February ’63



Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant dramatically bolstered his command of the Union’s western theater following a protest against it that developed on Feb. 1.

In early January, troublesome Maj. Gen. John McClernand, wielding seniority in rank and the clout of a longtime relationship with President Lincoln, had taken over command of the Mississippi River force led by Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman.

McClernand had been Grant’s subordinate since the war’s early days, but he now acted otherwise. On Jan. 11 he had attacked and captured Fort Hindman in Arkansas and its nearly 5,000-man garrison. He doubtless thought he was on his way to independent military and political glory

Then, on Jan. 30, Grant had asserted his authority. He announced that he was assuming personal command of the Mississippi River operation. McClernand cried foul, claiming that Lincoln, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, and General-in-Chief Henry Halleck had given him the river command.

McClernand knew that at least some of this was a lie, but he did not know that Grant knew it, too. Less than three weeks earlier, Halleck had expressly given Grant the go-ahead–and even the suggestion–to supplant and perhaps fire McClernand. And Grant knew that Halleck, cautious to the core, was unlikely to have done that without believing Lincoln and Stanton would not oppose him.

McClernand was a former member of Congress. As an Army general he had been a contentious, devious, and dangerous thorn in the sides of Halleck and Grant, continually circumventing the chain of command to communicate directly with Lincoln and other high-ranking national politicians.

Now, obviously attempting to bluff Grant, he demanded on Feb. 1 that the matter be referred to Washington. He must have known this was risky, since he had recently received a letter from Lincoln backing away from all-out presidential support.

Grant called the bluff. He swiftly agreed to refer the matter to Washington, McClernand’s stomping ground, and dispatched all relevant orders and correspondence there. On receiving Grant’s notification that he had done this, McClernand must have trembled. He surely realized that he was in all likelihood now to be again relegated to unquestioned subordination to Grant–or worse.

He had stoked Grant’s personal enmity to bonfire levels. This was unwise for a man already treading thin ice.

*     *     *

On Feb. 3, another act of insubordination occurred–on the Confederate side. But the offense of Brig. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, the western theater’s most dangerous cavalryman, was not devious and certainly not intended to be a bluff.

On Feb. 3 Forrest made a rare battlefield mistake. He botched the attack plan of his superior, Army of Tennessee cavalry commander Joe Wheeler, at Dover, Tenn. Then, as Wheeler wrote his report to army commander Braxton Bragg detailing the dismal result, Forrest instructed Wheeler to tell Bragg something else: that he, Forrest, would “be in my coffin before I serve under you again.”

There was, though, more to the story.

Wheeler had gone to Palmyra on the Cumberland River west of Clarksville, Tenn., to try to capture Federal shipping. He had taken 800 of Forrest’s men, along with 2,000 under Maj. Gen. John Wharton. Forrest, learning about it after the fact, was forced to catch up to his men on the road.

Wheeler was daring and brave, but too often negligent. When Forrest caught up to the Confederate column, he found his men had little food or ammunition. He then apparently prevailed on Wheeler to order an inspection, which found the ammunition supply of the entire command to be deficient.

Meanwhile, the Federals–stung by a similar Wheeler raid a few weeks earlier–refused to dispatch any boats on the Cumberland, and forage for 2,800 horses was nonexistent at Palmyra. Needing to do something fast, Wheeler decided to go 20 miles northwest and capture a 600-man Federal garrison at Dover, Tenn.

Forrest evidently demurred. He secretly told some subordinates that if he died in battle at Dover, he wanted it known that he had disagreed with the plan. He thought it unwise to enter a fight without the usual complement of ammunition and try to capture a place that could be held for only a few hours. Federal gunboats, after all, patrolled the Cumberland River, which fronted Dover, and a Federal garrison of some 2,000 men was stationed at Fort Henry, just 12 miles west.

But Wheeler was adamant, and his report later implied that Forrest and Wharton agreed. Wheeler directed that the Confederates attack from two directions, Wharton from the west, blocking the road to Fort Henry, and Forrest from the southeast. Riding with Forrest, Wheeler told him to have his men dismount and go forward on a signal to be given as soon as Wheeler could coordinate with Wharton.

Wheeler had hardly left to go to Wharton, though, when Forrest saw a body of Union troops leaving their trenches by the Cumberland River and heading uphill into Dover. Assuming that the Confederates’ best chance was to catch the Federals outside their trenches, Forrest ordered his men to mount up and charge on the heels of the Federals.

His men were repulsed. They quickly charged again and again were turned back with great loss. This time Forrest had a horse killed under him, and his men, thinking he too had been killed, fled. He hurried back to them on foot and told them to dismount as Wheeler had ordered and go forward again. This time they ran Federal defenders out of houses in the town, where Wheeler’s eventual report said they were in position to fire down on the Federals. But they had nothing to fire. They were out of ammunition.

At that moment, Federals in the town ran short of ammunition, too, but they had a cache of it in their trenches by the river. A Federal detachment suddenly charged from the town back to the riverside trenches to obtain more. Forrest’s men thought the Federal aim was to capture the Confederate horses, which were being held down by the river, so his troopers exited the houses to race back to their mounts.

