December ’62


President Lincoln opened the final month of 1862 by making his annual speech to Congress on the state of the Union. He didn’t have to tell the lawmakers that the situation was precarious. In struggling to stay alive, the Union was all too obviously laboring to remake itself.

The President’s remarks urged consideration of topics that were controversial in much of America and unthinkable in the rest. He spoke of constitutional amendments to abolish slavery and to compensate slaveholders for this loss of their human property. The former slaves, he suggested, should be deported so as to colonize beyond U.S. borders, where they might be free to govern themselves.

“In giving freedom to the slave,” Lincoln reasoned, “we assure freedom to the free.”

The conviction that the sole way freedom could be guaranteed to non-white people in America was by deportation was insensitive but realistic. National sensitivity was in short supply. Six days later, on Dec. 6, the President condemned nearly 40 Sioux Indians to be executed later in the month for a September uprising that had cost the lives of more than 450 Minnesota settlers.

Meanwhile, the Union grew. On Dec. 10, the House of Representatives voted 96 to 55 to affirm the Senate’s previous passage of statehood for a loyalist mountain region carved out of rebellious Virginia. West Virginia, it was dubbed.

In Union-held New Orleans, Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks relieved his fellow politician-general, the controversial Benjamin Butler, as commander of Federal forces in the region. Butler had become known among Confederates as “Beast” for his boorish treatment of overtly partisan women in New Orleans—as well as for his corrupt administration of the city.

Eight days after Butler departed New Orleans on Dec. 18, Confederate President Jefferson Davis proclaimed him not only a felon but an enemy of all mankind. He suggested that any Confederate capturing Butler should execute him on the spot and, failing such capture, that no Union officer already in Confederate hands should be released until Butler was punished by the Lincoln government.

Down in Mississippi, moving toward the Confederate Gibraltar at Vicksburg, Maj. Gen. U. S. Grant on Dec. 11 issued the most regrettable command of his career. It ordered every Jew expelled from Grant’s department for violating Grant’s own orders as well as “every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department.”

It was a desperate move for which there was no excuse, but several understandable reasons. One was that Grant and his subordinates were being run ragged trying to keep merchants, many of them Jewish, from illegally buying captured Confederate cotton from money-hungry military men. Another reason, very likely, was that Grant had just learned that his own father had entered Grant’s district and was representing a Jewish cotton-buying firm.

Grant’s order wrought cruel consequences. One was that all Jewish residents of Paducah, Ky., were immediately uprooted and, with only the possessions they could carry, expelled from the city.

 *     *     *

Fighting proceeded apace.

—In northwest Arkansas on Dec. 7, the 7,000-man Federal Army of the Frontier attacked 11,000 members of the Confederate Army of the Trans-Mississippi. The Confederate commander, Maj. Gen. Thomas C. Hindman, had routed the Federal cavalry at Prairie Grove, then dug in his infantry to await an attack by the Union main body.

The initial strike came from half of the Federal force, which assailed Hindman with cannons. Hindman sat behind his own artillery, allowing the rest of the Federals and their commander, Brig. Gen. James Blunt of Kansas, to cover eight miles and arrive at the battlefield. The Federals already on the scene then attacked and drove the Confederates, capturing some cannons before fire from dismounted Confederate cavalry stopped them.

That afternoon, the entire Union line launched another assault and, near dusk, weathered a Confederate counterattack. The Prairie Grove battle ended in a standoff, each side sustaining around 1,300 casualties. After nightfall Hindman withdrew, leaving northwest Arkansas to the Federals.

—Less than a week later, Lincoln’s new head of the Army of the Potomac ordered a senseless attack on Lee’s Confederates at Fredericksburg, Va. On Dec. 13, Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside sent wave upon futile wave of blue-clad troops across two bridges over the RappahannockRiver and up a ridge to assault Confederates behind a stone wall. Withering Confederate fire raked the hillside and the bridges.

Burnside’s intent had been to deceive Lee by first leading his 120,000-man army due south, then suddenly turning southeast to Fredericksburg. From there he meant to go on to Richmond. At the time, Lee had near Fredericksburg only James Longstreet’s corps; Stonewall Jackson was in the Shenandoah Valley. But Burnside delayed several days to bring up pontoon bridges with which to cross the Rappahannock, and in the meantime Jackson arrived from the Shenandoah. Burnside further erred by ignoring other potential crossing points, assuming Lee would be more surprised by a frontal attack.

Lee no doubt was, but not negatively. The Confederates lost about 5,300 casualties, the Federals nearly 13,000.

*     *     *

Throughout the month the Confederates appalled the Union with stunning cavalry raids and other offensive and defensive triumphs.

Cunning Brig. Gen. John Hunt Morgan struck behind Union lines at Hartsville, northeast of Nashville, on Dec. 7 and captured a 2,000-man Union garrison. Two weeks later, Morgan with 4,000 horsemen launched a highly productive raid into central Kentucky, bedeviling the supply lines of Federal Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans around Nashville. Morgan slashed northward nearly to Louisville before turning west, then circling back south. On his jaunt he captured more than 1,500 Federals and decimated railroad bridges, stockades, and supply depots.

Brig. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest accomplished at least as much as Morgan. On Dec. 15, Forrest crossed the Tennessee River with fewer than 2,000 men and for the next two and a half weeks terrorized Union-held West Tennessee. He wrecked tracks and trestles of Grant’s Mississippi-to-Kentucky railroad supply line so thoroughly that Grant permanently closed it, from then on ordering his supplies brought by steamboat to Memphis. At the directive of Army of Tennessee commander Braxton Bragg, Forrest had all but trapped himself beyond the Tennessee River, and he barely escaped after being sandwiched between two Federal forces and losing 300 men at Parkers Crossroads north of Lexington, Tenn.

Meanwhile, on Dec. 20 Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn attacked and burned Grant’s primary forward supply depot at Holly Springs, Miss. The combination of Van Dorn’s and Forrest’s work caused Grant to drop his plan to advance on Vicksburg through inland Mississippi. He started over, heading down the Mississippi River.

In late December, Grant sent 32,000 troops under his most trusted subordinate, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman, on a quick strike against the north end of the Vicksburg defenses at Chickasaw Bluffs. It was a debacle. On Dec. 29, Sherman tried to assault across a bayou via a narrow bridge and a ford, both under heavy fire from the bluffs. His casualties were terrible: 1,800 Union as opposed to 200 Confederate.

At dawn on Dec. 31, Rosecrans prepared to attack Bragg’s Army of Tennessee at Stones River near Murfreesboro, but Bragg beat him to it. The Confederates carried most of a day of savage fighting that led Rosecrans and his subordinates to consider, but finally decide against, retreating after nightfall. Instead, they deployed to resume fighting and christen the New Year with blood.

*     *     *

December ended dismally for the Union. “If there is a hell,” President Lincoln told Pennsylvania Gov. Andrew Curtin, “I am in it.”

But Confederate President Jefferson Davis, too, was adjusting to major disappointment. The European intervention that the South had taken for granted since before secession now appeared unlikely to happen.

“I know not why this has been so,” Davis told the Mississippi legislature on Dec. 26—but he should have. He was apparently in denial about the international unpopularity of slavery. In its face, he counseled a stiff upper lip: “This I say, ‘Put not your trust in princes.’ This war is ours; we must fight it ourselves.”

The South was on its own.

[For more information, see The Civil War Almanac by John S. Boatner, Bison Books 1982; The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War by David J. Eicher, Simon & Schuster 2001; and A World On Fire by Amanda Foreman, Random House 2010.]


Controversy surrounding the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. continued to increase, even in the black community.

Already-strong antipathy between King and the Federal Bureau of Investigation was deepening. A King criticism of the Bureau in November became the subject of debate in the African American press by early December. On Dec. 6, the Pittsburgh Courier joined several other African American newspapers in publishing an article the FBI had clandestinely inspired. It took issue with King and his November disparagement of the federal agency.

King had said that a great problem for civil rights workers was that FBI agents in the South were Southern Caucasians “influenced by the mores of the community” whose jobs had made them dangerously friendly with local law enforcement and other foes of integration.

“Every time I saw FBI men in Albany (Ga.),” King had said, “they were with the local police force.”

He could hardly have enraged FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover more had he thrown a Molotov cocktail through Hoover’s office window. The FBI responded by inspiring the articles criticizing King in African American publications. These articles noted that four of the five FBI agents regularly assigned to the year-long and markedly unsuccessful Albany struggle for African American rights were Northerners.

This argument was disingenuous—technically correct but practically fallacious. As King had noted, the nature of their business required FBI agents to work hand in glove with local law officers and side with them on matters concerning the public peace, so where the agents came from hardly mattered.

The situation could only change with the removal of gross inequality, which pitted African Americans being denied their civil rights against discriminatory laws police had sworn to protect.

 *     *     *

King was plainly aiming for a new and higher-profile city in which to work. He needed to recoup the loss of face and prominence he and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference had sustained in Albany. By December he appeared to have found it in Birmingham, Alabama, the most overtly and vehemently racist large city in the South.

In December, King sent aides Andrew Young and Wyatt T. Walker to Birmingham to enlist local supporters and plan and prepare a campaign. King himself preached there on Dec. 9.

He swiftly got a signal that the most virulent of white Alabama racists were paying attention. On Dec. 14, some of them bombed an important African American church in Birmingham. Bethel Baptist was the house of worship that provided shelter to endangered Freedom Riders in May 1961. Its pastor at that time, fiery and courageous Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, had had to leave Birmingham soon afterward for another pastorate in Cincinnati, hounded out of town by opposition lawsuits that threatened to take everything he owned.

Birmingham Police Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor, whose office had recently been voted out of existence by passage of a new city charter, was pondering running for mayor. Connor plainly realized that the majority of white Birmingham residents, racist or not, did not approve of church bombing. At the scene of the Bethel Baptist damage, he told media representatives:

“Dammit, they ought to be hung when they’re caught.”

Birmingham’s major merchants and other businessmen tended not to be unhappy that Connor was a lame duck. His was the kind of strong-armed racist image and reputation that had become the public face of Birmingham, and not to its advantage. In the past 20 years, Birmingham’s population had fallen from near co-equal to those of Atlanta and Memphis to 150,000 or more behind them.

            New York Times reporter and native Southerner Claude Sitton was noting Birmingham’s potential as a civil rights target. On Dec. 9, the day King preached there, Sitton wrote a memo to his bosses saying that one in five Alabamans lived in Jefferson County, of which Birmingham was the seat, and that unlike Atlanta, Memphis, and New Orleans, Birmingham had been losing jobs. Thus Birmingham and Alabama, although fiercely segregationist, might be reluctant to receive the kind of national black eye that high-profile civil rights violence guaranteed.

The blast at Bethel Baptist had not killed anybody, but it had blown stained-glass windows out of the structure and cracked its walls. Martin Luther King quickly moved to insure that the wreckage would not escape national notice. He sent a letter of protest to President John F. Kennedy, describing Birmingham as “by far the worst big city in race relations in the United States” and adding:

“Much of what has gone on has had the tacit consent of high public officials.”

 *     *     *

Three days later, on Dec. 17, King saw Kennedy face-to-face. The occasion was a three-hour meeting that the President held with African American leaders at the White House to discuss issues in Africa.

One major topic was South African apartheid, the crushingly discriminatory system of segregation that much resembled the one in the American South. Another was a United Nations proposal to try to stop military-style measures being taken against freedom campaigns in Mozambique, Angola, and Portuguese Guinea.

Kennedy not only invited prominent African Americans to discuss these problems, he generally agreed with their opinions, and American black publications hailed the unusual length of time the President spent with them that day.

*     *     *

King meanwhile had other White House matters in mind.

All month he had advocated for one of his most cherished projects: a Second Emancipation Proclamation to be issued on January 1, the 100th anniversary of the day the first proclamation took effect. If he could get Kennedy to issue a centennial sequel, he planned to use it prominently in his upcoming move against Birmingham—about which he had told the White House not a word.

Kennedy had stayed silent when King tried to get him to issue such a proclamation in September, on the hundredth anniversary of Lincoln’s preliminary announcement of the original emancipation plan, and now there came another snag.

The Civil War Centennial Commission, prominently peopled with white citizens of Southern states in which the war was predominantly fought, would have nothing to do with emancipation. The commission declined to sanction any ceremonies honoring it, despite the fact that nearly 200,000 African Americans had fought in the Union armies and many more had served, voluntarily or otherwise, as teamsters, cooks, and construction workers in or alongside soldiers of both sides.

Taking its cue from the commission and, doubtless, Southern senators and congressmen, the federal Bureau of the Budget responded that it would be “undesirable to use the Civil War Centennial Commission as a vehicle for the observance.” In the government’s view, the Civil War was a white man’s conflict, sanitized of the great issue that brought it on and the many tens of thousands of black men who helped fight it.

FBI wiretaps of King aide Stanley Levison picked up talk of a protest march in favor of a proclamation. The wiretaps disclosed that attorney William Kunstler tried to persuade King to head up a march on the White House to present a King-authored draft of the desired document. King said no. That kind of protest did not appeal to him.

King’s pressure, or something, resulted in a last-minute White House decision to at least draft a prospective second proclamation. On Dec. 26, White House aides came up with the following:

“WHEREAS negro citizens are still being denied rights guaranteed by the Constitution and laws of the United States, and the securing of these rights is one of the great unfinished tasks of our democracy:

“NOW, THEREFORE, I, JOHN F. KENNEDY, President of the United States, do hereby proclaim that the Emancipation Proclamation expressed our nation’s policy, founded on justice and morality, and that it is therefore fitting and proper to commemorate the centennial of the historic Emancipation Proclamation throughout the year 1963.”

Whether to issue it then became a matter of heated debate inside the Administration. Proponents lost.

The ultimate decision appeared influenced by the highly positive reaction of the African American press in the wake of the White House meeting on African issues. Instead of issuing a second Emancipation Proclamation, the decision was to throw a gala White House reception for black leaders on Lincoln’s birthday in February.

[For more information, see Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 by Taylor Branch, Simon & Schuster 1988; and The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff, Alfred A. Knopf 2006.]

About Civil War-Civil Rights

Jack Hurst is a former longtime print journalist who has written three Civil War books: Nathan Bedford Forrest: A Biography (Alfred A. Knopf, 1993), Men of Fire: Grant, Forrest, and the Campaign That Decided the Civil War (Basic Books, 2007), and a second book about Ulysses S. Grant and Nathan Bedford Forrest, Born To Battle, published in June 2012 by Basic Books. He also had a desk in the rear of the cityroom of the Nashville Tennessean and watched David Halberstam go about covering the desegregation movement in Nashville in 1960-61 and himself covered some of the civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham for the Tennessean in 1963. He owes profuse thanks to Jennifer Kelland Fagan, copy editor extraordinaire and computer guru,for indispensable aid in the design evolution of this blog. Her eye-catching website can be accessed at
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