Dixie’s Virginia-to-Texas vastness was too large to be conquered, many in the South had assured themselves. But by the onset of this, the war’s one-year anniversary month, room for doubt had grown. The Federals had made alarming inroads.
The Confederacy’s figurative back porch roof, the long northern border stretching from western Appalachia to Arkansas, had already all but collapsed. Union victories at Forts Henry and Donelson in February had pushed it backward 100 miles, from southern Kentucky to northern Alabama and Mississippi.
Now the discredited Confederate western commander, General Albert Sidney Johnston—along with President Jefferson Davis—labored to concentrate a western force large enough to counterattack the oncoming Federals.
Strategic and logistical imperatives were added to the deeply psychological one. The continuing western Federal drive was plainly aimed at Corinth, Mississippi, crucial junction of railroads running east-west and north-south. And every mile the Federals advanced enabled more and more slaves, the backbone of Confederate capability to raise foodstuffs for the army, to flee their masters.
To try to recoup at least some of the February losses, by early April Davis and Johnston had collected more than 40,000 men in northwest Mississippi.
Meanwhile on the Virginia front, the Federals’ primary eastern army had shown up on the peninsula southeast of Richmond and was beginning a move inland from Fort Monroe. Led by Union General-in-Chief George B. McClellan, it initially numbered 50,000 men and was opposed on the peninsula by just 13,000 Confederates. Davis’s government scrambled to adjust.
Still other Union drives threatened the South’s largest city, New Orleans; Fort Pulaski at Savannah, Georgia; and Island No. 10 on the Mississippi River north of Memphis.
* * *
On April 2, Albert Sidney Johnston learned he had run out of time.
The troops approaching to menace Corinth included not just those commanded by Major General U. S. Grant, victor at Fort Donelson. Another army under Major General Don Carlos Buell was known to be on its way from Nashville. And the two were nearing a junction.
Johnston, who had been waiting for Major General Earl Dorn to bring more than 15,000 Confederate reinforcements from Arkansas, could wait no longer. Johnston had to attack Grant’s 40,000 before Buell could nearly double the Federal numbers. On April 1, Johnston ordered his men toward Grant.
The Confederates, including many new troops, had trouble getting going, though. Then on April 2, cavalry colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest brought word that Buell’s army was rapidly approaching Grant’s headquarters at Savannah, Tennessee. The only Confederate alternative now, besides attacking, was to concede the entire west-central South to the Union, spurning this golden chance to smash Grant before Buell could arrive. Once Buell did, a Confederate assault would be little short of suicidal.
Grant, for his part, had no idea of an enemy attack. He and a new friend who had already become his favorite division commander, Major General William T. Sherman, believed the Confederates would never leave the protection of their Corinth fortifications. So the two Union generals neglected to entrench their troops. They ignored Confederates who in April seemed to turn up behind every tree and bush.
Their determined blindness had a valid excuse. They had been ordered by Grant’s immediate superior, Major General Henry Halleck in St. Louis, to do nothing to bring on a battle until Halleck could get there to take command himself. But Halleck kept delaying his departure from Missouri.
Meanwhile, the Confederate army traveled the 20 miles to Pittsburg Landing, site of the bulk of Grant’s army, like a giant snail. It took three days to get into position. While some units were still arriving, the members of others surreptitiously watched the Federals drilling the day before the attack. That night they listened to the playing of Union bands. Their enjoyment was hardly unbounded, though. They had exhausted their rations on the long, slow march. They were famished.
The next morning—two days past the original target date planned by General Johnston and his second-in-command, Fort Sumter/Manassas hero P. G. T. Beauregard—they came howling and yipping out of the dawn onto Federal camps scattered willy-nilly through the Tennessee woods.
They stampeded the Federals out of the camps, then paused to wolf breakfasts they found cooking there. That gave the Federals time to jerry-build a defense, part of it in the center of the battlefield along a slight depression formed by an old farm lane quickly dubbed the Sunken Road. The area soon took on another nickname, too: the Hornet’s Nest, a bitter tribute to its volume of gunfire.
It rapidly became the bloodiest battle yet fought in America. When Grant reached it from Savannah, he found the normally-excitable Sherman waving a bloody, bandaged hand but steady as a rock, gathering troops for a countercharge to try to take back the Federal camps.
This day, such recovery was not to be. By nightfall, the Federal lines were pushed to the bank of the Tennessee River. A row of hastily-gathered cannons protected the landing—where supplies and reinforcements could arrive by steamboat—and held onto a northward road down which Grant had vainly looked all day for the approach of an absent division commanded by General Lew Wallace.
