March ’62


Neither contending government exhibited pride in the root of their war. Southerners shrank from broaching the topic of slavery around non-slaveholders, and Northerners were similarly reluctant among slaveholding unionists.

Each had two more reasons on the other side of the Atlantic: Britain and France. The South, for whom European support could mean all-but-instant breaking of the Federal blockade of its seaports and virtual establishment of a permanent Confederacy, sometimes went so far as to blithely lie, telling European representatives that their agricultural reliance on slavery was but a temporary thing; actually, they had seceded to perpetuate and extend it. And the North, to retain slaveholding Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri, could do little more than echo the South’s questionable claim that its slavery was waning.

Many Europeans were skeptical of either claim, and they were sustained by people who possessed expertise on the subject. A diplomat from Liberia, where most of America’s prewar antislavery adherents—including Abraham Lincoln—had wanted to export freed bondspeople, wrote a British cabinet member professing gladness that Britain was withholding support from either Lincoln or Jefferson Davis.

Jefferson Davis

Jefferson Davis (Photo courtesy Library of Congress)

“Both sections of the country,” the diplomat wrote, “are negro-hating and negro-crushing.”

* * *

Lincoln, though, began pussyfooting toward emancipation. He was goaded in that direction by both his conscience and his party’s abolitionists, and some of the latter, including Brit-connected Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, argued that a Northern move toward emancipation would guarantee British rejection of the Confederacy.

Senator Charles Sumner

Senator Charles Sumner (Photo courtesy Library of Congress)

Lincoln devised two plans, each designed to compensate states for gradually ending bondage within their borders. His initial target was Delaware, which of the Union’s four non-free states had the smallest number of slaves: just 1,800. One of his plans called for emancipation within five years, the other within 30. He preferred the second as less disruptive.

On March 6 he sent for Senator Sumner. He wanted the New Englander’s reaction to the second plan, the one he wished to submit to Congress. It called on the Senate and House to jointly pledge financial aid to any state agreeing to “abolishment” of slavery; it would promise to provide federal funds “to compensate for the inconveniences public and private.”

With his lawyerly expertise, Lincoln had crafted a shrewd measure. It evaded the Supreme Court’s onerous Dred Scott decision of 1857 forbidding federal interference with slavery in the states (and even requiring citizens of free states to return fugitive slaves to their masters or face prosecution). Rather than mandate compliance with his plan, Lincoln made it voluntary on the part of the states.

Saying his scheme removed any reason for border states to join the Confederacy, he also warned congressmen from the Union’s slave states that the uncertainty of war could deprive them of the plan’s benefits if they did not accept it quickly. Union victories, after all, would remove the public’s appetite for paying for emancipation if the nation’s armies had already achieved it de facto on the battlefield.

Sumner, having beseeched the White House to embrace emancipation, was so ecstatic about Lincoln’s proposal that the President had trouble getting him to hand back the copy of the message to Congress that Lincoln showed him.

The President, born in the Upper South and married into a slaveholding family, knew America’s racist character as well as anyone. He began trying to sell his plan not on the basis of its morality but, rather, on that of its comparatively cheap price. Under it, he said on March 14, Delaware could be made a free state for the cost of one-half of one day of the war, and all of the border states could become free for the cost of just eighty-seven days of conflict.

The payments for gradual emancipation would not be half as expensive, he added, “as would be an equal sum, raised now (all at once), for the indefinite prosecution of the war.”

* * *

Jefferson Davis was dealing with thorny problems of his own.

Independence was proving no easy prize. Having suffered repeated disasters in February with the losses of Fort Henry on the Tennessee River, an entire army at Fort Donelson on the Cumberland, and Roanoke Island off the Atlantic coast of North Carolina, he now saw Confederate fortunes west of the Appalachians ebbing in a tidal wave. Through late February and March, the backwash swept southward from southern Kentucky all the way to northern Alabama and Mississippi.

Davis’s favorite general, trans-Appalachian commander Albert Sidney Johnston, had suddenly become the Confederacy’s most vilified figure—besides, perhaps, Davis—as both men tried to gather all their remaining western troops for a western stand. They wanted to make it somewhere near the important rail junction at Corinth, Miss., which the Union’s troops were heading for.

Like Lincoln a few months earlier, Davis felt pushed to desperate civil measures. He declared martial law in Richmond and some other places. On March 1, he arrested neutral ex-Congressman John Minor Botts and more than two dozen other civilians—including a minister who had publicly beseeched the Almighty for a conclusion of “this unholy rebellion.”

On March 4, Davis brought back to Richmond his publicly unloved former adviser, Robert E. Lee, lately nicknamed “Granny” after losing the recent campaign in western Virginia. For the past few months, Lee had been organizing the low-profile department of South Carolina and Georgia to combat the landing of Federal forces between Charleston and Savannah in November. Davis now returned Lee to his former post of presidential aide, replacing him in South Carolina with Major General John Pemberton.

A Confederate maritime hope was dashed on March 9. On the 8th, the oceangoing ironclad Merrimack had decimated two Federal vessels and heavily damaged another off Hampton Roads, Va., but late in the day a Union ironclad, the Monitor, arrived. On the 9th, the two metal-sheathed craft fought for two hours, at the end of which the Monitor held the more favorable position.

