Abraham Lincoln’s preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, issued on Sept. 22, began sinking in on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line—and the Atlantic Ocean.
Internationally, the incipient measure produced the kind of wide reaction Lincoln had hoped to avoid. For that reason, he had withheld its announcement until the Confederates retreated from the battlefield of Antietam.
When the news reached England on Oct. 5, the reaction of the British press was generally unfavorable. It did cause famed British actress Fanny Kemble to begin to consider publishing her slavery-indicting journal of 15 weeks spent on the Georgia plantation of her Philadelphia-based ex-husband, who owned hundreds of slaves. Kemble had not known that her husband owned human beings until after she married him, and they divorced because of her detestation of the fact. Her journal would become a classic.
Other English supporters of the North, unfamiliar with the intricacies of America’s Constitution and its political-military strategy, could not understand why Lincoln had allowed the border states of Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland to retain their slaves. Such people concluded that the proclamation was aimed at the South rather than at the “peculiar institution.”
British adherents of the South were harsher. The Spectator wrote that the principle Lincoln’s announcement appeared to espouse was “not that a human being cannot justly own another, but that he cannot own him unless he is loyal to the United States.”
The Times said Lincoln had incited slaves in the South to kill their owners and pictured the Union president as a ghoul. “When blood begins to flow and shrieks come piercing through the darkness,” it said, “Mr. Lincoln will wait till the rising flames tell that all is consummated, and he will rub his hands and think that revenge is sweet.”
The reaction in the South, which was much more familiar with America’s political vagaries, got closer to the essence of the meaning of the document.
The Richmond Whig derided the measure as a shabby trick but seemed to disclose Confederate fear of its impact. The Whig termed it “a dash of the pen to destroy four thousand millions of our property” as well as an attempt to incite “insurrection, with the assurance of aid” from the Lincoln Government.
Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s reaction went to motive. Having served in Congress opposite the ultra-abolitionists Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner, Davis believed that abolition had been the Republican Party’s primary purpose from its founding and that the war was simply its extremist politics carried to the ultimate.
Coincidentally, the Confederate government almost immediately took actions underlining the South’s heavy dependence on unpaid African American labor.
On Oct. 10, Davis called for slaveholders to contribute 4,500 blacks to improve the major fortifications around Richmond. Two days later, the Confederate Congress passed a new law exempting from military service anyone owning 20 or more slaves, a measure that soon would be denounced as spawning a “spirit of rebellion” among poorer Southerners.
* * *
Battlefields meanwhile stayed busy—in the western theatre.
On Oct. 3, Confederates attacked Corinth, Miss. The forces of the area commander, Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, were stretched paper-thin, but he shifted his troops to meet the threat—while becoming increasingly frustrated with the subordinate in charge at the point of attack, Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans.
Two weeks earlier, in the battle of Iuka 20 miles from Corinth, Rosecrans had arrived tardily at the battlefield, then had neglected to cover one of the two avenues of escape that Grant had specifically ordered him to block. Following a vicious afternoon fight, the Confederates retreated after dark down the neglected road.
Corinth sat at the bottom of a funnel created by the northward end of the Mobile and Ohio Railroad and the northwestward end of the Memphis and Charleston, and on Oct. 3 Confederates under Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn came pouring down the funnel. Others under Maj. Gen. Sterling Price attacked the town from the north, the total Southern force numbering 22,000.
The Confederate assault pushed back Rosecrans’s 23,000 men more than a mile. The next morning, a final Confederate lunge carried into the town itself, capturing several cannons. But desperate Union resistance shoved them back, and a Confederate command mistake ultimately decided the battle.
Van Dorn was a West Pointer and veteran soldier from the antebellum U. S. Army, but he also was a plantation dandy and ladies’ man who tended to neglect some vital military responsibilities. In this case, he had not done enough reconnaissance. So he badly underestimated the number of Rosecrans’s cannon.
An un-captured battery from Wisconsin poured into the charging Confederates 507 rounds of double-shotted canister, each shot a conglomeration of nearly 50 separate projectiles. These helped break, decimate, and disperse the desperate Confederate assaults. Price reportedly shed tears at the sight of his men being mowed down by the Union cannons.
The Federals lost 355 killed, 1,841 wounded, and 324 missing in the bloody battle; the Confederacy: 473 killed, 1,997 wounded, and 1,763 missing.
