Fighting for the six consecutive days ending June, General Robert E. Lee and his outnumbered Confederates had separated, flanked, and stopped the Union Army of the Potomac, breaking an impending siege that had panicked the Southern capital.
The Federals had reeled backward, streaming down Virginia’s York-James peninsula toward the James River and their naval-protected supply depot at Harrison’s Landing. Ahead—days ahead—of them had skedaddled their psychologically shattered commander, George McClellan.
But Lee had achieved only half his aim. Because of mistakes by subordinates, he had not destroyed the Union force. On June’s final day an exhausted Stonewall Jackson, atypically performing like a sleepwalker, had arrived too late to spring a grand trap Lee had set at Glendale.
So the Federals had escaped and taken a strong position atop a plateau at Malvern Hill around 250 cannons. Except for a single Federal corps that had moved on to link up with the navy at Harrison’s, Lee’s enemy was all together this time, not spread-out and vulnerable.
Lee, himself tired too, now took a turn at making mistakes. Under a dismal rain, he put all his troops onto a single road, crowding them and delaying their arrival at Malvern Hill. He also ignored a local warning that Malvern Hill was an unusually formidable position. And he did not gather the bulk of his own cannons to counter and damage the massed Federal ones.
Arriving at Malvern Hill in the afternoon, he received a false report that the Federals appeared to be pulling out southward yet again. Wishing to administer a lethal blow, Lee did not try to check the information further—which would have been difficult, since J. E. B. Stuart and the cavalry were still absent on a prior reconnaissance. So Lee sent his infantry units piecemeal to attack up a long hill under Union artillery fire that quickly knocked out most of the few Confederate cannons that had come forward.
The result, in the later words of Confederate general A. P. Hill, was “murder.” By nightfall the Confederates had lost 5,355 casualties at Malvern Hill, compared to a Federal total of 3,214. In the whole of the Seven Days battles, Lee had lost nearly a fourth of his recently-designated Army of Northern Virginia—20,000 men—while the Union had lost 16,000.
Richmond, though, was safe. Confederate capitulation no longer loomed as a dreaded prospect. Meanwhile, the Dixie capital’s hitherto-discounted savior had undergone a vast change of image. Lee was suddenly counted one of the great soldiers of the world.
* * *
McClellan then began to sit at Harrison’s Landing like a possum. But he was not just playing dead. Militarily, he already was.
Since relieving him from the general-in-chief’s position back in March, President Lincoln had tried informally to play that role himself. He now recognized he needed help. On July 11, he summoned from across the Appalachians Major General Henry W. Halleck, whose subordinates had fashioned victories at Forts Henry and Donelson and, by the skin of their teeth, Shiloh. Then Halleck himself had led a month-consuming crawl to, and bloodless capture of, the great—but Confederate-abandoned—railroad hub at Corinth, Miss.
Halleck, like McClellan, was more planner than warrior. Even more than McClellan, he was an armchair paper-shuffler. But he insisted on order and precision, and he brought to the eastern theater an aura of competence and, personally merited or not, badly-needed battlefield success.
By default, Halleck’s appointment devolved most of the leadership of the western theater onto his widely-discounted and disdained second-in-command of the Corinth-based forces. This officer, rumpled and wearing the whispered reputation of a sot, had been kicked upstairs and out of field command after Shiloh. He, though, was the man who, rather than Halleck, had actually won the Shiloh battle, as well as the one at Fort Donelson, by dogged coolness and refusal to quit.
The resurrected figure was U. S. Grant, a general once dubbed “Unconditional Surrender.”
* * *
Grant’s command in the West did not include Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Cumberland.
Buell had previously outranked Grant—until Grant’s capture of Fort Donelson and its nearly 15,000 Confederates catapulted him overnight to major general. In fact, Buell had commanded half of the western theater until Halleck, commanding the other half, bested Buell at military politics back in March. So Buell now loftily scorned Grant, and Grant felt uncomfortable around Buell.