The Confederates slept in the Union camps of the night before, but they too had problems. The Union line in the Hornet’s Nest had held until an hour before nightfall, preventing the attackers from finishing their job. They expected to complete the mopping-up on the morrow.
But Albert Sidney Johnston was dead, killed during the afternoon. He had been replaced by the less-determined Beauregard, and Earl Van Dorn’s reinforcements, or any other significant aid, had not arrived. By contrast, during the night Lew Wallace’s, as well as other Union units under Buell, did arrive at Pittsburg Landing.
Nathan Bedford Forrest repeatedly informed Confederate generals of the Buell development, but they refused to believe him. They had gotten a report that Buell’s army had gone instead to Huntsville, Alabama. In truth, only one of its units had.
During that overnight of April 6-7, an important—perhaps the most important—human bond of the war was forged. Under pouring rain, freakish lightning, and crashing artillery fire from Union gunboats in the river, Sherman approached Grant under a dripping tree. His mind on West Point caution, he had come to advise Grant to retreat across the river.
“Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?” Sherman began.
Grant’s answer stopped him cold. “Yes. Lick ’em tomorrow, though.”
Grant’s grit and mental clarity in combat was unusual even to seasoned combat veterans. In Mexico, a fellow vet described him as so at home amid gunfire that he seemed to be a man of fire. After his last line of cannons stymied the Confederates just before dusk, he recalled what had happened on the final day of fighting at Fort Donelson. There he had ordered a late-afternoon countercharge against exhausted Confederates who had been fighting since dawn, and the countercharge forced them to surrender.
He explained to Sherman that when two armies seem spent, the one that summons the will to make one more charge will win. So they would counterattack at daylight. Sherman later dated his faith in Union victory from Grant’s implacable resolve in that harried hour.
Grant turned out to be right—and lucky. With the Buell and Wallace units that arrived during the overnight, the Federals counterattacked in the morning. At 3 p.m. of April 7, the Confederates recognized grim reality and began to straggle back toward Corinth.
* * *
Shiloh was a fight to the death—well, to the deaths. A then-appalling total of 3,500 Americans North and South lost their lives. Another 3,800 were missing, and 16,000 were wounded.
The buoying effect of the Federals’ skin-of-their-teeth escape from disaster set the tone for the month.
The day after Shiloh, April 8, Island No. 10 and its Confederate garrison fell to Federal Major General John Pope, releasing a Union fleet onto Memphis. On April 9, Federal guns firing shells weighing as much as 84 pounds began battering down the 7.5-feet-thick walls of Fort Pulaski at Savannah. By April 11, they had created so much rubble that the fort’s 385-man garrison ran up the white flag.
On April 11, department commander Henry Halleck finally arrived at Pittsburg Landing, took personal command of both the Grant and Buell armies, and summoned Pope’s additional 25,000 troops from Island No. 10.
Halleck now prepared to accompish what the Confederates had fought Shiloh to try to prevent: the capture of Corinth, Mississippi. True to his cautious essence, he gave Beauregard at Corinth plenty of time to consider alternatives; Halleck meant to be sure that every last man and piece of equipment was ready before he began the 20-mile trek. He micro-managed even the letters to his headquarters, specifying that they be properly folded and deal with one subject only.
On April 16, Dixie suffered two blows, one from afar and one at home.
—The Union dealt a death-stroke to Confederate hopes for European aid as President Lincoln considerably clarified his government’s position on slavery. He signed into law a newly-passed congressional bill outlawing the “peculiar institution” in the District of Columbia. That was by no means all. A week earlier, Secretary of State William Seward had concluded a secret Slave-Trade Suppression Treaty, pledging support for British naval banning of the slave trade from the high seas; before the war, the U.S.—dominated by Southern seniority in the Senate—had threatened war over such interference.
—In Richmond, Jefferson Davis announced a draft of all men between the ages of 18 and 35. This mandate by the central Confederate government flew in the face of the states’ rights the South claimed to have seceded to protect.
On April 25, the Federal navy took New Orleans.
The Union sustained only one really notable April setback, but its significance would not be understood for a while. British newspaperman William Howard Russell disconsolately set sail for England, chased from the Western Hemisphere by shortsighted stonewalling by Federal bureaucrats and army officers prejudiced against him by a reporting trip he had made to the Confederacy.
A powerful transatlantic media figure, Russell was strongly antislavery. His departure left Europe to get much of its American war news from correspondents sympathetic to the South.
