April ’61 (2)



            Anxiety swiftly trumped legality. With critical border states remaining undeclared, both sides went after them with the zeal of self-preservation.

            Abraham Lincoln’s government had to have Maryland. Otherwise, facing disloyal Virginia across the Potomac River, the capital at Washington was surrounded. Equally important was Kentucky, native state of both the Federal and the Confederate presidents.

            “I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game,” Lincoln would soon say. “Kentucky gone, we cannot hold Missouri, nor, I think, Maryland. These all against us, and the job on our hands is too large.”

            Obviously. Maryland already had the federal capital practically under siege. Without Missouri, the Union was cut off from the potential recruits and other resources of staunchly loyal Kansas. Perhaps most crucially, without the Bluegrass State the Confederacy’s northern boundary would be the Ohio River, beyond which the northern Midwest–Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Chicago–lay all but defenseless.

            With Kentucky and the Ohio River, the Confederacy could easily stymie the developing design to restore the antebellum Union. Aging general-in-chief Winfield Scott was hatching the so-called “Anaconda Plan,” its gist being to strangle the South by surrounding, blockading, and subdividing it via the waters of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Atlantic Ocean.

            But Lincoln did not need Kentucky any worse than Jefferson Davis needed Tennessee. Whereas the bluegrass could virtually put icing on a Dixie victory cake, lack of Tennessee would all but guarantee Confederate defeat. Without the Volunteer State, the Confederacy’s northern boundary west of the Appalachians would be the borders of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. Secession-friendly Virginia and North Carolina could be flanked, cut off, and soon likely lost.

            After the months of nail-biting that preceded the Fort Sumter explosion, Lincoln and Davis began moving at a frenetic pace–while each still hoped for an 11th-hour settlement. Davis rejoiced that at Sumter “there has been no blood spilled more precious than that of a mule.”

          But the time for settlement had passed. On April 15, seeing no choice in the wake of the Fort Sumter surrender, Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to “put down the rebellion.” Two days later, Davis countered with a call for 32,000 volunteers of his own–while a Virginia convention of delegates declared the state out of the Union. It offered the Confederacy a new capital, Richmond.

           Both chief executives convened portentous meetings on April 22. Jefferson Davis’s was with his cabinet. Together, he and it decided to give all assistance possible to their friends in the border states. Whether those states had seceded yet was immaterial.

           They appeared to be striking while the iron was hot. On April 19, four Federal soldiers and nine civilians had died when a Baltimore crowd waving Confederate flags tried to prevent the Sixth Massachusetts Regiment from crossing their city on its way to defend Washington.

           Two days after this Baltimore bloodbath, and one day before the cabinet meeting, Davis got a letter from Tennessee Governor Isham G. Harris at Nashville saying secession fever was growing in his state. Harris added that he hoped to bring Tennessee into the Confederacy soon.

           This news was all the more gratifying because the Volunteer State, while Southern, was known to be deeply divided. Thirty years before, President Andrew Jackson,   a Tennessean, had famously nipped in the bud a South Carolina move toward disunion. Tennessee’s mountainous eastern third remained strongly unionist, and back in February a referendum of the whole state had rejected by nearly 10,000 votes just the calling of a convention to consider secession.

           But after Lincoln called for troops and Harris loudly refused to send a single one, the legislature scheduled a second referendum–and Confederate troops soon hurried to Tennessee to aid its secessionists. In the meantime, so-called “vigilance” committees had begun investigating, verbally and/or violently intimidating, and even banishing suspected unionists from the state’s central and western two-thirds.

           Unlike Jefferson Davis’s, Abraham Lincoln’s April 22 meeting was not with his cabinet, but it was similarly signal. The Northern president had spent a nerve-wracking six weeks since arriving in Washington. From the White House by telescope, he could see Confederate army tents across the Potomac. Washington was defended by only a scratch military detachment and a handful of civilian volunteers until the arrival of the Baltimore-bloodied Sixth Massachusetts. Other regiments were said to be on their way, but they had not arrived. Lincoln ordered Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase to dispense $2 million to a trio of private citizens from New York to buy arms and finance other extraordinary military measures.

