May ’61 (3)





            Each side could feel both confident and fearful of the war now upon them.

            The North, especially if it held its border states, had staggering manufacturing and population advantages. But in Abraham Lincoln it also had a plurality-elected president with minimal military knowledge and a mind, disturbingly to many, dead-set against compromise with secession or the further growth of slavery.

            By contrast, the South’s president, recent U. S. Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, was a West Point-trained former secretary of war with a combat record in Mexico. And Dixie had vast territory for the Union to conquer–vastness tailor-made for the defensive, hit-and-run strategy of attrition with which George Washington had won the American Revolution.

            Each side also had a handful of generals on whom it expected to rely for victories.

            First and foremost, the South had Robert E. Lee–and the North didn’t. Lee’s ability was so respected that Lincoln, at the suggestion of General-in-Chief Winfield Scott, informally offered him the Union’s top field command. But Lee went with his state against the nation that had given him a free military education, and Virginia Governor John Letcher quickly handed him a desk job as his chief advisor. Virginia had not yet joined the Confederacy–it had only entered a military alliance with it–and Lee’s new assignment was to institute Letcher’s preparations along the Virginia front.

            Then Lee got a new boss. Virginia formally joined the Confederacy after the state’s May 23 referendum ratified its secession ordinance, and within days Jefferson Davis’s government arrived to make Richmond its new capital.

            Class gradations characterized the aristocratically-ruled South. They appear to have affected relations among many of its leaders, but not Lee. Secure in his family’s storied gentility, the Virginia patrician got along with superiors, peers, and subordinates better than most of his fellow officers.

            He needed this skill with President Davis. Davis was a new aristocrat from less-settled trans-Appalachia. His father had scrambled from Georgia to Kentucky to Louisiana before gaining title to a several-hundred-acre-acre plantation in Mississippi. The elder Davis had done whatever it took to prosper, including tobacco-planting and horse-breeding, and at each stop he had worked his fields alongside his slaves.

            His eventually-famous youngest son, 50 years his junior, hadn’t. Not having seen his father’s earlier struggles, Jefferson grew up in their hard-won Federal-styled house from the age of four. As a fledgling entrant to the South’s upper class, the younger Davis became perhaps an even more sensitive guardian of its high-flown honor and respect than some longer-term members. In contrast to the proudly self-possessed Lee, Davis carried a chip on his shoulder.

            The shapelessness and ill-defined authority of Lee’s job did not change with Davis’s arrival. He had to continue melding into Virginia forces a host of untried units rushing in from the deeper South. They and their often-political officers were desperate to get off a few shots in a conflict that most people on both sides–besides experienced soldiers such as Lee–assumed would be short.

            One of Lee’s first acts, at Governor Letcher’s behest, was the ordering of Colonel Thomas J. Jackson of Virginia Military Institute to take Harpers Ferry and its arsenal. Situated near the point of Virginia’s easternmost jut into Maryland, the place was exposed to attack on three sides, but the arsenal included rifle-making machinery. Both Lee and Jackson thought the operation should be kept running, turning out precious arms, while gradually being removed piecemeal.

            As Lee did staff duty, other prominent Confederates grabbed top field commands.

            Immediately and eagerly available was the Hero of Fort Sumter. Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard was a scion of Louisiana’s French aristocracy, born into the wealthy and prominent Toutant-Beauregard family. Idolizing Napoleon, he was vain, quick-tempered, proud to the point of arrogant egotism, and studious, graduating second in the West Point class of 1838. He also had combat experience, having earned a brevet in the Mexican War for his work with cannons at Chapultepec.

            Jefferson Davis’s favorite, Albert Sidney Johnston, a Kentucky-born Texan to whom Davis had become greatly attached at West Point, had resigned from the U. S. Army on May 3. He was now incommunicado, riding cross-country from California to Texas, then by boat to Richmond, where he was sure to be offered a high post. Tall and courtly-mannered, Johnston had headed the army of the former Republic of Texas and had led the famed Second U. S. Cavalry. His second-in-command of the latter had been Lee.

            There was another front-rank Johnston, too: Joseph E. Hailing from the comparative outback of southwest Virginia rather than the genteel Tidewater, he was a long-term friend of Lee but not of Davis. His zealous wire-pulling in pursuit of rank seems to have soured Davis years earlier, when Davis was U. S. secretary of war. Now Joe Johnston was at it again in the Confederacy. He would soon stoutly dispute Davis’s ranking of him at fourth in the Confederate military hierarchy–behind Adjutant General Samuel Cooper, the other Johnston (no relation), and Lee.

