March ’63


Once again, the Federal Army of the Potomac was starting over.

Its new third commander, “Fighting Joe” Hooker, began again to do what George McClellan and Ambrose Burnside had done before him:  prepare for battle against Confederate General Robert E. Lee under the impatient eye of Abraham Lincoln.

The President, meanwhile, was in a vise, squeezed by opposing unionist political factions.

–Democrats in the Midwest, influenced negatively by the Emancipation Proclamation and mounting military casualties, were so dismayed at the way the Republican Party was running the war that they talked of splitting off from the Northeast. Some even wanted to carry their section into the Confederacy.

–Many influential Northeasterners beseeched the President to do the very things that most frightened many Midwesterners. They wanted him to order the mostly-reluctant Union generals to put the words of the Proclamation into action and hand uniforms and guns to more and more freed slaves. They also wanted him to minister to humanitarian needs of African American families by bringing more of them north of the Ohio River (where they would necessarily associate, and compete for jobs, with the white residents).

Lincoln tried to minimize this conflict of sectional outcries.

“My own impression,” he told a friend, “…is that the masses of the country generally are only dissatisfied at our lack of military successes. Defeat and failure in the field make everything seem wrong.”

It was certainly true that there had been plenty of defeat and failure, and many people held the man in the White House responsible. He, after all, chose the commanding generals. A Michigan resident complained to one of the state’s U.S. senators that the Lincoln Administration “will stand even worse…with posterity than that of (Lincoln’s do-little predecessor) James Buchanan.”

Lincoln–with no great confidence in the blustering, backbiting, and hard-drinking Hooker–could only hope.

*     *     *

Meanwhile, March also brought varied signs of the times.

In England, yet another Confederate warship, one called the Japan that was soon to be the C.S.S. Georgia, was in the frantic final stages of being fitted out under the same sort of flimsy subterfuges that had already produced the Alabama and the Florida.

The U.S. Congress on Mar. 3 achieved final passage of an act demanding military service of men aged 20 to 45. Ten days later, Lincoln announced amnesty for all deserters who returned to their units within the month. The North, in short, needed troops.

So did the South. Near Richmond on Mar. 13, a munitions factory exploded and killed or wounded 69 workers. In this era when almost no women worked outside the home, 62 of the explosion’s casualties were women. Men were needed to carry rifles.

*     *     *

The month’s most notable military victories occurred on the backside of the Appalachians, and they were achieved by Confederates.

On Mar. 5, Southern cavalry general Earl Van Dorn and subordinates William Hicks (Red) Jackson and Nathan Bedford Forrest mauled a Federal incursion at Thompson’s Station, Tenn.

From nearby Franklin, Union Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans had sent 2,800 infantry, artillery, and cavalry southward to investigate word that the Confederates had a cavalry camp at Spring Hill. They did indeed, and it screened the left flank of the Confederate Army of Tennessee.

On the road on Mar. 4, Federals commanded by Colonel John Coburn met Van Dorn’s 6,300 cavalry, although Coburn did not know Van Dorn’s numbers. The Confederate commander used a rock wall to hide much of his force behind the railroad depot at Thompson’s Station, four miles north of Spring Hill. There he waited for the Federal advance, deploying Jackson’s division dismounted in his front and Forrest’s 2,000 troopers and a battery of artillery well off to the right.

The two sides traded cannon fire on the afternoon of the 4th and early on the 5th. Then Coburn and the Confederates attempted identical ploys, Coburn sending his right charging toward the railroad station while the Confederate right under Forrest advanced on the Federal flank. Van Dorn’s men behind the fence rose and delivered a volley into Coburn’s right, and Van Dorn, seeing Union elements facing Forrest beginning to dissolve, sent Forrest forward and veering toward the left.

When Coburn saw Forrest knifing toward his rear, he ordered a withdrawal from the depot. The rest of the Federal force stampeded. Ambulances and ammunition wagons fled back to Franklin, and, Coburn reported, the Federal cavalry “disappeared.”

