August ’63

1863

Robert E. Lee got 10 days to head his defeated Army of Northern Virginia and its wagon trains home out of Gettysburg and Pennsylvania.

New commander George G. Meade and the equally fought-out Army of the Potomac had followed Lee with reluctance and caution. Heavy rains had flooded the Potomac River in Maryland, but Meade gave the Confederates time to build a pontoon bridge. Lee escaped, although with alarming desertions and deterioration of morale.

Abraham Lincoln was not happy. Like the war’s great generals, he knew that enemy armies must be captured, not just beaten, if final victory was to come. At Gettysburg in early July, the recently-named Army of the Potomac chief, better than most of his predecessors, had staved off defeat, but, like them, he had left Lee’s army alive to fight.

So Washington’s strategists began considering yet another eastern commander. They didn’t have to consider long. The day after Gettysburg, Vicksburg had fallen, too, and its laconic victor was proving to be a man who missed few opportunities.

The problem with U. S. Grant was, he had no hankering to come east. He in fact shrank from it. Long regarded by most of his superiors and peers as merely a common drunkard and prewar failure, he had survived myriad backstabbers in the West. He was not eager to seek new ones.

That was not nearly all. Like most professional soldiers, Grant despised the glad-handing, interfering egotists who walked the halls of Congress. Also, unlike virtually all his peers, Grant was not graspingly ambitious.

He came from a social class in which lust for power and fame was usually futile. And his religious mother apparently instilled in him a large store of humility–so large that he was superstitious about even thinking of advancement. He believed that scheming for a particular job doomed a man to bad luck if he got it. So Grant’s ambition manifested itself only in working hard in whatever position he got. He trusted that good work might bring further opportunity.

On Aug. 5, Grant replied to a letter from a friend in government, War Department official Charles A. Dana. He informed Dana that army General-in-Chief Henry Halleck and Dana were correct in assuming that being ordered to the eastern theater would cause him “sadness.” He said that in the east he would have to start over, learning new subordinates and jurisdictions and risk antagonizing generals already there.

A fellow officer who knew him well was more to the point in disclosing Grant’s wariness of Washington.

“He don’t like anything but fighting and smoking,” aide-de-camp Horace Porter wrote, “and hates politics as the devil does holy water.”

*     *     *

Grant could hardly be blamed for wanting to stay west. The war was progressing pretty nicely for the Union there. Grant’s capture of Vicksburg had cut the South in two, and now two other major Union armies were poised to begin dividing the eastern half.

As August opened, Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s 24,000-man Army of the Ohio was pouring through four gaps in the mountains along the Kentucky-Tennessee border, heading for the seat of Tennessee unionism at Knoxville.

And Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans’s Army of the Cumberland, having already maneuvered Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee out of the top half of forage-rich Middle Tennessee in July, was gathering supplies to shove Bragg out of the rest of it.

Rosecrans was balky, but under increasing pressure from President Lincoln and General-in-Chief Halleck he finally got going on Aug. 16. Bragg, outflanked and nearly cut off, headed pell-mell for Chattanooga.

Like Vicksburg, Chattanooga was another town the Confederates could not afford to lose. Its population was just 2,500, but it was the nexus of three railroads connecting the western and Deep South with northeast Dixie and its capital, Richmond. And Chattanooga seemed even more defensible than Vicksburg, guarded as it was by craggy mountains and, on the north and west sides, by the wide Tennessee River as well.

Rosecrans bumfuzzled Bragg. The latter’s cavalry, commanded by erratic Maj. Gen. Joe Wheeler, was in disarray, and that would cost the Confederates dearly. Rosecrans sent one-quarter of his army advancing southeastward toward Chattanooga, which was the path Bragg expected him to take. But he also sent three other columns in more southerly advances through gaps in the Georgia and Alabama mountains, reaching for Bragg’s rear and his rail supply line to Atlanta.

Wheeler, handed the difficult assignment of covering nearly 100 miles of Tennessee River crossings, simply didn’t. Instead, he permitted most of his horsemen to rest, refit, and enjoy the comforts of Rome, Ga., and Gadsden, Ala. His laggardness left Bragg unaware of the most important parts of Rosecrans’s movement.

