October ’61


            The cool of autumn pointed toward winter, when rain and sleet would drown the Confederacy’s inferior roads and slacken campaigning to an endless plod.

            So Presidents Lincoln and Davis settled into a longer war than most people on either side had anticipated. In October’s first week, their brain trusts took flurries of actions geared toward the longer haul.

            On Oct. 1, the Union cabinet met with General-in-Chief Winfield Scott and his precocious and arrogant young understudy, Major General George B. McClellan. The Northern public was pushing for another Virginia offensive to erase the memory of Bull Run, but Union troops were not ready for another large-scale move in that quarter.

            Lincoln tried to help remedy that. He appointed General Benjamin Butler of Massachusetts to command the new Department of New England, which would mainly gather and train troops for the Virginia front. Meanwhile, the cabinet began plotting a smaller campaign farther down the Atlantic coast, in the region of the Carolinas.

            On that same day, Oct. 1, Jefferson Davis also worked on strategy. He met with generals Joseph E. Johnston, P. G. T. Beauregard, and Johnston’s chief of staff, Edmund Kirby Smith, at Centreville, Va. Southerners, too, demanded action in Virginia; they wanted the Bull Run/Manassas victory to be followed up. But Davis and the generals decided that such an attack would be rash, given the condition and numbers of available Confederate troops at that time.

            With winter approaching, the Confederate leaders opted to see what developed while waiting for spring. They would soon learn that on this day Confederate troops captured a well-stocked federal supply vessel, the Fanny, and thirty-one Union soldiers in Pamlico Sound off North Carolina. Two days later, though, outnumbered Confederate forces in western Virginia were routed from Greenbrier. Their overall commander, Robert E. Lee, hailed from Virginia’s Tidewater and had little experience with the commonwealth’s far different Appalachian region.

            The Confederacy wanted European aid. On Oct. 3, Louisiana Gov. Thomas Moore prohibited shipping cotton across the Atlantic from the ports of his state–including the mammoth outlet at New Orleans. Moore instituted the ban to try to coerce support from Britain and France. British and French textile manufacturers were forces in the world market and used American cotton almost exclusively, and Confederate planners believed that withholding it would throw European economies into chaos.

            On Oct. 4, the Confederacy signed treaties with three Native American tribes–the Cherokees, the Senecas, and the Shawnee–to gain military use of men in those tribes who wished to participate in the war.

            In Washington, Lincoln watched the ascension of an air balloon that offered military reconnaissance possibilities. The Union president also met with various officials about what to do about the uncontrollable Major General Charles Fremont in Missouri. Meanwhile, Swedish-born New York inventor John Ericsson submitted a contract to build ironclad warships–which would include the famous Monitor–for the U.S. Navy. The army already had started building lighter metal-sheathed ships for use on inland rivers, and the Confederacy had begun ironclad construction even earlier than that.

            On Oct. 8, Lincoln relieved the mentally exhausted hero of Fort Sumter, General Robert Anderson, of his new command heading the Department of the Cumberland. The President replaced Anderson with General William T. Sherman, a veteran of Bull Run and brother of U. S. Senator John Sherman of Ohio.

            All these diverse events set the tone for the rest of the month, one proffering harbingers of future complications.

            –On Oct. 14, in a widening of an earlier controversial move, Lincoln ordered General-in-Chief Winfield Scott to suspend the writ of habeas corpus in the entire region between Maine and Washington, D.C. On Oct. 23 the writ was suspended in Washington, as well, in all cases relating to military matters. Increasingly grave abuses of the liberties Americans trumpeted would be the bitter fruit of such actions, but Lincoln believed the life of the Union demanded them. His thinking, expressed during his initial habeas corpus suspension in Maryland in May, was that it was wrong to allow the breaking of all other laws of citizenship to preserve this one.

            –On Oct. 12, two Confederate commissioners, John Mason for England and John Slidell for France, got past the Union blockade at Charleston, S.C. Passengers on the Theodora, they were bound first for Cuba and then Europe to buy arms and try to gain foreign recognition for the Jefferson Davis government.

            –Lincoln had to settle a dispute between General Thomas W. Sherman, commander of the Atlantic Coast expedition, and Army of the Potomac commander McClellan. Striking an early note soon to be heard endlessly from him, McClellan did not want to give up any of his troops to Sherman (no relation to William T. Sherman) for the coastal campaign.

            –On Oct. 24, Lincoln finally decided to sack John C. Fremont. The cause was more than Fremont’s rash declaration of wholesale emancipation of secessionist-owned slaves in Missouri back on August 30. His administration of Missouri was bumbling and heavy-handed in general. But the President instructed his emissary to Fremont not to interrupt the general if he was amid an important military action. Sure enough, before the messenger could arrive, Fremont headed off on Oct. 27, theoretically in pursuit of Confederate General Sterling Price–except that Price had gone in another direction.

