August ’61



            August brought the war’s second major battle. It underlined in blood the geographical breadth and scope into which the conflict had exploded. Unlike Bull Run–or, to Confederates, Manassas–this next bloodletting occurred three hundred miles west of the Mississippi River.

            Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon had grabbed Missouri for the Union in May with his capture of the St. Louis armory. He had chased the Confederates into the state’s southwestern corner. But there, 10 miles south of Springfield, they lay in wait to recoup. Against Lyon’s 5,600 troops, they could field more than 15,000 of their own. They had 10,000 Confederate regulars under Brigadier General Ben McCulloch and 5,000 state militiamen under Major General–and ex-Governor–Sterling Price.

            Tough little Lyon, red-bearded and swarthy, beat them to the draw at Wilson’s Creek. Attacking at 5 a.m. on August 10, his main Federal force pushed Price’s surprised state troops off so-called Bald Knob, soon to be appropriately re-christened Bloody Hill. Lyon meanwhile sent another detachment under Colonel Franz Sigel on an end run around the Confederate right to assail the Confederate rear.

            Sigel made the wide-circling move and attacked, capturing the camps of Confederate mounted troops. He then waited for Lyon to break through Price and link up with him. But Lyon ran into a Price countercharge. McCulloch meanwhile attacked Sigel’s command and scattered it, then turned back to aid Price. Lyon, having had a horse shot beneath him and himself hit or grazed by three other bullets, mounted another horse to lead an attempt to retake the summit of Bloody Hill. He died almost immediately from a bullet that entered his left side and penetrated both his heart and a lung. “I am killed,” he told an aide with his final breaths.

            His death dismayed the Federals. McCulloch’s reinforcements enabled Price to shove them off the hill. The interim Union commander, Major Samuel Sturgis, led an orderly withdrawal two miles to a spring, where he allowed the exhausted men water and rest. The Confederates had lost slightly more in killed and wounded–279 and 951, compared to the Union’s 258 and 873, but that did not count 183 Federals who were missing. And the Confederates had many more men to lose than the Federals.

            The victory gave Dixie firm control of southwest Missouri and a psychological advantage. The Union had now lost both of the war’s two major battles.

            The ultra-contentious issue at the root of the national conflict continued inching toward the fore. On August 6, Congress passed a “confiscation” act, which provided that slaves captured while working for the Confederate military were to be considered part of the spoils of war–and freed.

            Some Northerners were growing impatient with Lincoln’s refusal to tout abolition of slavery as a Federal aim of the war along with preservation of the Union. The New York Times on August 9 published a letter whose writer voiced the widening sentiment:

            “Was not this rebellion got up in the interests of Slavery? Are not these men who are stabbing at the public heart, slaveholders, and is it not because they are slaveholders that they are so stabbing? Is not Slavery at this moment the right arm with which treason is working against us? Who plant the masked batteries, who make the intrenchments, who drag and manipulate the munitions of war, who furnish the food to support the armies of our enemies…who but slaves?”

            But Lincoln was still walking on eggs in the border states. He still had to keep indispensable Maryland and Kentucky in the Union fold, and he could not do that by declaring every slave everywhere free. He had to proceed with caution, and not just on the border. There was considerable unrest across the North in general. Managements of the New York Daily News, the Brooklyn Eagle, and the New York Journal of Commerce were being prosecuted for pro-Southernism, and local unionists attacked other newspaper offices in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.

            The Confederates were alarmed and outraged at the rising breath of abolition in the Northern political winds. They regarded Union non-return of contrabands as wanton theft of property. Brigadier General John Bankhead Magruder emphasized their rage by burning to the ground the then-tiny coastal Virginia town of Hampton, believing that Union Major General Benjamin Butler–the first taker of these black “contrabands of war”–planned to use it as a base for his new African American wards.

            On the opposite end of Virginia to the northwest, Confederate action was less definitive. General Robert E. Lee–left behind by Jefferson Davis when the Confederate President went to observe the battle of Bull Run/Manassas in July–now went to western Virginia in an advisory capacity to harmonize an abrasive trio of generals. Non-West Pointers W. W. Loring, Henry Wise, and John B. Floyd were not getting along and appeared to be wretched commanders. With no authority to order any of them to do anything, Lee set about trying to evolve a coordinated plan. Throughout August, his progress was fitful.

            On the 28th, the Union finally logged its first victory of the war in anything more significant than a skirmish. General Butler, with some 900 infantry and eight ships under Navy Captain Silas Stringham, attacked two crude Confederate forts at Cape Hatteras, gateway for blockade-running Confederate ships. The Confederates abandoned Fort Clark on the 28th, then quickly surrendered Fort Hatteras unconditionally.

