A Confederate tide now washed northward on both sides of the Appalachians.
Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia crossed the Potomac River into Maryland with titanic ambitions but reduced ranks. Thousands of its 55,000 men—worn-out, ill-fed, and reluctant to leave their native South to fight on enemy ground—had deserted.
Around the same time, thanks to a suggestion from Lee to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Braxton Bragg’s newly-dubbed Army of Tennessee headed from Chattanooga across Middle Tennessee toward Kentucky. There Bragg hoped to catch and link up with General Edmund Kirby Smith’s force from Knoxville, which had invaded the east-central Bluegrass in August.
Lee’s purposes in the Maryland invasion appear to have been several. On Sept. 3, he wrote Davis a sentence which must have raised the eyebrows of the Confederate chief executive: “The present seems to be the most propitious time since the commencement of the war for the Confederate Army to enter Maryland.” Lee and Davis had not discussed entering Maryland.
The time was ripe, though, for many reasons. As August ended, Lee and generals Stonewall Jackson and James Longstreet had defeated Maj. Gen. John Pope’s federal Army of Virginia in the battle of Second Bull Run. And much of Lee’s army was without shoes and hungry, and Lee did not wish to deplete Virginia’s farms of their produce with winter coming on.
But there were larger reasons, too. Important ministers of the British government were warming to the idea of mediating an end to the war if it proved agreeable to Abraham Lincoln’s Washington government—or, if Lincoln said no, of at least recognizing the Confederacy as a member of the world’s circle of legitimate nations. A Confederate victory on Northern soil could nudge the English further.
To this end, Lee had designs on more than Maryland. One Confederate officer he talked to during this time said his commander’s initial goal was Harrisburg, Pa.., and the burning of a long railroad bridge across the Susquehanna River, which would severely damage Washington’s communications with the Midwest.
“After that,” Lee purportedly said, “I shall turn my attention to Philadelphia, Baltimore, or Washington, as may seem best for our interests.”
Lee’s overarching aim, apparently, was the ultimate one—an end to the war before the outmanned South suffered greater losses of territory, goods, and manpower. In early September from Maryland, Lee wrote Davis to observe that with a Confederate army on Union soil threatening Northern cities, Davis could propose a termination of hostilities.
“Such a proposition coming from us at this time could in no way be regarded as suing for peace,” Lee wrote, “but being made when it is in our power to inflict injury upon our adversary would show conclusively to the world that our sole object is the establishment of our independence and the attainment of an honorable peace.”
The details of Lee’s plan seemed sound—until a copy of them found its way into Federal hands on Sept. 13.
* * *
A Union sergeant and corporal were lounging in a field near Frederick, Md., when one of them spied an envelope lying nearby. Opening it, they found three cigars bound up in paper headed “Special Orders No. 191.” It was signed by Confederate commander Robert E. Lee.
In not much more than minutes, Union commander George McClellan had in his hands Lee’s detailed plan for the Confederate invasion of the North. McClellan, being McClellan, immediately boasted to a subordinate that if possession of this document did not permit him to “whip Bobbie Lee” he would “be willing to go home.”
Had he left immediately, he might have saved many lives. He made little use of his priceless gift of fate. Before the two armies finally closed in combat on September 17 around the town of Sharpsburg, McClellan’s moved slowly enough to allow Lee’s units, widely separated as they moved northward, to consolidate. As usual, McClellan claimed to be prohibitively outnumbered, although his 75,000 men were far superior to Lee’s estimated 50,000..
September 17 became the war’s bloodiest day. The Federals called the fight Antietam after a creek that flowed through the battlefield. The Confederates called it Sharpsburg.
Lee had only 19,000 troops in the Maryland town on Sept. 16, but he managed to bring 21,000 to join them by the 17th. McClellan first attacked on the Confederate left with seemingly only half a heart for the task, sending in his units in jerky, piecemeal fashion. Then, at the pivotal point of the battle, he withheld his reserves altogether, when throwing them in might have burst through Lee’s broken center and possibly destroyed Lee’s army.
The Confederate center, until it finally collapsed late in the day, was anchored in sunken road forever after dubbed Bloody Lane, honoring its hillocks of fallen men of both sides. The Union alone suffered more than 3,000 casualties there. The Confederate total is unknown, but it included the near-annihilation of some of the most veteran units of the Army of Northern Virginia.
One Confederate officer who would rise to become one of the two Army of Northern Virginia wing commanders at the end of the war—Col. John B. Gordon of the 6th Alabama Infantry—was bullet-struck five times in the Bloody Lane. The fifth wound, a shot to the face, would have killed him had not a previous shot put a hole in his hat. The hole became a drain spout for his blood, which would have drowned him when he fell face forward and unconscious into the hat.