            –On Oct. 31, Lincoln accepted the resignation of Winfield Scott. America’s most famous soldier was now 74 years old and faced with continual opposition from younger subordinates, particularly McClellan. But Scott bequeathed to the Union a significant legacy in even the Civil War, with which his name is seldom mentioned in more than passing. The so-called “Anaconda Plan” he devised, to strangle the Southern economy by controlling the South’s rivers and blockading its seacosts, is the one the Union now began adopting to fight the longer war now in prospect.

            Several small-scale military actions occurred during October, from western Virginia and Florida all the way to California. Only two troop actions were significant, however.

            On Oct. 29, General Thomas W. Sherman set off for the Carolina coast with one of the largest Federal campaign forces yet assembled: 77 seagoing ships and some 12,000 men.

            By then, though, the Union had suffered yet another eastern disaster. Under public and presidential pressure, McClellan ordered a reconnaissance foray near Leesburg, Va., northwest of Washington. Some 1,700 Federals and the same number of Confederates clashed and fought for most of Oct. 21 at an eminence on the Potomac River called Ball’s Bluff.

            Under cover of post-midnight darkness, a 300-man Union vanguard crossed the Potomac from Maryland in small boats, hoping to take a Confederate camp and get back across the river. They climbed up the bluff and, awaiting dawn in a cornfield, were joined by another Federal detachment.

            During moderate morning combat, the rest of the 1,700 Federals arrived, and the action quickened in the afternoon. Political general Edward D. Baker, a former Illinois legislator and close friend of President Lincoln, badly positioned his troops and artillery. Confederate sharpshooters picked them off, and Baker’s line collapsed in mid-afternoon.

            “Drive them into the Potomac or into eternity!” a Confederate regimental commander purportedly yelled in ordering a charge.

            Whether he yelled it or not, it pretty much happened. Boats capsized and the bodies of Union soldiers, drowned or shot, bobbed in the river and floated off on the current. The scene was horrifyingly unforgettable. There were nearly a thousand Union casualties–the killed included General Baker–compared to fewer than 150 Confederate ones.

            Although of no strategic consequence, Ball’s Bluff lingered psychologically: another ignominious Federal defeat near Washington. Once again, it made the resource-rich Union resemble a muscle-bound giant stumbling over his own boots.

            It made a bitter winter cud for Northerners to chew.

(For further information, see The Civil War Almanac by John S. Bowman, Ed., Bison Books 1982; Lincoln by David Herbert Donald, Simon & Schuster 1995; With Malice Toward None: The Life of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen B. Oates, Harper & Row 1977; Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour by William C. Davis, Harper-Collins 1991; Lee by Clifford Dowdey, Little-Brown 1965; and The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War by David J. Eicher, Simon & Schuster 2001.)



            The death of African American farmer Herbert Lee at the hands of state legislator E. H. Hurst in the last week of September brought southwest Mississippi voter registration efforts to a standstill. Not the area’s black activism, though.

            Just days after the Lee funeral, 16-year-old Brenda Travis emerged from behind bars in McComb after serving her 30 days. She had been jailed for participating with four male students in a sit-in that began at the Pike County library and, after being shooed from there by police, ended up at a local lunch counter.

            The black establishment then turned on her. On Oct. 4, the principal of the local black high school refused to re-admit her and a male fellow sit-in demonstrator, Ike Stewart. A school rebellion erupted. When Travis and Stewart were turned away, 117 of their fellow students poured out of the building behind them.

            These students heeded a suggestion from some visiting Freedom Riders and decided to protest. They wanted to call attention not just to the suspension of Travis and Stewart for demanding their rights but also to the all but ignored violent death of Herbert Lee. A coroner’s jury ruled that the killer, State Representative Hurst, had acted in self-defense in shooting Lee. Hurst went un-arrested, not to mention un-prosecuted.  

            The students marched to SNCC member Robert Moses’s voter registration office in the town’s Masonic building. There Moses and SNCC chairman Charles McDew tried to discourage further action, arguing that the principal’s suspension of Travis and Stewart would likely end soon and a protest would just further inflame local whites.

            The youths refused to listen. They resolved to march on city hall. Bob Zellner– who had just arrived in McComb that day–and Moses and McDew reluctantly joined the protest as it headed off. Zellner, white grandson of an Alabama Klansman, laughed about it later.

            “It was a moment that brought back that great quote from Gandhi,” he said. “‘There go my people, I have to go and run and catch up because I am their leader.’”

