May ’63


“Fighting Joe” Hooker, having declared that Robert E. Lee must quit his defenses and fight or “ingloriously fly,” ventured into the Virginia Wilderness to see which it would be.

            A little of both, it turned out. Although vastly outnumbered because he had dispatched Longstreet’s corps to defend the Virginia-North Carolina coast, Lee split his 43,000-man force facing Hooker. Keeping 17,000 to hold his fortifications at Chancellorsville, he sent Maj. Gen. Stonewall Jackson flying on a daring strike behind a cavalry screen around Hooker’s flank. There was nothing “inglorious” about it, though.

            Late on the afternoon of May 2, Jackson savagely slammed into Hooker’s rear. At 5:15 p.m. his men burst from the Wilderness undergrowth, their fire flushing panicked deer into the under-guarded Federal camps. It was a total surprise. Union troops lounging around cooking fires preparing supper toppled tents and upset cooking pots trying to reach their weapons. They were driven from their trenches, but one brigade held position for half an hour and prevented a total rout.

            Jackson, though, thought the rout was total–and made a mistake gravely injurious to both the Confederacy and himself. In the darkness of that evening, he rode forward with his staff to reconnoiter for the battle’s next stage. Lead Confederate elements advancing under Maj. Gen. A. P. Hill mistook the scouting party for Federals and, disobeying orders from a frantic Hill, decimated it with two volleys of small-arms fire.

            Two of the balls shattered Jackson’s left arm, a third struck him in the hand. Shortly after he fell, Hill did, too, with a wound to his legs, and command of the Confederate drive devolved onto cavalry commander J. E. B. Stuart.

            Early the next morning, May 3, the Federal right wing crowded into a two-front horseshoe. General Hooker, who had been of little use to his subordinate commanders anyway, now became more so, rendered virtually insensible after a Confederate cannonball splintered the pillar he was leaning against on the front porch of his headquarters. He passed command of the army to a subordinate, General Darius Couch, and, unaware that the extent of the victorious attack had exhausted the Confederates, Couch and the addled Hooker together directed the Federals to retreat.

            The onslaught continued one more day, as Lee tried to attack Hooker’s horde with far fewer men. Lee’s final attack was unsuccessful, but he and Jackson had delivered disaster to the Federals. The casualty figures gave pause to both sides–1,606 killed, 9,762 wounded, and 5,919 missing for the Federals and 1,665 killed, 9,081 wounded and 2,018 missing for the Confederates.

            The greatest Confederate loss was Jackson, whose arm was amputated in vain. He died of pneumonia on May 10. With the possible exception of Lee, the famed Stonewall had been the foremost hero of the Confederacy.

            “Hannibal might have been proud of his campaign in the (Shenandoah) Valley,” the Richmond Examiner said of Jackson on May 11, “and the shades of the mightiest warriors should rise to welcome his stern ghost.”

            Few of the living rose to welcome Hooker on his march back toward Washington.

            “My God! My God!” Abraham Lincoln moaned. “What will the country say?”

                                                 *     *     *

Behind the lines, events reflected the increasingly bitter character of the conflict. Many were products of increasing controversy in the North.

            On May 3, an Iowa bishop of the Roman Catholic Church warned parishioners that any of them found to be members of the pro-Confederate Knights of the Golden Circle would be excommunicated.

            On May 5 in Ohio, prominent “Peace Democrat” Clement L. Vallandigham was charged with treason and jailed. On May 11, he was denied the right of habeas corpus and, on May 19, was ordered to be banished beyond Union lines. On May 29 Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, commander of the Department of the Ohio, offered his resignation to protest the freeing of Vallandigham, but President Lincoln refused to accept it.

            On May 15, Union troops broke into the office of the Jeffersonian newspaper in Richmond, Ind., and vandalized it in response to editorial attacks it had made on the Federal government. 

            On May 24, Union Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks advanced on Port Hudson, La., and began to lay siege to that town, the Confederacy’s last remaining possession on the Mississippi River besides Vicksburg, Miss. On the 27th Banks unsuccessfully attacked it, then reported that it could not be taken by land troops alone.

            On May 28, the first black regiment in the Union Army, the 54th Massachusetts, left Boston for what in those days was termed “the seat of war.” Its destination was Hilton Head, S. C.