            Davis commissioned one other general early on. Braxton Bragg, an artillerist who had won fame in the Mexican War, was put to drilling new troops at Mobile, Alabama, where he was expected to resist any Federal attempt to attack from Fort Pickens in Mobile Bay. Bragg was somewhat like Davis: of puny health, thin-skinned, quick to take offense, and seemingly anxious to put humbler roots behind him. Like Davis a late son of a father who had worked with his hands, Bragg had parlayed his Mexican fame into marriage to a rich Louisianan who staked him to a large sugar plantation and a couple of hundred slaves.

            Behind this collection of luminaries stood a host of obscure and little-noted others. They included the rustic and religiously-impassioned Jackson, superseded at Harpers Ferry in May by Joseph E. Johnston; Irish immigrant Patrick Ronayne Cleburne, who had served three years in the British infantry before becoming an Arkansas lawyer; and recently-retired Memphis slave-trader N. B. Forrest, who had gone to cotton farming on a huge plantation his slave-dealing profits had purchased in northern Mississippi.

            Lincoln, too, had a list of generals, but hardly as impressive as Davis’s.

            Virginia native Winfield Scott, victor in the Mexican War, held the top spot–temporarily. Scott was grossly overweight, feeble, and 74 years old.

            A younger man was needed, and Scott recommended 34-year-old George B. McClellan. From an eminent Philadelphia family, McClellan was West Point-trained and a distinguished antebellum soldier. He had quit the army in 1857 to become vice president of the Illinois Central Railroad and then president of the Ohio & Mississippi Railroad, the latter headquartered at Cincinnati. Aware of his brilliance and not reluctant to apprise others of it, McClellan was nonetheless dashing and exciting to see.

            Out in the California Territory, famed military theorist Henry Halleck, one of West Point’s most noted minds, had become a rich corporate attorney, but he was amenable to rejoining the army–for sufficient rank. Also in California was another well regarded West Pointer, Lieutenant Colonel Don Carlos Buell, a staff officer in the Department of the Pacific.

            From there, the drop-off appeared sharp. In the 2nd U.S. Cavalry, Major George H. Thomas vaulted rapidly to lieutenant colonel and then colonel when Robert E. Lee and others resigned to go south. But whereas Buell was an Ohio native and Halleck a New Yorker, Thomas was a Virginian who had applied to become commandant of the Virginia Military Institute just five months earlier. His loyalty was thus somewhat in doubt.

            Charles Ferguson Smith, a stalwart 55-year-old Philadelphia native, one of the handful of most prominent men in the prewar U. S. Army, had been called to command the defense of Washington in April. After just two weeks, though, he was hustled off to New York recruiting duty, reportedly after having been seen drunk on the streets of the capital.

            Others were less noted, if at all.

            Despite having a U.S. senator stepfather, Ohioan William T. Sherman had had a lackluster 13-year military career before resigning to fail at banking and the practice of law. He was superintendent of the school that became Louisiana State University when secession forced him to resign. He was, though, at least educated at West Point, where he graduated sixth in his class.

            Another Ohioan (born in New York), Philip Henry Sheridan, was still a second lieutenant in the U.S. 4th  Infantry after eight years of frontier service–until other members of the unit began resigning to become Confederates.

            A third obscure West Point-trained Ohioan, now living in Galena, Ill., was trying lucklessly to get a colonel’s commission and re-enter the army. He had bailed out of the antebellum service as a captain in 1854 with a reputation as a drunkard. His name was U. S. Grant.

(For further information see Lincoln, Simon and Schuster 1995, by David Herbert Donald; Tried by War: Lincoln As Commander in Chief, Penguin Press 2008, by James M. McPherson; Lee, Little-Brown 1965, by Clifford Dowdey; Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour, Harper-Collins 1991, by William C. Davis; P. G. T. Beauregard: Napoleon in Gray, LSU Press 1955, by T. Harry Williams; Sherman: A Soldier’s Passion for Order, Free Press 1993, by John F. Marszalek; Grant, Simon & Schuster 2001, by Jean Edward Smith; Generals in Gray, LSU Press 1959, and Generals in Blue, LSU Press 1964, both by Ezra J. Warner; and Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War, Harper & Row 1986, ed. by Patricia L. Faust.)


            The last thing President Kennedy needed in May 1961 was a Freedom Ride.

