On November 6 Jefferson Davis, provisional president of the Confederate States of America, became no longer provisional.
The former United States senator from Mississippi had been named the first–but provisional–president of the Confederacy in February by the ambitious new nation’s equally provisional Congress. That assembly represented the first seven states that seceded from the U. S. Now a more complete canvass–encompassing a larger electorate that included four more, late-seceding states–formalized his status with a six-year term.
By now, Davis knew all too well that his was to be a thankless job. As the month opened, he was amid a public feud with P. G. T. Beauregard, one of the two generals who had led Confederate troops to their ragtag but thrilling victory at the Manassas railroad junction back in July. And before Beauregard, Davis had entered a more private set-to with the other Manassas victor, General Joseph E. Johnston. In a manner all too characteristic of Davis, both of these disagreements would become life-long.
Johnston, outraged to be ranked fourth instead of first among Confederate generals, was pulling political strings trying to get redress. Beauregard, the fifth-ranked Confederate general, finally got around to filing his Manassas report in late October. Its florid prose glorified Beauregard and seemed to charge Davis and his government with hamstringing the field commanders and interfering with the fighting. It naturally hit the newspapers, prompting talk that Beauregard should be president. It also caused Davis to scold the general for seeming to exalt himself over his commander-in-chief.
Beauregard helped insure that his spat with the longtime politician Davis would become eternal by writing a letter to the editor of the Richmond Whig. Under a grandiose dateline reading “Centreville, Va., Within hearing of the enemy’s guns,Nov. 3, 1861,” this public missive opened with a sentence scorning personal political aspirations:
“If certain minds cannot understand the difference between patriotism, the highest civic virtue, and office-seeking, the lowest civic occupation, I pity them from the bottom of my heart.”
One hundred miles north, Abraham Lincoln was beginning to endure the same sort of disrespect.
On November 11, the Union capital was the scene of a huge celebration honoring the elevation of George McClellan to general-in-chief. Successor to the just-retired Winfield Scott, McClellan was a scion of the Philadelphia elite who had graduated in eminent fashion from West Point, distinguished himself further in the Mexican War and subsequent military engineering projects, then left the army to become one of the nation’s most prominent railroad executives. And yet, in late 1861, his 35th birthday remained more than three weeks off.
McClellan was also impossibly egotistical, a walking presidential migraine. Two days following the Washington festivities in McClellan’s honor, Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward paid him the latest of several evening calls at his quarters to discuss strategy. The young general was out when they arrived, but when he came in, he brushed past them and went upstairs. After another half-hour, they sent up a message that they were still there–and were informed by an attendant that the general had gone to bed.
The personnel woes of both chief executives, Federal and Confederate, were worsened by many developing problems of tactics and strategy on the ground.
Lincoln’s foremost one was the sudden danger of a shooting war with not just the Confederacy but also Britain and France. On November 8, Captain Charles Wilkes of the U.S.S. San Jacinto caught the non-military British ship Trent in waters off Cuba, fired two shots across her bow, then boarded her and high-handedly removed Confederate notables James M. Mason and John Slidell, intended emissaries of the Jefferson Davis government to England and France.
The Northern populace loved it as soon as the news circulated. Wilkes had swelled populist pride by thumbing his nose at both the South and Great Britain, whose navy ruled the seas worldwide.Lincoln showed his prairie-lawyer naivete in foreign policy by being initially happy. Union triumphs had been few, and this, though hardly heroic, at least seemed a retaliatory gesture toward both the Confederacy and European powers who back in April had granted the Confederacy belligerency status under international law (as they were all obligated to do).
Lincoln was drawn up short, though, by a meeting with Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner in late November. Sumner corresponded regularly with high British officials, and he reported that they had interpreted the kidnapping of Mason and Slidell as preliminary to a U.S.declaration of war against Britain.
That would, of course, have been madness. To fight England would have been to put her, de facto, on the side of the Confederacy. She could demolish the North’s developing naval blockade of the South and require the Union to fight on two fronts when Lincoln had not the slightest guarantee of winning on even one front. He began devoting much energy toward defusing what he now realized was a genuine international crisis.
In Richmond, Davis was buoyed by the sudden prospect of U.S.-British enmity, but he faced worrying problems, too.
There was the huge Federal naval operation against the southern Atlantic coast under General Thomas Sherman and Flag Officer Samuel F. DuPont. Blown off course on November 1 off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina by a violent storm, it nevertheless showed up in Port Royal Sound off South Carolina, on November 7. At Hilton Head between Charleston and Savannah, DuPont attacked the very cradle of secession.
The Union goal was to establish a naval supply depot for the Southern blockade, and it quickly accomplished that aim. After a nearly seven-hour naval battle, the Federal armada ran under-trained and outmanned Confederates out of the two forts guarding the sound. They then landed General Thomas W. Sherman’s 12,000 soldiers. On November 28, they got a go-ahead from Washington to further enlarge their burgeoning base by confiscating local farm products and newly-freed slaves to help fortify and sustain their beachhead.
