The botched battle of Seven Pines and the serious wounding of General Joseph E. Johnston resulted in a new Confederate commander in front of Richmond. General R. E. Lee, as he was known then, rode forward to replace Johnston amid general gloom.
It was June 2. Lee quickly gathered subordinate officers for a council and found them all doubting their chance of stopping the crack, 105,000-man army of Federal General George B. McClellan with their haphazardly organized 60,000. In the words of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who happened in on the assemblage in mid-meeting, “the tone of the conversation was quite despondent.”
Virtually all the subordinates counseled a retreat closer to Richmond, already just five miles behind them. Brigadier General Chase Whiting took up pencil and paper to illustrate how McClellan would maneuver his troops and 50 huge siege guns irresistibly forward from position to position. The hitherto-quiet Lee finally protested.
“Stop, stop!” he said. “If you go on ciphering, we are whipped beforehand.”
Lee was a remarkably composed, grandfatherly, and seemingly bland figure. His previous field performance had been so unimpressive that he had in fact been called “Granny” Lee. But that had been in western Virginia, where he had been badly outmanned and his position had been more supervisory than commanding. Now he was determined not to be whipped. In an attitude contrasting sharply with the bloodied Johnston’s, he did not even intend to retreat.
He kept these intentions to himself, though. He did tell one officer that if the Confederates withdrew from the line they then held because the Federals “can shell us, we shall have to leave the next [line] for the same reason, and I don’t see how we can stop this side of Richmond.”
He soon, on June 12, sent cavalry officer James Ewell Brown (Jeb) Stuart on a reconnaissance. It ended up comprising a 150-mile, three-day circling of McClellan’s army, garnering newspaper headlines that heartened adherents of the Confederacy and abashed those of the Union.
While Stuart galloped around McClellan, Lee quietly tightened the organization of the army’s loosely-organized units and eliminated inefficiencies and waste. He did these things without calling attention to what he was doing or demeaning Johnston’s looser management style.
Lee also angered his new troops by putting them to work digging trenches. Knowing that his smaller army could not resist McClellan when the Federal commander had gotten all his troops and heavy guns where he wanted them, Lee knew he desperately needed to seize the initiative before McClellan was ready. To do that, he had to make his line strong enough to be held by a minimal force.
Then he could hurl the bulk of his men–and any others he could scratch up–onto McClellan’s flank.
* * *
The western Confederacy continued to shrivel.
After Shiloh in April and the Federal siege of Corinth, General P. G. T. Beauregard fell back 50 more miles to Tupelo, Miss. Confederates also evacuated Fort Pillow in Tennessee, a remote and sprawling facility on a high bluff 35 miles north of Memphis.
The latter withdrawal left the river city defenseless except for a patchwork fleet of eight riverine rams, each carrying just two or three guns and “armor” consisting of lumber and cotton bales. These Confederate vessels soon faced nine Federal ones–five ships and four rams–of the Mississippi River Squadron. Commanding the latter was Captain Charles H. Davis, who had succeeded Fort Donelson-wounded Captain Andrew Foote.
The battle for Memphis began at first light on June 6. After two hours, all the Confederate craft had been sunk or captured except for the General Van Dorn, which escaped downriver. Memphis Mayor John Park surrendered the city of 22,000 to Federal authorities, giving the Union control of all of the Mississippi River except for that portion bordering the state of Mississippi.
The Federal target now would become the next high ground to the south on the Mississippi’s eastern bank: the supposedly impregnable fortress at Vicksburg, hundreds of water-miles downstream.
* * *
President Abraham Lincoln was meanwhile pondering a new, revolutionary weapon.
On June 20, he met with a group of Quakers who beseeched him to abolish slavery. He all but laughed, but his answer showed that he had been mulling the subject. He pointed out that at the moment he could not compel obedience to the U. S. Constitution in Dixie; how then was he to enforce an emancipation proclamation? If just proclaiming it was enough, antislavery fanatic John Brown–hanged in 1859–would already have filled the bill.
Then Lincoln sobered. He well knew, he told the Quakers, that he was in “need of Divine assistance” in dealing with the war and the national problems that had brought it on. He said he had sometimes thought that, as they had suggested, he might be an instrument of the Almighty in “accomplishing a great work.” But, he told them, “God’s way of accomplishing the end” of slavery might be different from theirs.