            All of the above is not to say that the Confederates were inactive everywhere except around Chancellorsville. To the contrary.

            On May 1, the Confederate Congress in Richmond readied ominous legislation anticipating the arrival of such units as the 54th Massachusetts. It designated hanging as the punishment for captured white men officering the new, so-called U. S. Colored Troops being mustered in the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation. The measure reflected the whip-and-chains mentality that dictated policy in the South for decades. The arming of blacks against the South’s slavery-based society was regarded as the ultimate in inciting “servile insurrection,” long viewed as Armageddon for Southern society.

            On May 20, two blockade runners got past Federal ships and into the harbor at Charleston, S.C.–but two others were captured elsewhere, one near Nassau and another off the North Carolina coast.

            In what was becoming the biggest concern for the governments on either side, Confederate President Jefferson Davis turned his attention from Lee’s victory in the Virginia Wilderness to Vicksburg, Miss. In a message to his Vicksburg commander, Lt. Gen. John Pemberton, Davis stated the obvious in telling Pemberton that to retain Richmond’s connection with the Trans-Mississippi, Vicksburg and Port Hudson must be held. He added: “You may expect whatever aid is in my power.”

            The problem for Davis and Pemberton was that in Mississippi, a thousand miles from Richmond, Davis now had very little power.

                                                *     *     *

That was because Union Maj. Gen. U. S. Grant, who had been trying for months to find a way to get at Vicksburg, found it.

            In a move of consummate daring under cover of darkness, he had run his boats south past Vicksburg’s cannon-studded bluffs and at the end of April, in the largest amphibious venture yet tried anywhere, used the boats to cross his army from Louisiana to the Vicksburg side of the Mississippi River. Then he kept only the most tenuous ties to his bases of supply as he plunged into the interior of Mississippi to attack Vicksburg from its less-defended land side.

            First, though, he had another concern. A pitifully small but potentially dangerous army led by eminent Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston lurked in the Mississippi hinterlands. Johnston was being beseeched by Jefferson Davis to link up with Pemberton in Vicksburg. 

            On May 1, the day after crossing the Mississippi, Grant’s troops defeated an inferior Confederate force at the battle of Port Gibson. Then, to counter the threat from Johnston, Grant sent troops under Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson toward the state capital at Jackson while posting others under Maj. Gen. John McClernand on the 50-mile stretch of railroad between Jackson and Vicksburg.

            Grant meanwhile made a remarkable paring of his supply line. Gathering wagons, buggies, farm carts, and other vehicles from the countryside, he brought mostly ammunition with him, gathering the bulk of his food supplies from the surrounding countryside. His army looked more like refugees, but it did its job brilliantly.

            McPherson met a smaller Confederate force on May 12 at Raymond, Miss. and defeated it, then moved on toward Jackson. There on May 14 McPherson and Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman attacked and whipped another small Confederate force, but Johnston, who had been there, beat a hasty retreat northward before the Federals arrived.

            Troops under Sherman then proceeded to try to wreck everything they deemed militarily useful before Grant cut their labors short by ordering them to turn back toward Vicksburg. He had learned that Pemberton had emerged from the Vicksburg defenses to meet him.

            Pemberton, caught between conflicting orders from Johnston and Jefferson Davis, was tentative in his decisions and movements, and Grant wasn’t. On May 16, the Federals defeated the Confederates at Champion Hill, routed them, and beat them again the next day at Big Black River Bridge. Pemberton hurried back toward Vicksburg. On May 18, the Confederates regained the safety of their Vicksburg fortifications, but only 9,000 of the 23,000 who had come out to meet Grant managed to get back in.

            In two and a half weeks, Grant had trekked two hundred miles, fought five battles, inflicted 7,000 casualties, and lost half that number.

            Wrongly thinking the Confederates were beaten, Grant attacked Vicksburg’s outer lines on May 19 and again on May 22. He was unsuccessful both times, but his long-range prospects were bright. He now laid down a siege from which the Confederates had little hope of escape.

            [For more information see The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War by David J. Eicher, Simon & Schuster 2001; The Civil War Almanac by John S. Boatner, ed., Bison Books 1982; and The  Vicksburg Campaign: Grant Strikes A Fatal Blow by Edwin C. Bearss, Morningside Press 1986.]


