July 4 and Vicksburg or Who is a Southerner?

Chris Waldrep’s fine study of the Vicksburg campaign and historical memory was recently reviewed at H-Net.  Apparently, the reviewer repeated the old tale that because of the date of the surrender residents of the city refused to celebrate July 4th after the war.  Waldrep’s response:

I would like to clarify one small matter, however.  It is not true that the date of the surrender "kept Vicksburg citizens from celebrating Independence Day until the mid-twentieth century."  I documented numerous celebrations of the Fourth of July by white and black people in Vicksburg between 1863 and 1945. It is a myth that Vicksburgers did not celebrate the Fourth.  I even found the origins of this false story in the records of the National Park Service.  In 1945 the NPS superintendent in Vicksburg generated the story that Vicksburgers had not been celebrating the Fourth as a way of attracting press publicity for the park.  It worked. [Click here for Alexander Mendoza’s review.]

I will also point out that according to the 1860 census 6,896 whites lived in Warren County with 13,800 black people.  Does it really make sense to think that the majority black population would refuse to celebrate the day they were emancipated? 

Well, it does make sense given our tendency to define our terms narrowly and in a way that draws a necessary connection between southerner and white.  What is most disturbing is the fact that the NPS was responsible for this story. 

2 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin Feb 20, 2008 @ 19:57

    Hi Larry, — Good point, though it is not simply a function of the fire eaters but a more long-standing tradition in our historical memory to understand the south as the white south. I just finished teaching Reconstruction and it was fascinating to watch them respond to questions about the freedoms and challenges that black southerners faced after the Civil War. Many of my students casually suggest that black southerners should just move away from the racism and black codes in late 1865. Beyond the implicit assumption that anyone can simply get up and move I suggest that perhaps blacks identify and interpret the South as their home.

  • Larry Cebula Feb 20, 2008 @ 14:04

    There is the rub, the whole problem in a single linguistic convention: Saying “southerners” or “the South” when we mean white southerners. Whenever we do this we are accepting the basic premises of the fire eaters. And yet it has taken me years to train myself not to do this, and I hear it from others all the damned time.

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