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Memo to Today's GOP: The Lasting Lesson of the Battle for Vicksburg

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Increasing numbers of Americans are perplexed by the regressive nature of today's Republican Party. How is it that the modern GOP appears to be tumbling back to a time, for instance, when racial discrimination was institutionalized and even when there was talk of secession? Why is it that the Grand Old Party is folding in on itself while some of its leaders embrace the likes of "Tax Rider of the Purple Sage" rancher Cliven Bundy?

To better understand this back-to-future strategy, we could learn from the history of 1863.

Many historians have sought to designate certain military battles fought in the Americas as the most important in our nation's history. Yorktown in 1781, New Orleans in 1815, Gettysburg in 1863? Especially in terms of learning lessons today, I vote for the Battle of Vicksburg.

In 1863, the Civil War had raged on for two years. Most families whether Union or Confederate felt the acute pain caused by a loss of a loved one. This was not a war of and for an isolated few --- practically the entire continent was intrinsically involved. Strategically, the Confederate cause was always on shaky ground, but their leaders hoped to push on for a settlement, banking that the Northern states would grow weary of the continual death and destruction. The rebel leaders also hoped to force a change in the 1864 U.S. presidential election removing Abraham Lincoln's stalwart vision of unification for one favoring the South on the key issue of slavery.

Lincoln needed a victory, one where the rebels could see as clear as day that their cause would be doomed to failure. In the end he got a two-fer that year: Gettysburg was the gaudy battlefield triumph, while Vicksburg was the strategic win -- the straw that broke the camel's back. This is not meant to diminish the valor, heroism and sacrifice of the combatants on both sides at Gettysburg -- but of the two battles, the outcome at Vicksburg had bigger implications.

Enter Ulysses S. Grant: eschewer of epaulettes, focused, ultimately brilliant -- he was the military sword President Lincoln desperately needed in order to unify our nation once again. In an arduous seven-month campaign, Grant effectively encircled the important Mississippi River port of Vicksburg, forcing the rebel army and the city's inhabitants into a prolonged and painful siege. City residents were compelled to live in caves dug into hillsides as their homes were reduced to rubble by Grant's relentless artillery. Provisions inside the city were scarce: Horses, mules then pets became food sources. Finally, on July 4th, the rebel forces surrendered. It is telling that our nation's day of independence was not celebrated in Vicksburg for almost 80 years after its capitulation in the summer of 1863.

The primary reason Vicksburg was so important to the South's cause was the fact that the rebel armies -- both in the Eastern and Western theaters -- needed the Mississippi River as a vital supply route. Once that route was closed after the fall of Vicksburg, the Confederate cause was truly doomed, while the whole Mississippi River Valley was open to the Union forces. Lincoln immediately recognized the significance of Grant's victory, saying at the time, "The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea." Grant also knew what any rational person accepted as an absolute truth when he said, "The fate of the Confederacy was sealed at Vicksburg."

Unfortunately, the stubbornness and fanaticism of many of the Confederate leaders -- chief among them their president, Jefferson Davis -- forced the country into two more years of bloody conflict. Even though in 1863 the Confederate Treasury was virtually bankrupt, and even though their infrastructure was skeletal at best, delusion took hold and doomed the South to decades of misery. Had the war ended in 1863, much of the suffering of the South -- and the nation's as a whole -- would have been considerably lessened. Grant's "right arm," William Tecumseh Sherman, said,

Vicksburg should have ended the war; but the rebel leaders were mad, and seemed determined that their people should drink of the very lowest dregs of the cup of war, of which they themselves had prepared.


Today, the lessons of Vicksburg should be required study for those in the GOP. The rantings of modern conservative political leaders is shockingly similar in thought and theory to the secessionists of the 1800s (as if cranky John Calhoun was reincarnated, minus the wild mane he sported back in his day).

Some pundits will may dismiss this comparison and assert that it's limited to the fringe few. But it's become the stock and trade of right-wing militia groups, gun owner organizations, and certain local, state and national elected representatives, amplified and empowered by a major news network and like-minded blogs. Witness the Cliven Bundy mass insanity.

A terrible war was fought in part to undo the terrible Dred Scott decision when the Court ruled in 1857 that a slave was not a citizen and had "no rights which the white man is bound to respect." Therefore the Civil War was fought largely because of slavery, no matter how many revisionist historians want to claim it was all about states rights.

To escape any taint of racism, most Republican leaders reach back over 150 years call themselves the "Party of Lincoln." Nothing more recent? It is a party hijacked by the paranoid, where semi-secessionists like Bundy and large percentage of the GOP base in the Confederate South act as the color of the president's skin is more important than the Constitution they so flagrantly embrace.

Perhaps the city the GOP chooses to host its national convention in 2016 will be remembered as a rhetorical battlefield. Let us hope that the lessons of the past, particularly those learned through the carnage of the real battle at Vicksburg, will guide the GOP on a better path, one illuminated by "the better angels of our nature."

Mark Benoit is a political consultant who's worked on 36 campaigns -- from presidential to judicial. On the government side, he served on the staffs of New York City Mayor David N. Dinkins and as chief of staff to Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum.