November’s most important event—or non-event—occurred across the Atlantic.
France wanted to intervene in America’s war, but only if Britain and its all-powerful navy would join in. So Confederate ministers James Mason in England and John Slidell in France, as well as the Union representative to England, Charles Francis Adams, all hung in tense limbo as the Brits worked their way through this moment of their destiny.
Confederate faith in the international power of King Cotton, which dated from the war’s outset, began looking misplaced. And the all but empty threats of Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state, William Seward, that the North would wreak dire consequences on the British for intervening, appeared to have an effect.
The South’s grand blackmail scheme to withhold cotton from British mills and force the London government to become a war partner of the Confederacy proved problematical. Britain was weathering the cotton crisis. Local politicians and religious congregations joined in an enormous effort to aid the country’s unemployed and suffering workers, and the government began finding other sources of cotton.
The result for Confederate hopes was dire. The British mounted a huge campaign of charitable giving, forming 143 committees to furnish the idled workers clothes and food. A single individual, Lord Derby, contributed a then-record donation of 12,000 pounds sterling. Drives were launched to create different jobs and new training for the jobless.
A November 11 cabinet meeting saw the defeat of primary supporters of British intervention, Lord Russell and Chancellor of the Exchequer William Gladstone. Prime Minister Henry Palmerston only tepidly sided with the pro-interventionists, saying the government could not abandon the cotton workers. But other ministers ganged up against the idea.
Sir George Lewis ridiculed the notion that foreigners could force a peace onto Americans. He characterized the thought as preposterous.
“What,” Lewis tellingly asked, “would an eminent diplomatist from Vienna, or Berlin, or St. Petersburg know of the Chicago platform (of the Republican national convention that nominated Lincoln for the presidency) or the Crittenden compromise (a last-ditch effort by Kentucky U.S. Sen. John Crittenden to try to stave off the war)?”
Following the cabinet meeting, Lord Russell was forced to reject, in the gentlest and most polite terms possible, a French proposal of intervention that he had earlier encouraged. Southern partisans were downcast and angry.
* * *
In the non-presidential elections on Nov. 4, Northern voters registered overt dissatisfaction with the Emancipation Proclamation.
Democrats elected governors in New York and New Jersey and achieved majorities in the legislatures of New Jersey, Illinois, and Indiana. Widely, Northerners deplored the war-changing proclamation, fearing it might bring hordes of freed African Americans north. Plans to remove freed slaves to warm climes outside North America were popular.
The last voter had hardly left the polls before Lincoln took an action he had considered for months. The next day, he drafted an order relieving Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan of command of the Army of the Potomac and shoving him toward oblivion. McClellan had dawdled in pursuing Robert E. Lee from the Antietam battlefield back in mid-September, after repeatedly procrastinating in the face of previous Lincoln orders to attack Confederates.
The President replaced McClellan with Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, a choice that showed just how desperate Lincoln was to find a general in the eastern theater who would fight.
Burnside had been born in Indiana, son of a South Carolina plantation owner who freed his slaves and moved north. Thirty-nine years old in late 1862, the son was a West Pointer who had served in the antebellum army for six years before resigning to manufacture rifles he had designed.
The lack of drive in his casual nature then showed itself. The success of his business depended on getting an army contract which he neglected to make sure he had, and when he didn’t get it he went bankrupt. His creditors took control of the patents for his rifle and, when the war came on, sold more than 50,000 Burnside carbines.
In the late 1850s, the ruined rifle designer found work with his friend and West Point classmate, George McClellan, an executive with the Illinois Central Railroad. He also became major general of the Rhode Island militia. When war broke out, he rejoined the army as a colonel of Rhode Island volunteers and fought at Bull Run. He then won some minor victories at Roanoke Island and along the coast of North Carolina.
Twice earlier in the war, Lincoln had tried to persuade Burnside to take over for McClellan, and Burnside refused. He told friends he was not confident of his capacity for overall command.
It was not false modesty. He continued to be more easygoing than was characteristic of generals—and more so than was congenial among some of his friends. For example, as the war proceeded he continued to owe another West Point classmate, Confederate Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill, an antebellum-contracted debt of $8,000.
* * *
The Confederates, also, were making command adjustments.
The inscrutable western Virginia-born mountaineer Stonewall Jackson and the more refined Georgian, James Longstreet, were promoted to lieutenant general and became the two corps commanders of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
On Nov. 12, Lee gave Jackson his prime responsibility. “It would be grievous for the (Shenandoah) Valley & all its supplies to fall into the hands of the enemy,” Lee wrote.
