May ’61


            Civil war, shriekingly threatened off and on for decades, was now real.

            To the joy of some Americans and the dismay of most, secessionists and unionists began to meet bloodily in small and scattered clashes while zealots of each rushed to gird for wider combat. The majority still tried to decide whether to join the fray and on which side, providing they lived in areas that allowed a choice.

            On May 1, new Confederate General Robert E. Lee sent Colonel Thomas J. (soon to be “Stonewall”) Jackson to Harpers Ferry. That railroad-and-federal-arsenal town on the Maryland border in northwest Virginia, overlooking the junction of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, was critical.

            Lee–the refined Virginian whose home, Arlington, sat across the Potomac River from Washington–had resigned from the United States Army on April 20 after rejecting a Lincoln offer of top field command. Lee has long been erroneously portrayed by many historians as so opposed to slavery that he wished to free his own slaves. Although he professed to believe slavery a “moral and political evil” which harmed both races, he resisted freeing nearly 200 slaves he inherited and whose emancipation was mandated by the will. He claimed to see emancipation as a desired end, but only far in the future.

            “The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially and physically,” he wrote his wife in 1855, espousing a popular and convenient view at that time. “The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their instruction as a race, and I hope will prepare and lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known and ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.”

            Lee loathed all extremism, but he especially abhorred the adherents of abolition. So this son of Revolutionary War hero “Light Horse” Harry Lee and husband of the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington agonized but chose allegiance to his native state. In so doing, he turned away from the nation for whose birth his father fought and whose authority over the states the elder Lee, despite loyalty to Virginia, had helped establish in the Whiskey Rebellion of the 1790s.

            Soon-to-be-Stonewall Jackson was the Virginia opposite of Lee. They both had graduated from West Point and fought in the Mexican War, but Jackson was a comparative rustic, having grown up undistinguished in Virginia’s western backwoods. He was an obscure professor at Virginia Military Academy in the Shenandoah Valley when the South Carolina Confederates fired on Fort Sumter. Cadets knew Jackson as a bumbling and uninspiring speaker, but that changed as the upshot of the Sumter bombardment became known. His eyes alight with a fire both Presbyterian and sectional, he told his students to unsheathe their swords and “throw away the scabbards.”

            Virginia had already effectively cast its lot with Dixie. In a process that would occur elsewhere, on April 29 a convention of delegates had offered Richmond to the Confederacy as its permanent capital–despite the fact that Virginia citizens would not get a vote on whether to secede until May 23.

            The Virginia referendum, when held, did affirm by a count of about 90,000 to 30,000 what by then was a foregone conclusion. There was already fighting in the state. Cannon fire had erupted between Federal blockade ships and secessionists at Gloucester Point on the seacoast on May 9. Nine days later, Northern-fired cannons bombarded Sewall’s Point in the first Federal offensive action against the Confederacy. 

            Similarly, on May 6 Tennessee’s legislature voted 66 to 25 for secession–after its citizens voted strongly against the idea back in February. The legislators went about preparing to secede while inconsistently scheduling for June 8 a second statewide referendum. This time, two factors were different. Lincoln had called for troops to recover the seceding territory, and secessionist Governor Isham G. Harris was mounting a stringent campaign. “Vigilance” committees throughout the central and western parts of the state were forming to investigate, intimidate, violently coerce, and/or even expel from the state people suspected of opposing secession.

            Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis vied mightily for the allegiance of their mutual native state, neutral Kentucky. Lincoln promised not to invade, but on May 14 he ordered federal aid to be quietly given to the unionists there, arguing that they were not invaders but, rather, Kentuckians. On May 16, the unionist legislature reaffirmed the state’s neutrality, opposing the wishes of secessionist Governor Beriah Magoffin.

            On May 24, Federal troops eased across the Potomac from Washington to occupy Alexandria, Virginia. The aim was to protect the national capital. Colonel Elmer Ellsworth of the Eleventh New York Regiment became the first combat casualty of the war when he climbed to the top of a hotel to take down a Confederate flag. Ellsworth, a friend of Lincoln, was shot–not by a uniformed Confederate but, rather, by hotel keeper James Jackson, who was in turn killed by a Union soldier.

            A small but portentous act also occurred in May. General Benjamin Butler, who had first put down the Baltimore resistance and now commanded Fortress Monroe at the end of Virginia’s Yorktown peninsula, took in three slaves who entered his lines after having been used to construct Confederate fortifications. Butler refused to return them to their masters, calling them “contraband of war.”