On March 11, Davis formally removed the two top former Fort Donelson generals, John Floyd and Gideon Pillow, from the chain of command for their unceremonious, pre-surrender flight from the fort. A frantic Confederate Congress passed a measure requiring Davis to name a general-in-chief to coordinate the nation’s failing armies, and on March 14 Davis vetoed the bill, seeing it as hampering his own leadership.

One of Davis’s seemingly best (but, for the Confederacy’s perpetuation, actually worst) traits was to stand staunchly by friends, and he continued to do that for the now-toxic Sidney Johnston. On March 26 he wrote the general that he would try to come to northern Mississippi to be with his friend for the great battle shaping up there.

But western news only worsened in March. Another Davis favorite, headstrong Major General Earl Van Dorn, had—with typically sloppy reconnaissance—gotten whipped in Arkansas at the battle of Pea Ridge. Van Dorn shouldn’t even have gone to Pea Ridge. Johnston and Davis had wanted him instead to bring his more than 15,000 men across the Mississippi to join Johnston for the anticipated battle there.

General Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson provided a briefly cheering report on March 23. Beset by a Union force more than twice as large at Kernstown, Va., Jackson withdrew only after inflicting casualties of 118 killed and 450 wounded on the foe while losing 80 killed and 370 wounded of his 4,200 men.

But March 24 brought further alarm. Elements of McClellan’s Union Army of the Potomac were landing on the lightly defended peninsula east of Richmond.

* * *

The British Parliament had set for March 7 a pivotal debate on whether Britain’s navy should disregard the Union’s blockade of Southern ports.

The question was explosive in England. A large British industry depended on Southern cotton. The North’s blockade of the Southern seaboard was not just blockading the South; it was also blockading English ships seeking to haul cotton to myriad British mills.

The day before the debate, London papers carried news of the Confederate losses of Roanoke and Forts Henry and Donelson, heartening adherents of the Union. Nevertheless, Confederate lobbyists acted confident, and on the 7th their backers in Parliament made impressive speeches charging that Britain was supporting a blockade that by international custom was illegal because it was ineffective—a number of vessels had gotten through it—and she was supporting this blockade against the interests of her own industrial workers.

Support of the South was significant in the chamber until the first speech by a member supporting the North. Sir Roundell Palmer’s remarks played on Britain’s heavy antislavery feeling.

Palmer held that simple morality dictated that Britain should do nothing to aid the institution of slavery in America and its persecution of the otherwise defenseless slave: “…consistent with Divine Law…we should do to others as we would wish others to do to ourselves.”

(For further information, see The 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; and A World On Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War by Amanda Foreman, Random House 2010.)


With the South-wide Voter Education Project hardly begun, the nexus of the Movement threatened to dissolve.

Its money and membership were in alarming disarray. To beatings, murder, and the jailing of black leaders, the Dixie establishment had added judicial muscle to block the black quest for Southern freedom.

New York attorney Stanley Levison headed to Atlanta on March 9 to try to straighten out the finances. His mission was vital. A Supreme Court decision allowing authorities to confiscate possessions of Movement leaders was threatening the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference with extinction.

Martin Luther King Jr

Martin Luther King Jr (Photo courtesy Library of Congress)

The money trouble was largely the product of a Court ruling from the previous year. Montgomery, Alabama police commissioner L. B. Sullivan had brought a libel suit against the New York Times for an ad that Movement supporters had hastily drafted. Charging the Alabama establishment with violating the Constitution, it had contained a few superficial facts that were technically inaccurate.

Four African American ministers mentioned in its text—King associates Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth, Joseph Lowery, and S. S. Seay Jr.—had been targeted for libel suits and stood to lose everything. And the Supreme Court had rejected a motion that the case be moved to a federal instead of state court.

Levison’s trip was not a moment too soon. Cars belonging to Abernathy, Lowery, and Shuttlesworth already had been sold at auction, some Seay property had been designated for the same fate, and defense attorneys were busily seeking more possessions of the four that might be taken. In addition, more cases were under appeal: a $500,000 one filed by the Montgomery mayor and an even larger one by Alabama Gov. John Patterson.

Shuttlesworth, one of the Movement’s bravest leaders, had been forced to leave Birmingham for Cincinnati, and other ministers were moving to New York and Chicago to keep from losing all they owned.

Levison’s fundraising was hampered by perception that the Southern black lawyers handling the cases were overpaid. The SCLC held an emergency meeting, where King aided Levison’s solicitation efforts. The SCLC leader gingerly pushed for replacing the well-paid attorneys with white lawyers from the North.

But the dark cloud over the SCLC contained at least a couple of brighter linings. Because the ramifications of the libel suits had threatened the work of Southern labor organizers as well as civil rights activists, the two movements and their legal defense teams were coming closer together, a development King welcomed and encouraged.

After the Atlanta meeting, Levison headed back northward to try again to gather legal defense money. In the process, he initiated a key innovation. With the libel suits threatening the Movement’s ability to raise funds through newspaper ads, he came up with a more efficient way to do it: direct-mail appeals to carefully-built lists of Movement supporters across the nation.