His mulling had hit exactly on the problem. He could not end slavery in the Confederate South because of the very fact that the wayward section had renounced all obligation to obey the laws of the Union. So why should he further roil the situation by penalizing and angering the few slaveholding states that had stood by the flag?
It was true that the chance of successfully issuing such a proclamation affecting these border states was brighter now than it had been at the beginning of the year, particularly in the West. The Union victories at Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, and Shiloh had pushed most of the western Confederate boundary far south of the Bluegrass State, and the situation was much the same in Missouri. The Northern slave states now would have more difficulty attaching themselves to the rest of the Confederacy if they tried.
Still, even if Lincoln were to hazard such a revolutionary innovation as emancipation, would the impact be positive? He needed a high-profile victory in the East to hang it on, and his generals seemed unable to deliver one. Without that, such a proclamation would just sound like a shriek from an impending corpse.
* * *
Federal General George McClellan seemed buoyed by the change of Confederate commanders in Virginia.
Having supervised the troops that had beaten those Lee supervised in western Virginia in 1861, McClellan professed to believe Johnston’s replacement was indeed Granny Lee. He wrote that the new enemy commander was “too cautious and weak under grave responsibility–personally brave and energetic…yet…wanting in moral firmness when pressed by heavy responsibility and…likely to be timid and irresolute in action.”
McClellan’s eloquent description was more appropriate for the image in his mirror. Stuart’s encircling romp further convinced him that he was vastly outnumbered, whereas the truth was the opposite. On June 18 he began moving his supply base closer, onto the James River to the south.
On June 23, Lee finally informed subordinates of his plan to attack the invader. His idea was to bring General Thomas J. (Stonewall) Jackson south from the Shenandoah Valley to help drive McClellan back from Richmond and then destroy him.
Unlike McClellan, Lee had gauged his opponent well. He assumed that McClellan’s indecisiveness could allow the Confederates to leave 25,000 men in the Federal front while pulling out some 60,000 to assail the Union right. Before Lee could complete his preparations, though, McClellan on June 25 ordered his front-line commanders to drive back the Confederate pickets at Oak Grove. The result of the subsequent battle was negligible territorially. The Confederates lost 40 killed, 263 wounded, and 13 missing compared to 51 Federals killed, 401 wounded, and 64 missing.
The next day, Lee made his intended attack, but the Confederate effort was bungled. Jackson, uncharacteristically laggard, did not make an assault on Mechanicsville which Lee expected to coincide with another from another direction by General A. P. Hill. Hill finally attacked alone and took heavy casualties. Total Confederate losses of 1,484 men were four times the Union sum. On the other end of Lee’s line, though, the 25,000 holders of his trenches fought so well that McClellan thought their numbers far exceeded the reality. To deal with them, the Union commander held 60,000 of his men out of the primary fight on his right.
Overnight, McClellan withdrew his right to Gaines’s Mill. On June 27, Lee again assailed him, but again Jackson–likely exhausted from his lightning marches up and down the Shenandoah Valley–seemed addled. He did not attack until 4:30 in the afternoon, far too late. But Confederate troops on the right again diverted McClellan’s attention with attacks of their own, and the Union right again fell back, this time consolidating with the left.
Despite all the Confederate errors, hopes rose. Richmond was plainly becoming safer–although at a cost of nearly 9,000 casualties, compared to some 7,000 for the Union, at Gaines’s Mill.
Most important, McClellan lost his nerve. He frantically ordered his base changed to White House Landing on the James River and actually left his army, designating no successor. Although a new Union Army of Virginia under General John Pope was now ordered to the peninsula to reinforce McClellan, the psychologically shattered commander sent Secretary of War Edwin Stanton a message so appalling that the chief censor deleted a sentence before delivering it to its intended recipient. The excised words read:
“If I save this army now I tell you plainly that I owe no thanks to you or any other persons in Washington–you have done your best to sacrifice this army.”
More of the Seven Days battles–Garnett’s Farm on June 28, Savage’s Station on June 29, Frayser’s Farm on June 30, and Malvern Hill on July 1–were yet to come, and frightening Confederate casualties with them.
