The Fourth of July celebration of 1864 at Davis Bend, located in Warren County roughly 20 miles southwest of Vicksburg, was the first Independence Day celebration that the Black soldiers and the newly liberated Freedmen in that area had ever experienced as free men and women.
Vicksburg – the prized “Gibraltar of the Confederacy” – had surrendered on July 4, 1863 when Confederate General John Pemberton had accepted General Grant’s demand for unconditional surrender. Although the surrender of Vicksburg took place on July 4, 1863, the Union Army of the Tennessee was so busy adjusting to the changed situation and establishing its new headquarters that it could not allow time for celebration. Over 70,000 troops, including 10 Black regiments that were a part of the command, were to be garrisoned at Vicksburg.
On July 4, 1864, a year after Vicksburg’s surrender, the city itself was described as drowsy and only partially recovered from the damage inflicted during the 47-day siege. In its July 6 edition, The Vicksburg Herald, a newspaper run by a former Union soldier, reported that some of the people of the city had anticipated a day of patriotic joy. But they were largely disappointed.
“The historic importance of the Fourth of July to the city of Vicksburg suggests that the day should have been celebrated in grand old style,” the paper editorialized. “But we are sorry to say that there were no general arrangements made for the celebration of the first anniversary of the surrender of the city.”
A few early morning displays of red-white-and-blue ornamentations were in evidence in scattered shop windows. Several speeches by Union loyalists were announced for the afternoon, but there was no general observation of the nation’s birthdate in the City of Vicksburg.
The Army quartermaster sought to break the tedium inside the city by staging a parade of six twelve-mule teams led by a brass band, the newspaper reported.
The newspaper also suggested that the members of its own staff and other white-collar workers in the city would opt to spend the day drinking and therefore would skip the July 5 edition.
Twenty miles south of Vicksburg, however, a large crowd made up of Yankee teachers, their escorts, Black and white Union soldiers, and 600 newly liberated Freedmen were gathering at the two largest plantations at Davis Bend – Brierfield and Hurricane – for the biggest July Fourth celebration ever held in Mississippi up to that time.
Boarding the boat Diligent in Vicksburg at 7 a.m. on July 4, this large group of revelers floated downriver to Davis Bend, and from there hitched rides to the home of Jefferson Davis at Brierfield.
The Vicksburg Daily Herald in its July 6, 1864 edition gave extensive coverage to the celebration at Davis Bend, calling it the “Celebration of the Fourth of July, at the residence of Jefferson Davis, Davis’s Bend, Mississippi, the Freedmen’s paradise.”
“A party of teachers and their escorts and other friends of the Freedmen embarked on board the Diligent on the morning of the 4th inst. The Diligent left the levee at Vicksburg soon after 7 o’clock a.m., and made a pleasant trip in about three hours, down the river, stopping at the landing at Davis’ Bend, whence the party were conveyed in ambulances, wagons, buggies and other vehicles, to the late residence of Jefferson Davis.”
For most of the hundreds of Black men and women there, this would be their first participation in an Independence Day celebration. And they found it so suitable to their new status of emancipation that they danced and frolicked late into the evening in “the House that Jeff Built,” as a reporter of the Vicksburg Herald reported.
An estimated 600 Black people were still living on the five plantations on Davis Island, the home of Jefferson Davis, although some had left for various reasons after the Union Navy had taken over the peninsula.
Jefferson Davis owned 131 slaves in 1860, his biographer William J. Cooper writes. Davis’s older brother, Joseph, who owned the adjacent plantation Hurricane, had 345. Three other plantations existed on Davis Bend. They also had Black people living there in bondage, although the numbers are not readily available.
The mixed bag of partygoers never lost sight of the fact that the Davis property had been “the home of traitors and oppressors of the poor” and they emblazoned the house with the label “The House Jeff Built” as they sang and partied into the early evening.
The Diligent returned to the dock at Vicksburg at 11 p.m. the night of July 4.
While some people complain that Black people had no cause for celebrating the Fourth of July in the nation’s past, Black military history researcher Bennie McRae of Trotwood, Ohio says the Black people celebrating that first July 4 at Davis Bend were entitled to celebrate because of their involvement with the war effort.
“It was not a white thing, because when Vicksburg fell Black soldiers at Milliken’s Bend and in other battles over in Louisiana and Mississippi had made it possible,” he said.
The most noteworthy battles fought by Mississippi Black troops to liberate themselves, their families, and the entire nation are the Battle of Milliken’s Bend, June 7, 1863, as part of the Vicksburg Campaign; two battles in or near Yazoo City, February and March, 1864; Big Black and Concord Church, Nov. 23-Dec. 4, 1864; Brownsville, MS, April, 1864; Brice’s Crossroads, June 1-13, 1864; Tupelo, July 5-1864, and Big Black and Concord Church, Nov. 23-Dec. 4, 1864.
“That was a heck of a cause for celebrating the Fourth of July in 1864 and in the years since, because their people assisted in bringing down the Confederacy,” McRae said. “There’s an abundance of documentation on that coming from the soldiers and sailors and the contraband (ex-slaves) themselves.
“There’s something else they don’t talk about a lot there in Mississippi. And that is that the Union Army took advantage of the many intelligence reports they got from the people down there in Mississippi. That in itself was one of the keys to the success of the Union Army. Those contraband, the ex-slaves, knew where everything was. They knew the roads. They knew the rivers. They knew all the trails. They knew where all the plantations were, and they turned all that information over to the Union Army. The Union Army had access to gobs and gobs of information related to the Confederacy – the size of their units, where they were located and everything. So, who did they get that information from? They got it from those contrabands.”
The Black troops at Davis Bend were among the 18,000 Black Mississippians recruited for the Civil War beginning in 1863-1864. They had to prove themselves as soldiers on the battlefield and as men entitled to equal treatment to their white comrades in their encampments.
While the Black recruits were at first paid $3 a month less than white troops, complaints from the civilian support groups about such overt racial discrimination forced the government to change its policy and give equal pay for equal rank.
Grant was well satisfied with the fighting ability the Black troops had shown during their first tests in battle.
“The Negro troops are easier to preserve discipline among than our white troops and I doubt not will prove equally good for garrison duty. All that have been tried have fought bravely,” Grant wrote to his commander, Gen. Halleck in early July, 1863.
“I am anxious to get as many of these Negro regiments as possible and to have them fully and completely equipped,” he wrote to Adjutant Gen. Lorenzo Thomas later that same month.
The National Park Services lists 10 Black Union regiments organized in Mississippi. These were the First Regiment Cavalry; the First Regiment Mounted Rifles; the First and Second heavy Artillery; the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th Regiment Infantry, all officially designated “African Descent” and United States Colored Troops, after May 1863.
“Vicksburg is ‘the key,’” President Lincoln had told his military command, when looking for the path to Union victory. Now, with the Vicksburg key in his pocket, Lincoln and his top generals were confident that the Civil War would soon end and the Union would remain intact.
It would take two more years of bloody combat in the east to seal the deal, however. Meanwhile, the Civil War was reaching its highest points in the Tennessee Valley and in the lands under the command of the main Army of the Potomac.
But by July 4, 1865, the Civil War would be over and the Black veterans of the Civil War, their families, and their white comrades would continue to celebrate the July 4 holiday while most of the white people would avoid its celebration for more than 80 years.