But Rosecrans, too, had made mistakes, and he continued to make them. Grant perhaps showed his displeasure with Rosecrans’s Iuka performance when he sent an early message from headquarters at Jackson urging Rosecrans to attack if the Confederates did not: “do it soon—Fight!” As usual, the idea of Federal defeat did not occur to Grant. He ordered Rosecrans to pursue Van Dorn “the moment” the Confederates began to retreat and follow them “to the wall.”
Again, Rosecrans failed to follow his orders. He waited 20 hours after the end of the battle to begin pursuit, then hobbled himself with a wagon train.
Grant was keenly disappointed, but his orders of the past month had achieved a significant result. Bragg had wanted Van Dorn and Price to combine to whip Grant and then come north to help him in Kentucky. Grant had kept them from doing either one, and had badly winnowed their ranks in the process.
* * *
Four days after the Confederate defeat at Corinth, Bragg lost out in Kentucky.
It was an unusually hot and dry autumn. Forage for horses was short, water scarce, many springs turning to dust. Partly for this reason, apparently, Bragg’s 20,000 men and Maj. Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith’s 10,000 chose to remain separated, Bragg at Bardstown and Smith at Frankfort.
Federal Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell, characteristically cautious, approached them slowly from Louisville with 50,000 men. He then peeled off two of his divisions to attack Smith, and Bragg mistook those divisions for the front of Buell’s army. He sent a senior subordinate, Maj. Gen. Leonidas Polk, to attack the Federal units in the flank as Smith struck their center.
Polk, though, didn’t attack. Quickly learning the truth of the situation, he instead sidled southeast to Harrodsburg while another Bragg subordinate, Maj. Gen. William J. Hardee, moved his own men to nearby Perryville.
The fight at Perryville started in the morning over shallow pools of precious water two miles northwest of town. Shooting began slowly, but heated up in the afternoon. The Confederates attacked the Federal left and drove it backward a mile. Brig. Gen. Phil Sheridan mounted a counterattack to the right that then drove the Confederates back into Perryville, saving the day.
Another Federal corps arrived on the field and advanced on the far right, three miles south of the battle, but made no effort to reinforce the units on the left. Its men sat idle all afternoon, and Buell himself was unaware of the fighting until around 4 p.m., when it was winding down. He had been victimized by an atmospheric aberration in the travel of sound on the field.
The casualties at Perryville testified to the vigor of the fight. Of the 16,000 Confederates who were in combat that day, 510 were killed, 2,635 were wounded, and 251 missing. Of the 36,000 Federals who saw action, 845 died, 2,851 were wounded, and 515 unaccounted for.
Basically a draw, Perryville became a Confederate defeat when Bragg retreated the next day. Buell pursued minimally, then suspended the effort and fell back toward Louisville.
Helping cover the Confederate withdrawal, 1,500 Confederate horsemen under John Hunt Morgan routed Federal cavalry from Lexington, Ky. By Oct. 22, Bragg’s men and his wagons of Kentucky booty had reached Cumberland Gap on the way back into Tennessee.
* * *
On Oct. 24, Lincoln removed Buell from command of the Army of the Ohio.
The Union President was out of patience with his generals’ failure to give chase—as well as continued battle—to defeated foes. Following Antietam, McClellan had done the same thing, and it was a habit with both him and Buell. The day after relieving Buell, Lincoln replied testily to a complaint from McClellan that his army’s horses were “fatigued”:
“Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that would fatigue anything?”
As usual, the continual Union southward push was again mounting in the west. As the month ended, Grant gathered troops and supplies at Grand Junction in southwest Tennessee for a lofty ultimate goal: capture of the Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg, Miss., key to Federal repossession of the vital Mississippi River.
[For more information see A World On Fire by Amanda Foreman, Random House 2010; Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839 by Francis Anne Kemble, University of George Press reissue, 1984; Lincoln by David Herbert Donald, Simon & Schuster 1995; Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour by William C. Davis, Harper Collins 1991; The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War by David J. Eicher, Simon & Schuster 2001; War of the Rebellion: the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, vol. 17, U. S. Government Printing Office 1880-1902; and The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, vol. 6, John Y. Simon, ed., Southern Illinois Press 1964-2008.]
History’s first African American enrollee at the University of Mississippi was a 29-year-old ex-Air Force sergeant with a militant mindset and an interest in learning.