With Port Royal in hand, at mid-month the Federals began preparing provisions for another naval strike. This one would target New Orleans, the commercial colossus that was the South’s largest city.
There was another raging problem inland. On November 8 Davis had a full-fledged rebellion on his hands in Union-loving East Tennessee, where residents who wanted to secede from the Confederacy managed to torch five large bridges on the vital railroad line connecting Virginia and Georgia. The Davis government responded harshly. New Secretary of War Judah Benjamin ordered all suspected bridge-burners to be brought before drumhead courts-martial, with those found guilty to be hanged “on the spot.” He added:
“It would be well to leave their bodies hanging in the vicinity of the burned bridges.”
Davis had another problem, too–which for Lincoln would turn out to be a lethal weapon–but neither president had any idea of its importance at the time.
Well west of the Appalachians on the day before the bridge-burnings, the Federals made a strange run at a tiny Missouri hamlet called Belmont. The place sat on low farmland across the Mississippi River from the Confederate-held and cannon-crowned bluffs of Columbus, Ky. Three thousand Federals attacked and burned a Confederate camp there before a counterattack from Columbus chased them back to their boats. Although it was a just a major reconnaissance raid, it cost 1,248 total Federal and Confederate casualties.
All this blood accomplished only one thing. It advertised to whoever cared to notice that the Union had at least one general was more than ready to fight. Heralded only by his antebellum reputation as a drunkard, this unimpressive-looking officer had taken advantage of vague and all-but-outdated orders from western commander John C. Fremont, who was pretty well known to be in the process of being removed from command.
U. S. Grant–whose in-law, Confederate General James Longstreet would soon warn his fellow secessionists that “this man will fight us every day until the end of this war”–had taken his opportunity to do just that. Commanding in Cairo, Ill., a thousand miles from Richmond and Washington, this drunk bore watching.
(For further information, see Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour By William C. Davis, Harper Collins 1991; Lee by Clifford Dowdey, Little-Brown 1965; Lincoln by David Herbert Donald, Simon & Schuster 1995; With Malice Toward None: The Life of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen B. Oates, Harper & Row 1977; and The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War by David J. Eicher, Simon & Schuster 2001.)
Charles Sherrod and Cordell Reagon, veterans of the first bloody Freedom Rides back in May, spent some of November’s first day on another bus. This time, instead of riding from safety into harm’s way, they were bound from one place of dark danger to another.
Today they were heading to ominous Albany, Ga., from perilous southwest Mississippi. In October, one of their friends had been murdered by a Mississippi state legislator whom police declined to investigate. The officers reportedly drove the killer home from the crime scene.
But November 1 was a red-letter date, one expected to change some things. Freedom Riders of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC or “Snick”) had planned actions in seven Deep Dixie states. On this day, the Interstate Commerce Commission had decreed, segregation in all public facilities serving interstate travel must stop.
CORE and SNCC were determined not to let a day pass before putting the new ruling to a test, and Sherrod, 21, and Reagon, 18, had planned one forAlbany. They meant to launch a campaign of nonviolent resistance to segregation in southern Georgia, a bastion of it. A few Albany youths had agreed to meet their bus on this day at the town’s Trailways bus station; together, they would integrate its whites-only waiting room.
The plan misfired humiliatingly. When the bus pulled into the Albany station, Sherrod and Reagon alighted to find no one in the waiting room but a large handful of lounging, challenging police.
The two quickly left. Heading to the only part of town where they could feel even a little bit at home, they found fear running wild through Albany’s black community, where it had never been a stranger. Rumor had it that if any Albany youths had met Sherrod and Reagon’s bus at the station there would have been beatings, maybe a massacre.
The possibility was not far-fetched. This was a region where black rebellion had long been met by ritualistic terror. Albany had once been a slave-trading center, and the spirit of oppression still pervaded. Counties adjacent to Albany’s had nicknames among the black population signifying local African American vicissitudes. “Terrible Terrell” County bordered Albany to the northwest, “Bad Baker” to the southwest.
On this special day, Sherrod and Reagon believed, they could not knuckle under to the terror. It took hours, but they finally persuaded nine members of the Youth Council of the local NAACP–whose cooler-headed elders opposed the seemingly suicidal activism of SNCC–to approach the Trailways station that afternoon. They walked into the white waiting room, then simply exited when police ordered them to.
But the very doorway of that white waiting room was a Rubicon. Just walking inside it was a victory of historic–meaning multi-century–proportions. At that moment, Sherrod soon said, segregation’s death knell sounded in Albany. His assertion would have to wait no more than three weeks to see its truth begin manifesting.