            Four months into his administration, he was still trying to find himself. In April, in an attempt to keep his government’s involvement anonymous, he withheld military muscle from a U.S.-assisted invasion of Cuba by Cuban refugees, and disaster resulted. Shouldering that embarrassment, he announced in mid-May that within 30 days he nevertheless would meet with Russian premier Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna.

            Now another embarrassment was unfolding. The Congress of Racial Equality’s ragtag crusade into Alabama had abandoned its buses and flown to New Orleans, but student veterans of Nashville’s sit-ins were racing to keep it going. It was, Kennedy privately pronounced, a pain in his ass.

            Which was the students’ intent. Against the advice of elders black and white–who counseled waiting for a better time–they reasoned that African Americans had waited for a better time for a century. If they let racist violence to stop this bid to desegregate Dixie, the next brave souls who tried would meet the same or worse. There was no better time.

            So they wheedled a $900 expense fund out of their older backers and headed for Birmingham on May 17. They had been handpicked by their temporary leader, fiery ministerial student and former Mississippi sharecropper James Bevel: eight blacks and two whites. Only nine got on the bus leaving Nashville, though. A young white woman, Fisk University student Selyn McCollum of Buffalo, N. Y., missed it. She had to catch up and board 70 miles south at Pulaski,Tennessee.

           Birmingham police chief Eugene “Bull” Connor stopped them at his city’s outskirts. He arrested two Riders of differing color, Jim Zwerg and Paul Brooks, for sitting together in violation of Alabama segregation law, then escorted the bus to the Greyhound terminal. There Rider John Lewis noticed more reporters than at previous stops. But Connor’s men taped newspapers to the bus windows to blind onlookers and put everybody off who did not have tickets for the Ride’s announced route.

            McCollum, white and having a ticket bought in Pulaski, claimed she was not a Rider and exited. She hurried to call Nashville coordinator Diane Nash, who in turn called Robert Kennedy’s Justice Department. Why, she demanded, were the Riders in custody in a bus at the Birmingham terminal?

            The Justice Department and Alabama Gov. John Patterson each now faced a dilemma. Washington had to show it would protect all its citizens, even African American interlopers in a Southern state whose governor had supported John Kennedy since 1956. Patterson, to avoid federal enforcers, had to show that Alabama would protect the Riders–while letting his constituents detect no hint of sympathy.

            Connor put the Riders in the Birmingham Jail. There they continued their policy of uncooperative nonviolence, refusing to eat. A few hours later Connor, or somebody, brainstormed a way out of the impasse. He would escort the Riders to the Alabama-Tennessee line and dump them.

            A few hours later, in the middle of the night, he expelled from Alabama the seven, now minus Zwerg and Brooks and McCollum. He left them beside the road at the edge of ominously tiny Ardmore, Tennessee. It was a white town, the kind that could breed Ku Klux Klansmen. Carrying their suitcases, the Riders walked in the opposite direction a mile or so into the country, then approached a small house. A scared-looking old black man opened the door. He was sorry, he replied when they said who they were. Then his elderly wife intervened. She prevailed on her husband to let them in, and John Lewis called Diane Nash.

            At dawn, the seven gave the old man money to buy their first food in two days. He visited different stores and purchased innocently-small amounts of bread, bologna, cheese, and eggs at each.

            Nash called back. She was sending a car for them, she said. But would they go to Nashville or back to Birmingham? Lewis, sole remaining member of the original CORE contingent, chose Birmingham, and the others agreed. At noon they again headed south.

            On the road, they heard the car radio say the Freedom Riders were back on their college campuses, and they laughed. Soon, though, came another, contradictory report: They were headed back to Birmingham. Nash’s telephone was doubtless tapped. The Riders ducked low in the crowded car. Speeding along backroads to dodge police, they reached the refuge of the Birmingham home of the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth.

            Reinforcements greeted them there. While Connor still had Lewis and the original Nashville group locked in his jail prior to the drive to Ardmore, Nash had sent another squad, 11 strong, to replace them and continue the Ride from Birmingham. Zwerg and Brooks had been bailed out, but Selyn McCollum’s father had flown in to take her home.

            Late that afternoon, May 19, a Shuttlesworth convoy took them to the terminal to catch the bus to Montgomery. It was no go. A jeering crowd estimated at 3,000 greeted them, and Greyhound cancelled the departure, saying the driver refused to do it. They spent the night in the station. The restaurant was closed, the telephones turned off, and an occasional rock smashed windows. Next morning, May 20, bowing to Justice Department pressure, Greyhound and the driver relented. Carrying just Riders and escorted by state police, the bus departed at high speed for Montgomery.