But McClellan withheld his reserves and limited his response to very weak diversions from his own left, commanded by Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside. Neither Burnside nor McClellan had gone to the trouble of reconnoitering in front of their position, and, although several good fords were available, Burnside ended up crossing his men at a just one of them and at a long, narrow, murderous bridge overlooked by a bluff crowned with Confederate sharpshooters. The Dixie riflemen, vastly outnumbered, piled corpses on the bridge before being overwhelmed after some two hours.
The Confederate right staged a prolonged, fighting pullback in the face of Burnside’s horde. But by late afternoon Burnside’s columns were approaching Sharpsburg, just west of which Lee had his headquarters. At virtually the last minute, though, General A. P. Hill of Stonewall Jackson’s command arrived after marching seven hours from Harpers Ferry. With 3,500 men, Hill tore into Burnside’s flank, and the Union columns, now casualty-depleted and fought-out, fell back across Antietam Creek.
On Sept. 19, after spending a day collecting his appalling number of wounded, Lee headed back toward Virginia with his outnumbered ranks further winnowed. He had lost 14,000 casualties; the North, 12, 500.
* * *
As Lee retreated, General Braxton Bragg’s 22,500-man Army of Tennessee sat at Munfordville, Ky.
Bragg was undecided about what to do. His men had captured a 4,000-man Federal garrison at Munfordville, but then found themselves facing three times their numbers. Don Carlos Buell’s federal Army of the Ohio was on their heels and coming fast. Outflanked by Bragg’s strike northward, Buell had abandoned his drive on Chattanooga and had raced backward (much faster than he had ever gone forward) to try to defend his supply base at Louisville.
Had Bragg moved swiftly, he might well have captured lightly defended Louisville before Buell could get there. He then could have used the Federal fortifications against their constructors. Instead, he sat still for nearly a week. Then on Sept. 19 (two days after Antietam), he stepped aside, moving eastward to try to link up with Edmund Kirby Smith’s 10,000 men at Lexington. Buell meanwhile drove past him unscathed into Louisville.
After that, Bragg seemed further perplexed. Kentucky cavalry leader John Morgan had promised him that Kentuckians would rise to join him, but they did not. Ten thousand rifles brought to arm them rattled unused in Bragg’s wagons. Kentucky was enduring a drought, so water and forage for horses was scarce. Bragg hung around central Kentucky for a couple of weeks, accomplishing nothing but the institution of a rump Confederate state government that would have to flee if and when he had to retreat.
* * *
Antietam was hardly the overwhelming victory that it could have been had McClellan and his subordinates not bungled one of the greatest opportunities any generals ever enjoyed. Timidly, they had barely brought half of their force into battle against Lee at Sharpsburg.
But Lee was retreating, and the North and all its significant parts—the railroad bridge at Harrisburg as well as the cities of Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Washington—were saved. Lincoln now had at least a vestige of the triumph on which he had been waiting to announce his Emancipation Proclamation.
For the Northern president, the victory—pale as it was—was a sign from God. As Navy Secretary Gideon Welles would soon tell his diary, Lincoln informed the cabinet that he had “made a vow, a covenant, that if God gave us the victory in the approaching battle, he would consider it an indication of Divine will, and that it was his duty to move forward in the cause of emancipation.”
Over the next two or three days, the President tinkered with the wording of his draft of the document. Then, on Sept. 22, he read it to the cabinet members. Markedly, though, he did not ask for their advice.
“I think the time has come now,” he said. “I wish it were a better time. I wish that we were in a better condition.”
But they weren’t. On the other hand, they were in the best condition they had enjoyed since Lee had crossed the Potomac heading north into Maryland. Now he had just crossed it again heading in the opposite direction. While not optimal, it was the best time available.
[For more information see The Long Night: A Military History of the Civil War by David J. Eicher, Simon & Schuster 2001; A World On Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War by Amanda Foreman, Random House 2010; Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam by Stephen W. Sears, Ticknor & Fields 1983; Battle Cry of Freedom by James M. McPherson, Oxford University Press 1988; Lee by Clifford Dowdey, Little-Brown 1965; Lincoln by David Herbert Donald, Simon & Schuster 1995; The Civil War Almanac by John S. Boatner, ed., Bison Books 1982.]
By the onset of September, the focus of the civil rights conflict was widening westward from Albany, Ga.
While violence continued to scourge the Albany area, it broke out in north-central Mississippi. Triggers squeezed by pickup-truck-borne nightriders shot holes in walls of several African American homes around Albany as well as near Greenwood, Miss. One of the latter incidents wounded two Mississippi college coeds.
Black churches that had hosted Albany-area voter registration meetings were burned to the ground. The first arriving FBI agents at one smoking foundation found the unapologetic arsonists still present, savoring the spectacle while swilling beer.
