Vital struggles for the border states gathered momentum in June.
Zealous Ohio Gov. William Dennison, working closely with President Lincoln, formed units to protect Ohio’s boundaries with Virginia and Kentucky. Then he, Lincoln, and newly-appointed Major General George B. McClellan moved to counter Confederate burning of bridges on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in western Virginia. The fires were alarming, breaking a primary route connecting Washington with the Northwestern states.
General-in-Chief Winfield Scott directed McClellan to “act promptly,” and he did. He sent Ohio and Indiana troops across the Ohio River into Virginia, and some of these units reached the town of Grafton on June 1. Their commander found newly organized Union regiments from western Virginia already planning an attack on Confederates at Philippi, 30 miles south.
About 1,500 Indianans and an equal number of western Virginians set off on a two-pronged drive on Philippi. Their target, some 750 untrained Confederates, apparently did not put out pickets on the stormy overnight of June 2-3. Blasted out of slumber at daybreak by Federal cannon, they fled, leaving all equipment.
No Confederate was harmed or captured, but the telegraph reported otherwise: that 15 had been killed of a Confederate force of 2,000. The North hailed the so-called “Philippi Races,” and they turned out to be important politically. Waning Confederate presence enabled the unionist Virginia mountaineers to begin organizing a separate state.
The North was winning in more of the border states than it was losing. Virginia, supplier of more U. S. presidents than any other state, was gone, but Maryland was all but under Union bayonets, and Kentucky had declared itself neutral, benefiting the Union.
In Missouri, red-bearded and Connecticut-born Captain Nathaniel Lyon repeatedly foiled secessionist Gov. Claiborne Jackson. In May, Lyon had repossessed arms Confederates took from a Louisiana armory and Jefferson Davis had sent north to transform St. Louis into a launch site for sallies into the northern Midwest. Lyon not only recaptured the arms, he captured Jackson militiamen guarding them, and killed more than two dozen civilians who objected when he rashly paraded his prisoners away.
Missouri congressman Frank Blair, whose family was close to Lincoln, was masterful in the unionist cause. When 61-year-old Federal Brigadier General William S. Harney, a Tennessee native who lived in St. Louis and was friendly to Jackson adherents, declared a truce with the Missouri troops, Blair encouraged Lincoln to relieve Harney and replace him with Lyon. Lincoln did so on May 31.
On June 11, Lyon and Blair met with Jackson and a former governor who had become general of state troops, Sterling Price. Lyon ended their long meeting by declaring that he would see every Missouri man, woman, and child in graves before he allowed state authorities to decree how the federal government’s troops would be handled or positioned in the state. He then unnecessarily added: “This means war.”
Lyon and Blair acted decisively. After Governor Jackson issued a June 12 call for 50,000 Missourians to counter the Federal “invasion,” Lyon marched the next day for the capital, Jefferson City, and occupied it on the 14th. Jackson and some 1,500 supporters fled northwest to Boonville. Lyon pursued and, on June 17, scattered them. Jackson and a remnant withdrew farther west, then to the state’s southwest corner.
For Missouri unionists, the Boonville rout was the right thing at the right time. Jackson’s aide-de-camp, Thomas L. Snead, later wrote that although it was insignificant militarily, it dealt “a stunning blow to the Southern-rights men of Missouri and…weakened the Confederacy during all of its brief existence…
“The capture of Camp Jackson had disarmed the State and completed the conquest of St. Louis and all the adjacent counties. The advance upon Jefferson City had put the State government to flight…The dispersion of the volunteers that were flocking to Boonville to fight under Price for Missouri and the South extended Lyon’s conquest to the borders of Iowa, closed all the avenues by which men of North Missouri could get to Price and Jackson, (and) made the Missouri River a Federal highway…”
Meanwhile, though, secessionists had gotten welcome news from Tennessee. On June 8, with vigilance committees and Confederate troops from the Deep South poll-watching across much of the state’s central and western two-thirds–further suppressing votes by unionists who had not been intimidated into leaving the state altogether–Tennesseans backed secession by a reported count of 104,913 to 47,238.
Those numbers were at best approximations. Lincoln’s mid-April call for volunteers to put down the Dixie insurgency galvanized Southern-sympathizing Tennesseans and doubtless persuaded some others who had been on the fence. But whether the Lincoln call–or, instead, secessionist intimidation–sent Andrew Jackson’s formerly Union-loving state into Confederate arms is uncertain. In several areas of Middle and West Tennessee, the vote appears to have amounted to little more than a plebiscite.
