The people of the North were restless.
It had been two months since the Fort Sumter surrender, and no major move had been mounted to quash the Dixie rebellion. The longer what President Lincoln termed “the so-called Confederate States of America” continued to exist, the more legitimacy it would gain in the eyes of the world. Something had to be done quickly, everybody felt, Lincoln included.
The President convened his cabinet in late June to weigh alternatives. General-in-chief Winfield Scott, the nation’s most famous soldier since George Washington, recommended the Anaconda Plan. This idea had two huge components. The Union would isolate the Confederacy with a sea blockade while driving south on the Mississippi and other main rivers, strangling Southern commerce and communication. But Scott’s plan had a drawback as big as its scope. It demanded time: to wait for late-autumn rains to fill the rivers to carry the bulk of the invading force–to say nothing of constructing the vessels needed to ply these liquid highways. And the public was impatient.
Also in the cabinet meeting was Brigadier General Irvin McDowell, a veteran staff officer decades younger than Scott. McDowell argued for a more direct approach. Maybe all that naval construction and river movement was unnecessary. Between Washington and the Confederate capital at Richmond, after all, lay just 100 miles of dry land. Cross that, and the war would be over, many thought.
McDowell won out over Scott, primarily because of the political need to get going. On July 8, although he had never led even a company, McDowell became commander of the Union Army of Northeastern Virginia. His job immediately got more complicated. Lincoln ordered him to head for Richmond and attack twenty-two thousand Confederates under General P. G. T. Beauregard at Manassas Junction. McDowell protested that his troops were “green.” Lincoln pointed out that the Confederate ones were, too–and McDowell had 35,000, nearly twice as many as Beauregard.
McDowell also had help, although distant. A hundred or more miles away, General George B. McClellan’s troops from Ohio had got well into western Virginia, aided by the staunch unionism of the region’s mountaineers. And closer, just 50-some miles from Manassas, another Union army had crossed the Potomac River from Maryland into the northern Shenandoah Valley. An aging Major General Robert Patterson led that force of 14,000. Opposing them were 12,000 Confederates under General Joseph E. Johnston. The Union hoped Patterson could hold Johnston in the Valley, away from Beauregard, while McDowell attacked.
But a primary factor pushing Patterson forward began to paralyze him: time. Reflecting belief north and south that the war would be brief, Patterson’s army had enlisted for 90 days. He now feared that their service would end amid the developing campaign.
Then he lost sight of Johnston. A tight screen of Confederate cavalry appeared in front of him. The Confederates then capitalized on other advantages. Their many Washington friends had told them McDowell was coming. And between Manassas and the Shenandoah Valley ran the Manassas Gap Railroad, whose cars could move Johnston’s army quickly to Beauregard’s aid. On July 18, as soon as McDowell made his first move toward Manassas, Johnston’s men marched behind their cavalry screen across the Blue Ridge to Piedmont, Virginia and boarded cars for Manassas.
McDowell’s July 18 move hindered him more than it helped. The Federal commander had sent a brigade to reconnoiter two fords of Bull Run creek, which fronted Beauregard’s right wing. But instead of just studying the position through field-glasses, the Federals went to the creek itself–and encountered hot Confederate small-arms and artillery fire. It killed 19 of them, wounded 38, and left 26 missing.
Shaken, the Federals pulled back, and McDowell did nothing else that day or the next. The interim allowed Johnston to get his whole army to Manassas. Its First Brigade, Colonel Thomas J. Jackson’s, arrived on July 19, and all but one of the four others were there by the 20th.
Beauregard meanwhile mulled an attack of his own. High-strung and intelligent, he also was given to mood swings extreme enough to almost suggest bipolarity. He was an inveterate planner of battles based on Napoleonic models, but his plans were often founded on minimal scouting and an assumption that the enemy would behave the way Beauregard expected. Beauregard’s idea was to cross Bull Run at the two fords from which his right wing had chased the Federals on the 18th. He would then advance due north to the Union camp at Centreville. Johnston, just arrived from the Shenandoah, was senior to Beauregard, but he approved the plan and gave Beauregard operational control.