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., tarred by its marked lack of success in Albany, warily eyed a big-city bastion of Southern segregation: bellicose Birmingham, Ala. There the SCLC planned to convene its sixth annual convention in late September.
The Kennedy Administration, feeling heat from both sides of the civil rights struggle, stepped up its rhetoric, if nothing else. In a Sept. 13 press conference, responding to telegrams from King decrying Deep Dixie brutality against volunteers promoting voter registration, President Kennedy made his most supportive statement yet.
“I don’t know any more outrageous action which I’ve seen occur in this country for a good many months or years than the burning of a church—two churches—because of the effort—made by Negroes—to be registered to vote,” the President said. Noting the shootings, he denounced the acts as not just outrageous but “cowardly…
“I commend those who are making the effort to register every citizen,” he continued. “They deserve the protection of the United States Government, the protection of the states…And if it requires extra legislation, and extra force, we shall do that.”
* * *
With the defeat of racial justice all but achieved in Albany, virulent Southern bigotry stepped up its resistance in Mississippi.
In August, reporters and a CBS film crew accompanied Bob Moses and Sam Block of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and 25 local blacks attempting to register in Greenwood. Afterward, Block was badly beaten by three white men who grabbed him as he exited Moses’s car downtown. Carloads of whites brandishing guns and tire chains ran SNCC workers out of their Greenwood headquarters. Local police left the scene just before more carloads of whites arrived to ring the headquarters after dark.
An August issue of the New York Times had pointed to “internal rivalries” among African Americans as one cause of the Albany defeat, and civil rights workers tried to head off a similar prospect in Mississippi. Representatives of various organizations—SNCC, SCLC, the NAACP, and the Congress of Racial Equality—met in Clarksdale to form a cooperative umbrella group.
The Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), they called it, and named its officers from among the four groups. They then were harassed by the white community in Clarksdale, some arrested on charges of distributing their voter registration leaflets without a license.
To help with the Mississippi campaign, Jack O’Dell, director of the SCLC’s Voter Education Project, saw need for reinforcements. He prevailed on James Bevel, the fiery young Mississippi-born preacher now working with the SCLC, to return to his native state from Albany with his wife, Diane Nash, and their infant daughter.
If Bevel was a budding giant in the Movement (and he was), Nash was practically its Joan of Arc. Beautiful and intrepid, she had paired with John Lewis to form the soulful and organizational guts of the Nashville student movement. Face-to-face, Nash had publicly challenged the Nashville mayor to desegregate city facilities—and won. She and Lewis had insisted that Nashville-based reinforcements rush into Alabama after the initial pair of Freedom Ride buses had been stopped by firebombing and Ku Klux mobs in May 1961.
White enough to pass for Caucasian, Nash had adopted that persona several times to infiltrate the racist white community and obtain firsthand information in Mississippi, regarded as the toughest state on civil rights in the nation.
In Mississippi back in April, obviously pregnant,.she had appeared in a courtroom to volunteer for possible martyrdom. She announced she was dropping her appeal of charges that she had contributed to the delinquency of minors the previous spring in McComb, Miss., by teaching them the tactics of nonviolent protest. She embraced the prospect of a long sentence in the legendarily brutal Mississippi prison system.
In the process, Nash made one of the great—if brief—freedom speeches in American history. She said she would no longer cooperate with Mississippi’s unjust and “evil” incarceration system by appealing her conviction. Instead, for the benefit of her unborn child, she would go behind bars, because any black child born in Mississippi was already in prison.
“I believe,” she said, “that if I go to jail now it may help hasten that day when my child and all children will be free—not only on the day of their birth but for all of their lives.”
The judge, plainly fearing the world attention he would bring to Mississippi if he sent a black expectant mother into prison to give birth, ruled that Nash could not vacate her appeal. He then suspended her sentence. But she did not let him off easy. She went to jail for 10 days, anyway, for refusing to sit in the section of the courtroom reserved for blacks.
Assuredly, the return of Diane Nash to Mississippi would constitute heavy reinforcement.
* * *
The Reverend King, bowed by the Albany debacle, was further disappointed in one of his fondest hopes. President Kennedy refused to make a Second Emancipation Proclamation on the September centennial of the first one.
Instead, Kennedy taped an absentee speech for delivery at the Lincoln Memorial on Sept. 22. His remarks glossed over the continuing nightmare experienced by Southern blacks, implying that they had already “emancipated themselves.”
Like Kennedy, the deeply disappointed King did not go to the Lincoln Memorial. He instead prepared to depart Atlanta for Birmingham, where notable progress had been made in the final days before the opening of the SCLC convention.
