Freedom & The Guns of July 1863

American Union Flag (XXL)I was a history geek long before I was a lawyer. I spent a substantial amount of time at UC Davis studying 19th Century United States History, the diary of John Quincy Adams and the US Civil War.

150 years ago, the very concept of liberty hinged in the month of July in 1863. Here is the breakdown of key events:

July 1-3: Gettysburg

July 4: The Union victory at Vicksburg, lead by Ulysses S Grant

July 11: First Draft in the Union

July 13-16: New York Draft Riots

July 18: The Massachusetts 54th Assault on Fort Wagner

The Civil War

If we were to honor all of the fallen in the Civil War with a monument of names it would be the size of 11 Vietnam Memorials.

The Civil War was caused by eleven states that committed mass treason to nullify a Presidential Election because of their self-proclaimed “right” to own other human beings.

The order of succession was in direct inverse proportion to the population of slaves within the state. With the exception of South Carolina, each state in rebellion had pro-Union troops, making the Civil War a war within each state.

The Civil War had been 80 years in the making since the Constitutional Convention, when slavery was thought to be on the path to extinction. The invention of the cotton gin perpetuated the national sin, leading to multiple crises, from the Compromise of 1820; to the Gag Rule in the 1830s; the 1844 election of James K Polk & the Mexican-American War, which lead to the Compromise of 1850; the Dred Scott opinion in 1857 followed by John Brown & Harper’s Ferry, and finally the war itself after the first shot at Fort Sumter.

For those who argue that the Civil War was about “State’s Rights,” let’s examine the Confederate Constitution. It was nearly identical to the US Constitution, with several key differences:

The President served one six-year term and could not run for re-election;

The President had a line item veto; and

The Confederate Constitution bluntly defended slavery in Section 9(I)(4) with “No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.”

The defense of slavery was driven home with Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens’ “Cornerstone Speech.” Stephens flatly rejected Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal with the haunting statement:

Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.

The only property right at issue in the Civil War was the “right” to own other human beings.

There is nothing more Un-American than such a twisted belief.

And that is why men and women lined up to fight to preserve the U.S. Constitution when eleven states decided they could break the country in two when they could no longer decide the Presidency.

The Hinge of Liberty

The Civil War had not gone well for the North, often due to the lack of audacious generals and bad command decisions. July 1863 was a tipping point.

The three-day battle of Gettysburg had the same number of casualties as the seven years of the Vietnam War. The Union victory at Gettysburg could have ended the war if the Union Army had crushed the retreating Confederate Army. That did not happen. However, the South would never invade a Northern State again.

GeneralGrantVicksburg was another significant loss for the South.

The city would not celebrate the 4th of July again until after World War II.

Vicksburg was one of the key battles that propelled General Grant to the command of the Union Army.

Grant was not afraid to fight and had done the math that the Union outnumbered the South 4 to 1. In a war of attrition, it was only a matter of time before the North would put down the rebellion.

The first Union draft launched the largest race riot in US History in New York City. The New York Herald published the names of everyone who died at Gettysburg, followed by the names of those who had been drafted. Each were several pages long.

The Irish population in New York City exploded in three days of rioting. Up until that point, African-Americans had been racially depicted in political cartoons and lithographs as tool-welding apes. The Irish who rioted went on a killing spree, including lynching people, burning them alive and beating the faces off of police officers. The exact number of dead is not known, because of the bodies that were dumped in the river.

President Lincoln had to send in troops who had been at Gettysburg to put down the rioting with cannon and bayonet.

While New York recovered from a horrific three days, something happened that changed pubic opinion on July 18 in South Carolina.

The Massachusetts 54 was a volunteer regiment of free northern African-Americans, lead by Robert Gould Shaw. The ranks of the 54th included the sons of Fredrick Douglas. Shaw himself was the son of Bostonian abolitionists.

civil war statueDespite their depiction in the film Glory, the 54th was never deprived uniforms, boots, or supplies. No one deserted. No one was whipped. Moreover, when Shaw learned that his men were to be paid less than white soldiers, it was his idea for them all not to take pay.

Colonel Shaw volunteered the 54th to lead the frontal assault on Ft. Wagner in South Carolina. Those men marched straight into Hell. From sand dunes to an uphill battle under cannon fire, those soldiers faced bullets that would tear off limbs.

The 54th lost over half their numbers. Shaw was one of them. The Confederates broke the practice of returning dead officers after the battle. Shaw was stripped naked and buried with his men in a mass grave.

MA54MemorialThe Fort was never taken by force until the Confederates abandoned it months later.

The United States did a massive about face after Ft. Wagner. The story and images of a gallant battle replaced the racist lithographs from just a week before.

William Carney of the 54th would ultimately become the first African-American to be awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroics in carrying the regimental colors.

It is important to remember that in the years leading up to the Civil War many in the North believed that African-Americans should either be returned to Africa or colonized in South America. Those unrealistic ideas vanished after Fort Wagner, because people did not see the men of the 54th as African-Americans, but as fellow Americans.

President Lincoln was able to argue that those willing to fight for their country should be able to vote in it because of the sacrifice of the Massachusetts 54th.

We should all remember the Sesquicentennial of July 1863. Thousands of Americans were killed to preserve freedom in our country.

The key events of the first 18 days of July 1863 have to be analyzed together for their significance. All are connected. The sacrifices of many ultimately would give us the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments and the country we know today.