After five hours of fighting, a final charge by Forrest on Federals defending a hilltop stand of cedars produced surrender. A gallant Union defense captured some Confederates and one of their battle flags, but more than 1,200 Federals, including Coburn, finally had to lay down their arms.

*     *     *

Three weeks later, on Mar. 25, Forrest captured many of the Federals who had fled Thompson’s Station.

Discovering that these Federals now were at Brentwood manning a fort and, at a bridge, a protective blockhouse, Forrest confronted the fort first and sent a message to Federal Colonel Edward Bloodgood. Bloodgood said Forrest’s note promised to “cut us to pieces” if they did not surrender. The Federal commander made one try at escape, but after just thirty minutes–and only five casualties–he gave up.

Two miles south, a single shot from a Confederate cannon brought capitulation of the blockhouse guarding the bridge. In the two incidents, Forrest captured 750 Federals and several wagonloads of supplies, medicines, ambulances, and weapons.

But the Brentwood venture had an embarrassing aftermath for the Confederates. An hour later, a 600-man Federal cavalry detachment led by Brig. Gen. Clay Smith attacked the Confederate rear as the Forrest column returned to a crossing of the Harpeth River. The Federals recaptured some of their erstwhile wagons before Confederate Colonel James Starnes, on detached duty to bag a Union detachment out gathering wood, galloped back and struck the Federals in their right flank.

Meanwhile Forrest, waving a flag aloft and cursing the terrified Confederates stampeding from the rear toward the front of his column, shouted “Fall in, every damned one of you!” and counterattacked. With Starnes’s aid, Forrest put the Federals to flight. But he had to abandon and burn several recaptured wagons. The retiring Federals had cut the vehicles’ mule teams out of their harnesses.

*     *      *

Down on the lower Mississippi River near the Confederate fortress of Vicksburg, Maj. Gen. U. S. Grant was in mid-muddle, trying to solve a monumental tactical problem.

To avoid the 16 miles of shoreline bluffs bristling with Vicksburg-defending cannons, he had to get to the more vulnerable land side of the city. How to do that from where he was, was confounding.

While digging canals and clearing tree-clogged rivers and bayous, he sent agents as far afield as Chicago seeking boats small enough to navigate narrow and shallow tributaries of the Mississippi. And in March his predominantly western troops were unhappy about everything from the Emancipation Proclamation to back pay they had not received since the previous October.

There was some not-altogether-reliable evidence that Grant’s frustrations were getting to the general himself. A Grant enemy informed President Lincoln that “On the 13th of March 1863 Genl. Grant…was Gloriously drunk and in bed sick all day.”

This questionable intelligence came from a disgruntled former subordinate who had previously filed formal charges of chronic drunkenness against Grant in the chain of command in early 1862. The new information was relayed to Lincoln in a letter from another unhappy Grant subordinate, Maj. Gen. John A. McClernand.

Whatever the truth of the information regarding Mar. 13, there was no question that by Mar. 22 Grant’s ploys to reach the landward side of Vicksburg from the north by water were playing out. Confederates had blocked the channel of the Yazoo River. A route through a bayou called Steele’s was too narrow. And the Mississippi was now receding from its winter heights, making passages through a succession of laboriously-dug canals dangerously shallow.

Grant just wanted to fight, but he also wanted to do it with a reasonable chance of success, and there wasn’t one if his troops had to scale the forbidding, cannon-crowned bluffs on the north side of Vicksburg.

On Mar. 22, he wrote his close friend Sherman that up to now he had concentrated on finding a way to come at the Confederate Gibraltar from the north, but he signaled that he was giving up those various plans as unworkable. No, he told Sherman, he now was hatching a different scheme. Its outline had been in the back of his mind since mid-January.

The risk of the new one would appall Sherman.

[For more information, see The Civil War Almanac by John S. Boatner, Bison Books 1982; War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, vol. 3, pts. 1 and 2, U. S. Government Printing Office 1880-1892; The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War by David J. Eicher, Simon & Schuster 2001; ‘First With The Most’ Forrest by Robert S. Henry, Bobbs-Merrill 1944; The Papers of U.S. Grant, vol. 7, by John Y. Simon, ed., Southern Illinois University Press 1979; and A World On Fire: Britain’s Critical Role in the American Civil War by Amanda Foreman, Random House 2010.]