A lot happened between the writing of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter From the Birmingham Jail” in April and the first public notice of it a month later.

            King’s speechmaking after bonding out of jail was ineffectual. It drew large crowds to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church but few volunteer demonstrators. But he found he could call on unexpectedly massive reinforcements from another quarter.

            Diane Nash, arguably the most important of the young Nashville-rooted civil rights leaders, and her preacher husband, fiery James Bevel, had been mining a more productive vein. They drew throngs of high school and elementary school students to workshops they held with Andrew Young, who had become the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s man in charge of training young nonviolent demonstrators.

            Nash and Bevel were geniuses at recruiting youth. They went after the most popular first, from star athletes and homecoming queens in high school to similarly outstanding elementary-school kids. Legions of classmates followed these.

            But should King use them? The idea was condemned by the vast majority of African American adults, many of whom knew its dangers firsthand. King, though, was desperate. His Birmingham campaign, on which all depended, was dying. Birmingham police had abandoned their usual brutality in favor of the nonviolent law enforcement that had succeeded in Albany, Ga. As a result, news media were bored and absent.

            Reporters craved the sensational, and King, urged by Nash and Bevel, provided it.

                                                            *     *     *

The concept was straight out of an uncompromising playbook Nash had helped evolve as Nashville coordinator of the Freedom Rides of ’61.

            Her belief was that no nonviolent tactic was too dangerous to be used to defeat segregation. If it took deaths to focus the nation on the problem, so be it. If segregation won, the struggle would only become harder next time. Meanwhile, more millions of blacks would continue to live out hopeless lives in societal serfdom. Part of her formula was to never let virulent racism go unchallenged, especially after it had claimed a life.

            Now, just as King accepted her and her husband’s radical proposal to use child marchers in Birmingham, Nash opted for an even more dangerous course. She led eight adult marchers on foot on a trek into rural Alabama. William Moore, an eccentric white postman from Baltimore, had marched alone down the same highway in April wearing anti-segregation signs–and had died beside it near Attalla, Ala., two gunshots in his head.

            Just as she had done with the first Freedom Rides after initial Alabama bombings and beatings in ’61, Nash refused to let Moore’s violent death be an end. On May 1 this young mother, who later confessed she was always so afraid that her hands trembled, led seven others down Highway 11 toward Attalla. Police quickly arrested them before racist thugs could further besmirch Alabama’s reputation by martyring them.

                     *     *     *

On Thursday, May 2, crowds of students in increments of 50, at least one a six-year-old girl, began bursting at well-timed intervals from Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Singing and laughing, they piled into paddy wagons city police had readied for them. They filled them. The police had to swallow their pride and appeal to the county sheriff for help. They even had to conscript school buses to accommodate the horde.

            In the tumult, a policeman in the crowd who knew Fred Shuttlesworth, the minister and longtime local leader of resistance to segregation, shouted to ask how many marchers he had this time.

            “At least a thousand,” Shuttlesworth shouted back.

            “God Almighty,” the policeman said.

            At that evening’s mass meeting, after more than 600 had been arrested, James Bevel bounded into the pulpit with an un-preacherly shout of incipient victory.

            “There ain’t gonna be no meeting Monday night,” he yelled, “because every Negro in Birmingham is gonna be in jail by Sunday!”

            Bevel erred. There were no more empty jail cells. The next day, May 3, the establishment had to operate without its weapon of arrest. But it employed another: the fire hose. As the first 60 of the day’s marchers approached, firemen deployed several of the hoses. Most of the initial demonstrators retreated, hoping to avoid getting soaked.

            But about 10 stayed where they were. Resolutely singing the repetitive word “freedom” to the tune of the hymn “Amen,” they braved the drenching, then sat down in the street to gain traction against the force of the water. To dislodge them, firemen doubled the force of the deluge with a device by which streams from two hoses were channeled together through a so-called “monitor gun.” Capable of collapsing brick walls, the 700-pound pressure was irresistible. It washed the final 10 demonstrators down the street like trash in a gutter.

            This momentary victory’s cost, however, was high. It changed many local hearts and minds, a pivotal example being the heart and mind of A. G. Gaston. The city’s and perhaps the state’s richest African American, Gaston owned insurance companies, a bank, a funeral home, a secretarial business school, and the Gaston Motel where King and other visiting civil rights leaders stayed.