In addition to the Valley, Jackson had to keep a wary eye on his own lieutenants. Hard-fighting and hot-headed Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill, for instance, deeply resented a Jackson directive back in August that put Hill under arrest for not promptly obeying orders. Jackson deprived him of command of his division and specified that he remain with it and march in its wake. An aristocrat and Jackson West Point classmate who felt contempt for showy religiosity, Hill termed his devout commander a “crazy old Presbyterian fool.”
Hill’s rapid march from Harper’s Ferry had saved Lee’s army at Antietam. Then at Shepherdstown he had safeguarded Lee’s retreat from that horrific battle. But he remained in Jackson’s doghouse.
* * *
Toward month’s end, a long-unthinkable force had its advent in a Federal campaign on the Georgia coast. Participating with other Union units was a new, just-forming and still unofficial one designated the “1st South Carolina Infantry (African Descent).”
Headed by abolitionist Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, it was composed mostly of freed slaves from along the Atlantic shore. It and many other such units soon to follow—eventually numbering nearly 200,000—would fundamentally change the character of the war and of the United States.
Black men sacrificing their lives to restore the Union would bury the notion that their race must be “repatriated” to some tropical supposed homeland that in reality the overwhelming majority of them had never laid eyes on. If the centuries of unpaid sweat in which they had bathed American soil could not get them regarded as Americans, dying for it might be different.
[For more information, see A World On Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War by Amanda Foreman, Random House 2010; Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James McPherson, Oxford University Press 1988; The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War by David J. Eicher, Simon & Schuster 2001; Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War by Patricia L. Faust, ed., Historical Times Inc., 1986; and General A.P. Hill: The Story of a Confederate Warrior by James I. Robertson Jr., Random House 1987.]
The highest-profile civil rights event remained James Meredith’s enrollment at the University of Mississippi, but it hardly dominated.
Television news coverage was in its infancy. National TV news reached most communities only at a single hour or two during the evening, and camera crews rarely visited the scenes of stories for on-air real-time reporting. After the riots that greeted Meredith’s federally-facilitated entry into the university on Sept. 30-Oct. 1, he dropped from national notice.
President Kennedy seemed to try to help that happen. He never mentioned Ole Miss in speeches, press conferences, or interviews. The Cuban missile crisis and its tense aftermath held the nation’s attention.
But Meredith’s disappearance from the public consciousness did not make his project less dangerous. To the contrary.
At November’s outset, hecklers still lined the sidewalk and harassed him as he walked to class on-campus. He was flanked and followed by a Justice Department official and/or a U. S. marshal or two, as well as a uniformed military policeman. Other carefully scattered MPs in a trio of jeeps watched unobtrusively but tensely from farther away. Hundreds more soldiers were scattered around the campus and the neighboring town of Oxford.
By November, the mortal danger to Meredith appeared to be from off-campus. Most Ole Miss students went about pursuing their usual interests—football, fraternities, and sororities—while frostily ignoring their new classmate.
Not all, though. Any who tried to befriend him were ostracized. Four professors who sat with him in the cafeteria were branded by an unauthorized campus flyer as “Kennedy’s Koon Keepers” and “Honorary Niggers.” Two students who committed the same fraternal act had their dorm rooms broken into and ransacked.
Meredith, obviously steeling himself against the surrounding rejection, did not seek friendships. When people approached him, he listened politely but said little. One Ole Miss student said later that not just his color was different. He was 29 years old, and his standard uniform was coat and tie, in contrast to his fellow male students’ short sleeves and khaki pants. And he rarely participated in discussions in class.
His walks were watched intently by the three jeeploads of armed troops, all scanning bushes and trees for snipers. Because of the danger from off-campus intruders, their orders continued to call for each jeep occupant to carry a 45-caliber pistol. One member of each vehicle’s crew also had a rifle. All weapons were accompanied by two clips of ammunition, one in each weapon, and each vehicle carried six grenades and two teargas canisters. But no round was allowed in any chamber, and the safety switches remained on.
According to 2nd Lt. Henry Gallagher, who had charge of Meredith’s safety for the first seven weeks, the duty was tense for the 10 minutes between classes when Meredith was on the move—and mind-numbingly boring while class was in session. At such times, Gallagher fielded questions from unhappy enlisted men. One asked what good they were doing “down here.” Gallagher’s parry was starkly remindful of their mission’s bottom line.
