December ’61



            So now came December and the approach of a new year–in a war the naive of both sides had assumed would not last three months.

            The conflict was already promising to bust budgets on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. The Thirty-seventh Congress convened in Washington on December 2, and within a week it was considering matters that had been unthinkable a few months earlier. These included several bills that would abolish slavery, especially in states that had seceded.

            The nation’s modest antebellum armed forces had multiplied exponentially. The Regular Army, the prewar career force, amounted to barely more than 20,000, Secretary of War Simon Cameron reported to Congress. He added, though, that the volunteer army raised to fight this war suddenly numbered a mind-boggling additional 640,000. And that didn’t count a 22,000-man navy.

            Immediately, members of Congress began to fret that nothing seemed to be happening with this horde that was costing enormous sums to feed, clothe, and equip. They questioned the wisdom of various parts of Lincoln’s three-pronged plan of movement that called for a push down the Mississippi, a push into unionist eastern Tennessee, and a push toward Richmond.

            To all appearances, not one of these pushes was happening.

            –Lordly General-in-chief George B. McClellan would hardly even entertain questions about when he planned to set his superbly trained Army of the Potomac in motion.

            –In Louisville, Ky., McClellan’s subordinate and friend, Brigadier General Don Carlos Buell, could not be nudged southward toward Tennessee, either; McClellan and he each had impressive recommendations for invading as long as the invasion was to be done by somebody else.

            –The third prospective move, down the Mississippi River, could not be made until Major General Henry Halleck, who had just replaced John C. Fremont in the wake of Fremont’s blunderingly premature Missouri emancipation proclamation, could tamp down rampant Missouri guerrilla rebellion. In early December, Halleck was authorized to suspend the right of habeas corpus in his department.

            In addition to deflecting criticism over his generals’ inactivity, Lincoln had to continue defusing the international crisis with Britain over the high seas kidnapping, in November, of Confederate commissioners James M. Mason and John Slidell off the British ship Trent.

            One hundred miles south of Washington, Jefferson Davis in Richmond was enduring his own international stress. Gradually it was dawning on his government that its cherished idea of blackmailing Europeans into aiding the Confederacy by threatening to withhold Southern cotton from European manufacturing mills faced a thorny complication: the European detestation of their “peculiar institution.”

            Davis had blundered badly in first sending to Britain as his initial emissary Alabama orator William L. Yancey, best-known for championing slavery and advocating the reopening the importation of slaves–which had been illegal in the U. S. since 1808. Mason and Slidell had boarded the Trent to go to Europe to replace Davis’s initial, unfortunate ambassadorial choices.

            Davis had a personal situation that made him all the more nervous and distracted in this year’s final month; on December 16, his wife, Varina, gave birth to a son. It was a much more a traumatic event for Davis than for even the usual expectant father because Davis’s first wife, the daughter of President Zachary Taylor, had died while pregnant.

            With this added to ailments and exhaustion brought on by his job, his shortness of temper and mental haziness was marked. He forgot information that had been told him several times, complained more than usual about his generals, and at times seemed as if his mind was elsewhere.

            At about this time, one of Davis’s generals–although one out on the western front to whom Davis likely had paid little mind–was making a costly mistake that would not become evident for another month.

            Felix K. Zollicoffer, a former Tennessee newspaperman and congressman whose state stature had gotten him a commission as brigadier general, was commanding troops in southeastern Kentucky to protect East Tennessee. His force sat at Mill Springs facing a southward bend of the Cumberland River.

            Zollicoffer, with no military training and questionable common sense, looked at the river bend from its south side and thought that if he could get his troops across the river and inside the bend, he would have a strong position. The river, after all, would cover his flanks and rear.

            So, on December 17, he crossed his troops to the other side–just before two unfortunate events. Sudden rains rose the Cumberland; to recross now required bigger boats than Zollicoffer had on hand. And he received a letter from western commander Albert Sidney Johnston ordering him not to cross the river for any reason. Only then, perhaps, did Zollicoffer begin to realize he had trapped himself. And Johnston, alarmed, rushed West Pointer George B. Crittenden toward Mill Springs to take command.

            On December 28, meanwhile, a more positive event for the Confederacy occurred in Kentucky on the opposite side of the state from Zollicoffer. Near the little village of Sacramento, some 300 Confederate cavalrymen encountered a force of 168 Federal mounted troops.

