Robert E. Lee found himself in a hard place in June of 1863.
Commanding what he called the finest army in the world, he had become hard-pressed to feed and clothe it in battle-scourged northern Virginia. And that was not all.
–At Chancellorsville in May Lee had lost his “right arm,” as he put it, in the death of Stonewall Jackson. Lee believed then, and would learn for certain, that he had no other subordinate the equal of the austere, eccentric, and iron-willed western Virginian.
–Jefferson Davis had already taken some of Lee’s army’s veteran units and replaced them with less-seasoned ones. Now, fearing the Union siege of Vicksburg, the Confederate president was pressing Lee to send two divisions from his already outnumbered ranks to Joseph E. Johnston in Mississippi.
–Lee subordinate James Longstreet was requesting reassignment to Braxton Bragg in Tennessee to oppose ominous activity by Federals under William S. Rosecrans.
Lee, who has been criticized by historians for possessing northern Virginia tunnel vision, claimed to think–with some justification–that following the Davis and Longstreet strategies would lead only to further Southern losses. He thought sending any of his units to the indecisive Bragg or the hyper-cautious Johnston would hamstring his own operations against “Fighting Joe” Hooker’s much larger Federal Army of the Potomac.
Even retaining his present numbers, Lee had a problem of epic proportion.
“I considered the problem in every possible phase,” Lee later wrote, “and to my mind it resolved itself into a choice of one of two things–either to retire to Richmond and stand a siege, which must ultimately have ended in surrender, or to invade Pennsylvania.”
With little alternative, Lee began his second invasion of the North.
* * *
On June 3, he began moving the vaunted Army of Northern Virginia. He temporarily left the corps of A.P. Hill to hold Fredericksburg, Va., while moving west-northwest toward Culpeper with the two others, commanded by Longstreet and Stonewall Jackson’s replacement, Richard S. Ewell.
A week later, Ewell departed Culpeper, continuing northwesterly. Alarm swept the North. Public attention to Ewell’s action was increased by the nearby Battle of Brandy Station on June 9, the largest cavalry fight of the war. It pitted 11,000 Federals against 10,000 Confederates who were taken unawares. The Federals struck as Confederates conducted a review which J. E. B. Stuart wanted to put on for Lee.
Because the Confederates were surprised, both sides fought from horseback with saber and pistol, charge and countercharge. The Confederates held on and controlled the field when it was over, but the Dixie press attacked Stuart for being embarrassed by Union cavalry, which had been considered nowhere near the quality of Southern troopers.
In mid-June, Lee’s northward movement strung out over 100 miles of the Shenandoah Valley. Amid smaller engagements at Berryville (June 13), Martinsburg June (14), and Aldie (June 17), the second battle of Winchester occurred on June 14-15 and ended in Union disaster. The Confederates lost only 47 killed, 219 wounded, and three missing while Federal losses were 95 killed, 348 wounded, and 3,358 captured–plus 23 field cannon, 300 horses, and more than 300 loaded supply wagons.
On June 15, an alarmed Lincoln asked for Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, and Unionist western Virginia to supply 100,000 militiamen to stop Lee. The next day, the Confederates began crossing the Potomac. Less than a week later, Lee moved into Chambersburg, Pa., causing businesses to close shop in Philadelphia, 160 miles east.
As early as June 5 Lincoln had instructed Hooker to give his attention to the Confederates moving away from Fredericksburg, rather than to those still in it, and two and a half weeks later Hooker responded. On June 23 he took the Army of the Potomac back across its namesake river, maneuvering to put it between Lee and Washington. The next day, near the site of the 1862 battle of Antietam, he skirmished with Confederates under Longstreet and Hill, who were driving to catch up with Ewell in Pennsylvania.
On June 25 Stuart, smarting under press denunciation of his Brandy Station surprise, began a cavalry raid in which he ignored Lee’s orders as to the route taken. He went missing for a week, hobbling Lee’s information-gathering and offensive capability.
Lee was headed toward Harrisburg, a state capital that was doubtless an inviting target for Southern capture. But on June 27, as part of his army received the surrender of York, Pa., and moved into nearby Chambersburg, the Lincoln government began to react.
Washington said no when Hooker wanted to abandon Maryland Heights opposite Harpers Ferry, so the general resigned. Maj. Gen. George G. Meade took over on June 28 and continued moving the Army of the Potomac toward where Confederate troops were massing south of Harrisburg at the towns of Chambersburg, Carlisle, and York.
But Stuart was still out of contact, raiding in Virginia. Lee worried that that meant the Army of the Potomac was headed for sparsely-defended Richmond, which Lee’s northward thrust had been partly designed to protect.
Lee only learned late on June 28–from a Longstreet scout rather than from the usually dependable Stuart–that the Northern army had moved north of the Potomac. If the Federals were marching northwest, they could endanger Lee’s rear. So he directed Hill and Longstreet to consolidate with Ewell, who would meanwhile drop back to two little towns near the Maryland border.
One of the two was called Gettysburg.
* * *
Meanwhile, moves for peace blossomed among indications of growing Union strength.
