May ’62


Abraham Lincoln seriously doubted whether General George McClellan’s just-begun campaign up the Virginia peninsula would fare better than a direct drive on Richmond.

That was because Lincoln had long since learned to doubt McClellan’s stomach for war anywhere. The general, the President sagely observed, had “the capacity to make arrangements for a great conflict, but as the hour approached he became nervous and oppressed with the responsibility and hesitated to meet the crisis.”

A peninsular campaign on Richmond’s right flank, Lincoln thought, faced the same problems as a straightforward Federal lunge from Washington south through Manassas. The former was “only shifting, and not surmounting, a difficulty” that would end up presenting “the same enemy, and the same, or equal, intrenchments.”

Lincoln nevertheless supported the peninsular effort. At least it meant McClellan finally proposed to do something. So the President brought no less than his own presence to the Virginia front. On May 3, when Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston withdrew from McClellan-besieged Yorktown and McClellan began his long push up the peninsula, the President sailed down the Potomac to Fort Monroe.

From there, he urged Union troops toward Norfolk, over shoals that army officers claimed were impassable. Lincoln himself scouted the move. Late on the 8th, he and Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase crossed the shoals themselves by moonlight, and Lincoln demanded to disembark and stroll the beach of the purported Confederate homeland.

The next day, Chase led a Union advance against Norfolk and its great navy yard, which retreating Confederates abandoned. They also blew up the ironclad Merrimack, a refurbished ex-Federal vessel that now wore the Confederate name Virginia and had famously contended with the Union’s Monitor back in March.

The Lincoln-Chase passage over the Norfolk shoals had buttressed the two Union leaders’ skepticism regarding their military establishment’s willingness to fight.  Had Lincoln not come down from Washington, Chase wrote his daughter, Norfolk “would still be in possession of the enemy and the Merrimack as grim and defiant and as much a terror as ever.”

As McClellan’s army continued its approach to within six miles, Richmond quaked. The secessionist government prepared to evacuate, and on May 13 Varina Davis, wife of its president, did so. She withdrew to Raleigh, N. C., leaving in her wake prices of food and other goods shooting upward amid rising panic. Coffee went to $1.50 a pound, boots to $30 a pair—both far above the means of average residents.

*     *     *

McClellan was not operating in a vacuum. Much was happening on other fronts, too.

From southern Tennessee, Major General Henry Halleck had finally begun his 20-mile advance from Shiloh’s corpse-haunted battlefield to critical Corinth, Mississippi, junction of north-south and east-west rail lines. Halleck had more than 100,000 men, whereas the Corinth Confederates under General P.G.T. Beaugregard had little more than half that. But Halleck’s advance was maddeningly slow. Determined not to be surprised again as his subordinate, Major General U. S. Grant, had been at Shiloh, he insisted on re-entrenching every night.

Grant, shunted to a second-in-command status that involved virtually no duty, later recalled the march in terms that disclosed his profound unhappiness:

“The movement was a siege from the start to the close. The National troops were always behind intrenchments, except of course the small reconnoitering parties sent to the front to clear the way for an advance. Even the commanders of these parties were cautioned ‘not to bring on an engagement.’ ‘It is better to retreat than to fight.’…there were but few engagements that even threatened to become battles.

“…I was little more than an observer. Orders were sent to the right wing or the reserve [over which he had nominal command], ignoring me…My position was so embarrassing in fact that I made several applications during the siege to be relieved.”

While Halleck’s army crept southward and Grant stewed, the war elsewhere went on.

At Hilton Head, S. C., Federal Major General David Hunter announced that he was freeing the slaves in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Ten days later, President Lincoln would cancel Hunter’s order, saying that only the Chief Executive could make such a proclamation.

On May 12, Lincoln made another proclamation, reopening as of June 1 the major Southern ports of Beaufort, N. C., Port Royal, S. C, and New Orleans. On May 16, Major General Benjamin Butler, angry over active disrespect shown his Union troops by the women of New Orleans (one of whom was reported to have emptied a chamber pot on the head of a Federal soldier), created a national sensation by issuing an order that further behavior of that kind would get New Orleans ladies treated as prostitutes.