            Border-state clashes meanwhile proliferated. On August 14 the Union Department of the West commander, Major General John C. Fremont, declared martial law in St. Louis. Administering his command with an unwieldy retinue of aides and assistants, he spent large amounts of money. On August 15, he asked Lincoln for reinforcements, and over the next week troops under his subordinates had small fights with Confederates in the state’s hinterlands.

            Fremont, having in 1856 been the first Republican candidate for president, possessed an outsized ego. Abolitionist and arrogant, Fremont made an enemy of a moderate Missouri congressman, Frank Blair Jr., brother of Lincoln’s postmaster general and son of a longtime political adviser to U. S. presidents as far back as Andrew Jackson. Frank Blair had conspired with General Lyon to capture the St. Louis armory and had been far more instrumental in holding Missouri in the Union than the pseudo-royal Fremont.

            On August 30, Fremont erred, making himself a hero to Northern abolitionists but putting himself at cross-purposes with his egg-walking president. He declared the entire state of Missouri under martial law and proclaimed the slaves of all pro-Confederates free men.  

            Lincoln was unhappy and alarmed.

(For more information, see The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War by David J. Eicher, Simon & Schuster 2001; Civil War Almanac, exec. ed. John S. Bowman, Bison Books 1982; The New York Times Complete Civil War, by Harold Holzer & Craig L. Symonds, eds., Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers 2010; Lincoln by David Herbert Donald, Simon & Schuster 1995; With Malice Toward None: The Life of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen B. Oates, Harper & Row 1977; Lee by Clifford Dowdey, Little-Brown 1965; and Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War by Patricia L. Faust, ed., Harper & Row 1986.)



            Gearing up South-changing black voter registration was halting, fragmented, and riddled with internal conflict.

            It was not a new idea. Blacks had had the vote in the South once before–during Reconstruction following the Civil War. But Reconstruction had died a violent death at the hands of Southern racism and Northern indifference in the 1870s. Southern black voting–particularly black voting that refused to follow white guideliness–did not  long outlive it. African American groups had periodically tried to regain that right ever since. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference began another such attempt in 1957, initiating a King.-espoused “Crusade for Citizenship.” That campaign took its cue and heavily religious slant from high-profile revivals conducted by the famed white Baptist, Billy Graham. But progress was minimal in a white-run, iron-fisted South.

            A program that the Rev. Andrew Young agreed to start for the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee in the spring of 1961 had been nipped in the bud; the state government had closed Highlander on a trumped-up charge of whisky-making. But Young persisted, and the philanthropic Field Foundation and the United Church of Christ took over sponsorship of the effort, partnering with King’s SCLC.    

            Young was wary of the King organization. His dentist father and ex-schoolteacher mother in New Orleans feared for their son’s future if he associated his career with that of the controversial Atlanta preacher.

            The two generations of Youngs exemplified two of at least three major divisions in the black South of 1961: an older upper-middle class, which feared losing gains it had already made for itself and its children, and a middle group of dogged change-seekers led by King and other such younger adults. The third group was the newest and least restrained–Nashville-style collegiate firebrands who, unlike their elders, were determined to wait no longer for rights that were supposed to have been theirs for 90-some years.

            Young and King were in the same middle group. They differed not in class but, rather, in denomination. King’s men were mostly grassroots Baptist ministers, while Young was ordained in the less demonstrative preaching tradition of the United Church of Christ. In addition, he had spent a few years based in New York working for the National Council of Churches. As Young put it, King’s men tended to be “emotional” Baptists while he was “a self-contained Congregationalist.”

            Nevertheless, in August Young began touring the South looking for prospects for the voter registration leadership school he had agreed to establish for King’s SCLC. It would be located at Dorchester, Ga., on the outskirts of Savannah, and its aim would be to train instructors to fan out and teach and mobilize registration skills across the South.

            Black support was not unanimous. As Young left on his tour, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee seethed with controversy, its leaders trying to decide between their perfected style of Freedom-Ride-and-sit-in revolution and the seemingly less confrontational tactic of registering black voters.

            The Nashville wing was determined not to cede the momentum it had accumulated in this fateful spring and summer. Its integrated bus rides and lunch-counter and movie-theater sit-ins–and the thuggish violence with which they were met–had put heavy public pressure on the federal government and Southern statehouses.