“Well,” the lieutenant said, “he’s still alive, isn’t he?”
That he could be otherwise, Meredith obviously did not care to contemplate. Gallagher sometimes spent the noon lunch hour in Meredith’s room, and one day he perused some of the hundreds of letters that came to Meredith, some supportive and some vilely threatening. In alarm, Gallagher called Meredith’s attention to one of the latter, mentioning that its writer knew where Meredith’s family lived and threatened to kill them. But before he could read a line of it aloud, Meredith interrupted him.
“Lieutenant, we’d better go,” he said. “I’m late for my Spanish class.”
* * *
Other important civil rights events were happening, too, but in even lower profile.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation continued working to undermine the movement and its most vaunted leader, Martin Luther King Jr. When five newspaper stories planted by the Bureau branded King aide Jack O’Dell a Communist, King on Nov. 1 denying O’Dell’s top leadership position in King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
The FBI resisted a Nov. 7 Kennedy Administration request that it do a “white paper” on the American Communist Party. Atty. Gen. Robert Kennedy had asked for the study because he was certain it would show that American Communists were small and powerless.
The FBI refused the request. Its high officials obviously knew the same thing and did not want to give up the national public-relations leverage the alleged threat provided its venerable director, J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover meanwhile goaded Kennedy into a fourth and even more intrusive wiretap of another King aide, Stanley Levison.
In Nashville, the fight for complete integration—of theaters, grocery stores, and die-hard eateries—continued, drawing crowds and making local headlines. But the Nashville strife remained off the national radar.
A Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) South-wide conference convened in the Tennessee capital in November. There some members working in Mississippi and Georgia pointedly looked down on the Nashville projects, overseen by movement architect James Lawson and Freedom Ride hero John Lewis.
Less-disciplined members by now had deeply divided SNCC. They resisted Lewis’s efforts to keep them well-dressed, reverent, and orderly as he patrolled their picket lines. Some laughed, scoffed, and called him “square” when he told them to put out cigarettes and practice good posture.
The divisions within SNCC went deeper than just philosophies of deportment. Some of the new militants thought and said that having whites among their ranks was a downside. Lewis condemned this view.
Meanwhile, the larger struggle went on. Even comparatively safe Nashville still exhibited the deep resistance to racial equality inherent in Southern heritage. During a demonstration scheduled as part of the November SNCC conference, Lewis was beaten to the floor of the Tic Toc Restaurant by a gang of young whites who decorated their fists with his blood.
He was then arrested, dragged from the Tic Toc lobby, and jailed.
* * *
After seven weeks, Lieutenant Gallagher’s MP unit was replaced by another from Missouri. He departed Ole Miss on Nov. 20 to return to his base at Fort Dix, N. J.
To the last day, Gallagher found Meredith an enigma. He was, Gallagher later wrote, “a private man, with a bearing and focus that (were) determined and mission-oriented, almost solemn.” He was very close-mouthed, and when he did talk to Gallagher he wasted no time on idle pleasantries.
He predicted that urban areas in the Minnesota-born Gallagher’s own home section, the Midwest, would soon see the kind of sights they both had witnessed in small-town Mississippi. Before long, he said, race would ignite violence in Northern cities.
On the afternoon of Gallagher’s final Ole Miss day, Meredith exited the dorm, approached Gallagher’s jeep, and handed him a sealed envelope. A few minutes later, Gallagher read the contents, a one-page handwritten letter that began “Dear Lt. Gallagher” and ended “Best wishes, and lots of luck to you in your mission—J. H. Meredith.”
In between, it said Meredith had enjoyed their association and hoped its rigors had not made Gallagher “too unhappy.” But civilization’s development had to proceed, Meredith continued, and as it did, individuals sometimes found themselves at “a point of friction” and “harnessed with a great responsibility…
“Presently, we are faced with a great and grave racial problem in our country. It points deep in many directions. I feel that it is essential that we solve this problem, if America is to hold the place among nations that it deserves.
“Finding a solution to this problem is my goal.”
[For more information, see James Meredith and the Ole Miss Riot: A Soldier’s Story by Henry T. Gallagher, University Press of Mississippi 2012; Parting The Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 by Taylor Branch, Simon & Schuster 1988; and Walking With The Wind: A Memoir of the Movement by John Lewis with Michael d’Orso, Simon & Schuster 1998.]
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