By May 26, Halleck had Corinth surrounded on its western, northern, and eastern sides. Trains could be heard going and coming from the town, and Halleck presumed the locomotives were hauling in reinforcements. He had his army ready to receive an attack on the morning of May 30.

None came. A cautious advance into the town found it deserted. Beauregard had brilliantly escaped 50 miles south to Tupelo.

*     *     *

Vastly complicating McClellan’s advance on the Virginia peninsula was a comparatively small but formidable Confederate force that was developing 200-some miles northwest, in the Shenandoah Valley.

Its essence was the person of one strange man: Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. In March Jackson had launched what would become eternally famous as his Valley Campaign, and late April had begun the conversion of this eccentric former Virginia Military Institute professor into the junior half of one of the two greatest military partnerships of the war.

President Jefferson Davis’s obscure adviser and nominal military chief, General R. E. Lee, had written Jackson an April letter. In it, Lee noted that disaster likely lay ahead of General Johnston’s outnumbered, McClellan-threatened ranks on the peninsula if a second Federal army advanced overland due south toward Richmond from Fredericksburg. And a Federal army commanded by Major General Irvin McDowell was poised to do just that.

Johnston’s salvation, Lee suggested, lay in a concerted move by Jackson and Jackson’s Shenandoah subordinate, Richard Ewell. Lee said Jackson and Ewell’s combined 16,000 troops should cooperate with the 12,000 already facing McDowell’s 30,000. The combined Confederate total should be able to cow the Federal general into staying where he was, thus leaving Johnston free to deal only with McClellan.

There was a problem, though. Lee’s suggestion dramatically contradicted instructions Jackson had received from Johnston himself. Johnston wanted Jackson to just try to protect the Shenandoah and not give battle unless he first retreated to the comparative safety of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Lee, on the other and, wanted an attack.

Jackson, a fanatical Presbyterian rustic hailing from what is now West Virginia, was an Old Testament-style warrior. Much more inclined by temperament to follow Lee’s plan than Johnston’s, he soon sprang into action.

He marched his men hard eastward for one day, out of the Shenandoah, then put his troops on a train and doubled back to the Valley town of Staunton. Alighting there and scattering the town’s Union occupiers, he marched hard again farther west into the hills where some 5,000 men under Federal Brigadier General Robert Schenck were camped at a crossroads community called McDowell. On May 8, Jackson attacked the Federals, and they retreated in the night, burning their supplies.

By mid-May, Jackson faced two separated Union armies, one under Major General John C. Fremont at Franklin in the Allegheny Mountains to the west and another led by Major General Nathaniel Banks at Strasburg in the Valley. Half of Banks’s 22,000 men already had departed eastward for Fredericksburg to swell Irvin McDowell’s army, and Lincoln, believing Jackson had been neutralized by the positioning of Banks and Fremont, ordered McDowell and his reinforcements from Banks to go to McClellan’s aid.

Jackson stopped all that before it could start. Bobbing and weaving from the Valley into and around its surrounding mountains, he took Front Royal, on the District of Columbia’s right flank, on May 24. Five days later he was in Harper’s Ferry, to Washington’s rear. In fear for the Union capital, Lincoln suddenly cancelled orders for McDowell and his reinforcements to join McClellan, who endlessly claimed the 60,000 Confederates on the peninsula outnumbered him.

But McClellan’s wails were in vain. Lincoln would not endanger Washington. McClellan would have to try to take Richmond with the 105,000  men he already had.

Johnston meanwhile presumed he must attack McClellan before the Federal general could be reinforced. The result indicated why Johnston would come to be considered a defensive genius rather than an offensive one.

McClellan had divided his troops, putting nearly half north of the Chickahominy River to unite with the expected arrival of McDowell. When continual rains flooded the Chickahominy, Johnston decided to assail the river-divided Federals. He devised an elaborate plan: to hold the Union force in place north of the river while attacking the Federal wing on the south bank via three different roads.

Johnston himself was badly wounded, and by the end of the day Jefferson Davis had little choice but to replace him with the as yet undistinguished R. E. Lee, loser of western Virginia. Lee, though, was far more of a general than he had had a chance to show. And he had made a promising friend in that strange, fierce man in the Shenandoah Valley.