As August ended, Burnside was three days out of Knoxville. And Rosecrans was not only approaching Chattanooga from the northwest, which Bragg knew, but also getting deep into its rear from the west and southwest, which he didn’t.

*     *     *

Even the thorniest part of the Union effort in the West was proceeding, although with fitful unease. That was the fight for emancipation.

The problem was not willingness of the slaves to be freed. They were flocking to Union lines with every Federal advance.  The problem was with the emancipators. Many of them did not want the role. Even more did not want to serve in the same army with African Americans, who now were being zealously enlisted–or conscripted–for the Union war effort.

Grant believed a soldier’s duty was to follow the orders of his government. Early on, he had not believed blacks would make good soldiers, but he had followed orders, and after hearing of their remarkable heroism in June defending Milliken’s Bend, La., he changed his mind. In July and August, he sought as many black regiments “as possible” to guard captured areas, allowing the rest of his army to go on the offensive. He noted that arms for the new black units would be no problem, as he had captured 50,000 stands of rifles and many cannons at Vicksburg.

But the Union’s was not the only growing unease with blacks. On Aug. 31, Grant wrote to Washington of seeing evidence of just how great black-white tensions had gotten in the Confederacy. He said that armed fugitive slaves had killed several white men near Vicksburg, and indications were that the killings occurred after local whites had sought to intimidate the blacks by whipping and even shooting them.

That this was not a good omen for the Confederacy was obvious.

*     *     *

Meanwhile, a Confederate hero was getting familiar with Federal prison.

Iconoclastic and egocentric cavalry leader John Hunt Morgan, after a lackluster six months that had followed his great earlier brilliance, had tried to revive his sagging reputation with a raid that defied reason.

In July, during a foray into Kentucky, Morgan had crossed the forbidding Ohio River into southwest Indiana and proceeded on a wild careen across southern Indiana and then southern Ohio. Then he found Federals blocking his planned re-crossing of the Ohio. Turning north to briefly throw fear into cities as far north as Cleveland, on July 26 he and his men were captured at West Point, Ohio, 80-some miles from Lake Erie.

The whole trans-Ohio adventure had been spectacularly disobedient to orders. Braxton Bragg had authorized the move into Kentucky as a way to possibly relieve some of the pressure on Confederates in eastern and southeastern Tennessee, but he had no inkling that Morgan would cross the river. Bragg had ordered Morgan to keep track of where the enemy was and to turn and attack the Union rear if the Federals moved southward. He could hardly do that from behind bars in Indiana or Ohio.

The brilliant but haphazard Morgan and his officers were taken first to jail in Cincinnati, then to the state penitentiary at Columbus. There they sat behind walls 25 feet high and four feet thick, in solitary confinement for at least 14 hours a day.

Morgan was shamed by being incarcerated in a civilian facility like a common criminal, rather than in a military prison, but physically he was lucky. The Ohio penitentiary supplied its prisoners with plenty of food and good water, which was frequently not the case in military prison camps.

Morgan had assumed he would be quickly exchanged and was downcast when that hope proved vain. The 38-year-old widower also seemed tortured by separation from his 22-year-old second wife, the former Martha Ready of Murfreesboro, Tenn. Awaiting the birth of their first child–to be John Jr. if it proved male–he wrote her on Aug. 30:

“Attend to my little namesake, see its mother, see ‘My precious Mattie’ that they want for nothing.”

Morgan’s brother-in-law and second-in-command, Basil Duke, later summed up the mood of Morgan and his men behind the gray walls in Ohio.

“The dead weight of the stone prison seemed resting on our breasts.”

[For more see Grant by Jean Edward Smith, Simon & Schuster 2001; Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson, Oxford University Press 1988; The Longest Night by David J. Eicher, Simon & Schuster 2001; Failure in the Saddle by David A. Powell, Savas Beatie 2010; and Rebel Raider: The Life of General John Hunt Morgan, University Press of Kentucky 1986.]

