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Celebrating Independence Day During Wartime

08/03/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"It is a common mistake in going to war to begin at the wrong end, to act first, and wait for disasters to discuss the matter."- Thucydides

On July 4th, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln undoubtedly enjoyed one of the most sublime days of his presidency. He would have spent it digesting the accounts of the great Union victory at Gettysburg the day before, and would have heard initial reports that the Confederate Army at Vicksburg had finally surrendered to General Grant.

The victory at Gettysburg marked the "high tide" of the rebellion, while Grant's victory at Vicksburg resulted, according to his Personal Memoirs, in the "Triumph of opening the Mississippi from its source to its mouth to the free navigation of vessels bearing the Stars and stripes." Grant also noted that, "The Fate of the Confederacy was sealed when Vicksburg fell."

So important was the 4th of July that the Confederate Commander at Vicksburg, General Pemberton, knew that he was more likely to receive magnanimity from the Union Army if he agreed to surrender the garrison on the 4th of July.

If I should be asked why the 4th of July was selected as the day for surrender, the answer is obvious. I believed that upon that day, I should obtain better terms. Well aware of the vanity of our foe, I knew they would attach vast importance to the entrance on the 4th of July into the stronghold of the great river, and that, to gratify their national vanity, they would yield then what could not be extorted from them at any other time.

Perhaps the celebration of our nation's declaring itself independent of the King of England is one America's most perfect and least politically malleable holidays. The above passage suggests that in our War Between the States, at least in Mississippi, the holiday was slightly marred by the political objectives of a rebellion. Other than that, it is a pristine day of celebration.

Or is it?

Mark Twain, in a speech he gave while in London on July 4th, 1899, noted that Independence Day is, in fact, far from perfect,

The business aspect of the Fourth of July is not perfect as it stands. See what it costs us every year with loss of life, the crippling of thousands with its fireworks, and the burning down of property. It is not only sacred to patriotism and universal freedom, but to the surgeon, the undertaker, the insurance offices -- and they are working it for all its worth.

Clearly, Mr. Twain was speaking tongue in cheek. And yet, could he be onto something?

Since the Day our Independence became sacred, some 233 years ago, its annual observance continues to portend the deaths of American Warriors. Celebrating the 4th of July is to celebrate the Brave who, for reasons that can only comfort those who loved them, and who live with what Lincoln declared the "cherished memory and solemn pride" that must be theirs in laying their sons and daughters upon "The Altar of Freedom."

They gave their lives for duty, a word described by Robert E. Lee as, "The sublimest word in the English Language."

And so, "We beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past," wrote Fitzgerald in the final sentence of The Great Gatsby.

On the eve of our Grand Celebration of the extraordinary decree that declared us a free republic, we find ourselves chained to the wreckage of a brutally flawed casus belli.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, we are borne back into that dark past. Like the white colonials in Conrad's Heart of Darkness, those "...weak-eyed devils of a rapacious and pitiless folly," we are there...because we are there!

Happy 4th of July, fellow Americans! We defeated King George III, and created the greatest nation on earth. Let us be worthy of the profound glory and tremendous sacrifice for which our founding fathers, knowing their actions meant treason and a death sentence, risked everything.

Since that day, those willing to fight for the words on our Declaration of Independence have consecrated it with courage, and, too often, their ultimate sacrifice.


The opinions contained herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Defense.