            The mere sight of them seemed to raise the mercurial temper of Lieutenant Colonel N. B. Forrest, an unheralded officer with no military experience who was commanding the Confederates. Forrest grabbed a rifle and fired at the Federals, then spurred his horse to a gallop and gave chase so single-mindedly that he outran most of his men.

            The Federals rode to a hill, then formed a battle line atop it and began shooting. When Forrest saw that his charge had outrun most of his men, he reined in and withdrew slightly to allow the others to catch up. Seeing that movement and mistaking it for a retreat, the Federals charged.

            Forrest quickly dismounted some of his men so they could more accurately shoot to resist a Federal flanking movement. Almost as quickly, he mounted flanking movements and a central charge of his own, leading the latter personally. In the charge, he himself killed three Federals in hand-to-hand fighting as his gave chase when the Federals turned to retreat.

            As his report put it, his troopers “began a promiscuous saber slaughter of their rear, which was continued at full speed for almost two miles beyond the village, leaving their bleeding and wounded strewn along the whole route.”

            He sounded almost as if he enjoyed it. His immediate superior sent Forrest’s report to Albert Sidney Johnston’s Bowling Green, Ky., headquarters with a cover letter describing the Sacramento action as the most impressive cavalry effort so far in the war.

            Johnston, and maybe even the Mississippi officer who was Forrest’s immediate superior, could not know that the cavalry leader’s report was dictated, not written personally. Forrest was a forty-year-old man of uncertain letters: shaky grammar and atrocious spelling. Having attained a total of barely six months formal education in his life, he was a self-made man who had pulled himself by his own bootstraps out of the leased fields of his youth into riches. He had done it mostly by plying a repugnant Old South vocation: slave-trading.

            He was the kind of man from whom most Southerners of Jefferson Davis’s elite class recoiled in distaste. But they would need him more than they knew.

            [For more information, see Civil War Almanac by John S. Bowman, ed., Bison Books 1982; Lincoln by David Herbert Donald, Simon & Schuster 1995; Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour by William C. Davis, Harper Collins 1991; Lincoln Finds A General by Kenneth P. Williams, MacMillan 1952; The War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, vol. 7, Government Printing Office 1882; and the Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War by Patricia L. Faust, ed., Harper & Row 1986.]




            John Lewis, one of the handful of most heroic of the Freedom Ride heroes, took a furlough from the civil rights struggle’s front lines that autumn. He had gone back to college in Nashville to supplement the religious education he had gotten at American Baptist seminary. He had enrolled in liberal-arts courses at historic Fisk University, but he soon felt like an outsider on the college scene.

            For one thing, he was a celebrity. That fall a Freedom Rider was treated “almost like royalty” on predominantly black college campuses, he would later recall. He would also remember that he couldn’t have gone to Fisk had he not been a Freedom Rider.

            Late that summer, he and a few other pioneer Riders—ten who had rushed southward in May to replace those beaten and burned-out on the inaugural buses to Birmingham–had been honored in Nashville. On the stage of the Ryman Auditorium, home of the famed Grand Ole Opry, archetypal black gospel singer Mahalia Jackson sang, and Lewis and the other nine were given $500 scholarships by the civil rights movement’s Moses himself: the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Without the $500, Lewis could not have gone to Fisk.

            But on campus, despite the fame, he missed the old cleansing feeling of challenging the most vicious barriers African Americans had faced in the United States for centuries.

            Oh, he continued to spend much time away from class helping fellow members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organize the picketing and boycotting of Nashville businesses that catered to blacks but would hire them for only the most menial jobs. These demonstrations were tame stuff, though, compared to the death threats, beatings, arrests, and imprisonment he had earlier endured in Alabama and Mississippi.

            It all came home to him one November afternoon as he and a group of demonstrators gathered near Fisk’s Jubilee Hall to go to downtown Nashville for another protest. He heard a disturbance and looked up to see a throng of male undergraduates loping across the lawn in mid-cry of one of their fraternity rituals. Barking like hounds, they were wearing dog collars and brandishing fraternity paddles.

            Lewis was repelled. The spectacle of such foolishness while other young people were putting their lives on the line inMississippi, Alabama, and Georgia nearly made him physically sick. He missed such courageous friends as Diane Nash and Jim Bevel, who were among those now living under virtual siege in Mississippi.

            Native Mississippian Bevel and his friend, Florida-born Bernard LaFayette, were working the playgrounds and schoolyards of Jackson, Mississippi’s capital, to recruit their civil rights revolutionaries. Finding such people in Mississippi was a hard slog, but they had learned that teenagers, rebellious by nature, were the best candidates.