Shelby County, which Memphis commands, reported five votes against secession. This embarrassed its officials, who wanted to outdo Richmond’s May referendum vote, which was said to have reported four. Lauderdale, another Mississippi River county, reported seven. In Obion County, the June vote total was nearly twice that in February, with nearly all of the new votes going to secession.
Even the state’s staunchly loyal eastern third had been affected by the rush to secessionism. The mountain farmers opposed it, but many better-heeled Knoxville businessmen, commercially connected southward by the Virginia-to-Georgia railroad, backed it. Trainloads of troops passing through to Virginia raised tension, and U. S. Senator Andrew Johnson, who had made passionately loyal speeches at home and in Washington, was hanged in effigy in Knoxville and faced threats on his life.
Johnson personified a dangerous fault line between Dixie’s genteel upper class and its white yeomen. Johnson owned a few slaves, but as a self-educated ex-shoemaker he, along with many poorer whites who supported him, hated the proud and politically powerful planters. Johnson especially detested the Confederate president, who years earlier had made what Johnson construed to be a slur against workingmen in a congressional speech. Johnson rose to resent the insult, terming Davis a representative of the South’s “bastard, scrub aristocracy.”
On the night of June 8, following his state’s referendum on secession, Senator Johnson had to decamp to Kentucky.
Totals in West Tennessee counties where the June vote varied markedly from February’s, up or down, were apparently changed by strong-arm secession tactics or vote fraud. In counties where the numbers were similar in both elections, the Union vote was significant. Five–or nearly a fourth–of West Tennessee counties voted down secession.
“The election in Middle and West Tennessee has been a perfect farce…,” editorialized the unionist Knoxville Whig, run by fearless and poison-penned Methodist minister William G. (Parson) Brownlow. “The military forces stationed at important points intimidated timid men and themselves voted…in violation of the Constitution…”
But while the Confederacy formally gained its 11th and last state with Tennessee’s tumultuous vote on June 8, it formally began losing part of another just 11 days later. Residents of western Virginia elected Francis H. Pierpont, a 47-year-old attorney and supporter of the election of Abraham Lincoln, as provisional governor. Mountaineers who owned few slaves and felt antipathy for the plantation owners of eastern Virginia, the western Virginians began a lengthy political process of forming a state of their own.
To their east, meanwhile, in the hundred mile no-man’s-land between Washington and Richmond, war preparations approached an early climax. Seventy-five-year-old General-in-chief Winfield Scott, overweight and infirm, could not take the field, and Lincoln gave that duty to Brigadier General Irvin McDowell. At 42, the Ohio-born McDowell was a mediocre choice, a longtime staff officer and onetime West Point instructor who had never commanded troops, let alone troops in battle. He was, however, reported to be an impressive eater, who at a dinner was reported to have polished off an entire watermelon for dessert.
Lincoln met with McDowell, Scott, and the cabinet on June 29 to discuss McDowell’s aims. Against the wishes of Scott, who thought the Union’s movements in front of Washington should be coordinated with others across the South, McDowell planned a forward lunge before the Confederates could reinforce. He would advance on Beauregard’s reported army of 35,000 men at Manassas, Virginia., near a minor creek called Bull Run.
(For further information see The Civil War Almanac, Bison Books 1982, John S. Bowman, ed.; Battles & Leaders of the Civil War, vol. 1, New York 1887, Robert U. Johnson and Clarence C, Buel, eds.; “The Vortex of Secession: West Tennesseans and the Rush to War” by Derek W. Frisby in Sister States, Enemy States, University Press of Kentucky 2009 by Kent T. Dollar, Larry H. Whiteaker, and W. Calvin Dickinson, eds.; “That D—d Brownlow,” Appalachian Consortium Press 1978, by Steve Humphrey; Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War, Harper & Row 1986, by Patricia L. Faust, ed.; Divided We Fought, MacMillan 1952 by David Donald, general ed.; and Lincoln, Simon & Schuster 1995, by David Herbert Donald)
The Civil Rights Movement now began a pivot from tactics toward strategy. For many reasons, it all but had to.