Beauregard was still readying his strike when McDowell beat him to it. McDowell’s idea was similar to Beauregard’s: make an end run around his enemy’s left and try to turn it. He threw a heavy column at the Confederate center on Warrenton Turnpike’s bridge over Bull Run while a strong second force hurried north to an unguarded ford.
The battle opened at dawn, and the Confederates soon realized McDowell’s ploy. West Point-trained South Carolinian Nathan G. (Shanks) Evans detected the Federal flanking move and turned his brigade to meet it. Fighting fiercely, his unit kept the Confederate left from crumbling under a Union onslaught partially manned by a brigade under red-haired Ohio colonel William T. Sherman.
As the morning advanced, the battle coalesced south of Bull Run. Fighting centered on the Warrenton highway and the hill-crowning home of aging widow Judith Henry. Johnston first thought the flank attack a feint, but he gradually realized otherwise. By early afternoon, he and Beauregard were shifting troops from their lightly-assailed right to reinforce Evans. Units under Thomas Jackson and South Carolinians Francis Bartow and Barnard Bee were joined by the final brigade of Johnston’s Shenandoah Valley army, Edmund Kirby Smith’s. Smith’s men arrived on the train from Piedmont during the battle.
Ill, the widow Henry died in her bed, wounded by shrapnel in her neck, side, and a foot. Her servant took refuge under the widow’s bed, while her daughter hid in a chimney. In one of the crescendos of combat, Colonel Bee stretched forth an arm and shouted the battle’s most famous cry: “There is Jackson, standing like a stonewall. Let us determine to die here. Follow me!” Whether Bee spoke in praise or condemnation of Jackson’s refusal to move depends on the account, and Bee himself soon took a shot in the abdomen and died before anyone could ask him. Whatever Bee meant, Jackson wore the Stonewall nickname as a profound positive ever after.
At this time of the war, each unit sought to stand out through individuality of uniform, and it aided the Confederates this day. The blue-clad 33rd Virginia was allowed to approach two Federal batteries on Henry House Hill. The guns did not open fire, believing the Virginians friends–until they loosed a fusillade that killed or otherwise felled most of the battery’s men and horses and chased the survivors. Loss of the guns likely turned the battle.
That was because the collision of these equally-inexperienced armies was more like a protracted street fight between two mobs. When the Federals’ attack faltered and they lost their guns, their confidence vanished, and they turned and headed back to Washington on the run. Colonel Jackson–the new Stonewall–wanted to pursue, but Johnston ordered otherwise. The Confederate units were too commingled and exhausted to do more than they had done, he said.
The casualties, for that era, seemed horrific: 460 Federals killed, 1,124 wounded, and 1,312 missing, compared to 387 dead Confederates, 1,582 wounded, and 13 missing.
Naivete on this first major battlefield of the war was bizarre. Great numbers of prosperous citizens from Washington had come out in their carriages, bearing picnic lunches and even their children, as if to an outdoor theatrical event. Expecting to see the battle that would end the war, they were overrun by frantic, chaotic Federals shouting that they were whipped. In the crazed confusion, Confederates captured a New York congressman.
Interested civilian onlookers included Jefferson Davis. Despite a thin record in the Mexican War, the Confederate president fancied himself a military leader of much talent. He wished, in fact, that his Confederate role could have been military rather than political. But his capacity for misjudgment of himself and his subordinates was dramatically illustrated this day by his thoughtless taking of a nephew with him to view the battle–and leaving back in his office his ex-officio secretary, a world-class warrior who desperately wanted to see the fight and could have contributed valuable counsel during it:
General Robert E. Lee.