Lee would be without his “eyes,” because Jeb Stuart had taken the cavalry on a southeastward reconnaissance, and Stonewall Jackson would continue to under-perform. In all, the Confederates would lose some 20,000 men, some one-fourth of their army, over the course of this bloody week, compared to 16,000 Federals.
Nevertheless, by the end of the month Confederate spirits began to soar. Richmond was saved. McClellan was trounced. And the Union had been emphatically notified that this new enemy leader, Robert Edward Lee, was by no means a granny.
[For further information see The Civil War Almanac by John S. Boatner, ed., Bison Books 1982; Lee by Clifford Dowdey, Little-Brown 1965; Lincoln by David Herbert Donald, Simon & Schuster 1995; The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War by David J. Eicher, Simon & Schuster 2001; The Lincoln Encyclopedia: The Spoken and Written Words of A. Lincoln by Archer H. Shaw, ed., MacMillan 1950; Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War by Patricia L. Faust, ed., Historical Times 1986.]
As June opened, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was enduring a presidential slight. By now he had to have realized that his suggested draft of a Second Emancipation Proclamation, sent to President Kennedy in May, had died an ignominious death.
King’s hopes for the document had soared. He had had his four volunteer attorneys—Stanley Levison, Harry Wachtel, Clarence Jones, and Theodore Kheel—work on the draft for more than half of the previous year. In anticipation of Kennedy’s acceptance of the document, King already had requested the Secretary of the Interior to set aside midnight of the next New Year’s Eve for a ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial, marking the hundred-year anniversary of Father Abraham’s greatest legacy.
Kennedy did not respond, even by private letter. On June 5 the President did, however, extend a sop, inviting King to a White House reception for Archbishop Makarios of Cyprus. King sent his regrets, saying he had prior commitments.
* * *
Crucial foundational work, meanwhile, proceeded quietly in the virulently racist rural counties around Albany, Georgia.
The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC or, as popularly put, “Snick”) continued to ply its philosophy of finding local voter registration workers for its young activists to assist, rather than trying to lead these efforts themselves. They believed the latter course would doom such projects to failure.
In June in Lee County, they found a local woman willing to put them up. “Mama Dolly” Raines was about 70, but in the words of SNCC notable Charles Sherrod, she could still “pick more cotton, ‘slop more pigs,’ plow more ground, chop more wood, and do a hundred more things better than the best farmer in the area.”
In another Albany-neighboring county, Terrell—known to local blacks as “Terrible Terrell” for the harshness of its prejudice—other SNCC members found another such tough-minded and fearless female, Mrs. Carolyn Daniels.
Raines and Daniels were, in Sherrod’s phrase, “mamas.”
“There is always a ‘mama,’” Sherrod put it. “She is usually a militant woman in the community, outspoken, understanding, and willing to catch hell, having already caught her share.”
Sherrod, a black man, believed strongly that his SNCC workers aiding local voter registration efforts should be bi-racial. He said teaming blacks and whites was required if they wished to “strike at the very root of segregation,” which was “the idea that white is superior.”
“That idea has eaten into the minds of the people, black and white. We have to break this image. We can only do this if they see white and black working together, side by side, the white man no more and no less than his black brother, but human beings together.”
But a front-page editorial in the Albany Herald on June 28 would emphasize the dug-in position of the bulk of Georgia’s white establishment. Written by Georgia Democratic Party chairman James Gray, owner of the Herald, it declared that African American allegations of oppression exemplified “the Hitlerian tactic of the ‘Big Lie’…
“The Negroes are lying,” Gray’s editorial claimed. “The Department of Justice knows they are lying…This sordid effort will fail, as all of the craft and cunning the Negro agitators have employed in their plottings for months have failed…It will fail because its motivation is essentially evil.”
Why it was “evil” of a whole class of Southerners–who had been Americans for many generations–to aspire to finally get the vote, Gray’s florid prose did not explain.
* * *
The white and black fraternization Sherrod wanted in southwest Georgia was already happening on high levels in the state’s largest city.