It was like a fisherman switching from indiscriminate trolling to radar equipment that targeted heavily populated waters.

* * *

But between King and the firebrands of SNCC, as well as between King and the staid NAACP, thorny issues remained. The SCLC, while trying to lead the NAACP into direct action, tried to co-opt and manage the not-so-disciplined passion of the students and other young activists.

Knowing a united front would have much more power in both the white and the black communities, King tried to fashion a yoke between the organizations. In March he agreed to address a New York meeting to raise emergency money for SNCC. The affair was at the home of singer-actor Harry Belafonte, and SNCC’s financial crisis was such that its fanned-out young leaders briefly left their grassroots work to attend.

Among these, Harvard-trained Harlem schoolteacher-turned-civil-rights-icon Bob Moses came north from the depths of Mississippi. SNCC chairman Charles McDew—fresh from a month in jail on a trumped-up charge of vagrancy—arrived from Louisiana. Charles Jones and Charles Sherrod came up from southwest Georgia. And so on.

Before King himself got there, Belafonte tried to convince the youths that their adverse reaction to King was unjust and unhelpful. Not surprisingly, his effort was not an unqualified success.

The SNCC members did not care for the aura of celebrity surrounding King, much of which (they did not seem to realize) was the media’s fault, not King’s. They made fun of King’s upper middle class lifestyle, complete with vacations (unattainable to the subsistence farmers and sharecroppers with whom SNCC was daily working), and Coretta King’s fashionable attire. Whenever he appeared somewhere, reporters flocked to—and focused their coverage on—King, ignoring everybody else.

Some of the SNCC reservations about him doubtless stemmed from jealousy, but they were also rooted in the Christian/Gandhian philosophy in which SNCC had been grounded from its inception.

SNCC believed in leaderlessness—or, rather, that the leaders should follow the people, who according to SNCC philosophy were fully capable of leading themselves. John Lewis, soon to become SNCC’s president, would later recall that they found the oppressed locals starving for the SNCC message, which was that locals did not have to wait for King or the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins to visit their neighborhoods to ignite their revolutions. Rather, they could start those revolutions themselves—and no King, Wilkins, or any other recognized leader was as powerful as they themselves were, working together.

John Lewis

John Lewis (Photo courtesy Library of Congress)

Lewis later observed that SNCC was made up of hopeful and courageous young people who were filled with anger—an anger which, in its early days, was righteous, “positive, constructive.” They were rebels, rebelling against the wickedness of segregation and, when necessary, against foot-dragging by “the old guard leadership of our own black community.”

The Rev. Andrew Young, who had much experience working with church youth, tried to become an unofficial liaison between the authoritarian SCLC and the chip-on-shoulder SNCC members. As Young observed, the latter had only recently emerged from subordination to their parents and naturally resisted submitting themselves to domination by the SCLC.

They resented taking almost military-style directives from King aide Wyatt T. Walker. Because almost all of the SCLC money had been contributed by supporters, the organization was obligated to keep careful records of how it was spent, but the SNCC members, focused on the need to get the money to where it was desperately needed to keep local activists sheltered and fed, resented the SCLC’s bureaucratic bookkeeping as excessive.

But SNCC had virtually no operating funds of its own and no infrastructure to get them, so its young leaders had to put up with the SCLC red tape. Young worked at reconciling the two.

* * *

King left Atlanta on a second “People-to-People” tour on March 24. The pace of this one was more frantic than that of the first.

This time, King—along with lieutenants Ralph Abernathy, Wyatt Walker, Dorothy Cotton, and Bernard Lee—flew to Richmond, Virginia for a morning press conference. They then sped 30 miles to Petersburg for a lunch meeting, spent the afternoon soliciting grassroots support, and motored 100 miles west for an evening mass meeting that drew 3,000 people.

The odyssey continued through Virginia. Demand and consequent delays were such that some crowds had to wait as much as three hours. Other ministers were sent ahead to keep these throngs from giving up and going home.

Despite these large gatherings, this fundraising and recruiting drive for the voter-registration effort remained pretty much a secret from not only the nation at large but also from some of the Movement hierarchy. The mainstream media largely ignored African American affairs, and this time in so doing it missed a story of dissension of the kind it tended to crave.

Whitney Young of the Urban League declined to join in announcing the voter-registration project because he disagreed with the way the money was to be allocated. Roy Wilkins of the NAACP refused to participate at all.

As a result, there was so little public notice of what was going on that Stanley Levison himself did not know the extent of the registration effort’s heartening progress. On March 26 Levison was astonished—and abashed—to hear that trainees from the Movement’s citizenship training program at Dorchester, Ga., had already established more than 60 small affiliates in communities around Dixie.

Levison complained that such wonderful information was vital to his effort to solicit money. He begged for a press release.

(For further information, see Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 by Taylor Branch, Simon & Schuster 1988; Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement by John Lewis with Michael D’Orso, Simon & Schuster 1998; An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America by Andrew Young, Harper-Collins 1996; In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s by Clayborne Carson, Harvard University Press 1981; and The Children by David Halberstam, Random House 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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