Meanwhile across the state, more than two hundred miles east near Savannah, another of the movement’s developing leaders was establishing a training ground for homegrown nonviolent revolutionaries.
The Rev. Andrew Young, with the help of a bit of philanthropic money and indomitable assistants Dorothy Cotton and Septima Clark, had begun back in the summer setting up a “citizenship school” in the community of Dorchester. The school was an autonomous arm of the Rev. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, its purpose to train a nucleus of indigenous workers for a South-wide voter registration campaign. Touted by the Kennedy Administration as a less-inflammatory alternative to Freedom Riding, voter registration was already turning out to be just as dangerous.
The campaign’s planners had refined their target: 188 counties across the Southeast in which black people were in the majority but had no vote. These counties were located in the Mississippi Delta, the black belt of Alabama, various parts of Georgia and Florida, the east coasts of North and South Carolina, and the Tidewater section of Virginia.
Young’s “citizenship school” was not intended to be a college, a high school, or even a grade school. Its courses lasted just a week, and every Sunday evening a bus gathered a new class from around the South. The students were mostly ill-educated–not by their own choice–and could spare no more than a week from their hard, menial jobs. But the tuition, transportation, and room and board were free, and the curriculum was tailored to the job at hand. It provided them with a little history of such things as the Civil War and Reconstruction and a lot of prepping on big, hard words county registrars liked to throw in their way.
The tenuousness of the lives his students went back to from Dorchester troubled Young. The comparative safety of his life at Dorchester bothered him, and no wonder.
An early student at his school, Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer of Ruleville, Mississippi, went home to Sunflower Countyand soon took a group of her African American neighbors to the courthouse to register. When she got home from the courthouse, she found the boss she worked for as a plantation time-keeper. He told her that if she did not go back to the courthouse immediately and have her name removed from the list of eligible voters, he would fire her.
She didn’t, and he did. On the spot, she and her family were thrown out of the plantation shack in which they had lived for 15 years.
Jim Bevel, a SNCC leader in Jackson, Miss., called Andrew Young from Mississippi begging for help for Hamer. Young wept. Then he scraped together a hundred dollars and sent it to Bevel to rent a truck to move the Hamer possessions, pay two months rent on a house in Ruleville, and give Hamer the remainder to try to live on until she could find other work.
The same sort of oppression was routine in southwest Georgia where Sherrod and Reagon were laboring. Back in July, the sheriff of “Bad Baker” County had repeatedly shot a handcuffed black field hand named Charlie Ware for flirting with the black mistress of the overseer of the town’s preeminent plantation owner. A grand jury then indicted the field hand for assaulting the sheriff. Ware remained in jail as Sherrod and Reagon began their Albany activism. He had become a symbol of rising resistance; in southwest Georgia, his was the first case in which a black had refused to plead guilty to whatever whites wanted to charge him with.
Ware’s example spawned more such, with the help of Sherrod and Reagon. On November 22, they talked three more student members of the NAACP Youth Council into violating the supposed sanctity of the bus station’s white waiting room. This trio did not leave when the police told them to. They became Albany’s first arrested civil rights protesters.
Their jailing happened at a lucky time–three days before Thanksgiving. That afternoon, Albany State College suspended classes for the holiday, and crowds of black students headed to the same Trailways station to go home. In the wake of the day’s previous arrests, the dean of students went along to be sure his young charges went into the black waiting room. Two, though, eluded him and darted into the white one. Being black, the dean was prohibited from going in himself, so he could only watch as the two youths, Blanton Hall and Bertha Gober, were arrested by policemen who informed them they were creating a disturbance.
The thought of the two young out-of-town students having to spend Thanksgiving in a jail away from their hometowns moved adults in Albany’s black community. The two, along with the trio of arrested Youth Council members, were brought plates of turkey from homes in the community.
On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, Hall and Gober were informed they had been suspended by Albany State. That did it. Adult leaders of a newly-formed self-dubbed “Albany Movement” called a mass meeting that night in a local Baptist church. The adult NAACP members spoke, but the spirit of the meeting was hijacked by Sherrod and Reagon. Reagon, a gifted singer, and two students of operatic voice whom he had recruited, Rutha Harris and Bernice Johnson, shrewdly used a cappella protest songs to galvanize rebellion.
Before it knew it, the crowd found itself singing along in defiance of no less than the city’s police chief, Laurie Pritchett. To the tune of the old spiritual “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” they sang out flat challenge:
“Ain’t gonna let Chief Pritchett turned me around…”
The Albany Movement was suddenly far more than a name.
(For further information, see Parting The Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 by Taylor Branch, Simon & Schuster 1988; An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America by Andrew Young, Harper Collins 1996; The Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader by Clayborne Carson, David J. Garrow, Gerald Gill, Vincent Harding, and Darlene Clark Hine, eds., Viking Penguin 1991.)