            Bevel and LaFayette would often start by playing basketball with them. The teens idolized them as Freedom Riders, and LaFayette would begin getting them interested in the cause. Then the firebrand Bevel would challenge them, questioning whether they were tough enough for the job and daring them to prove they were. The two friends also lent their aid to Bob Moses’s intrepid voter registration project south of Jackson around McComb, where the work had already met with institutional resistance so violent that it did not stop at murder.

            But Bevel and LaFayette were hardly alone in Jackson. With them was the female co-conspirator who was, if anything, more dedicated than even they. Diane Nash, despite working in a movement that relied heavily on female participation but was almost wholly male-dominated, had become one of the most fierily influential black people in the history of America in the early 1960s.

            She had led the Nashville sit-in movement as both organizer and strategist, running its tiny office in the Tennessee capital. She had insisted on launching the new wave of Freedom Riders to Alabama to replace the one that had faltered in the face of the violence at Anniston and Birmingham. She had wanted to be a member of that second wave herself, but everybody had said her brain and influence were too valuable in the office, where she could coordinate their activities and keep them in continual touch with the U. S. Justice Department and the national media.

            When Birmingham Police Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor arrested that second wave of riders and dumped them on the Tennessee state line in the dark of night, it was Nash whom they called, and it was Nash who sent a car to spirit them back into Birmingham to defy Connor and Birmingham’s deeply-ingrained racism.

            And now, in one of the most astonishing developments of tumultuous 1961, Nash had married the unlikeliest husband in the entire civil rights movement–James Bevel. That Nash and Bevel were opposites in virtually every way does not begin to describe their relationship. Chicago-born and Catholic-reared, refined and stunningly beautiful, Nash had become the wife of the wild Mississippi Baptist Bevel, whom even his closest friends regarded as borderline-crazy. But Nash and Bevel had one common and all-trumping trait: utter outrage that this nation they lived in could restrict, disenfranchise, oppress, and/or murder an entire race of its citizens and still trumpet itself to the world as the Land of the Free.

            Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Council in Atlanta recognized the energy and dedication of the members of SNCC and tried to co-opt them. Around this time, the SCLC hired Bevel to represent it in Jackson. This was despite the fact that both Bevel and Nash were hardly submissive to Atlanta leadership; to the contrary, they had occasionally been thorns in the King side.

            Nash, in particular, had no qualms about getting into the very face of the movement’s revered leader. She appeared to feel that no human on earth had more right to life and limb than any other, and at least twice in earlier meetings she had challenged and beseeched King to go with the Riders into Alabama and Mississippi, knowing that his presence would guarantee media documentation of Deep Dixie viciousness. But King, with a self-important demeanor that caused many SNCC members to caustically term him “De Lawd,” had claimed the right to select his own Golgotha.

            Now, though, Nash would get her wish to see King join the fight on the ground. The results would be disappointing.

            The site would be two states away from Mississippi in Albany, Georgia. SNCC members Charles Sherrod and Cordell Reagon, fresh out of a Mississippi jail, had launched a voter registration effort of their own in similarly hazardous Albany in November. Skillfully, they had attracted local teenagers and college students and persuaded them to not only participate but go to jail themselves. That brought the grudging support of many of their concerned parents, but had antagonized local black leaders.

            Sherrod worried that his Albany support was as fragile as it was quickly forged. Rather than risk losing it by fomenting more local unrest himself, he called on SNCC executive secretary James Forman to arrange a Freedom Ride from Atlanta into Albany’s railroad station. The result arrived on Sunday, December 10–Forman and eight others intending to test the white waiting room. Police allowed only two locals to greet them in the station, but when the officers tried to herd them into the “Colored Only” area, the Riders managed to at least pass through the white waiting room on their way outside. Their exit through the white waiting room evoked an ovation from a crowd of local black onlookers. The white onlookers, by contrast, were incensed.

            That did it for Police Chief Laurie Pritchett. He arrested and took to jail the Riders and the two people who met their train, charging them with disorderly conduct, obstructing traffic, and failing to obey a police command. Monday morning, Marion King, refined wife of a realtor in the Albany black community, led a small group of people downtown to pray for justice outside the courtroom where the Riders were being tried. Pritchett arrested her group, too, dismaying local blacks by the fact that he had jailed such a prominent member of their citizenry just for praying in a public place.