On June 11, “Peace Democrats” in Ohio nominated Ohio politician Clement L. Vallandigham for governor in absentia. Vallandigham, banished southward in May for criticizing the Lincoln government, had been passed along to Canada by the Confederacy.
On June 12, Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens volunteered his services to President Jefferson Davis to talk to the Union government and promote “understanding and agreement.”
And on June 20, Abraham Lincoln declared West Virginia the Union’s 35th state.
* * *
As eastern attention focused on the corridor from the Shenandoah Valley to east-central Pennsylvania, important events occurred across the Appalachians.
Most so was Union General U. S. Grant’s epic siege of Vicksburg, Miss., the towering and vital Confederate bastion on the Mississippi River. On June 8, Grant began a 24-hour bombardment. Residents and Confederate troops sought refuge in caves.
One day earlier, Federals had ransacked and burned the home of Jefferson Davis, Brierfield Plantation south of Vicksburg.
On June 14, Union Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks demanded the surrender of Port Hudson, La., the only other still-Confederate town on the Mississippi River. Rebuffed, Banks attacked, but without success.
After repeated presidential prodding to try to keep Confederates from reinforcing the opposition to Grant in Mississippi, Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans finally got moving against General Braxton Bragg in Tennessee. In the space of a week of brilliant three-pronged maneuver that began on June 24, Rosecrans forced Bragg out of most of the lush pastures of the state’s mid-section. Bragg retreated from his former headquarters at Shelbyville southeastward to the south side of the Elk River beyond Tullahoma.
Having surrendered all momentum and initiative to Rosecrans, Bragg now stood on the brink of further retreat to the safety of the south side of the wide Tennessee River at Chattanooga–considerably farther from embattled Vicksburg than he had been at Shelbyville.
* * *
In a small but profoundly important action on June 7, 1,500 Confederates under Brig. Gen. Henry McCulloch attacked a mostly black-garrisoned Grant supply depot at Milliken’s Bend, La.
The white Federals and many of the blacks’ white officers ran when the Confederates broke the lines of the 1,000-man Federal force, but not the U. S. Colored Troops. Although furnished with inferior rifles and just two days of target practice, they fought their attackers–and by implication slavery itself–with eagerness and heroism.
Until then, Grant had held a low opinion of the military worth of black soldiers, but unlike many other people then and later, he had kept an open mind on race. After Milliken’s Bend, he demanded that black troops be treated as equals with whites.
[For more, see R. E. Lee, vol. 3, by Douglas Southall Freeman, Scribner’s 1946; Lee by Clifford Dowdey, Little-Brown 1965; The Civil War Almanac by John S. Boatner, ed., Bison Books 1982; The Longest Night; A Military History of the Civil War by David J. Eicher, Simon & Schuster 2001; and Forged In Battle: the Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers by Joseph T. Glatthaar, Free Press 1990.]
The victorious Birmingham winds of May blew up a June whirlwind.
On the month’s first day, a dramatically heartened Dr. Martin Luther King suggested to close advisers that they should keep up the momentum by spearheading a 100,000-person summer march on Washington.
The same day, staid and dignified Roy Wilkins of the NAACP–who had disdained street demonstrations for 35 years in favor of action through the courts–flew to Jackson, Miss. to be arrested with young demonstrators there. On June 3, intrepid voter registration worker Bob Moses told a small New York City gathering that the Jackson march had been seeded by Birmingham.
On June 9, five black civil rights workers did not show up to teach nonviolence classes in Greenwood, Miss. They soon were found to have been jailed and savagely beaten in nearby Winona after one tried to use white facilities at the Winona bus station.
On June 10, Alabama Gov. George Wallace, as he had promised, stood “in the schoolhouse door” to try to prevent the federal government from overriding what he termed his state’s right to reject whomever it pleased from admission to Alabama’s institutions of learning. In a carefully crafted dance, Wallace stood and opposed Justice Department attorney Nicholas Katzenbach for media consumption–while the two black students went quietly to dorm rooms elsewhere. Wallace then did not oppose National Guard troops that soon materialized to keep the new enrollees there.
Late in the evening of the following day, in the front yard of his home in Jackson, Miss., state NAACP leader Medgar Evers was fatally shot in the back from ambush. Evers had just returned home from a doleful conference in Jackson. There civil rights leaders had confronted the prospect of defeat in their own demonstrations. The authoritarian Jackson establishment had not flinched.
But that night brought two transformative events. One was the killing of Evers, a great and tireless worker whose death was instantly recognized as a national tragedy. The other was a televised speech by President Kennedy just hours before the murder.
In the speech, an angry Kennedy finally ignored his preoccupations with reelection and, after two years of waffling, took the right side of civil rights history. Disheartened by white Southerners’ intractability and inclination toward violence, he would soon tell historian Arthur Schlesinger that he was not so sure Thaddeus Stevens, the abolitionist Civil War-era senator from Pennsylvania who wanted to punish Southerners for the war, was truly “a man of vicious bias” after all.
“When I see this sort of thing (Evers’s murder), I wonder how else you can treat them,” Kennedy said.
On television, speaking largely off the cuff, he decried the South’s violent resistance to racial equality, portraying it as the immoral outrage it was.