After prolonged and halting negotiations led by fiery Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, such major—and black-patronized—Birmingham stores as Sears, Loveman’s, Woolworth’s, and the largest, Pitzitz, quietly painted over the “White Only” signs above their facilities, violating city law. They only did so, though, after an angry Shuttlesworth reminded Louis Pitzitz that in a previous civil rights demonstration two students had been arrested in his establishment. Next time, he promised, would be different.
“Martin Luther King and I are gonna sit on your stool,” he said, “and we aren’t gonna walk out. They’re gonna have to drag us out. And the press will be there. And you’ll be out of business all over Alabama.”
The signs were painted over, and the convention opened on Sept. 24. During it, he was attacked onstage and beaten by a white member of the American Nazi Party; adhering to the code of nonviolence, he refused to defend himself or to press charges.
But perhaps the most frightening moment of the convention was an announcement from its stage that a 29-year-old African American who had served nine years in the Air Force was, as they spoke, attempting to be enrolled as a student at the University of Mississippi.
His name was James Howard Meredith.
* * *
On Sept. 25, the day King reached Birmingham, Justice Department official John Doar and head U. S. marshal James McShane met Meredith at Dillard University in New Orleans to fly with him to the state capitol, Jackson, to register.
At the New Orleans airport, they had to wait while their charge went downstairs to use the black men’s room. The three then boarded a small plane belonging to the U. S. Border Patrol.
In Jackson, they had been scheduled to meet a state official who had agreed to do the registering, but when they arrived the official was not there. It turned out that Gov. Ross Barnett and the Mississippi Legislature had called him to testify about the higher-education crisis Meredith’s avowed intent to register had precipitated.
Dusk had fallen by the time the proper officials were in place. The registration was then prevented by Barnett, who dramatically stood between Meredith and university officials to forbid it. Since Meredith’s registration already had been approved by the U. S. Supreme Court, three federal judges quickly ordered Barnett to appear before them in New Orleans on Sept. 28 to explain why he should not be held in contempt of court.
Over the next few days, a large crowd from several states gathered in Oxford, egged on by Barnett’s demagoguery and Mississippi radio stations playing recordings of “Dixie.” Meredith spent each night in Memphis as the process dragged.
Behind the scenes, Barnett negotiated with Robert Kennedy to make his confrontation with federal power look as harrowing as possible. At one point, he demanded that all of the two dozen U. S. marshals accompanying Meredith draw their guns in a show of force to overpower him and the assembled Mississippi officials.
Barnett also hedged on whether Mississippi authorities would protect Meredith after he became an Ole Miss student. Kennedy, angered, threatened to violate their prior agreement of secrecy and disclose that the governor had been negotiating with the Justice Department, which would ruin Barnett’s Mississippi political career.
To deal with the mob, the Kennedy Administration nationalized the Mississippi National Guard, reinforcing a hastily-gathered collection of federal prison guards, Border Patrol agents, and marshals. Late in the day on Sept. 30, officials reported that Meredith had arrived in an Ole Miss dorm.
At 10 p.m. Washington time on Sept. 30, President Kennedy went on television to call on Mississippians to respect their highest traditions. It was no go. As the President was on the air, Oxford descended into full-scale riot. The mob of civilians and students threw rocks, Coke bottles, and iron spikes. Two people were killed, including a British newspaper reporter who was shot in the back. Mississippi highway patrolmen reportedly departed the scene. Federal forces fought the crowds with tear gas.
As the last minutes of the month ticked away at midnight, the Justice Department heard a chilling report from its leader. Robert Kennedy announced to his headquarters employees that their people in Mississippi were storming the dorm to reestablish contact with Meredith and get him out of the dorm.
Presidential aide Kenneth O’Donnell worried aloud that the riot might become a lynching.
[For further information, see Parting the Waters: The King Years 1954-63 by Taylor Branch, Simon & Schuster 1988; In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s by Clayborne Carson, Harvard University Press 1981; The Children by David Halberstam, Random House 1998; and An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America by Andrew Young, Harper-Collins 1996.]
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A.P. Hill’s dramatic arrival at the Rohrbach Bridge occurred only because he was in Stonewall Jackson’s doghouse. Jackson had criticized Hill for the sloppiness of his men’s marching order (Jackson had precise marching procedures and designated rest stops). After Jackson captured the Federal garrison at Harpers Ferry, he left Hill behind to deal with the prisoners and the captured plunder while the rest of the brigade marched to join Lee at Sharpsburg. When a messenger arrived from Lee, Hill immediately put his men on the road for their desperate seven hour march to save the Army of Northern Virginia. Hill didn’t worry about his stragglers. The Union regiment that finally succeeded in crossing the bridge, the 51st New York, included George Washington Whitman, brother of poet Walt.