(For further information see The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War by David J. Eicher, Simon & Schuster 2001; Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862 by O. Edward Cunningham and eds. Gary D. Joiner and Timothy B. Smith, Savas Beatie 2007; Shiloh: The Battle the Changed the Civil War by Larry J. Daniel, Simon & Schuster 1997; Grant by Jean Edward Smith, Simon & Schuster 2001; and Sherman: A Soldier’s Passion for Order by John F. Marszalek, Free Press 1993.)
FBI interest in the civil rights movement continued to grow—in both substance and antagonism.
Part of law enforcement’s job is to protect the status quo, and that mandate had long allied the FBI with Dixie sheriffs and police chiefs against forces of change. But there was now a personal aspect. The most visible Southern leader
of the struggle for change had dared, just two weeks into the Kennedy Administration, to make an offhand public criticism of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s department.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had written it in an article in The Nation. In the article, among many other things he had suggested that true, rather than token, integration of the FBI could have a positive effect on Southern policing. The comment stung. The Bureau had just five black agents, and the five were that in name only. Three were Hoover’s personal chauffeurs, the other two a doorman and a messenger.
Hoover reacted by ramping up his enormous powers to investigate King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Doubtless influenced by both personal antipathy toward a disordered society and the fervent anti-Communism that had mounted in America since World War II, Hoover worried that King’s civil rights movement was being manipulated, if not guided, by operatives cooperating with the Soviet Union.
He set about to discredit King’s cause. On April 2, the director informed Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy that movement leaders had backed a black judge of questionable background for a place on the Supreme Court. Hoover did not, though, disclose that his information came from extensive wiretapping and office bugging of King and many of his associates and sympathizers.
The judge in question, William Henry Hastie, was said to be linked to 10 groups that had been targeted as subversive by such entities as the paranoid House Un-American Activities Committee. New York attorney and close King friend Stanley Levison, whose left-wing radicalism stretched back to high school, had recommended Hastie to King in a tapped telephone call.
King, though, had skeptically mulled the advice, fearing that he and his followers would be construed as backing Hastie for a robe solely because he was black. In the interim, another justice was chosen.
The Bureau did not deem the latter two facts important. Levison’s lifelong association with ultra-liberal causes made him a Communist agent in Hoover’s mind, and Levison had recommended Hastie to King. To Hoover, that indicated that Moscow had wanted Hastie on America’s highest court and that King advisers had tried to make it happen.
On April 10, more FBI bugging picked up another Levison recommendation: of a fellow New York attorney named Henry Wachtel. The following day, the bugging tapes were sent to Hoover, who immediately asked for more information on Wachtel.
The unearthed details proved interesting. Son of a smalltime Jewish merchant, Wachtel had become a Wall Street heavyweight working for corporate predators. Hearing a King speech, however, made Wachtel hearken back to the liberalism of his youth. Hoover could not know that Wachtel offered, with some hesitation, to chuck his high-dollar career to work for King. The civil rights leader said no. Wachtel could be of more use in his position of power.
King’s forecast proved prescient almost immediately. Wishing to contribute several thousand dollars to the cause, Wachtel found that King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference had no tax-exempt arm. At King’s behest, Wachtel took on the job of establishing one. They planned to name it after Mahatma Gandhi.
Hoover used his huge government clout to warn, and seemingly all but threaten, the Administration. On April 13, he sent a note to Vice President Lyndon Johnson informing him that the FBI knew he had met with King in April at the Justice Department—and that Johnson would probably be interested to know that King was a close associate of Stanley Levison and Jack O’Dell, two men whom the Bureau considered subversive.
But Hoover’s campaign to defame Levison tripped over its own feet. The director’s Southern friends in Congress, eager to further any move discrediting the civil rights movement, subpoenaed Levison to testify to the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee on April 27—not realizing that the FBI had yet to nail down conclusive evidence of Levison’s Communist affiliation.
On the appointed day, Levison stopped the senators cold with one sentence:
“To dispose of a question causing current apprehension, I am not now and never have been a member of the Communist Party.”
He then availed himself of his right under the Fifth Amendment to say nothing else. The senators thus got no information from him about his ties to King—or anybody.
* * *
On April 5, meanwhile, King released a public statement Levison had begged for.
The attorney had been amazed to hear in a late-March meeting an electrifying progress report on the SCLC’s South-wide Voter Education Project. He said an announcement of its details would aid his newly inaugurated direct-mail campaign for financial contributions, a much better targeted effort than the previous appeals through newspaper ads.
King complied. The SCLC press release on the 5th proclaimed, with low-key brevity, that the Dorchester, Ga., citizenship school had trained 950 grassroots voter registration activists. These in turn had established 95 branch schools in key counties across the Southland.