            On Tuesday, four hundred blacks—nearly half of them students gathered by Sherrod and Reagon—went downtown to demonstrate. These were arrested, too. Sherrod was overjoyed, seeing the widening arrests as an opportunity. For two years SNCC had had a goal of filling up jails somewhere and thereby foundering a local municipality’s ability to house and feed all its prisoners.

            But Police Chief Pritchett was smart. He had read Martin Luther King’s book on Gandhian strategy, Stride Toward Freedom. Pritchett arranged with police colleagues to parcel out the burgeoning horde of Albany prisoners to jails throughout the area. Marion King was horrified to discover herself in a vehicle headed for one in what blacks knew as “Bad” Baker County.  

            Pritchett’s tactic succeeded. One SNCC worker later remarked that the Albany Movement ran out of people before Pritchett ran out of jails. But that wasn’t the only problem. Albany’s black community was also running out of money. Bonding its people out of jail at $100 apiece exhausted its finances before it could free more than half of them.

            On the verge of seeing their massive effort collapse disastrously, they sent an appeal to Atlanta for Martin Luther King to help them get Albany’s city commission to relent. King flew into Albany on Friday, December 16, from an exhausting itinerary that in just the past month had taken him to London, Seattle, Minnesota, Cleveland, a hospital (for rest and tests), California, and Florida for an address to the AFL-CIO. Seen by some insiders in his movement as self-important, he also was important—globally.

            In Albany, King was greeted by a throng packing two churches that sat across a street from each other. He preached them a freedom sermon that had the crowds in both buildings chanting ‘We Shall Overcome” in unison. The next morning, when the city commissioners still refused to negotiate with the demonstrators, he led four hundred of them into the street on chilly gray and wintry day. Pritchett’s police stopped them. Did they have a city permit to parade or demonstrate? Pritchett shouted through a megaphone.

            “We are simply going to pray at City Hall,” King replied, adding that he assumed that required no permit.

            Wrong, Pritchett said, and ordered them to disperse. They didn’t, and he put them under arrest. Added to those previously taken into custody, they brought the total arrested in Albany to some 750. The civil rights movement had never seen such massive incarceration anywhere. Reporters rushed to Albany from across America. They had hardly arrived when, on the morning of December 18, King vowed not to accept bond and encouraged “thousands” to join him in jail for Christmas.

            Then it all petered out. That night in jail had apparently been all but sleepless for King. His cellmate, the local black establishment’s head of the Albany Movement, suffered what appeared to be a nervous breakdown, and King told his minions they needed to get him and his cellmate out of there. To do it, they had to consent to an agreement with the city commission—whose members would not enter the same room with African Americans—whereby the commission agreed to waive the bond for the remaining 400 or so prisoners and institute the new Interstate Commerce rule desegregating public transportation in Albany if King left town and the Movement’s demonstrations stopped. The agreement did not cover the high bail of the arrested SNCC members, because, the commission said, they were outside agitators.

            King’s trial was postponed, and he flew back to Atlanta where national news coverage insured that his Christmas holidays would be little more satisfying than those of  blacks in Albany. The December 19 issue of the New York Herald Tribune called his Albany sojourn a “devastating loss of face” that constituted “one of the most stunning defeats” he had ever suffered.

            For Albany’s black citizens, it was far more crushing. The city did waive the bonds of the arrested; it would have been hard put to continue housing and feeding them, anyway. But it did nothing about desegregating its public transportation or the accessory facilities.

            SNCC’s Jones, Sherrod, and Reagon, it was back to a drawing board that had been smashed.


            (For more information see Walking With The Wind by John Lewis with Michael D’Orso, Simon & Schuster 1998; Parting The Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 by Taylor Branch, Simon & Schuster 1988; Down To Now by Pat Watters, University of Georgia Press 1971; and In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s by Clayborne Carson, Harvard Press 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
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1 Response to December ’61

  1. gordon berg says:

    Jack Hurst is too much the gentleman to list a book he authored among his suggestions for additional reading. But his “Nathan Bedford Forrest: A Biography” is undoubtedly the finest single volume devoted to this decidedly unconventional Southern officer. Never one to suffer fools, gladly or any other way, Forrest would run afoul of every gentlemanly general he ever served under. He would also distinguish himself as the Confederacy’s most tactically astute cavalry commander, his lack of military training notwithstanding. From his “humble” beginnings at Sacramento, KY, Forrest would bedevil Union commanders in the West until the end of the war. I look forward to reading about his exploits and his personality in future monthly installments.

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