relentless combat, the defeated Southern Army under General Robert E. Lee moved out of Gettysburg. It was the beginning of the end for the Confederacy; after Gettysburg, they would never win another major battle. The date was July 4, 1863.
Out west, another battle was taking place, at the Mississippi River town of Vicksburg. The Northern forces, under Major General Ulysses S. Grant, had surrounded the city. After a siege that lasted more than forty days, Grant’s troops broke through the fortifications and captured Vicksburg.
The victory gave the Union control of the Mississippi River for the remainder of the war. Vicksburg surrendered to General Grant early on the same morning that Lee was retreating from Gettysburg – July 4, 1863.
As word of the twin Fourth of July victories reached the nation’s capital spontaneous celebrations broke out around the city, and President Lincoln was compelled to give an impromptu speech.
As he appeared before the crowd gathered outside the White House, Lincoln began by thanking “Almighty God for the occasion.” Lincoln clearly saw it as significant that both victories had come on the Fourth.
“How long ago is it? Eighty odd years since, upon the Fourth day of July, for the first time in the world, a union body of representatives was assembled to declare as a self-evident truth that all men were created equal. That was the birthday of the United States of America. Since then the Fourth day of July has had several very peculiar recognitions.”
Then he mused on another truly remarkable aspect of the Fourth of July: he recounted to the crowd that Thomas Jefferson and John Adams had both died on July 4, 1826, 50 years to the day after signing the Declaration.
“The two most distinguished men who framed and supported” the Declaration, “Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, the one having framed it, and the other sustained it most ably in debate, the only two of the…fifty-six who signed it…who were ever President of the United States, precisely fifty years after they put their hands to that paper it pleased the Almighty God to take away from this stage of action on the Fourth of July. This extraordinary coincidence we can understand to be a dispensation of the Almighty Ruler of Events.
“And now,” Lincoln said, “on this Fourth of July, when a gigantic rebellion has risen in the land, precisely at the bottom of which is an effort to overthrow that principle ‘that all men are created equal,’ we have a surrender of one of their most…powerful armies forced upon them on that very day.”
To the delight of the crowd, Lincoln finished by saying that after three bitter days of battle at Gettysburg, on the Fourth, “the enemies of the declaration that all men are created equal had to turn tail and run.”
That speech – unplanned and unpolished – planted the seeds for the far-more famous address Lincoln would give four months later at Gettysburg, with its immortal opening line – “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
The people who lived through those bleak days of 1863 had no way of knowing that the Fourth of July that year marked a major turning point in history, and that the suffering they had endured would lead to brighter days ahead for America.
Let us, this Fourth of July, 2020, remember their sacrifices, and pray that we may have the strength of spirit and the courage of our forefathers to protect and keep this “Glorious Cause of America” that they so nobly bequeathed to us.
Happy Fourth of July everyone.
by Kevil Diehl