1963

August brought the next presidential election to within 15 months and the March on Washington to within days. Nobody was more conscious of the disastrous effect the march could have on voters than the Kennedy brothers.

Their determined slow walk on the civil rights front had reflected their consuming focus on reelection from the beginning of their White House reign. Their concern had only grown in the interim.

The issue threatening their incumbency was conservative reaction to their perceived support of the civil rights movement, an assistance exaggerated by detractors then and admirers ever since.

So they backpedaled ever faster. Having grudgingly assented to the scheduling of a peaceful March on Washington on Aug. 28 to promote the Administration’s civil rights bill, the President on Aug. 1 announced that civil rights peace was at last coming to America.

Demonstrations in behalf of African Americans’ voting rights and use of supposedly public facilities were ending, he said. He was so set on promoting this idea as a foregone conclusion that he warned Americans against forgetting there was a problem.

No worries on that score, it turned out. Movement leaders, refusing to take the Administration’s hint, permitted not even the President to banish them from the public mind. They kept the pressure on.

–In Americus, Ga., during a spontaneous demonstration after a church meeting on Aug. 8, violence broke out as a policeman used an electric cattle prod on Don Harris, leader of a team from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Nearly 100 SNCC-led local youths had gone to jail in Americus during July trying to integrate the local movie theater, and 200 more turned out for this demonstration on the 8th.

Vastly outnumbered policemen fired guns in the air and tried to arrest the demonstrators, who threw bricks and smashed windows after a fallen, writhing Harris was repeatedly prodded. A state trooper used a baseball bat to break a demonstrator’s leg, and a policeman killed another demonstrator with a shot in the back. The night’s struggle wounded 28 demonstrators and seven law officers and resulted in 77 arrests.

–In Birmingham on Aug. 15, an exploding tear-gas canister sent 20 people to the hospital from Loveman’s department store. Loveman’s had just instituted desegregation measures agreed to after the movement’s pivotal spring triumph over firehoses and police dogs. A few August days after the tear-gas incident, a bomb shattered a door into the home of prominent civil rights attorney Arthur Shores.

–Also in August, James Farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality led a march of 200 to jail in Louisiana, where mounted policemen and vigilantes in Plaquemine Parish kept the jail under tension-filled siege for a month. Farmer would only manage to escape the region hidden in a hearse.

The White House reacted with obvious rage over African American refusal to be controlled. On Aug. 9, Atty. Gen. Robert Kennedy called a press conference to announce federal indictments against nine civil rights workers in Albany, Ga. Their alleged crime was picketing the grocery store of a member of a jury that had acquitted a local sheriff–who had been indisputably charged with shooting a handcuffed black prisoner sitting beside the sheriff in the sheriff’s truck.

The Justice Department came up with the indictments after sending federal marshals through the town’s black section with more than 50 subpoenas. This spread terror through the area as effectively as a Ku Klux invasion, because it signified something worse–that movement leaders now might no longer have any place at all to look for help.

Charles Sherrod, a SNCC leader working in Albany, summed it up best.

“This ain’t no crackers now,” Sherrod said. “This is the federal government.”

It was indeed, and it had turned mail-fisted. Just four days after announcing the indictments against the so-called Albany Nine, Robert Kennedy delivered another punch to the solar plexus of the movement.

Americus authorities had taken the unusual step of charging four SNCC leaders–including cattle-prodded Don Harris–with sedition, a capital offense, and the Justice Department basically endorsed it. On Aug. 13 Kennedy announced that federal investigators had found no police brutality in the case.

He also said the U.S. government would not oppose the sedition charge–which, in addition to being possibly punishable by death, allowed the accused to be jailed indefinitely.

Such actions got the Administration what it apparently wanted. On Aug. 14, the conservative Washington Star lauded Kennedy for refusing in the Albany case to stand “with the Negro against the white man.”

*     *     *

Fear of being seen as too close to civil rights workers led the Kennedys ever deeper under the influence of a man they disliked and distrusted. That was FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover, an unabashed white supremacist and self-appointed national moralist.