(For further information, see Ordeal By Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction by James M. McPherson, Knopf 1982; The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War by David J. Eicher, Simon & Schuster 2001; Lee by Clifford Dowdey, Little, Brown 1965; Lincoln by David Herbert Donald, Simon & Schuster 1995; and Stonewall Jackson and the American Civil War by G. F. R. Henderson, Longmans, Green, & Co., 1936.)
John Lewis and the rest of his contingent of Freedom Riders exited Mississippi’s Parchman Penitentiary on July 7–into comparative comfort and swelling satisfaction.
They got back the clothes they had worn on their way into Parchman weeks earlier. They said a glad goodbye to the sweltering cells and the mattress-less beds on which they had had to sleep.
Outside the gate, they hugged their lawyers and a small group of supporters. All were in unbelieving ecstasy, and not just because the erstwhile inmates were finally free. The Riders had rocked the world. They had launched nothing less than a second Southern revolution that was philosophically opposite of the secessionist one the Confederate States of America failed to win a century before.
Fired by their example, new enlistees now poured south from across America to challenge the violent bigotry ruling Dixie. Jailed Riders returning to homes outside the South found they had become idols of much of America’s youth.
These blessings, however, were not unmixed. Many of the new people arriving to help were not so helpful. Instead of the prayerful, carefully-trained, neatly-dressed, and scrupulously nonviolent cadre of students baptized in the fire of lunch-counter and movie-theatre sit-ins, many latecomers rushed in as rabble to a prospective free-for-all. They wanted to mix it up verbally and maybe otherwise with the virulent racists.
In Parchman Penitentiary, Lewis had decided to give up his recently-approved, Quaker-paid sabbatical to India. Arriving back in Nashville, he returned to the struggle for justice at home, helping picket a white-family-owned chain of grocery stores that had a large African American clientele but hired blacks only for menial jobs. Some of the newcomers aided in this picketing, and Lewis saw them pushing the envelope of Christian nonviolence. The store owners hired young toughs to bait the picketers, and many of the new demonstrators baited back.
These new types found a natural leader in young Howard University product Stokely Carmichael. Lewis first met Carmichael at Parchman, where he exhibited scant commitment to the Biblical principles and Gandhian philosophy espoused by Lewis, Diane Nash, James Bevel, James Lawson, and other lions of the Nashville group. Hailing from the North, Carmichael was highly intelligent and fearless but also quick-tongued and often antagonistic toward white people. In the grocery-store picket lines, he dared young white toughs to back up their threats.
Almost as soon as the first Riders got back to Nashville from their prison sojourn, they called a meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. They feared that their movement was losing purity of direction. They suggested to Carmichael that he leave town, and he soon obliged. But the damage was done. A door had been opened to philosophies that were harder-edged, less dedicated to Christian nonviolence.
The Carmichael approach was not the sole threat to their direction. It was also not the highest-profile one. The SNCC meeting’s primary purpose was to respond to an initiative by the Kennedy administration. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, aided by singer-actor Harry Belafonte, urged Nashville student leaders to abandon the Freedom Rides and other explosive direct action and let passions “cool off.”
Many of the activists were outraged.
“We’ve been cooling off for a hundred years,” replied James Farmer, head of the Congress of Racial Equality and launcher of the original Ride. “If we get any cooler we’ll be in a deep freeze.”
The Kennedys knew they had to give the young zealots an alternative, and they did: a promise of federal help if the youth turned to registering the South’s African Americans to vote. Belafonte offered $10,000 to bankroll the effort, and it made sense. White power in the South’s Jim Crow era rested on near-total disfranchisement of blacks. If Southern African Americans got the vote in significant numbers, white politicians would have to begin paying attention to the myriad problems of black constituents if they valued re-election.
Whether the Kennedys cared much about blacks’ plight in mid-1961, or just wanted to halt the Rides and other explosive direct action, is an open question. Robert Kennedy eventually told Lewis that at that time he lost little sleep over black peoples’ problems. Had the Kennedys thought their registration idea might actually come to fruition, it might have given them pause. Angering the solidly-Democratic all-white Southern establishment, which had been crucial to John Kennedy’s 1960 election, could prompt many white Southerners to turn Republican–and did within a decade.