Halleck respected Buell’s ability and sensibilities more than Grant’s. He directed Buell to report directly to Washington. Then, having already split the enormous Corinth force into three armies before leaving for the east, the new general-in-chief ordered Buell to strike out across northern Alabama for the vital rail hub at Chattanooga. He told Grant to hold western Tennessee and northern Mississippi.
Halleck had hamstrung Buell, though. He not only ordered him to follow the Memphis & Charleston railroad on his eastward trek, he ordered him to repair it as he went. This labor made the habitually slow Buell even slower, especially under Dixie’s scorching sun.
Buell was, though, plainly headed to Chattanooga, and the Confederacy’s primary western army had to do something about it. And that army had a new commander. P.G.T. Beauregard, its chief since Albert Sidney Johnston took lethal bullets at Shiloh, had skillfully withdrawn from Corinth under Halleck’s very nose, but he then granted himself asick leave without informing his superiors. Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who disliked Beauregard anyway, availed himself of the opportunity thus presented. He replaced him.
New commander Braxton Bragg was a famous hero of the Mexican War. He also had served as both Johnston’s chief of staff and a corps commander at Shiloh. Bragg quickly determined upon a grand move. Using railroads to the fullest, he would transfer much of his army to Chattanooga and then outflank the Union invaders by striking north into Middle Tennessee or Kentucky.
* * *
To distract the Federals while he changed bases, Bragg loosed into Union territory two radically different cavalry commanders: John Hunt Morgan and Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Morgan was descended from notable Southern families. The Morgans had been businessmen in Alabama before moving to Kentucky, and John’s father, Calvin, was a cultivated man who had studied at Cumberland College in Nashville. John’s maternal grandfather, John Wesley Hunt, had been one of his era’s wealthiest entrepreneurs west of the Appalachians.
Forrest, by contrast, was rough-hewn. He was a blacksmith’s son of scant formal education who had boot-strapped his way up from a leased Mississippi hill farm to riches as one of the South’s foremost slave-traders. The business operated by the refined Morgan and his brothers had also dealt in slaves, but in nowhere near the volume of Forrest’s. The latter exhibited so little cultivation that upper-crust officers refused to serve under him when he accepted orders to head east from Corinth to Chattanooga. Major General Edmund Kirby Smith at Knoxville had to juggle units to find three commanders who would.
Morgan left Knoxville on Independence Day. Heading across the Cumberland Mountains to Sparta, he lit out on a whirlwind, 1,000-mile, 24-day foray behind Federal lines into central Kentucky. He proceeded to circle his Lexington hometown, burning railroad trestles and other Federal facilities and throwing a panic into Union commanders in Kentucky as well as far to the south in Tennessee and Alabama.
Whimsy was a large part of the makeup of both Morgan and one of his staff telegraphers, Canadian George “Lightning” Ellsworth. Morgan had hardly begun his ride north when he composed a bogus telegram purporting to come from a Federal telegrapher on July 10. The fraudulent message claimed that Morgan and Forrest had just raided Murfreesboro, a major rail depot 30 miles southeast of Nashville.
Forrest was wily and brainily deceptive, but not whimsical, and whether he would have approved Morgan’s telegram is questionable. That’s because Murfreesboro was exactly where his own raid was headed three days later.
He set out from Chattanooga on July 6. His units, some freshly recruited, had just come under his command, and fellow officers at Chattanooga scoffed at the idea that he could accomplish anything. But a week later, after crossing two mountain ranges, he waged a seven-hour fight on his 41st birthday before capturing Murfreesboro and a 1,200-man Federal garrison as large as his own force.
Appropriating every article and animal he could use, Forrest burned everything else he could not carry off—and wrecked a Union Nashville-to-Alabama rail line that had just been repaired and put back into operation that day. He also captured a Union brigadier general, Thomas T. Crittenden.
The fall of Murfreesboro under the noses of surrounding Federal forces—combined with Morgan’s romp through Kentucky—stopped Don Carlos Buell’s Union progress toward Chattanooga dead in its tracks. This was partly because the resultant Federal supply stoppage put Buell’s men on half-rations. That wasn’t the only thing, though. Buell felt cut-off, islanded, highly vulnerable, and angry. He called the lack of preparedness on the part of the Murfreesboro commanders some of the worst soldering in the history of warfare.