The Freedom Riders had brought to the nation’s headlines and TV screens an ugly inequality rarely mentioned in America’s mainstream: The fundamental Southern wrong of letting a majority of travelers stay in motels, eat in restaurants, and use restrooms while a large minority had to pack lunches, eat and sleep in their cars, and relieve themselves beside highways. It was scandalous on its face, and the violence the minority could face for protesting was quintessentially criminal.
President Kennedy touted democracy to leaders abroad while Riders highlighted the lie of liberty at home. Kennedy and his brother Robert, head of a Justice Department whose very name had begun to ring hollow, had to end both the bloodshed and the firestorm of media coverage, and not just for the nation’s world image. Swelling numbers of voting Americans were tiring of the national hypocrisy.
African American elders, meanwhile, worried that the Rides’ incitement of Southern violence might destroy hard-won progress already made. Others warned that if the student leaders didn’t slow down, they would burn out a generation whose energies were needed for the longer haul.
To persuade the Riders and the Movement elders to ease up, the Kennedys used the carrot-and-stick. The stick was withdrawing the protection of the Rides by federal marshals, letting the Riders be arrested and jailed by Southern cops and sheriffs. The carrot was a pledge of federal help and protection if the students let the atmosphere cool, then embarked on a campaign that could be more dangerous but would definitely be more decisive. It was a campaign that blacks had pondered for decades.
“Anyone who knew the South knew there could be startling changes if large numbers of blacks were able to register and use the ballot,” the Rev. Andrew Young recalled many years later.
Young knew the complexity behind the South’s facade of monolithic, one-dimensional racism. Andrew Jackson Young Jr. had been born in 1932 in New Orleans into the family of a dentist. The Youngs were racially mixed–no oddity among people of color anywhere in the South, especially Louisiana’s diverse Creole country. But Young’s own background was so rich that his maternal grandmother was half Polish.
He became a Congregational minister. In little Thomasville, Ga., site of his first pastorate, he braved Ku Klux Klan intimidation to help organize a 1956 voter registration drive. The lead speaker at a registration rally was black Georgia orator John Wesley Dobbs, and Dobbs said something in his speech that Young never forgot:
“You can’t trust white folks with your life because you can’t trust him with his own.”
It was a black man’s highlighting of the fear in Dixie’s Caucasians as well as its African Americans. As Young later wrote, Dobbs’s “implication was that prejudice and fear prompted white Southerners to act counter to their own interest to maintain the subjugation of blacks. The Civil War was a case in point: poor white Southerners gave their lives defending a system of slavery from which they received no economic benefit.”
Thomasville’s black business leaders persuaded the county sheriff to prevent Klan interference with their registration drive; they threatened a black boycott of the town’s white businesses if he refused. But the drive occurred before its time. It harvested only a handful of new voters, and Young, a rising star in religion, moved on. In 1958 he transferred to New York to work with youth around the nation and across the world for the National Council of Churches.
Then one evening in 1961, in front of the fireplace in their New York apartment, Young and his wife watched an NBC television documentary titled “The Nashville Sit-In Story.” It presented not just blacks on an hour-long TV program, a novelty in itself, but black heroes–young students John Lewis, Diane Nash, Jim Bevel, and others.
The program electrified Andrew and Jean Young. They decided it was time to go back to the South and re-involve themselves in a movement that suddenly was gaining substantial ground. Young sought and found a job leading a voter registration training program at small but important Highlander Folk School in the foothills of Appalachia.
In Tennessee’s sea of conservative mountains, Highlander was a liberal–and thus controversial–island. The state’s white establishment charged it with being Communist. But when Young asked a friend to check out Highlander with official “Red”-hunting organizations–the FBI, the congressional House Internal Security Committee, and the Senate Un-American Activities Committee–all reported that it had no Communist ties.
So Young accepted the job. But as he and his family prepared to head South, Tennessee officials closed Highlander and took its property. Its unstated offense against the status quo was providing a place for black and white Southerners to meet and plan campaigns for progressive causes, but the charge on which it was convicted was laughable: bootlegging.
One of its staff members, a formidable South Carolina ex-schoolteacher named Septima Clark, was alleged to be making whisky at Highlander. This was hardly Clark’s first brush with bald-faced injustice. She had been fired from her Charleston school-teaching job for refusing to disclose whether she belonged to the NAACP.
With Highlander closed—temporarily, it would prove–and Young having given up his New York apartment and job, he had to scramble to find another position. On June 6, he agreed to lead a registration education program for the Rev. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta.