            First capital of the short-lived but long-shadowed Confederate States of America, Montgomery symbolized white supremacy. The bus’s arrival triggered a carnival of fury.

            State police escorting them fell away at the city limits, and no local escort took over. When the Riders stepped off at the terminal, they and a few reporters were ambushed by a previously-hidden crowd of men, women, and children. They came from everywhere, Lewis thought. They carried all sorts of primitive weapons, from bats and bricks to pipes and tire irons. But they first beat an NBC cameraman and a Life magazine photographer with their own cameras. Then, yelling, they started in on the Riders.

            “Git them niggers,” Lewis heard them shriek.

            A wooden Coca Cola crate struck him in the head and he crumpled, passing out. William Barbee was kicked and stamped on the head. White Jim Zwerg, attracting special zeal, disappeared into a clutching mob to be seen soon afterward with his unconscious head held between the knees of a member of the mob. Other men, as well as women and children, scratched and punched his face, knocking out teeth.

            Some Riders continued to stand while others ran or tried to climb trees. Before he went down, Lewis and some other male Riders tried to get the females to two taxis idling nearby. The black driver of one loaded the five black women but refused to violate Alabama law by taking two white ones. The two were left as a crowd of men and women converged on them. A Justice Department official, Robert Kennedy aide John Seigenthaler, drove up then. Jumping out of his car, Seigenthaler identified himself as a federal officer and shouted at the crowd to back off. A length of lead pipe knocked him unconscious, and he fell half under his car.

            After giving the crowd fifteen minutes for unfettered ferocity, Montgomery police appeared. Lewis regained consciousness as the Alabama attorney general read the bloody Riders an injunction against conducting a Freedom Ride or any other incitement to peace-breaching in Alabama. The Riders then were told they could go. Barbee–who would end up paralyzed–and Zwerg and Lewis got little aid in finding medical assistance. A black ambulance took Zwerg to a hospital. Lewis and Barbee ended up in a doctor’s office.

            Their suffering was not in  vain. Supporters, more press, and new Riders began flocking to Montgomery. With the world now watching, the Ride would have to go on to Mississippi, even had the Riders not wanted to. But they did want to. They just needed to regroup. Three tense days followed. The reverends Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy held a rally in Abernathy’s church, which federal lawmen and Alabama National Guardsmen had to protect from a howling, brick-throwing mob that threatened to burn it.

            On May 24, two buses containing the couple of dozen Birmingham-to-Montgomery Riders departed for Jackson, Miss. On the way, Lewis remembered often hearing that Mississippi racism was more violent than Alabama’s.

            But at the Jackson terminal, no savage gauntlet awaited. Jackson authorities, likely fearing national notoriety like that of Alabama, just arrested them. Singing, preaching, and refusing to eat, they did their best to annoy guards in the Hinds County Jail.

            Four days later, on May 28, a judge handed them a 60-day sentence to the Hinds County prison farm, where their turbulent month of May ended. Mounting momentum rewarded their effort, but they would have kept on without it. From his Birmingham hospital bed a few days earlier, Jim Zwerg affirmed to reporters a now-obvious fact:

            “We are prepared to die.”

            By now, another corner had been turned, too. Newspapers began to speak up for a white Southern majority which, although repelled by what it viewed as irresponsible Freedom Rider troublemaking, was utterly shamed by Ku Klux savagery.

            “If the police, representing the people, refuse to intervene when a man–any man–is beaten to the pavement of an American city, then this is not a noble land at all,” editorialized the Atlanta Constitution. “It is a jungle. But this is a noble land. And it is time for the decent people in it to muzzle the jackals.”

            (For further information, see Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, Simon & Schuster 1998, by John Lewis; Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63, Simon & Schuster 1988, by Taylor Branch; The Children, Random House 1998, by David Halberstam; and The Struggle for Black Equality 1954-1980, Hill and Wang 1981, by Harvard Sitkoff.)

            –A Personal Note: The author’s wife, then barely 21, was a secretary at a Montgomery car dealership on May 20, 1961. She recalls a burly salesman for the firm leaving before lunchtime, returning late, and warning everybody to forget he had been gone. Certain of where he had been, she wishes she could remember his name. Anyone who wonders why her office kept his secret is not young enough, or Southern enough, to have known that time and place and its police.


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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