Leaders of the Nashville movement distrusted the Kennedys. They viewed voter registration as a more intellectual, less confrontational tactic. It wasn’t, as was soon proved. Southern racists knew that guarding the restricted vote meant everything to their system. Seeking to widen it would prove as dangerous, if not more so, than piecemeal targeting of lunch counters, restrooms, or movie theatres.
But the students had seen the attention that their work had at long last brought to America’s festering, long-ignored racism, and they refused to let this momentum die. They knew the Kennedys–who were politicians, after all–had a vested interest in making the racial headlines go away. If the Rides and other demonstrations stopped, President Kennedy could more comfortably trumpet American freedom. Anyway, any black who got registered to vote would unquestionably vote Democratic. Robert Kennedy seemed to be trying to make SNCC a Democratic campaign arm.
The students disliked having someone from outside tell them what their organization ought to do. Nobody was more opposed to that than Diane Nash, a woman whose courage should rank her among the foremost females–and males, too–of American history. No twenty-something in the early 1960s played a larger role in holding the feet of establishments, white and black, to the fire. She eventually said in that her fingers shook and her palms sweated from the physical fear she braved to do the things she did then, but history can only take her word for that. She never showed a hint of it.
Stunningly beautiful, a winner of teen beauty pageants, she was born in Chicago to a comfortable middle-class family. She spent her first college year at Howard University in Washington, one of the elite African American institutions. But after a year, she transferred to historic Fisk University in Nashville–and saw how Southern African Americans had to live. She was outraged by the separate and unequal facilities and the continually demeaning atmosphere she found in Tennessee.
So she joined a humble group of fellow collegians setting out to do no less than change a nation. With the somber Lewis, the ever-startling Bevel, nonviolence guru Jim Lawson, and a few others, she supplied the conscience of the student movement.
She in fact became, despite her gender, its leader of leaders, Lewis himself has asserted. “One of God’s beautiful creatures,” Lewis has called her, and he wasn’t just describing the physical. Nash was the first Nashville student, after one of the earliest lunch counter sit-ins, to volunteer to join nine South Carolina collegians in a Rock Hill jail. She insisted that the violence in Anniston and Birmingham not be allowed to stop the Freedom Rides in Alabama. She, more than anyone else, loosed a reinforcing flood of new Freedom Riders southward, and it was she, more than anyone else, whom the Justice Department couldn’t cow into stopping them. Virtually anybody who encountered the Nashville student movement–white or black, yea or nay, activist, ractist, or newsman–could agree on one thing: Love her or hate her, Diane Nash was magnificent.
With such firebrand opposition, the Kennedy-Belafonte voter registration proposal faced a hard sled, but it had major proponents, too. One was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who could glimpse within the future of voting rights a shimmering Promised Land of equality at last. Another was a second minister, the Rev. Andrew Young.
After four years in New York with the National Council Churches, Young accepted leadership of a “citizenship school” for King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He spent June and July of 1961 choosing and setting up a facility in Dorchester, Georgia. The place, just outside Savannah, was appropriate: it once had hosted a Reconstruction-era school for freed slaves.
Nashville students remained skeptical. They wanted to keep pushing, keep up the drama drawing headlines to the lie that Southern blacks enjoyed the rights of American citizenship. Nash, Lewis, and their friends vowed not to let this government that they were confronting sucker them into a detour.
They would not let it turn them around.
(For further information, see Walking With The Wind by John Lewis, Simon & Schuster 1998; Parting The Waters: America In The King Years, 1954-63 by Taylor Branch, Simon & Schuster 1988; The Children by David Halberstam, Random House 1998; and My Soul Is Rested by Howell Raines, Viking Penguin 1983.)