* * *
King and his second-in-command of the SCLC, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, also began planning a return to the scene of King’s greatest defeat.
On the opposite side of southern Georgia from Dorchester, the movement in Albany was trying to recover from the debacle of the previous December. A few days before Christmas King had come into Albany, had gotten arrested for demonstrating, and had vowed to stay in jail—only to be bonded out and leave just a couple of days into his incarceration. The apparent nervous breakdown of one of his fellow prisoners, a prominent Albany minister, apparently influenced his sudden change of plan.
Alerted national newsmen had barely gotten to Albany as King was leaving, and the aborted face-off with Albany segregationists left a wake of bitterness among espousers of the cause. Prior to King’s arrival and jailing, young firebrands of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, or “Snick”) had been laboring for months, in varying degrees of harmony, with Albany civil rights advocates. Charles Sherrod, Charles Jones, Cordell Reagon, and other SNCC workers deeply resented the latecomer’s paltry contribution to their effort. They saw it for what it was, a monumental setback.
The Rev. Andrew Young, head of the Voter Education Project, had gone into Albany in late February. Young was there to teach one of the branch citizenship schools, but he had also taken on a mission to try to reconcile the SCLC with the fiery SNCC students, whose energy and dedication he admired.
The students’ verve, though, was unchanneled. They “lacked a long-range strategy and sufficient preparation for their demonstrations,” Young later wrote. “Their idea seemed to be that stirring up conflict alone would produce change.” King’s people, in contrast, believed in planning every move, “convinced that when the movement created conflict, there should be a clear idea of what was to emerge in (its) resolution.”
A Georgia court summoned King to return to Albany to stand trial for the December visit. The initial date set was around Easter, seemingly to inconvenience the SCLC ministers. The judge obviously knew that King and the other pastors would be expected to be in the pulpits of their churches on that foundational day in Christendom. Attorneys negotiated a delay.
* * *
By then, SNCC had begun ratcheting up new pressure in Albany.
It had put out a call for help with its voter registration efforts, and hundreds of black and white students from across America arrived in Albany. They fanned out into the hinterlands armed with leaflets bearing the picture of a small, troubled-looking black child beneath the words “GIVE HIM A FUTURE IN SOUTHWEST GEORGIA.”
Charles Jones, Cordell Reagon, and two other SNCC workers were arrested and given 60 days in jail for sitting in at a lunch counter. Tensions mounted. On April 15, Rainbow Cafe owner Walter Harris was shot and killed by an Albany policeman after Harris allegedly resisted arrest with a knife in his hand.
Amid this growing Georgia anxiety, SNCC convened a second-anniversary conference of 250 of its representatives in Atlanta. John Lewis, one of its foremost heroes, was dismayed at its changed look. Gone were several of its giants. Diane Nash, pregnant with her first child, was no longer helping lead this pivotal organization she had done so much to found and distinguish. She and her husband, Jim Bevel, were in Mississippi, Bevel now formally working with the SCLC.
Freedom Rider Bernard LaFayette was also absent, as was Jim Lawson, the older formulator of the student movement’s nonviolent credo. In their place were voices that were perceptibly more confrontational, including black and white ones hardened by bare-knuckle and gun-muzzle racism in Albany and in McComb, Miss.: these included Sherrod of SNCC and Bob Zellner of the Southern Conference Education Fund, Stokely Carmichael of SNCC and Tom Hayden of Students for a Democratic Society.
The violence and death perpetrated by Southern segregationists had begun to bear ominous fruit. SNCC members were rethinking and debating their foundational policy of nonviolence. Some argued that they should be allowed to strike back if struck.
SNCC’s “Statement of Purpose” remained the one written by the Gandhian pacifist Lawson, who never would have countenanced the drift of the new conversation. But Lawson had not been invited to the conference.
Lawson’s most notably nonviolent pupil, John Lewis, did get elected to SNCC’s executive board. The bludgeonings he had endured for the cause obviously trumped his no-longer-so-favored refusal to strike back at his tormentors.
But the meeting’s rhetoric seemed to isolate him . It made him feel increasingly alone.
(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; Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement by John Lewis, Simon & Schuster 1998; In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s by Clayborne Carson, Harvard University Press 1981; http://albanycivilrightsinstitute.org; Down To Now: Reflections on the Southern Civil Rights Movement by Pat Watters, University of Georgia Press 1993; and My Soul Is Rested: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement in the Deep South by Howell Raines, Putnam 1977.)