James H. Meredith was born the seventh of 13 children of a couple in Kosciusko, Miss. His father was a self-reliant farmer who resisted Mississippi race prejudice by separating his family from the surrounding white society. Through his teens, young James was not permitted inside homes of Caucasian neighbors even if invited.
But Southern racism was hard to evade. Returning by train from Chicago in 1948 with one of his brothers, 15-year-old James was ordered into a segregated car when the train entered Dixie. From then on, he later said, he wanted to change the system.
After high school, he joined the Air Force in 1951 to earn money for college. He remained in the service until 1960, meanwhile enrolling in the U. S. Armed Forces Institute, which offered courses from various colleges and universities. He also attended classes at the University of Kansas and Washburn University, near his base. Leaving the Air Force, he, along with his wife, attended Jackson State College in Mississippi’s capital.
His connection to the rest of the civil rights movement was tenuous. He was a Republican, but—heartened by John F. Kennedy’s election to the presidency with black votes in 1960—he sought the aid of such Democratically-leaning civil rights figures as Medgar Evers and Thurgood Marshall to help him enter the University of Mississippi. But he remained a loner like his father.
In January 1961 he applied to Ole Miss. The application, accompanied by his picture, was quickly denied. In May, with help from the NAACP, he filed a class-action lawsuit, which the local U. S. District Court rejected. But in June the U.S. Court of Appeals reversed the lower court.
Mississippi then defied the appeals court ruling. When Meredith arrived to register in late September, Gov. Ross Barnett personally blocked his way. President Kennedy countered, ordering U. S. marshals to escort Meredith into Ole Miss.
They immediately tried—and set off a firestorm. On the evening of Sept. 30, before Meredith could be processed, Ole Miss students and hosts of white interlopers from across the South rioted in protest. Two people died, 375 were injured. The violence persisted for two days.
* * *
On Sept. 28, two days earlier, Army 2nd Lt. Henry Gallagher of C Company, 716th Military Police Battalion, convoyed 300 miles back to Fort Dix, N.J., returning from five months of temporary duty at Camp Drum, N.Y.
At Dix, he was awakened from an exhausted sleep on the afternoon of Sept. 29. He and his unit were now on alert, the Army said. For what, nobody said. They were just ordered to join another convoy, this time to nearby McGuire Air Force Base. This was some sort of readiness drill that would end at McGuire, Gallagher decided. No, it turned out. At McGuire, the convoy’s jeeps and trucks were waved onto the tarmac and into huge cargo planes.
After takeoff, Gallagher asked the loadmaster, a sergeant, where they were going. Millington Naval Air Station, the man replied. Millington sounded as if it might be in England, Gallagher thought. He asked the loadmaster. Tennessee, the sergeant said.
At 6:15 a.m., they landed. Millington proved to be in West Tennessee, near Memphis. There Gallagher, a year out of college, was ordered into the lead jeep of a 140-vehicle column heading to Oxford, Miss. A race riot was reported in progress there. Gallagher was New Jersey-based and Minnesota-reared, but the Army gave him not so much as a road map. Thinking fast, he got one from a service station, then dragooned into his private service a Millington sailor who knew the way into Mississippi. Gallagher was so desperate that he grabbed the man off guard duty, making him de facto AWOL.
Just prior to departure, the 716th got a disturbing order: Leave behind all African American members of the unit. In confusion and reluctance, this was done.
* * *
As they departed Millington, 3,000 rioters in Oxford were pelting newly arriving troops with rocks, bottles, and lighted cigarettes. National Guardsmen had reinforced a patchwork collection of U.S. marshals. Then other federal officials, more Guardsmen, regular infantry units from Fort Benning, Ga., then paratroopers from Fort Bragg, N.C., and Fort Campbell, Ky., began joining them.
The mob meanwhile slashed tires and torched cars. Members of the Mississippi Highway Patrol stood by and watched. Non-military gunshots powed and zinged.
“Hey, nigger-lovers!” yelled voices from a three-car civilian caravan that harassed Gallagher’s jeep on the highway miles before his column reached Oxford. As he entered the town’s outskirts around 5 a.m., a brick bloodied an enlisted man in Gallagher’s vehicle, striking him in the face. Rocks clanged against the sides of the jeep on the way to the Ole Miss campus. Tear gas hung in the air.
They made their way to the Lyceum Building on campus, a stately structure with white columns. Refuge to the embattled marshals, it housed several dozen of them who had been hurt by the rioters. Others, exhausted after their all-night battle, were trying to get a few hours of sleep.