Buckling beneath their reelection worries and Hoover’s incessant and overblown warnings about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s connections with Communist-linked people, they relaxed their standards of justice. They no longer demanded proof that King had committed any acts of national treachery. Mere contact with anybody who the paranoid Hoover thought might have such a thing in mind became enough.

Hoover kept trying to show that King remained in contact with former volunteer aide Stanley Levison. Levison had left King’s inner circle at King’s request under Administration pressure because of his alleged–and wildly exaggerated–Communist ties. On Aug. 7, Justice Department official Burke Marshall told Kennedy that yet another Hoover message to this effect was “inconclusive.”

Expanded FBI wiretaps that had been authorized and even instigated by Robert Kennedy picked up increasingly racy tidbits of conversation between Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his lieutenants. Salty and all too cognizant of his own and his aides’ personal sexual failings, they caused Hoover to label King a “tomcat” and colossal hypocrite.

An example was a call overheard on Aug. 11. King and a friend discussed how opponents of integration would do all they could to discredit the Washington march–and that they were sure to exploit the checkered past of its deputy director, Bayard Rustin.

Rustin’s past contained not only bona fide Communist connections but also a morals charge, and the Aug. 11 conversation indicated that King knew Rustin had not forsaken some of his bad habits. When the friend commented that he hoped Rustin did not take a drink before the march, King replied:

“Yes. And grab one little brother. ’Cause he will grab one when he has a drink.”

*     *     *

This time, though, Rustin did not appear to have time for even a sip.

Haunted by fears that the march could break out in violence that would ruin everything, Rustin focused on a thousand details to try to bring off this unprecedented masterstroke. He oversaw the provision of everything from portable toilets and bagged sandwiches and drinking fountains to keep the marchers comfortable to first-aid stations to keep them healthy and a check-cashing location to keep them happy. He even organized thousands of de facto chaperones to keep the crowd orderly.

He also announced that any speaker surpassing seven minutes would be yanked off the stage. Andrew Young later recalled that Roy Wilkins of the NAACP and Whitney Young of the Urban League, after having done all in their power early on to stop the march, now rushed to get prime speaking slots and be its “stars.”

In the final moments, Rustin and others had to worry themselves nearly sick about words in the speech of perhaps the youngest of the day’s orators: John Lewis of SNCC.

Lewis and friends had written a draft that captured the uncompromising soul of SNCC, which had been trying to integrate facilities and voting booths across some of the most dangerous parts of the South since 1961. The draft belittled the Administration’s civil rights bill as “too little, too late” and proclaimed that the movement would devastate Southern segregation more completely than Civil War General Sherman had devastated its towns and countryside.

Many of the march’s leaders were aghast. Lewis and Roy Wilkins of the NAACP stuck fingers in each others’ faces in a shouting match backstage as a very conservatively-estimated quarter-million people, most of them black and brown, poured into Washington and quietly faced the Lincoln Memorial for the event. Lewis pointed out that Wilkins, a distinguished attorney, did not know the dangers of the backroads of Dixie because he, unlike the young people of SNCC, had never been on them.

Martin Luther King’s great and much-quoted “I Have A Dream” speech closed the event and is the one most remembered by history, but Lewis’s was perhaps the most noted in the first days following the march. Softened somewhat at the last minute, Lewis’s words remained infused with the bravery and insistence of the young SNCC workers that the talk here in Washington must produce action out in the country. They closed with a ringing promise:

“We will not stop. If we do not get meaningful legislation out of this Congress, the time will come when we do not confine our marching to Washington. We will march through the South…But we will march with the spirit of love and with the spirit of dignity that we have shown here today.

“By the force of our demands, our determination, and our numbers, we shall splinter the desegregated South into a thousand pieces and put them back together in the image of God and democracy.

“…We cannot stop, and we will not be patient!”

[For more, see Parting The Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 by Taylor Branch, Simon & Schuster 1988; Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement by John Lewis with Michael d’Orso, Simon & Schuster 1998; and The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff, 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 www.hydraislandgreece.com.
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