Had Forrest’s men not left their position, Wheeler soon contended, the Federals would have capitulated within another fifteen minutes. Whether this was true is arguable. The Federal commander’s report said his position was dire but that he and his men had vowed to fight to the last man.

Forrest lost some 200 of his 800 men that day. That he made mistakes in charging prematurely and then being stampeded to his horses is without question. The bigger mistake, though, appears to have been Wheeler’s. He had attacked a virtually worthless target in an operation for which his men were woefully ill-prepared.

Forrest, aged 41, and Wheeler, 26, were very different men. Forrest’s vow after the battle to never again serve under Wheeler’s immediate command was no idle one. He never did.

*     *     *

A February visitor to the camps of Stonewall Jackson offered a differing view of a soldier often pictured as austere and aloof.

Henry Feilden, a former British soldier planning to join the Confederate Army, reached the Jackson camp near Fredericksburg, Va., carrying a box of goods that a Southern sympathizer in Nassau had asked him to deliver to Jackson. Feilden said Jackson, headquartered in a small house, welcomed him warmly, removed “my wet overcoat with his own hands, made up the fire,” and conversed interestedly with him until dinnertime. That evening, Jackson even offered Feilden his bed, which Feilden declined, and the next morning the general apologized for not being able to completely dry the visitor’s overcoat in front of the fire.

“That little act shows the man, does it not!” Feilden later wrote. “To think that in the midst of his duties, with the cares and responsibilities of a vast army on his shoulders, with the pickets of a hostile army almost within sight of his quarters, he found time to think of and to carry out these little acts of thoughtfulness!”

*     *     *

Meanwhile, the war continued to slash at the fabric of American life north and south.

The United States Senate on Feb. 16 passed a conscription act–some 10 months after the Confederacy had passed one. As in the South, conscription sparked outrage and protests at what was viewed as overreach by the central government. Particularly unpopular were measures allowing the wealthy to hire substitutes to carry their rifles.

While the implementation of the Emancipation Act prompted small-scale revolts among both soldiers and civilians in the North, there were also incidents of an opposite tenor. On Feb. 19, war-wounded U. S. soldiers at Keokuk, Ia., stormed and ransacked a newspaper called the Keokuk Constitution for what they regarded as anti-Union articles.

And inflation was gobbling up the finances of common Southerners. In Charleston, S.C., bread was reportedly being sold for $25 a half-pound and flour for $65 a barrel. Want widened.

[For further information, see The Civil War Almanac by John S. Boatner, Bison Books 1982; The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, vol. 7, John Y. Simon, ed., Southern Illinois Press 1979; Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, vol. 17, pts. 1 and 2, 1984; and A World on Fire by Amanda Foreman, Random House 2010.]



In February Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. moved toward an all-out spring campaign in Birmingham. At the same time, he increasingly realized that it could be make-or-break for the movement he led. He had to make it succeed.

            The 1962 crusade in Albany, Ga., after all, had failed miserably. And President John F. Kennedy had rejected King’s long-cherished dream of having the White House issue a new Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1963. Instead, as a sop, Kennedy and his advisors planned the largest-ever White House soiree for black leaders on Lincoln’s birthday—while going to unusual lengths to discourage press notice of it.

Two of the most important invited African Americans would decide not to go. Legendary labor union chief A. Philip Randolph, a leader of progressive-minded blacks since the 1930s, would decline to reward Kennedy’s racial spinelessness by attending the affair. And Clarence Mitchell, the NAACP’s Washington lobbyist, would register his disappointment that the Kennedy Administration had given him no legislation to lobby for.

On Feb. 4, King and aide Wyatt Walker drove from Atlanta to Terrell County, Ga., known to civil rights workers as “Terrible Terrell.” King’s mission was to speak at a groundbreaking for the rebuilding of an African American church burned down by angry whites during the Albany campaign.

During the drive, King and Walker had at least two pressing matters to mull. One was whether King should attend the White House event eight days later. The other was whether to sue Dooto Records, a company that had grown prominent by recording Redd Foxx and other black performers. Dooto was bootlegging tapes of King speeches; the problem about suing was that King would like to have Dooto release his speeches under a signed, legal contract.

Two days later, King telegraphed the White House that he would not attend the reception for black leaders. As reasons for not attending, he offered two white lies: that his wife, Coretta, was “expecting our fourth child,” although her due date was nearly two months off, and that he was to make a speech “out of the country,” when in reality he was going on vacation to Jamaica.

He plainly did not want to burn bridges to the Kennedy Administration, but he also refused to tacitly approve Kennedy’s racial gutlessness with his presence.

*     *     *

Meanwhile, the Kennedy Administration attempted to broaden its clandestine moves against King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In so doing, it unwittingly delivered a jolt to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.

Hoover’s continual memos to Attorney General Robert Kennedy denigrating King’s patriotism had borne more fruit than the director had hoped for. On Feb. 8, a prominent Justice Department assistant, J. Walter Yeagley, wrote to Hoover asking for a “current prosecutive summary report” on the alleged Communist connections of King aide Stanley Levison, whose telephone the FBI had tapped.