           Lincoln’s April 22 meeting was with a citizen delegation from Baltimore. They demanded, in the wake of the military-civilian conflict in their city three days earlier, that he bring no more troops across Maryland soil. He also must make peace with the Confederate government on any terms obtainable, they said.

           The lanky Illinois lawyer, so known for humor, lost his temper. He had not come to his nation’s capital to be a doormat for Southerners bent on leaving a Union born in the blood of 1776.

           “You would have me break my oath and surrender the government without a blow,” he suddenly stormed at his visitors. “There is no (George) Washington in that–no (Andrew) Jackson in that–no manhood or honor in that.”

           He needed troops to defend Washington and the only way they could get there was across Maryland, so they would keep coming. If Marylanders wanted, they could have more of the same bullets and bayonets they got from the Sixth Massachusetts.

           “Go home and tell your people that if they will not attack us, we will not attack them,” Lincoln told these purveyors of unsought advice. “But if they do attack us, we will return it–and…severely.”

           General Scott prepared to arrest disloyal politicians gathering for an April 26 meeting of the Maryland legislature at Frederick, but Lincoln said no. Such an act, he feared, would trigger a vote to secede.

           The next day, though, he suspended the right of habeas corpus along the critical road north from Washington to loyal Philadelphia. Soldiers were empowered to arrest anyone suspected of aiding secessionists or trying to overthrow the government. They could incarcerate these suspected offenders indefinitely, without hearing or trial.

            It would be the first of several such acts, and they would be forever controversial, but Lincoln would soon offer a rationale that perhaps made up in logic for what it lacked in legal precedent. The longtime member of the legal profession would say he saw no sense in blind devotion to one law that permitted a rebellion to nullify all the others.


(For further information see The Civil War Almanac, Executive Editor John S. Bowman, Bison Books, 1982; Lincoln by David Herbert Donald, Simon & Schuster, 1995; Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour by William C. Davis, Harper-Collins, 1991; With Malice Toward None: The Life of Abraham Lincoln, by Stephen B. Oates, Harper & Row, 1977; The Lincoln Encyclopedia, ed. Archer H. Shaw, MacMillan, 1950; “The Vortex of Secession: West Tennesseans and the Rush to War” by Derek W. Frisby in Sister States, Enemy States, eds. Kent T. Dollar, Larry H. Whiteaker, and W. Calvin Dickinson, University Press of Kentucky, 2009; and The Siege of Washington: The Untold Story of the Twelve Days That Shook the Union, by John and Charles Lockwood, Oxford University Press, 2011.)


            The Freedom Ride planned for 1961 was America’s first only in scope and name. There had been a more modest and quickly aborted one in 1947 called the Journey of Reconciliation.

           The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), founded in 1941, launched the “Journey,” too. The spur then was a Supreme Court ruling intended to end another piece of American–especially Southern–racial discrimination. African Americans, including those who had served America in uniform abroad during World War II, were routinely required to sit in the back of buses traveling through the South. The court decreed that this must end. It held in a 1946 case that segregation on buses crossing state lines was illegal.

            In 1947, CORE organized a daring but comparatively gingerly test of the federal government’s willingness to abide by the decision. It gathered thirteen riders steeped in principles of nonviolence to test the law in the upper South.

            The Journey of Reconciliation ended quickly in North Carolina, where the passengers were beaten and sentenced to a chain gang. They appealed and lost, and one of the Civil Rights Movement’s more important, if controversial, names began coming farther to the fore. Told of his chain gang fate, ex-Communist and West Indian-rooted Bayard Rustin of CORE grinned at NAACP leader Roy Wilkins and said, “If we got to go, we got to go.” Gandhian acceptance of the sentence would further the cause, Rustin contended, and he did his time.

