VICKSBURG, MISS. — VICKSBURG, Miss. -- Elease Doyle thumbs a sheaf of pages tacked to the wall beside her cash register at Burger Village, where she rules as chief cook and cashier.
"They put out this calendar of events to tell the people of Vicksburg what we're going to be doing," she says. "Let's see what we're going to be doing on the Fourth of July."
She flips through the pages twice. She adjusts her glasses on her nose and checks again.
"Nothing," she says. "Not anything special. Nothing special going on in Vicksburg."
Doyle knew the answer before she looked, for she's a native of this town. She knows that on most of the Independence Days in its history, nothing special has been going on in Vicksburg.
The most painful event in Vicksburg's long history occurred 134 years ago on the Fourth of July. For many years afterward, the humiliation of that event made it impossible for many of its citizens to rejoice on the nation's birthday.
"There was nothing for us to celebrate for a long, long time," says Gordon Cotton, local historian and director of the Old Courthouse Museum, where the community's relics are on display. "Even the post office stayed open for a number of years on the Fourth of July."
By the time the wound had scabbed over, Vicksburg was used to not observing the Fourth. Even today it seems unable to get the hang of it.
Vicksburg sits on a high bluff on the eastern bank of the Mississippi. During the first two years of the Civil War, the town had about 5,000 residents. It was called "the Gibraltar of the West," because Confederate cannons arranged along its bluff controlled the broad, muddy river below, holding off Union gunboats and protecting the flow of men and supplies to the Southern armies in the East.
In May 1863, after Union naval bombardments and a series of infantry assaults failed to conquer the seemingly impregnable town, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant decided to starve it into submission. He placed Vicksburg under siege.
Cut off from supplies and reinforcements and under constant artillery fire, many of its citizens moved into caves they burrowed into hillsides. As the siege wore on and the food supply dwindled, both the citizenry and the Southern army subsisted on the meat of mules, dogs and, some said, rats.
More than 100,000 Union and Confederate soldiers fought there. The Union lost more than 10,000 killed, wounded and missing, the Confederacy more than 9,000. Eighteen civilians died by cannon fire. Vicksburg endured for 47 days. Then, on July 4, Gen. John Pemberton marched his army of starving wraiths out of their forts and earthworks and surrendered Vicksburg to Grant.
The loss of the town and control of the river was a disaster for the South. It severed the trans-Mississippi states of Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas from the rest of the Confederacy, depriving its army of most of the food, supplies and thousands of men that those states had provided.
Although the war would drag on for almost two more years, Grant's victory -- coupled with the defeat of Gen. Robert E. Lee's army in Gettysburg, Pa., on the same day -- broke the back of the Confederacy and assured an eventual Union victory.
"It was no accident that the Confederates surrendered on the Fourth of July," says Cotton. "General Pemberton said he could have lasted another week, but what was the point? Because they surrendered on Independence Day, it wasn't an unconditional surrender, as Grant had been used to getting. Pemberton was pretty demanding, and Grant was pretty generous, because he wanted the surrender to be on the Fourth. wanted to present that prize to President Lincoln on that day."
"No," says Mayor Joe Loviza, "there was nothing for the South to celebrate on that Fourth of July." So, in Vicksburg, they didn't. Not in 1863. Not for a long time.
In 1945, when the Allies had conquered Nazi Germany and were about to defeat Japan, Vicksburg, like the rest of the country, had an attack of patriotic fever. "They started celebrating again," Cotton says. "But they didn't call it the Fourth of July or Independence Day. They called it the Carnival of the Confederacy. They had parades and floats and all that, and they had a pretty girl to represent each Southern state."
The town did the same thing the next year. But then the practice died away.
About 25,000 people live in Vicksburg now. Much of its livelihood still depends on the Mississippi. The Army Corps of Engineers operates three major installations there. Eighteen barge lines work out of its port, the largest river port in the state. Since 1993, four gambling casinos have opened along its river front.
Barbara McCleese is a licensed guide at Vicksburg National Military Park. She explains the battlefield's grass-covered earthworks and trenches, and its scores of statues of gallant and suffering soldiers. And the thousands of graves.
"But the Fourth of July is still not a big thing," McCleese says. "We have a Memorial Day parade and other patriotic things. Not much on the Fourth, though."
Despite his city's reverence for its Confederate past, Loviza says Vicksburg is very much a part of what he calls a "new South" that emerged from Jim Crow laws, segregation and civil rights turmoil and the reform that followed.
The most vivid symbol of Loviza's "new South" is the man who on Monday will replace him as mayor. He's Robert Major Walker, a seventh-generation Vicksburg resident whose ancestors survived the siege as slaves.
The term of office that he's about to begin will be his third. When he was elected to his first term in 1988, Vicksburg had never had a black mayor.
"I had no white teacher, no white schoolmates or classmates from the time I started in the first grade until I finished up graduate school at Jackson State in 1966," Walker says. "When I was going to do my student teaching to get my teacher certification in 1967, it wasn't kosher for blacks to be teaching whites in Mississippi. I had to go out of state. My placement as a student teacher was at Williams High School in Germantown, Tenn."
The next academic year, 1968-1969, Walker, with a master's degree in history, became the first black person ever to teach at the University of Mississippi. He taught there for several years.
In last month's election, he defeated Loviza with 60 percent of the vote.
"I will be a color-blind mayor," he says. "I don't want inconsequential things like race to get in the way of doing what needs to be done.
"For a long time, Vicksburg was locked into July 4, 1863. It couldn't get beyond that. But we're a cosmopolitan city now. We've had an influx of people from outside Mississippi and outside the Southern region. Vicksburg is not -- and I hesitate to use this word -- enslaved by that part of our history. The fact that I'm the mayor of the city shows that we have not been limited by our past."
And one of these years, Vicksburg may celebrate the Fourth of July again.
Walker smiles, shrugs and says: "It could happen."
Pub Date: 7/04/97