Nothing better illustrated the need for a breakout civil rights victory of the kind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. hoped to achieve in Birmingham, Ala. than President Kennedy’s federal judgeship appointees.

There were four of them in the South, and as protectors of racial justice they were wretched. Kennedy had tried to hold together the fragile coalition of Northern progressives–including African American ones–and Southern conservatives that had put him in the White House, and his Southern judicial picks, made at the behest of local leaders, turned out to be bastions of Jim Crow tyranny.

The rising disgust of Northern liberals and civil rights workers laboring in Dixie now threatened to blow the coalition apart. The President himself was conscious of the problem, and on Mar. 5 progressive Republican Gov. Nelson Rockefeller of New York moved to capitalize on it.

Maneuvering to oppose Kennedy’s reelection in 1964, Rockefeller made a speech to the NAACP attacking the Administration’s performance on civil rights. He noted that Kennedy had pledged to improve the lot of Southern African Americans through presidential directives but hadn’t.

His record was dismal, Rockefeller pointed out. The New York governor’s attack prompted a question at Kennedy’s Mar. 6 press conference, and the President’s response was disingenuous at best. He blithely described his Southern judicial appointees as having done “a remarkable job in fulfilling their oaths of office.”

The President knew otherwise–he just wasn’t sure how much otherwise. On Mar. 7 he telephoned Justice Department attorney Nicholas Katzenbach and asked about the Administration’s record in the matter: “Is it real bad?”

Katzenbach had to decide whether to offend the President of the United States. He tap-danced, bravely saying that one of the Kennedy appointments, a judge from Mississippi, had “not been good,” but then crumbled and added that generally the Administration had “nothing to be embarrassed about.”

*     *     *

Meanwhile, the campaign with which Dr. King hoped to freshen Dixie’s stifling racial atmosphere encountered launch problems.

King and his advisers had planned to get a campaign and boycott of Birmingham’s department stores into full swing by the Easter season. That would give it maximum leverage, since black families in the South tended to buy most of their new clothes each year at Easter time. Withholding this business would be a powerful incentive for the stores to change their policies and allow blacks the same lunch-counter and restroom access as whites.

But the pre-Easter plan ran afoul of politics. Birmingham was amid a city election campaign in which rabble-rousing segregationist Eugene “Bull” Connor, the former police commissioner and a bombastic opponent of racial reform, was now a mayoral candidate.

Connor was not expected to win–the majority of the city’s voters did not seem impressed by his confrontational style–but civil rights demonstrations were all but certain to drive moderate white voters into the Connor camp and improve his chances. The election, held Mar. 5, produced no outright winner. The top vote-getters were Connor and comparatively moderate Albert Boutwell, a lawyer who had served three terms as state senator before beginning a four-year term from 1959 to 1963 as lieutenant governor under Gov. John Patterson.

Local African American leaders feared rocking the election boat. Demonstrations would surely damage Boutwell’s chances in the run-off election scheduled for April 2. But King’s planners already had postponed the start of demonstrations once–from Mar. 5 to Mar. 14–and some local leaders recommended that they forget demonstrating altogether until Christmas, because by early April African American families would have spent most of the clothing money they had allotted for spring.

Only a few voices opposed postponement, but some of them were powerful. One belonged to fiery Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, a longtime Birmingham minister who during the past year had had to move to Cincinnati to prevent segregationist lawsuits from taking everything he owned.

Shuttlesworth was at least as much of a lightning rod in Birmingham as King. The Shuttlesworth home had been bombed, and it was so dangerous to even walk down a street with him that most people didn’t.

But he had become a leader of the potential backbone of segregation resistance in Birmingham: black blue-collar workers in Birmingham’s unionized steel mills whose middle-class wages gave them power while their blue-collar status kept them out of the black elite whose standing in the black community was enhanced by segregation.