[For more information, see Lincoln by David Herbert Donald, Simon & Schuster 1995; The Civil War Almanac by John S. Boatner, ed., Bison Books 1982; Stonewall in the Valley by Robert G. Tanner, Doubleday 1976; The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War by David J. Eicher, Simon & Schuster 2001; Historical Times Encyclopedia of the Civil War by Patricia L. Faust, ed., Harper & Row 1986; and Personal Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant, Penguin Books reissue 1999.]


 On May 1, FBI phone surveillance picked up civil rights lawyer Stanley Levison telling callers about his congressional appearance a few days earlier.

Portrayed as a dangerous Communist by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, Levison had opened his testimony before the Senate Internal Security Committee on April 26 with a single-sentence announcement that he had never been a member of the Communist Party. He then had taken the Fifth Amendment in response to every question. His stonewall was so complete that the name of Martin Luther King Jr., whose activism Hoover had tried to besmirch by association with Levison, did not even get mentioned.

In recalling his performance, Levison told one caller that Sen. John McClellan of Arkansas had described him as the worst witness the Senate had ever heard.

“That means I was worse than Jimmy Hoffa,” Levison reflected.

*     *     *

Levison was not the only King friend and adviser becoming less than enthralled with wheels of government. Harris Wofford, another attorney with a profound humanitarian bent, had found being the Kennedy Administration’s civil rights liaison a lonely, ineffectual, and even presidentially-ridiculed post.

“I got tired,” Wofford later recalled, “of (Kennedy) accosting me with a grin and asking, ‘Are your constituents happy?’”

Son of an insurance executive, Wofford had graduated from Yale Law School and, to the horror of his Southern family, had taken his doctorate from all-black Howard University because of his interest in civil rights. He had been Howard’s first white student in decades. He then had worked for presidential candidate Estes Kefauver of Tennessee against eventual Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson in 1956. He had met King that same year.  In 1959 he had encouraged and helped set up and fund a 1959 King trip to India to study Gandhi and principles of nonviolent protest.

Because of Wofford’s connections, Kennedy enlisted his support in the presidential campaign of 1960 against Vice President Richard Nixon. Wofford played a large role in drawing up the Democrats’ civil rights plank, which pledged progress on discrimination in housing, hiring, and education.

Some believed Wofford deserved more than a little credit for the razor-thin margin by which Kennedy had won the presidency. During the campaign’s climactic weeks, a Wofford suggestion had resulted in a call from Kennedy to Coretta Scott King expressing empathy for her husband, who had been jailed in rural Georgia. Wofford then put together a pamphlet about the call and distributed it in African American neighborhoods of Chicago, resulting in a heavy black vote that swung critical Illinois for Kennedy. Even prominent Republicans said the African American vote in Illinois had won Kennedy the election.

But after inauguration the President and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, had persistently crawfished on civil rights. When the President delayed signing housing anti-discrimination legislation, civil rights leaders mounted a campaign to have supporters send him pens. Not amused, Kennedy directed that the hundreds of incoming pens go to Wofford.

Northern black voters may have won Kennedy the presidency, but the new Chief Executive was conscious that angry Southern whites could make him a one-termer. After persuading the Freedom Riders in late 1961 to turn from picketing Southern public transportation facilities to the presumably longer-term and less inflammatory tactic of registering black voters, the Kennedys were plainly alarmed at the controversy-raising dedication with which the activists took up the new course in 1962.

After Wofford had suggested the Kennedy call to Mrs. King in 1960, Robert Kennedy had angrily protested. He had said three Southern governors threatened to throw their states’ support to Nixon if the Kennedys supported King. The Kennedy brothers remained wary of same daunting prospect in 1964.

Finding the so-called New Frontier Administration not as adventurous as its nickname, Wofford began looking for another location for his activism. He soon left the White House staff for comparative obscurity in Ethiopia, overseeing African efforts of the Peace Corps.

*     *     *

So it was almost as much against Washington foxes in sheep’s clothing as it was against Southern racists that the civil rights activists labored this spring, many in perilous fields. None was more so than southern Mississippi, where such Freedom Ride giants as Diane Nash, husband Jim Bevel, and Bernard LaFayette manned an outpost.