            Thirteen years later, the Supreme Court’s December 1960 ruling in Boynton vs. Virginia extended the 1946 decree on bus desegregation. In Boynton, it declared that the accessory facilities–waiting and dining rooms–were also open to all.

            Almost immediately, two of the Nashville sit-in campaign’s better-known participants decided to conduct a tiny, unpublicized test of the new ruling on their own. They were American Baptist ministerial students John Lewis and Bernard Lafayette.

            Lafayette’s and Lewis’s backgrounds defined the diversity that characterized what was regarded as African America. In contrast to Lewis’s Alabama cotton-chopping roots, Lafayette hailed from Tampa, Florida. His parents were well-traveled and of ethnically rich Cuban-Bahamian-French-South Atlantic-island backgrounds.

            During grade-school, because his father got a shipyard job, Lafayette and his family spent two years in Philadelphia. There he experienced a much less-stressful life. For the first time, he felt himself to be a real participant in the larger community. After two years, the Lafayettes moved back to Tampa, but the Philadelphia years were all-important to young Bernard’s vision for the future.

            The Supreme Court’s Boynton decision came down in December, just before Lafayette and Lewis were scheduled to go home from American Baptist for Christmas. With almost incredible offhand courage, they decided to make their own individual test of the new decree. They would each board the same southbound bus, but they would do so separately and take seats in the front rather than the traditional rear.

            The reaction was predictable. The bus driver immediately told one, then the other, to go to the back of the bus. Neither complied. Steaming, the driver left the bus, seemingly to summon police, but he returned alone. Apparently no officers wanted to bother with enforcing seat assignments on two separate and unheralded African American youths.

            Their journey, made mostly after dark, was nonetheless frightening. The bus stopped in a lot of small towns deeper and deeper in Dixie, and in each the driver did something neither youth had seen bus drivers do before. He got out and briefly went inside the stations or businesses they stopped at. Lafayette and Lewis were sure he was alerting militant racists at that stop or farther down the road.

            Lewis reached his destination, near Troy, Alabama, first. The bus let him off on an isolated stretch of road outside town. Lafayette warned him to be careful, but Lewis already had. He had told his family beforehand that he was coming, and they picked him up quickly, before anybody else could.

            Back on the bus, Bernard Lafayette never slept. Now without even the comforting presence of Lewis, he feared every white man who walked toward the bus at every subsequent stop. But he made it home without violent incident.

           Lafayette was a few months too young to meet CORE’s criteria for the more formal Freedom Ride planned for 1961. CORE mandated that he must have parental permission, and Bernard’s father refused to give it. To do so, his father said, would be tantamount to sanctioning his son’s suicide.

            So Lewis headed to Washington alone, young but no babe in the woods. Thanks to his and Bernard Lafayette’s dry run during their Christmas vacation–not to mention their survival of racist gauntlets in the Nashville sit-ins of 1960–he had an idea of the kind of danger hr was soon to face.


            (For further information, see Walking With The Wind by John Lewis and Michael D’Orso, Simon & Schuster, 1998; The Children by David Halberstam, Random House, 1998; and Parting The Waters by Taylor Branch, Simon & Schuster, 1988.)

About Civil War-Civil Rights

Jack Hurst is a former longtime print journalist who has written three Civil War books: Nathan Bedford Forrest: A Biography (Alfred A. Knopf, 1993), Men of Fire: Grant, Forrest, and the Campaign That Decided the Civil War (Basic Books, 2007), and a second book about Ulysses S. Grant and Nathan Bedford Forrest, Born To Battle, published in June 2012 by Basic Books. He also had a desk in the rear of the cityroom of the Nashville Tennessean and watched David Halberstam go about covering the desegregation movement in Nashville in 1960-61 and himself covered some of the civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham for the Tennessean in 1963. He owes profuse thanks to Jennifer Kelland Fagan, copy editor extraordinaire and computer guru,for indispensable aid in the design evolution of this blog. Her eye-catching website can be accessed at www.hydraislandgreece.com.
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