Gallagher’s men received orders to press the retreat of the beaten-back mob, following it downtown. They complied. On the way, they dispersed a gang of loafing Mississippi Highway patrolmen, who sped angrily away.
Nearing the courthouse square, Gallagher learned that the self-styled leader of the opposition, retired Army Gen. Edwin Walker, had been arrested and taken to the Lyceum Building. By 11 a.m., the Army held much of downtown. It had arrested or dispersed the bulk of the mob, which was flying the Confederate battle flag and decrying integration as Communist-backed, claiming the federal government was trampling on Constitutionally-granted states’ rights.
Some of the information relayed to the MPs during the day came from FBI agents, but it was hardly objective. One piece sent to Washington, for instance, said Ole Miss had rejected Meredith not because of his race but because he could not meet an admission requirement that he name five Ole Miss alumni whom he knew.
* * *
Within days, Gallagher’s job settled into monotony broken by periodic tension. His men, using three widely separated jeeps, followed Meredith at discreet distances on his way to and from classes. They stayed on perpetual lookout for snipers in wooded areas, treetops, bushes, and other prospective hiding places.
It did not take Meredith long to notice the all-white pigmentation of the troops.
“Lieutenant, where are the Negro soldiers?” he asked after a few days. “There must be some in your ranks.”
Gallagher tap-danced. He replied that he believed that some units had been ordered to “hold back” black troops from reaching Oxford during the riot out of concern they might become primary targets for snipers.
Gallagher got the impression that his answer didn’t satisfy Meredith, and he was correct. The new student proceeded to ask the same question of the Justice Department. After discussion involving the Army and even the President, African American troops joined the occupying force in Oxford a few days late. But they were specifically barred from individual guard duties that might isolate them and make them special targets.
Almost immediately, commanders of the 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions—two of America’s premier first-strike combat forces—complained about the segregation of their commands on the eve of the riot. Many troops of both races were apparently bothered by it. The 82nd reported that it created a grave “morale problem,” and the 101st termed it “highly undesirable.”
Going about his job, Gallagher noted a sharp contrast between the students and the soldiers. The former were middle-class and upper middle-class, Thunderbird-driving sons and daughters of prosperous Mississippi plantation owners. The latter were lower middle-class sons mostly from urban centers of the Northeast, whose usual ride in civilian life had been the cross-town bus. Nearly a decade older than most of both of these sets of youths, Meredith stood out from each. He always wore a suit and tie, which contrasted sharply with the short-sleeved shirts and khaki pants of his fellow male collegians.
The troops were strongly discouraged from conversing with students, especially female ones. Gallagher found many of the Ole Miss coeds extraordinarily pretty—in appearance, anyway. After several days of passing his jeep, one belle demurely approached it. “Lieutenant,” she purred, “I’ve got one thing to say to y’all.”
“Yes,” Gallagher said.
“Just fuck y’all.” She then tossed her head and flounced away.
Clusters of Meredith’s fellow students jeered as he walked to classes and ate with marshals in the dining hall (“Who let that coon in here?” “Eat, nigger! Eat! Eat!”). Throughout, he mostly wore a blank expression, refusing to dignify the hate swirling around him.
* * *
As October ended, back in Atlanta the Rev. Martin Luther King faced an unpleasant truth. Following the heart-swelling civil rights victories of 1961, 1962 was proving to be a year of lost ground and profound discouragement.
The movement in Albany, Ga., in which he had invested much of his personal cachet, had failed miserably. And at Ole Miss, Meredith and black aspirations had seemed no more than petty pawns in a Jack Kennedy-Ross Barnett game of national politics.
Civil rights matters moved even farther toward the edge of the public consciousness with the Cuban missile crisis. The standoff between Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev filled the nation with trepidation for several days before Khrushchev, on Oct. 28, agreed to withdraw Russian missiles from Cuba. Kennedy was then publicly lionized and left free to concentrate on international matters rather than domestic ones.
King was downcast. Something had to change.
[For more information, see the Wikipedia biography of James H. Meredith; also James Meredith and the Ole Miss Riot: A Soldier’s Story by Henry T. Gallagher, University Press of Mississippi 2012; “Racial Matters”: The FBI’s Secret File on Black America, 1960-1972 by Kenneth O’Reilly, Free Press 1989; and Parting The Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 by Taylor Branch, Simon & Schuster 1988.]
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