Southwest Georgia was similarly dangerous. In and around Albany, Freedom Riders Charles Sherrod, Charles Jones, and Cordell Reagon continued helping locals pick up the pieces of a campaign left for dead. Their effort had suffered a huge setback in December when King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference had briefly arrived to lead a high-profile demonstration, got arrested, and then bonded out early and left town after promising to draw national attention by remaining in jail through Christmas.

Aided by students from Albany State College, the movement had not given up. Reporter Pat Watters, who had visited the town for King’s appearance in December, would eventually write that when he returned months later it seemed as if nothing had changed. The same inspiration-fueling singing and preaching were going on in the same, packed Shiloh Baptist Church, calling for justice from heaven.

These grassroots workers shared the deprivation of the objects of their aid. Voter registration funds had begun to be gathered from Northern philanthropic foundations, but none was yet getting to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Actually, little of this money ever would reach SNCC– because its volunteers insisted on working in the most dangerous parts of the South, where chances of successful registration were the faintest. Distributors of the money felt they had to apportion it on the basis of the best prospects.

The volunteers who braved the worst violence received the least financial remuneration. Staff members of SNCC worked for little or nothing–literally. Some refused to accept any pay at all, and those who did accept it got by on pathetic amounts. The usual rate for SNCC field secretaries was $10 a week. Those with families received a bit more, but none of the SNCC workers could have survived had they not lived with people in the communities they were trying to help.

*     *     *

Money was on the minds of King’s SCLC when members of its board met in Atlanta on May 15-16. They wanted to increase King’s $1-per-year SCLC salary, which he only drew to qualify for the organization’s health plan.

King said no. That set off a hot, if minor, dispute. King’s own father took the other side. If the younger King were the “head of a white foundation, they would pay you,” protested the Rev. Roland Smith, pusher of the pay raise.

King responded that money was too often the Achilles heel of not just black leadership but most other kinds. “All of us have shortcomings,” he said, but he added that he did not think his were financial. The other ministers felt defensive. They obviously believed ministers had a right to make a living from their work–and a good living if they were good at it. King finally referred the matter to a committee.

The meeting eventually turned to other matters. Trying to build ties with such organizations as SNCC, King proposed that some younger people be elected to the board. Among those he recommended was stalwart SNCC Freedom Rider John Lewis, who at the time was leading successful desegregation protests against virtually every institution in Nashville.

The SCLC board members were wary. Conscious of their place as elders of the movement, they began to discuss their ideas on the proper role of young people, especially those of brash young SNCC. Martin Luther King Sr. worried that young people had sometimes been critical of the SCLC and might embarrass it by declining to serve on its board. This matter, too, was sent to a committee for further study, ending the meeting.

The younger King quickly got on a plane to Washington. The next day, May 17, he was scheduled to speak at the founding luncheon of another of his projects: the Gandhi Society for Human Rights.  The Gandhi Society was King’s chosen name for a tax-exempt foundation. It was to be called a “society” rather than a foundation because “foundation” might sound too wealthy to prospective labor-union donors.

At the luncheon, King disclosed that he that very morning had delivered to the White House a draft he had written for a Second Emancipation Proclamation. This naively hopeful document was designed to have President Kennedy take Abraham Lincoln’s historic act to its logical extension, declaring that the segregation statutes of Southern states were in violation of the Constitution and that the nation’s chief executive was bound to enforce avoidance of them.

His speech described the progress made so far and the daunting depth of Southern resistance. No longer, he said, was the idea of Gandhian nonviolence “bizarre or alien.” Myriad boycotts had woven it into the national consciousness: “It is marked on the jail walls of thousands of cells of Freedom Riders.”

Segregation, he said, was taking heavy economic and moral tolls on white Southerners. Their representatives in Congress knew it, he went on; but, imprisoned in their own lies to their constituents, Southern senators and congressmen were powerless to free themselves. The job was thus left to the oppressed African Americans.

“It is history’s wry paradox,” he concluded, “that when Negroes win their struggle to be free, those who have held them down will be freed for the first time.”

(For further information, see Parting The Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 by Taylor Branch, Simon & Schuster 1988; Current Biography, April 1992; Down To Now: Reflections on the Southern Civil Rights Movement by Pat Watters, Pantheon Books 1971; and In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s by Clayborne Carson, Harvard 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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