            Some SNCC members, on the other hand, preferred voter registration. The Kennedy Administration had suggested that SNCC let public antagonism cool and launch the voter drive instead. It would be financed by grant money including $10,000 from singer-actor Harry Belafonte. If blacks got the vote in significant numbers, after all, they could harvest the other piecemeal rights–to patronize white restaurants, integrate movie-theater seating, use “whites-only” restrooms, etc.–that the students had been demonstrating for.

            SNCC stalwarts Diane Nash and John Lewis were deeply distrustful. SNCC’s poverty-level budget could well use an infusion of cash, but to Nash, Lewis, and many of their comrades it smelled like an attempt to buy them off. They had picked up the foundering Freedom Rides and ridden them–bloodily–into support-galvanizing national headlines, braving Ku Klux Klan baseball bats and firebombing that had stopped the Congress of Racial Equality’s initial Rides in May. Nash, Lewis, and their followers suspected, Lewis later wrote, “that this voter registration plan was nothing more than a device to ‘get the niggers off the streets,’ as more than one of our group put it…

            “I believed in drama,” Lewis went on in his memoir Walking With The Wind, explaining his opposition. “I believed in action. Dr. King said early on that there is no noise as powerful as the sound of the marching feet of a determined people, and I believed that. I experienced it.”

            The Highlander Folk School, long slapped with the segregationists’ pet tag of “Communist-inspired,” was back in operation by August. SNCC leaders from several states met there on August 11 to plot strategy. The meeting dragged through three days of rancorous deadlock. Finally Chairman Charles McDew announced he would break the impasse by casting his vote for voter registration. Some of the direct-action group stood up and stamped out.

            An eleventh-hour compromise was forged by Ella Baker, another movement heroine. A member of the NAACP since 1940 and an activist in locations from New York to Georgia, Baker had long since proved herself a skilled attracter of young people. At Highlander she prevented an ugly split in SNCC by proposing that it divide its efforts into two wings, with Diane Nash heading direct action and Charles Jones, a student from Charlotte, N.C., heading voter registration. Like most compromises, it was unloved.

            “A bird needs two wings to fly,” shrugged Nashville student Bernard LaFayette.

            The new wing was already testing its fledgling strength. While SNCC members wrangled at Highlander, some young registration enthusiasts were jumping the gun. SNCC member Bob Moses, an excessively softspoken Harlem intellectual who had been to Harvard and abroad and studied Oriental thought, opened registration classes on his own on Aug. 7 in McComb, Miss.

            Moses had refused to attend the Highlander meeting or take a vocal side in its dispute. Guided mostly by information he gathered at the home of longtime NAACP member Amzie Moore in Cleveland, Miss., Moses recruited two local teenage helpers and began his voter school. Three blacks out of four who tried got registered after the first class. Two of the three more who came the night of Aug. 8 were registered on Aug. 9.

            Then locals of both races began taking notice. Nine volunteers showed up at Moses’s class the third night, but the following day only one was approved by the county registrar. People from outlying counties wanted his help, too, and, he later said, he couldn’t discourage them by telling them it was too dangerous.

            So on August 15 he took three volunteers to rural Liberty, Miss. Their mission was to try to register at the courthouse of neighboring Amite County. The attempt was unsuccessful, but the three left happy. They had at least been allowed to fill out the required forms. But on the way back to McComb, Moses was arrested. Consigned to the McComb jail, he became SNCC’s first non-Freedom Rider to get that honor. Aided by his name’s Biblical ring, his fame–and infamy–spread fast across southern Mississippi.  

            More people from Amite County came to his class. When he took two more volunteers to try to register them on August 29, three men approached them on the street and asked where they were going. They said they were going to the registrar’s office. One of the three–Billy Jack Caston, the county sheriff’s cousin and son-in-law of state legislator E. H. Hurst–said no, they weren’t. He then savagely beat the unresisting Moses.

            But Moses proceeded to show the human iron of which he and SNCC were made. Dazed by concussion, blood from his head soaking his shirt, he rose from the sidewalk to which he had been beaten and told his two terrified volunteers that the three of them had to go on to their intended destination, the county registrar’s office.

            They went. The registrar blinked wide eyes at Moses’s condition. He stumbled through a few obfuscating remarks. Then he abruptly closed his office and left.

            (For more information, see Parting The Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 by Taylor Branch, Simon & Schuster 1988; An Easy Burden by Andrew Young, Harper-Collins, 1996; Walking With The Wind by John Lewis, Simon & Schuster 1998; and The Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader by Clayborne Carson, David J. Garrow, Gerald Gill, Vincent Harding, and Darlene Clark Hine, eds., Penguin 1991.)


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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