“We preach freedom around the world, and we mean it,” the President said. “And we cherish our freedom here at home.
“But are we to say to the world–and much more importantly, to each other–that this is the land of the free, except for Negroes? That we have no second-class citizens, except Negroes? That we have no class or caste system, no ghettos, no master race, except with respect to Negroes?
“Now the time has come for this nation to fulfill its promise. The events in Birmingham and elsewhere have so increased the cries for equality that no city or state or legislative body can prudently choose to ignore them.”
* * *
The Birmingham victory had been massive.
Waiting rooms, restrooms, and water fountains of bus stations and other accommodations had been opened to all; lunch counters had been integrated; the status of black clerks in white businesses had been improved; and whites had agreed to sit down with African Americans on an oversight committee.
And now these piecemeal moves toward equality became national. Within ten weeks of the Birmingham triumph, nearly 15,000 people would be arrested in 186 cities in 758 demonstrations.
It had become a full-on war.
The five arrested civil rights workers in Winona were released into national horror. Annell Ponder of King’s Southern Chrstian Leadership Conference had been repeatedly beaten to the floor of the jail, picked up, and beaten to the floor again; she acquired a chipped tooth and an eye whose gaze appeared knocked out of place. Local convert Fannie Lou Hamer, middle-aged and already in uncertain health, had been laid on a jail cot, held down, and whipped until the hands with which she tried to protect her head were blue and her assailants were exhausted. A third member of the party, 16-year-old June Johnson, was made to strip naked in front of the Winona deputies and blackjacked after she answered yes when asked if she was a member of the NAACP.
In Alabama, a white minister had his house stoned because he suggested that blacks be allowed to attend his church. In Ohio, two men fastened themselves by a chain to a gallery of the legislature to demand integration. In Tennessee, 10 Knoxville sheriff’s deputies arrested 27 people attending a workshop at the progressive-minded Highlander Folk School. The charge was interracial socializing without a chaperone
Back in Winona, a march memorializing the martyred Evers was halted by fire trucks and police with dogs and shotguns. The crowd had been marching in silence, but when some of its members began throwing rocks and shouting that they wanted officers to give them Evers’s killer, the police charged with their dogs, beating some of the demonstrators with billy clubs and arresting more than two dozen.
Meanwhile Evers’s corpse began a Lincolnesque slow train ride to Washington, where it would lie in state in the nation’s capital before being buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
* * *
Under the tension, deep fissures in both the Democratic Party and the civil rights movement threatened to crack wide open. When House Majority Leader Carl Albert apologized to President Kennedy on June 12 for being unable to get Southern congressmen to go along with any Kennedy legislation, the President replied disconsolately that civil rights demonstrations and the violent resistance to them had tainted “everything.”
Attorney General Robert Kennedy, facing demonstrators carrying signs demanding that his Justice Department hire more blacks, told them imperiously: “Individuals will be hired according to their ability, not their color.” The crowd jeered.
The rancorous schism between Roy Wilkins and King worsened. King had accepted someone’s suggestion that a fundraising effort by his Gandhi Society be named in honor of the martyred Evers, and Wilkins took great umbrage because Evers was a local head of the NAACP, not the SCLC. Wilkins thought King’s demonstrations had gotten Evers killed and that King was now attempting to raise money off Evers’s name. The Gandhi Society quickly desisted, but the Wilkins-King rift widened.
King advisor Stan Levison, in a call intercepted by the FBI, complained bitterly to a mutual friend of his and Wilkins’s about what he saw as longstanding sniping, backbiting, and rumor-carrying by Wilkins and his board members against King, who nevertheless continued appearing at NAACP functions, praising the organization and opening branch offices for it. The NAACP behavior toward King had been “a disgrace for a long time,” Levison said.
In the latter half of June, King got invited to the White House again–only to find himself sandwiched between a Kennedy meeting with Wilkins and a reception for a large crowd of other civil rights leaders. The latter meeting was to decide how best to steer a new presidential civil rights bill through Congress. The discussion turned to a march on Washington, first proposed by A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1941 and then in different form in 1963 by James Bevel of King’s SCLC.
Kennedy and Vice President Johnson thought what was needed was Capitol Hill arm-twisting, not a march in the streets. King then disagreed, suggesting that the march could aid the arm-twisting.
“It may seem ill-timed,” he granted. “Frankly, I have never engaged in a direct-action movement that did not seem ill-timed. Some people thought Birmingham was ill-timed.”
During the White House gathering, President Kennedy took King on a private walk into the Rose Garden to remind him that he was being wiretapped and closely watched. The President urged King to dissociate himself with Stan Levison and Jack O’Dell, two of his most valued advisers, on grounds that the nation’s highest intelligence sources–meaning the FBI of paranoid Director J. Edgar Hoover–had declared both to be ranking members of the Communist Party.
King again resisted this plea, which had been made by Administration officials before. He told an SCLC subordinate, Andrew Young, that he wondered if Kennedy took him into the garden because the President feared Hoover was wiretapping the White House.
[For more 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, Harper-Collins 1996; and The Glory And The Dream: A Narrative History of America 1932-1972 by William Manchester, Little-Brown 1974.]
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