Andrew Young, a King aide, later wrote that he did not think Shuttlesworth was bent on becoming a leader of a movement–that, instead, Shuttlesworth was just trying to get as good an education as he could for his daughter. And Birmingham’s best schools were, of course, the white ones. In an attempt to enroll his daughter in a white public school, Shuttlesworth was beaten, and his wife stabbed, by racist thugs. Police then arrested the Shuttlesworths instead of the thugs.

Others, too, opposed postponing the demonstrations. King aide Wyatt T. Walker and the Rev. James Lawson, Memphis pastor and nonviolence expert who had trained Freedom Riders and sit-in marchers on how to meet confrontations without violence, had been gathering and training 200 people who agreed to be arrested and go to jail for two weeks. Re-recruiting them later would be difficult.

On Mar. 10, King told adviser Stanley Levison that they had decided to reschedule the beginning of the campaign until after the run-off election. The next day, local ministers held a mass meeting at which Shuttlesworth promised the crowd that Attorney General Robert Kennedy would protect them from the dangers of the coming campaign.

King did not attend the mass meeting. The scheduling and other problems had shaken him.

*     *     *

For the continuance of the major civil rights push begun at the end of 1960, the Birmingham campaign would mean everything.

A failure in higher-profile Birmingham in 1963, following the 1962 debacle in Albany, Ga., could well consign to the margins of history not only King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference but the bloody efforts of heroic Freedom Riders and voter registration workers fielded by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Congress of Racial Equality.

And it was all looking more and more like a boondoggle.

During the last two weeks of March, King began looking for last-ditch tactics to reverse the Birmingham disaster he saw looming. As a last resort, he decided to appeal to Northerners to flood Birmingham with out-of-town help, to volunteer for arrest and overflow the jails. He appealed to Walter Fauntroy, for one, who had been a friend since their days in the same seminary, to help from Fauntroy’s home city of Washington, D.C.

King flew home to Atlanta on Mar. 27 to take his wife, Coretta, to the hospital to deliver their fourth child. Then he quietly re-entered Birmingham on Mar. 29 but hardly stayed a day before flying to New York on Mar. 31 for more aid.

The New York meeting was a secret one with some key supporters, and it was suggested by singer/actor Harry Belafonte and King adviser Stanley Levison. Their idea was that King should tell his supporters more about the plan for Birmingham and other major projects before they materialized, rather than frantically appealing for help after they got into trouble. That way, Belafonte and Levison suggested, King’s Northern sources of financial and other support could feel more invested in the projects as they developed, and their aid could help make possible more and better planning of the campaigns themselves.

Belafonte hosted the meeting in his apartment, which was crammed full of eighty-some important people from varied fields: Hollywood actors Anthony Quinn and Fredric March as well as journalists, political figures, and so on. With King into this glittering crowd came Shuttlesworth, Levison, SCLC co-leader Ralph Abernathy, and adviser Clarence Jones.

Shuttlesworth made a fiery speech that night. As the man who had sheltered endangered Freedom Riders in Birmingham in 1961, he knew the escalating trials they faced there now, and his speech spelled them out in chilling terms. Belafonte saw King’s head shake ever so slightly during Shuttlesworth’s speech, and he attributed the tic to the gathering tension.

Birmingham, after all, was a tough town in the 1950s. It had had bloody steel strikes throughout the decade, and its air of civil rights oppression was proud and overt. Bombings in the residential area of many of the city’s black steelworkers were becoming so normal in the 1960s that the area was getting a nickname: Dynamite Hill.

Near dawn, the last of the throng had gone home, and King finally relaxed with Abernathy and a bottle of good sherry that the Belafontes kept for him. Reflecting on the trials ahead, he made a joke that was black humor in several senses. Obviously thinking about the inevitable incarcerations ahead and remembering past ones, he looked straight at Abernathy, who would of course be a fellow marcher and prisoner.

“Let me be sure,” he said dryly, “to get arrested with people who don’t snore.” 

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

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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