As we celebrate our Independence Day on the Fourth of July, I hark back to July 4, 1865, nearly three months after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at McLean House near Appomattox Courthouse in Petersburg. VA to begin the end of the Civil War. This was no ordinary annual celebration.
How could it be?
The country had endured a terribly bloody and deadly civil war. Union forces triumphed over the Confederate Army. Slavery underpinned the conflict. Passions ran high. The country was split geographically and politically. Families, particularly in border states like Maryland, were rent asunder.
The Fourth of July—synonymous with our nation’s thrust to remove itself from British domination—had become a festive event filled with fireworks and good cheer. It unified our young country, which treasured its freedom from being a colony to a nation determined to decide its own fate.
Just imagine the context of July 4, 1865. For the first time in four years, Americans stopped killing other Americans on battlefields strewn with casualties.
According to a July 2, 2015 article in the Washington Times, our celebration of liberty was “a subdued, at times somber celebration in a country struggling to recover a sense of normalcy. In some places, the holiday was barely observed at all.”
As might be expected, Fourth of July provided an excuse to celebrate a victory. In the South, the normally ebullient holiday drew differing reactions, according to the Washington Times article. In Macon, GA, there was no celebration. In Baton Rouge, LA, however, the local newspaper exhorted readers to join their fellow Americans in the North to celebrate, as they formerly did. In Columbia, SC, the local paper reported that blacks and a small group of whites observed the holiday.
Our country has withstood frequent spasms of divisiveness brought on by economic, political and cultural distress. I think back to the 1960s and early 1970s when the Vietnam War and civil rights disturbances divided our country. It was an ugly, acrimonious time.
Currently we are in the throes of a bitter Presidential campaign. Our nation is experiencing a troubling time of disenchantment among those who are suffering economically– and feeling disenfranchised from a country where the middle class is shrinking.
The fervor for a candidate who rails against the political and economic establishment is palpable. Another candidate, on the other end of the political spectrum, drew great enthusiasm and support, because he relentlessly trashed a system that seemed apathetic about income inequality. The rich and the captains of industry drew his ire.
It would be foolhardy to ignore this divisiveness and despair so evident in our country and reflected in our Presidential campaign, in which the prime enemy is the status quo. It would be equally unwise to give up hope and faith in a nation accustomed to internal conflict and constructive change.
In good times and bad, the Fourth of July calls for unity. It implicitly recognizes that change is difficult, often disruptive. It demands a resolute attitude to fix what is ailing us.
How could the country have been in more dire emotional and cultural distress than was the sad case in 1865? Those killed or died of disease during the Civil War totaled 620,000. Casualties numbered 1.1 million. The need for healing was urgent. Two parts of a vibrant country split by significant social, economic and lifestyle differences sought reconciliation.
And achieved it. Our nation pulled together, eventually.
Happy Independence Day.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.