Forrest, meanwhile, continued rampaging through Middle Tennessee. He spread terror among Union leaders who included, in the Nashville statehouse, military governor Andrew Johnson himself.
(For further information see The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War by David J. Eicher, Simon & Schuster 2001; Lee by Clifford Dowdey, Little-Brown 1965; Rebel Raider: The Life of General John Hunt Morgan, University Press of Kentucky 1986; and ‘First With The Most’ Forrest by Robert S. Henry, Bobbs-Merrill 1944.)
July opened with a looming court date for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Albany, Ga.
Back in December, as he led marchers downtown to pray for demonstrators already in jail, Albany Police Chief Laurie Pritchett arrested him and them for parading without a permit. His much-postponed sentencing was finally due July 10.
It would be a return to sour ground. In December, contrary to his promise to stay behind bars through Christmas, he had bonded out after just one night, in the wake of a cellmate’s apparent nervous breakdown.The quick exit drew derision from both white and black communities.
Before King returned to Albany for another certain jail stint, he had a speech to give. For the first time in several years, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People held its national convention in King’s hometown of Atlanta. The organization relegated his appearance to a minor spot, and the establishment black press, which regarded his marches as an inflammatory negative, played it down.
But the national controversy King spawned could hardly be ignored. Comedian Dick Gregory alluded to it in introducing him. He was, Gregory said, the sole American celebrity “who gives more fingerprints than he does autographs.”
Surely with no idea he would win the Nobel Peace Prize ever, let alone just two years later, King offered the NAACP and his many other doubters, black and white, the rationale for why a man who stirred so much unrest deserved anybody’s peace prize.
The NAACP leaders tended to be attorneys who believed the proper place to struggle for rights was in the courts, not the streets. King told them the quest for justice could not be limited to the safety, dignity, and propriety of courtrooms.
Citing Scripture, the young Atlanta preacher said that when Jesus Christ told his disciples that he came to bring not peace but a sword, he meant he was coming to initiate conflict between old and new, between injustice and justice.
“The tension in the South today,” he said, “is the necessary tension that comes when the oppressed rise up and start to move forward toward a permanent, positive peace.”
Such movement does not profane the law by breaking it, he suggested. He who breaks a bad law and is willingly punished for doing so—as the nonviolent civil rights marchers, sit-in picketers, and public transportation demonstrators had been doing with increasing fervor since late 1960—showed the highest respect for and hope in the law, not contempt for it, he said.
The marchers demanded that the law they believed in be worthy of their belief, he maintained. To be that, it had to be more just. It had to grant due rights to every person—even Dixie’s African Americans, who had been made to wait for most of these rights for nearly a century.
“We want all of our rights,” he shouted. “…We have lived with gradualism and we know that it is nothing but do-nothingism and escapism—which ends up in standstillism. We are not willing to wait any longer! We want freedom now!”
Despite itself, the staid NAACP crowd wildly cheered him.
* * *
Wherever King went, racial tension—always high in the Southern areas to which he turned his attention—got ratcheted up further.
But his jailing on July 10 raised blood pressures all the way to Washington. President John F. Kennedy had achieved skin-of-the-teeth election by virtue of a Northern black vote garnered by his telephone call to King’s wife during another King jailing in 1960, and he initiated another such phone call now. This time, however, he delegated the job to Justice Department official Burke Marshall. The President and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, preferred to remain in the background this time.
On the afternoon of July 11, though, they came face-to-face with the problem. A law partner of Albany Mayor Asa Kelley arrived in Washington on a plane from Georgia. Huddling with Kennedy Administration officials, he found them agreeing with him that keeping King in jail was dangerous to all concerned. But, unlike the previous December, King seemed resolved to stay in jail this time, pressuring Albany segregation. It was inflammatory. Something had to be done.
Following the meeting with Administration officials, the Albany representative, B. C. Gardner, quickly boarded a return flight home—with a plan.
In his absence, the Albany situation had deteriorated. Shiloh Baptist Church held a mass meeting to gather new marchers in support of King, and during it a small gang of loiterers outside began throwing bottles and rocks to drive away the cars of police sent to observe the gathering.