            The incident troubled Lincoln, who stoutly maintained that he was mobilizing to preserve the Union, not to free the slaves. Then, though, he decided that he had no obligation to return slaves of rebelling masters who would then, directly or indirectly, continue using them to aid in rebellion. His obligation, indeed, was to the contrary.

            But such actions as Butler’s could–and before long would–expose a problem. Neither the border states nor more northern ones wanted these suddenly-free people of color; in most cases, the laws against free African Americans were severely restrictive.

            Where could they go?

            (For further information see The Civil War Almanac, exec. ed. John S. Bowman, Bison Books, 1982; Lincoln by David Herbert Donald, Simon & Schuster, 1995; With Malice Toward None: The Life of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen Oates, Harper & Row, 1977; Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour by William C. Davis, Harper Collins, 1991; The Lincoln Encyclopedia by Archer H. Shaw, MacMillan, 1950; Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters by Elizabeth Pryor, Penguin, 2008; Lee The Soldier, ed. Gary W. Gallagher, University of Nebraska Press, 1996; Lee by Clifford Dowdey, Little-Brown, 1965; Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War, ed. Patricia L. Faust, Harper & Row, 1986; and Stonewall Jackson by G. F. R. Henderson, Grosset & Dunlap reissue, no date but early 1940s.)



            The first Freedom Ride conducted under that name began on May 4 on a note of appropriate gravity.

            The night before, its participants enjoyed a Chinese meal in the first such restaurant in which 21-year-old John Lewis, the Nashville ministerial student and son of Alabama sharecroppers, had ever dined. One of his fellow incipient Riders joked, with macabre Christian overtones, that it might be their Last Supper.

            Lewis had seen no Oriental food before in his life. He also had seen the inside of few full-fledged dining establishments frequented by white people. Before, he had mostly just sat-in at “white-only” Southern lunch counters determined not to nourish him or his pipedream of racial equality.

            Now–in Washington, D.C., capital of the Land of the Free–he was being put up in a beautifully-furnished house that was the Quaker headquarters for the Freedom Ride and being treated to this Chinese feast, a seemingly endless stream of delicious dishes. Lewis, though, was no man to be distracted from why they were there.

             “At this time, human dignity is the most important thing in my life,” he had written in his application to be a Freedom Rider. “This is the most important decision in my life, to decide to give up all if necessary for the Freedom Ride, that Freedom and Justice might come to the Deep South.”

            Lewis had arrived in Washington on May 1. Under the overall leadership of Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) chairman James Farmer, Lewis and the others underwent three days of intensive training for their hazardous mission. They studied Gandhi and Thoreau; laws and practices of the Jim Crow South; the 1960 Supreme Court decision in Boynton v. Virginia outlawing segregation in all interstate travel facilities; and the kind of violence–punches, kicks, clubbings, and worse–that they could expect on this ride.

            For Lewis, those three days were just a thumbnail refresher course. He had spent years learning these things in far deeper detail from the Rev. James Lawson, a Methodist minister who had conducted free-to-all classes in nonviolence in black churches in Nashville. The central concept was the power of “unearned suffering” to redeem both the sufferer and the person and/or system causing the suffering. The idea was both moral and strategic. A poor minority could not hope to out-muscle a well-armed majority.

            On May 4 they boarded two buses and headed for the first stop, 50 miles south at Fredericksburg, Virginia. The dozen others were all older than Lewis–much so, in most cases.

             The whites were Albert Bigelow, a onetime U. S. Navy captain whom World War II had converted to pacifism; Jim Peck, who had spent World II in prison as a conscientious objector and been beaten on the Freedom Ride’s predecessor, the so-called Journey of Reconciliation, in 1947; retired University of Michigan professor Walter Bergman and his wife, Frances; free-lance New York journalist Charlotte Devries; CORE field secretary Genevieve Hughes; and CORE worker Ed Blankenheim.

             Besides Lewis, the African Americans, nearly all younger than the whites, were New York folksinger Jimmy McDonald; North Carolina minister Elton Cox; Kentucky CORE field secretary Joe Perkins; and Floridian Henry Thomas. Thomas, nearly as young as Lewis, had graduated like Lewis from farm poverty into sit-in activism.

             CORE had given ample notification to both the press and the Kennedy Administration. The object, after all, was to draw national attention to Southern segregation and its sometimes-vicious enforcement. But prospects for wide notice looked dim. The Administration had not replied to their communications, and only three journalists from African American publications, two from Jet and the Baltimore Afro American, showed up. The Jet writer, Simeon Booker, accompanied them.