            Zellner could laugh later, but not on Oct. 4. As the demonstration reached the city hall steps, a student ascended them and began to pray. A policeman warned him that such prayers were not allowed there and then, when the student persisted, arrested him. Other students went up and began to pray, and got the same treatment. One by one, more followed, including Brenda Travis. A milling white crowd got increasingly restless. Police officers finally stopped the praying and put everybody under arrest. Juveniles were charged with disturbing the peace, and those past age 18 were also charged with contributing to the delinquency of minors.

            As the officers started herding the throng toward the jail, the white crowd could no longer be restrained. The hottest wrath was reserved for Zellner, the white who had joined the protest.

            It harked back to tradition rooted in the Civil War and the slavery era preceding it. Confederate law had stipulated that black soldiers captured in battle be treated as runaway slaves and returned to their masters, but whites leading or fighting alongside them must be executed for inciting insurrection. Practice on the ground varied. High generals expressed confidential preference that even surrendering blacks be killed, but what actually happened depended on individual field commanders and the amount of control they exerted, especially after Union commanders threatened reprisals in kind.

            The harshness of these wartime penalties was in keeping with antebellum ones meted out to whites distributing abolition tracts and hiding or encouraging runaways; such people were regarded as inciters of insurrection. They were in fact lawbreakers; Federal statutes of that day demanded that slaves be returned to their masters.

            Zellner was not just white; he was also a Southerner. That made his crime against the South’s Jim Crow laws of 1961 worse in the view of members of the mob. They saw him as a traitor and treated him like one.

            “I had 18 men beatin’ me, stompin’ on me while the cops held my arms,” he remembered later. “They tried to pull my eyes out by the roots.”

            If this was an exaggeration, it was not by much. A man started choking him, and Moses and McDew tried to get to him. As they had learned in nonviolence workshops, they pressed themselves against him as tightly as they could to take some of the punches themselves. The attackers tried to pull Moses and McDew away, but McDew held Zellner’s chest and McDew his waist. Zellner had been carrying a Bible, but he dropped it in trying to hold onto the railing of the city hall steps to prevent being knocked to the ground where boots could do him more damage.

            An assailant stuck an arm over the railing and gouged one of his eyes. Another man kicked him in the face. Then he and Moses and McDew were pulled and kicked away from the steps into a pile, where they continued to be hit until police finally backed the crowd off. The officers then arrested the trio for disturbing the peace.

            The police did not stop there. They quickly went on to arrest the local NAACP president along with every other SNCC worker in sight. These included 22-year-old Charles Sherrod and 20-year-old Cordell Reagon, who were visiting and helping the McComb effort after briefly leaving their own fledgling voter registration project in Georgia. The only SNCC member the McComb police missed was Charles Jones, who hid in a butcher shop in the basement of the Masonic building and, in desperation, donned a bloody smock to try to pass for a butcher. 

            This was the first mass civil rights arrest in Mississippi, and from a pay telephone Jones quickly notified everybody who might help: national news organizations, John Doar of the Justice Department, even activist singer-actor Harry Belafonte.

            As violent as it all was, the mass arrests yielded results almost immediately. The local NAACP president, C. C. Bryant, made bail and reversed his previous opposition to SNCC’s confrontational activities. “Where the students lead, we will follow,” he said. Some of the students saw their parents’ opposition soften. At a mass meeting, one parent even made a supportive speech.

            John Doar flew back to McComb, but the Justice Department’s performance was not as impressive as that of some of the locals. Doar, for example, appeared in Jones’s butcher shop refuge in the middle of the night and advised Jones to pull the shades.

            Moses was bitterly disappointed by the Justice Department’s reaction to the Lee murder.  The FBI had botched the investigation—refusing, for example, to ask who allegedly removed from the scene the tire iron with which local authorities said Lee attacked Representative Hurst. The police reports said only that the tire iron had been removed from beneath Lee’s body. There also had been no formal examination of the body for marks and other evidence before it was buried.

            Doar’s Justice Department bosses did not want to push an investigation, reasoning that Hurst would never be convicted. By then, though, Doar had talked to Louis Allen, 42, a black timber worker who had witnessed the shooting and readily admitted he had lied to Amite County authorities to protect his family and himself. Left in the lurch after telling the truth, Allen became a marked man.

            Some of the McComb workers moved on, once they were bailed out of jail. Some had no choice. The latter included Sherrod and Reagon, who—in Sherrod’s later words—were “railroaded” out of McComb.

            They returned to Albany, Ga., to their original project. They got to work gathering recruits for what would become another major Southern campaign.

(For more information see Parting The Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 by Taylor Branch, Simon & Schuster 1988; The Children by David Halberstam, Random House 1998; 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; In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s by Clayborne Carson, Harvard 1981; and The Struggle for Black Equality 1954-1980 by Harvard Sitkoff, Hill and Wang 1981.)


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 www.hydraislandgreece.com.
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