Fellow SCLC aide Andrew Young later recalled that members of the inner circle of the SCLC “were totally unaware of the extent of FBI surveillance of the SCLC.” To Young, allegations of Communism on the part of Levison were laughable: “Stan was a gentle, soft-spoken man whom I considered conservative because he always encouraged Martin to look at all sides before making important decisions.”

Financially independent by virtue of shrewd investments and a string of car dealerships he owned in New York and New Jersey, Levison kept King apprised of thought currents in New York’s liberal community. He was also an important link between King and such labor union leaders as Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers, and he kept the Atlanta-based SCLC staff informed of such things as new books he thought they should read.

Levison’s myriad connections to liberals and liberal causes had convinced the paranoiac Hoover that Levison was a dangerous Communist. But the Yeagley memo asking for proof brought Hoover up short. He had no proof. And now the Administration was asking for substantiation of the all but baseless charges against King and his organization with which Hoover had peppered the Kennedys for months.

Desperately, Hoover sent FBI agents to interview their 14 best-connected informants on domestic Communists–and discovered that none of the 14 recognized Levison’s name or picture.

Hoover’s false accusations had put him in a tenuous position. He had attributed to a highly-placed confidential source the information in his many memos to the Kennedys on King’s allegedly Communist activities. It would have been awkward, at the very least, to have to disclose that this source was not a person but, rather, a wiretap on Levison’s telephone.

So the FBI director had to refuse Yeagley’s request–and lie yet again. He informed the Justice Department on Feb. 12 that he could not supply the requested report because the pivotal information had come from a source too “sensitive” to make available to another government agency for interview, let alone for testimony in court.

It was the perfect dodge.  It allowed Hoover to keep his awkward secret and, at the same time, look as if he had far more knowledge of vital national security matters than anyone else.

*     *     *

On the same day Hoover made his reply to Robert Kennedy’s Justice Department, Jack Kennedy’s White House hosted black leaders–under a carefully-stitched shroud of secrecy.

At the last minute, the President feared that this shroud was about to be ripped wide open by the appearance of two unexpected guests: singer-actor Sammy Davis Jr. and his Caucasian wife. Interracial marriage was extremely controversial in the U.S. at the time, and Kennedy angrily asked how Davis got in. It turned out that an aide sympathetic to the civil rights cause kept restoring Davis’s name to the guest list every time other aides took it off.

How, the President asked his aides, could they keep the Davis couple away from the cameras of photographers who were soon to be admitted? The solution, they all decided, was to have the President’s wife, Jackie, collar the Davises and pull them aside for a private conversation while photographs were being taken.

They were very wrong, as it turned out. Jackie Kennedy refused to be a party to it. She was so appalled that she said she would not even come downstairs to the reception. Kennedy himself had to persuade her to change her mind.

Nevertheless, Kennedy press secretary Pierre Salinger managed to keep the Davises’ presence unrecorded by the press—along with the identity of everybody who attended. The sole identified person attending this event for African American leaders was a white man: Vice President Lyndon Johnson.

Salinger got the event treated lightly, if at all, by the press. He got reporters to instead concentrate their coverage on the fact that Kennedy had that day received a Civil Rights Commission report dealing with such matters as overcrowding in black schools.

In its handling of the Lincoln’s Birthday reception, the Administration doubtless thought it was skillfully walking a tightrope, ingratiating itself with black leaders while preserving an uneasy alliance with the many segregationist Southern Democrats in Congress.

Not so much, as it turned out. Black leaders were underwhelmed. The Administration saw signs of a black revolt on the horizon and tried to head it off. Kennedy had aides quickly put together a lip-service civil rights bill that disappointed civil rights supporters by being not as far-reaching as one that had been drafted by liberal Republicans.

*     *     *

So….to Birmingham.

For King’s upcoming campaign, there was at least one hopeful sign. The South seemed to be moderating. South Carolinians were nowhere near as up in arms, literally or figuratively, over the registration of African American student Harvey Gantt at Clemson University as Mississippians had been a few months before at that of James Meredith at Ole Miss. A South Carolina newspaper editor excused the diffidence of the Palmetto State in a letter to a prominent leader of white resistance to desegregation.

Although Gantt’s peaceful admission to Clemson might be seen as a “sign of weakness,” wrote Editor Tom Waring of the Charleston Evening Post, South Carolinians were giving the peaceful “gambit a whirl” hoping that “explosions” developing in “Northern ghettos” would divert public attention from the South.

That, though, was South Carolina. In Alabama, a fiery former judge named George C. Wallace had just been elected governor of the Heart of Dixie state. He ringingly declared in his inauguration speech that his credo—suggested to him by a Ku Klux Klansman—was “Segregation Now, Segregation Tomorrow, Segregation Forever.”

Birmingham was not the capital of Alabama, but it was unquestionably the high seat of its urban racism. It was that, in fact, for all of the Deep South, and King went there to preach in late February. Tension was building.

[For further information, see Parting The Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 by Taylor Branch, Simon & Schuster 1988; An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America by Andrew Young, HarperCollins 1996; 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 www.hydraislandgreece.com.
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