             At the last minute, Booker dropped into federal offices to tell both Attorney General Robert Kennedy and the FBI that they were leaving and trouble was likely.

             These visits were fateful in opposite ways. Kennedy tossed off a “Call me if there is (trouble)” and put the Ride out of his mind. He and his President-brother had just aided the failed Bay of Pigs Cuban invasion in April and were obsessed with the tension-filled space race and Cold War with Russia and world Communism. As for the FBI, it naturally had extensive contacts in police departments nationwide, and many Southern police departments had links with the Ku Klux Klan. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover believed that civil rights unrest was Communist-inspired. If the Klan didn’t already know the Riders were coming, it soon would.

              At the first stop, Fredericksburg, white Riders entered the “Colored” restroom while African American Riders went to the “White” one. Locals gave them cold, ominous stares, but that was all. It was more or less the same until they arrived at Danville, where they were not allowed service.

            From then on, the treatment got successively worse. In North Carolina, at the Charlotte Greyhound station, Joe Perkins was arrested for trespassing for requesting a shoeshine in the barbershop. The next morning, May 9, at Rock Hill, South Carolina, John Lewis knew things had taken a radical turn for the worse as he got off the bus. A gang of cigarette-sucking, leather-jacketed white youths in duck-tail haircuts were hanging around. Two stood at the door of the “White” waiting room. “Other side, nigger,” one told Lewis, indicating the “Colored” waiting room.

            Lewis told him the Supreme Court decision in the Boynton case had upheld his right to enter the “White” waiting room. “Shit on that,” one of the youths responded.

            Suddenly fists struck Lewis in the side of the head, then the face. He went down, and feet started kicking him in the ribs. He tasted blood. Behind him big Albert Bigelow, the ex-Navy officer turned pacifist, came forward, arms down, to receive the same treatment. It soon knocked him to one knee. Genevieve Hughes put herself between the fallen Riders and more young toughs coming toward them from inside. They knocked her to the floor.

            At that, a policeman who had watched the proceedings pulled one of the young punchers away. He told them all they had done enough and ordered them to leave. More policemen arrived. One who appeared more sympathetic asked if the Riders wished to press charges. They said no. Lewis later wrote that the Riders viewed the young toughs as fellow victims of the Southern racial system.

            At Rock Hill, Lewis got a telegram. It was from the Quakers, who had learned where he was from his colleagues in Nashville. A few weeks before, with his senior year in college ending, he had applied for a two-year fellowship to build homes in either Africa or India. The telegram notified him he was a finalist and included a money order for a plane ticket to Philadelphia. Needing to make a decision immediately and having dreamed of seeing Africa, he agonized, then decided to take the plane. He could rejoin the Ride three days later in Birmingham for what he assumed would be its most dangerous stretch.

            Without Lewis, the buses rolled out of South Carolina and into Georgia with no more mayhem. The Riders had dinner that night, a Saturday, with the Rev. Martin Luther King in Atlanta, who joined them in toasts to the fact that they had finished the first seven hundred miles of their journey. But King, who had pastored in the Heart of Dixie State and helped lead the epic Montgomery bus boycott in the mid-1950s, was worried. At the dinner, he directed an anguished whisper to Booker, the Jet writer:

            “You’ll never make it through Alabama.”

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


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
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1 Response to May ’61

  1. gordon berg says:

    Benjamin Butler has not fared too well in Civil War historiography; indeed much of his poor reputation was well-earned. His actions at Fort Monroe, though initially small, started a political fire storm that eventually led to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. I’m not sure there’s a direct causal relationship between the two but after refusing to return the first two slaves that escaped to his lines, word spread through nearby slave quarters that freedom lay a lot closer than Canada. On May 27, Butler wrote to his commander-in-chief, General Winfield Scott, asking what to do with the women and children now accompanying the able-bodied men into his lines. Butler believed he could not claim children as contraband of war, so he asked for a ruling from the top. But Butler was as astute a politician as he was mediocre as a field general; he realized his situation had serious political ramifications. He concluded his letter to Scott by saying “I have ventured—and I trust I am not wrong in so doing—to duplicate the parts of my dispatch relating to this subject and forward them to the Secretary of War.” Butler had made the issue of what to do with non-contraband blacks a Cabinet (political) issue, not merely an act of military necessity.

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