Then B. C. Gardner and the Albany city administration sprang the plan. Very early the next morning. Gardner brought $356 to the jail to pay the fines freeing King and his Southern Christian Leadership Council co-leader, Ralph Abernathy—against their wills. Lying, administration officials said an unidentified well-dressed black man had paid the fines. They then expelled King and Abernathy from the jail.
“This is one time I’m out of jail that I’m not happy to be out,” King said.
* * *
On July 19, King flew to Washington to become the first African American to address the National Press Club. The next day, though, he was back in Albany.
On July 21, a new—and Kennedy-appointed—segregationist federal judge handed down an appalling ruling in a case brought in the cause of civil rights. Instead of holding that due rights were being withheld from African American demonstrators, Judge J. Robert Elliott issued an injunction against demonstrating, ruling that the protest marches tied up police and other services and violated the rights of white citizens.
Elliott’s decree hit King and other civil rights leaders like a blackjack. Federal law, their sole hope against state Jim Crow regulations, was now turned against them.
Violating a federal injunction could imperil their position in the eyes of the general public. It would look as if they obeyed only laws they agreed with. For most of July 22, King argued with young leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, who angrily demanded that he disobey the judge’s immoral ruling. In the backyard of prominent young black realtor Slater King, Martin Luther King fielded questions and rage from Charles Sherrod, Charles Jones, Cordell Reagon, and others. They deserved his attention. They and their organization were doing some of the most dangerous of the voter registration work in the Albany area.
* * *
Things then got uglier. Police Chief Laurie Pritchett, to counter the demonstrators’ attempt to overflow his jail and cost the city money, had farmed out prisoners to surrounding counties. On July 23 Marion King, Slater King’s wife, took food to the jailed daughter of her maid in neighboring Mitchell County. Mrs. King was six months pregnant and wearing maternity clothes.
The visitors sang freedom songs while waiting to be allowed in the jail, and Mitchell County officers were not happy about it. Mrs. King, holding her three-year-old and her one-year-old, did not step back quickly enough from the chain-link fence outside the jail when officers ordered the crowd to retreat. The sheriff then slapped her so hard that the three-year-old flew from her arms onto the pavement. He slapped her a second time, and a deputy kicked her in the shins, knocking her to her knees. He delivered several more kicks while she knelt trying to remain conscious.
Slater King wept helplessly when he learned what had happened to his wife. And his famous/infamous guest, the prominent Atlanta minister also named King, swiftly added more wires to ones he already had sent the Justice Department. To no avail. Although department official Burke Marshall promised “appropriate action,” he also contradicted himself by saying his department had no jurisdiction over local jails without proof that local officers had violated federal law.
* * *
On July 26, an Atlanta federal judge appointed by President Eisenhower set aside the scandalous injunction against demonstrating. Albany leaders promptly vilified him, branding his action “incredible.”
That same day, the Kennedys read a damning story in the New York Times. It told how the sheriff of an Albany-adjoining county which black residents dubbed “Terrible Terrell” had burst into a voter registration meeting in a rural church on July 25. With their guns, they had menaced Charles Sherrod and thirty-eight terrified locals. Sheriff Z. T. Mathews told the little gathering that Terrell County wanted no more registered African Americans than it already had: 51—out of a total black population of 8,209.
“We want our colored people to go on living like they have for the last hundred years,” Times reporter Claude Sitton quoted him. The article went on to say that one of Mathews’s officers told one of the local residents at the meeting: “I know you. We’re going to get some of you.”
Robert Kennedy, enraged, ordered Justice Department officials immediately into Terrell County.
In the meantime, on July 28 word came that in the county jail in Albany inmates had viciously beaten one of the Albany Movement prisoners, breaking his jaw and several ribs. And when his attorney arrived and asked to see the man, 76-year-old Sheriff “Cull” Campbell grabbed a cane and bloodied the attorney’s head and shirt.
“I told the sonofabitch to get out of my office,” the sheriff soon archly explained, “and he didn’t get out.”
[For more 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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