            The latter paid for their own rooms, though. Until this day, Gaston had sided with the city’s white establishment. He had believed demonstrating was a detriment to municipal progress. But that afternoon, while on the telephone with an attorney and establishment tactician named David Vann, Gaston watched from his office window as the deluge cleared the streets. He abruptly excused himself from the phone call.

            “They’ve turned the fire hoses on a little black girl,” he explained to Vann. “And they’re rolling that girl right down the middle of the street.”

            That day Gaston became one of the most important local supporters of the Birmingham movement. But King’s eyes were on a bigger prize. He needed to re-interest a national media that had tired of him in Albany in 1962. And he needed to do it fast. His movement now stood on the two-sided cusp of triumph or disaster.

            Bystanders watching the demonstrators, enraged by the all-powerful fire hoses and the sight of their children tumbling down the street, threw rocks and bricks. Bevel and Andrew Young, priests of nonviolence, tried to direct the marchers away from this contamination of their nonviolent crusade. Victory or disintegration of the movement into mob thuggery hung in the balance. It could go either way.

            But King could not risk quelling the new momentum. When the volunteers–adults backed by masses of youths and children–again took to the pavement the next day, authorities made another mistake. This time they loosed police dogs. The animals tore marchers’ clothes and flesh. Press cameras clicked.

            King’s deliberate provoking of Birmingham’s longstanding, virulent race-hate worked this time. Newspapers and magazines across the country carried pictures documenting the savagery, and the nation recoiled. Momentum and national revulsion grew as the city reverted to its traditional racial barbarism.

            President Kennedy sent an emissary who tried in vain to persuade King to call off the marches while he tried to negotiate a settlement. King refused to abandon the movement’s forward progress in behalf of such an uncertain outcome. On May 6 he loosed another demonstration.  This one included as many adults as children. City business leaders, their firms now suffering, began negotiating in earnest.

            The struggle and the national notice of it escalated. Birmingham’s most dedicated racists now reclaimed for their city its long-held racial nickname: Bombingham. At 10:45 p.m. of Saturday, May 11, they dynamited the parsonage of the Rev. A. D. King, lesser-known brother of the movement’s leader. A large hole was blown in a brick wall and one-third of the home was damaged, but King and his family emerged dazed but unhurt. About an hour later, another blast rocked the Gaston Motel.

            The bombings ignited a riot that stretched into and through May 12, Mother’s Day. Angry African Americans untrained in nonviolence but steeped in oppression surged into the streets. They were too much for the dogs and fire hoses. City authorities appealed to Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace, who eagerly responded with 250 club-wielding state police and other Alabama employees under police colonel Al Lingo.

            Rocks and bricks pelted police and their dogs as officers went after the blacks with their clubs. One policeman chased some throwers of bricks and rocks into an alley–and emerged a short time later with three knife wounds.

            Early on May 12, Justice Department official John Doar woke up Kennedy Administration officials in Washington. They soon sent 3,000 Army troops into a federal installation a few miles from Birmingham. With the troops and the Wallace men eying each other warily, mind-boggling rewards for King’s persistence began rolling in.

            The city administration agreed to a plan to form a biracial committee; to release the hundreds arrested; to integrate restrooms, water fountains, and lunch rooms; and to promote some low-level black workers, all of it scheduled within two weeks to two months. And, secretly, the White House decided to step up the hiring of blacks for federal jobs.

            On May 19, the New York Post excerpted the “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” Within another week, its writer was presiding over the collection of huge donations to the cause in Cleveland, Chicago, and Hollywood. In Tinseltown, actor Paul Newman wrote the first check of $1,000, singer Polly Bergen and actor Tony Franciosa, followed suit before Marlon Brando wrote one for $5,000 and Sammy Davis Jr. for $20,000. The Hollywood take was $75,000, and the total for the three cities together was $150,000.

            Birmingham’s dogs, fire hoses, and dynamite and Wallace’s state police had managed to win only minor and temporary victories. In the process, they had doomed their own cause.

            [For more, see Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 by Taylor Branch, Simon & Schuster 1988; The Glory and The Dream: A Narrative History of America 1932-1972 by William Manchester, Little-Brown 1974; 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; 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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