Meanwhile, occupants of the first Freedom Ride buses into Mississippi were rotting behind bars–by choice. Wishing to cost Mississippi’s segregationist government all the money they could, they refused to be bailed out of the Hinds County Prison Farm in Jackson. In response, after dark on June 15 the local authorities transferred the Riders from Jackson to one of the more infamous penal institutions in the South: Parchman Penitentiary.
Parchman’s Rider inmates included James Farmer, head of the Congress of Racial Equality. Farmer had almost avoided the Montgomery-to-Jackson leg of the Ride, and he later recalled that he tried to. He said he was telling the Riders goodbye at the Montgomery station when 19-year-old CORE member Doris Castle begged him not to desert them. She basically shamed him into going.
At Parchman, Farmer remembered, the Riders were abused physically and psychologically, just not violently. Since many were smokers, they were allowed no cigarettes. Since they were students, no books. Since they were vitally interested in public reaction to their efforts, no newspapers. And since they were professing their right to human dignity, virtually no clothes.
“We had to strip, and they then gave us shorts, just a pair of undershorts,” Farmer said. ”…The big guys got tiny little undershorts, and the little guys had huge undershorts. The big guys were trying to hold theirs shut, and the little guys were trying to stay in theirs and keep ’em from falling down.”
The guards housed them two men to a cell, always putting two same-size men together so the big ones could not swap shorts with the little ones. When they began to complain, the brilliant Bevel–commonly regarded even by his friends as half-genius and half-insane–responded with one of his multitude of archly memorable lines:
“What’s all this hang-up about clothes? Gandhi wrapped a rag around his balls and brought the whole British Empire to its knees.”
The Riders and their guards tried to drive each other crazy. The guards would blow tantalizing cigarette smoke into the cells, and the Riders would loudly sing their freedom songs. Or Bevel would preach visionary sermons.
Had they seen newspapers, they would have learned that 63 percent of Americans opposed the Rides and that even the New York Times editorialized against them. They did eventually learn that CORE’s little office in New York was getting swamped with offers from prospective new Rider volunteers to help fill up Southern jails.
A few people being drawn into the movement by events were not only white but Southern. Robert Zellner, Alabama son of a preacher father and schoolteacher mother, was the grandson of a Klansman. He was a senior at Huntington College in Montgomery in 1961 when he started studying the Movement for a project in a sociology class.
To examine both sides, Zellner and other Huntington students obtained literature from the Klan and met with African American students at Alabama State College. After the meeting, he and fellow Huntington students found themselves followed by local police.
Zellner was in Montgomery–“in the direct path of all this,” he later remembered–when the Freedom Riders came. After the melee in Birmingham in May it had looked as if the Klan had won, he recalled, but “then a new shipment of blood comes in from Nashville and the guys say they are going on.” They then came to Montgomery, and a riot erupted.
For a brave young man–Southern or not–with a sense of justice, there seemed only one way to go. It was not the way of Zellner’s grandfather.
“I’m hearing it on the radio, and I go [into] the city to see if I can put my body between some Klansmen and a Freedom Rider,” he remembered. “Cars are being burned up, and churches are being torn and everything. How could you fail to get involved?”
(For further information, see Parting the Waters: America in the King Years: 1954-63, Simon & Schuster 1988, by Taylor Branch; An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America, Harper Collins 1996, by Andrew Young; My Soul Is Rested: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement in the Deep South, Penguin Books 1983 reissue, by Howell Raines; and The Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader, Viking Penguin 1991, ed. by Clayborne Carson, David J. Garrow, Gerald Gill, Vincent Harding, and Darlene Clark Hine.)
Among the regiments mustered to move into western Virginia with General McClellan was the 9th Indiana. In the ranks was 19 year-old Private Ambrose Bierce from Warsaw, IN. He would go on to fight in all the major battles in the West, become a topographical officer for Colonel William B. Hazen’s brigade in the Army of the Cumberland, get shot in the head at Kenesaw Mountain, and leave the army in January 1865 as a second lieutenant. Later in life, he became a muckraking journalist for the Hearst newspaper chain in California. He is best known as a writer of Poe-like short stories. Less well known are a series of stories based on his Civil War experiences, including those in western Virginia. This writer considers them to be some of the most underappreciated Civil War writings produced in the 19th century. Bierce disappeared in Mexico in 1914; his body was never found.