On June 4, Republican presidential hopeful Nelson Rockefeller of New York arrived in Atlanta to address students at black Spelman College, while Democratic lioness Eleanor Roosevelt spoke at Atlanta University. Rockefeller depicted the Kennedy Administration as headed by civil rights con men who pledged to aid oppressed African Americans and then were “found wanting in courage, the profound and true belief that must back promises with action.”
But Rockefeller’s was a cry in the wilderness, his GOP all but powerless at that time in the South. A far greater stir in Atlanta’s black community–as well as its white one–was created by the arrival of a more prominent Democratic figure as Rockefeller left town. In collusion with King, singer-movie star-civil rights activist Harry Belafonte appeared for his first Southern concert since the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954.
Atlanta’s vice mayor gave Belafonte the keys to the city. The film star and King registered without incident at the city’s finest hotel, a prime SCLC aim of the Belafonte visit. New mayor Ivan Allen, on his first day in office, had ordered removal of “White” and “Colored” signs over drinking fountains in City Hall, and now, at King’s request, Allen removed restrictions forbidding blacks and whites to occupy the same seating sections at the city’s auditorium.
But there was ugliness, too.
When Belafonte and King arrived at the Kings Inn, their hotel’s ritzy eatery, for a pre-concert luncheon on June 7, the restaurant proprietor threatened them with arrest. He did so in the face of a prior call from the Justice Department, which had been alerted by the Atlanta office of the FBI. No arrest occurred only because King and Belafonte did not stay at the event very long.
King regarded even the aborted arrest as a positive. He thought it symbolically showed the South’s oppressed blacks that such of their wealthy brothers as Belafonte were willing to challenge the South’s racist status quo, and he issued press releases highlighting it.
By contrast, of threats by the Ku Klux Klan to assassinate “the nigger King” at Shreveport,La., the next stop on his voter registration tour, he made no public mention. He kept that within his inner circle.
* * *
King did not get assassinated in Shreveport. But outraged police arrested his close associate Wyatt T. Walker.
Walker had been worried enough by the death threats that he had telephoned the Justice Department. The department in turn phoned Shreveport law enforcement officials and was given the impression the police would supply the King party no protection. The department then found two local judges who consented to plead the department’s case with the authorities, and the jurists reported that the police would supply the protection; they just weren’t going to tell the federal government they would.
To greet King, local blacks packed Shreveport’s Little Union Avenue Baptist Church–in the face of white community resentment so strong that a Shreveport official of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Council, C. O. Simpkins, had already had his home bombed and had moved away to Chicago.
When the officious Walker strode to the church’s front steps to see the police commissioner to be sure the church’s rear, as well as its front, was being watched, his demeanor so infuriated the commissioner that he was arrested on the spot–for loitering. He then was put in solitary confinement for nearly 24 hours and given access to only one local official, the coroner, who interrogated him for the stated purpose of determining whether he was crazy.
* * *
Walker had barely been discharged from custody in Shreveport before he flew to Chicago on what would have seemed to the American public the unlikeliest of missions: advice-seeking discussions with representatives of the famous white evangelist Billy Graham.
The American public knew nothing about it, though. The secrecy was doubtless for the benefit of both Graham and King. Graham was a Southern Baptist, and his base constituency overwhelmingly resided in the white South. And King, the black Baptist, probably did not care to be seen as seeking the advice of a spiritual leader of racists. But Graham could not bring himself to ignore King’s kinship as a Baptist preacher of the gospel, and King admired Graham’s meticuliusly designed rise to national fame.
So King dispatched Walker and another aide, Chauncey Eskridge, to ask how Graham managed to keep his ministry so persistently in the public eye. A Graham representative informed them that, rather than running frantically to and from myriad crusades and fundraisers, King needed to concentrate his efforts on a few large, well-planned events that would be so mammoth that they could not be ignored by newspapers and TV.
Walter Bennett, Graham’s media man, told the King aides that each Graham crusade was planned for months. Thousands of ministers and churchwomen from cities and towns within driving distance of each site were organized into tight cadres and given specific responsibilities to get people to attend each event.
This daunting advice was taken back to King, accompanied by a grim forecast: If King kept up his current pace, Bennett said, within five years a heart attack would kill him.
(For further information see Parting The Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 by Taylor Branch, Simon & Schuster 1988; and In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s by Clayborne Carson, Harvard University Press 1981.)
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