The bloody September battle along Chickamauga Creek and its aftermath pushed Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis toward major changes in October.
The administration in Washington had seen its Chickamauga commander, William S. Rosecrans, flee the field in advance of his half-routed army. He then withdrew into Chattanooga and considered further retreat. In Richmond, Davis saw his Chickamauga commander, Braxton Bragg, make no immediate pursuit and proceed to engage in prolonged recriminations with subordinates. Meanwhile, Bragg besieged Rosecrans in Chattanooga.
Lincoln had learned at Chickamauga a lesson that such previous Rosecrans superiors as U. S. Grant had already absorbed: Rosecrans was a master of maneuver but dangerously shaky under battlefield stress. Davis, meanwhile, knew that the testy Bragg was not well-liked by his peers, and Davis now discovered how deep the problem ran.
At all costs, Lincoln wanted to hang onto the vital fruit of Rosecrans’s maneuvering. That was the town of Chattanooga, strategic nexus of important railroads from Virginia to Georgia and from the Carolinas westward. To that end, the Union president had transferred 20,000 men from the eastern front under Maj. Gen. “Fighting Joe” Hooker to reinforce Rosecrans. The problem was, could they get there?
On Oct. 2, Hooker’s infantrymen and 3,000 horses and mules began arriving at Bridgeport, Ala. Bridgeport was about 25 crow’s-flight miles from Chattanooga but more than twice that distance by the rugged mountain road that was the sole route still open.
The Union problem was illustrated and exacerbated by Confederate cavalry raids that Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler led across Middle and East Tennessee. On Oct. 5, Wheeler’s men struck and destroyed a bridge over Stones River in Murfreesboro on Rosecrans’s rail supply line from Nashville. Federals in Chattanooga, already on short rations, now saw them shortened further. Around them, their draft mules and horses were dying of starvation.
On Oct. 10, Jefferson Davis arrived at Bragg’s headquarters to attempt a personal mediation of the disputes Bragg and his subordinates had with each other. Bragg said they wouldn’t follow orders, while they said he was incompetent.
Bragg’s enemies included many of the best-known Confederate generals: James Longstreet, Leonidas Polk, recent U.S. Vice President John C. Breckinridge, Daniel Harvey Hill, Simon Buckner, and at least eight others. All but Breckinridge signed a petition to Davis for Bragg’s removal, and Breckinridge declined only because he thought that addition of his name would lessen the document’s chance of success. In the end, the petition was never mailed, but Davis nevertheless came to resolve the crisis.
With Rosecrans, the situation was almost reversed, with his civilian superiors being the ones most vocal about his fitness for command. On Oct. 16, Lincoln combined the unwieldy and sometimes contentious departments of the Ohio, Cumberland, and Tennessee and placed them all under the victor of Vicksburg, Maj. Gen. U. S. Grant. He then ordered Grant north from Mississippi.
On Oct. 17, Grant met Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton at Louisville, Ky. Stanton told him he could choose between two sets of orders. One retained Rosecrans in the Chattanooga command. The other replaced him with George Thomas, whose afternoon stand had kept the Chickamauga battle from becoming a total Union debacle.
Grant chose Thomas. Grant might already have been ordered to Chattanooga himself had he not been so badly hurt in the horse fall in New Orleans in September. He was still in great pain and on crutches, but he decided not to leave the Chattanooga situation to Thomas alone. Instead, he headed there himself, pain or no. In the meantime, he ordered Thomas to hold Chattanooga “at all hazards.” The reply came back as succinct and stolid as Thomas himself:
“We will hold the town till we starve.”
* * *
While these things occurred below the Ohio River and the Mason-Dixon Line, ones just as important transpired above those traditional sectional boundaries: Elections.
Democrats in the North had wildly assailed Lincoln, emancipation, and the war effort with all the vituperative venom they possessed. In state after state, their nominees condemned Lincoln’s high-handed denial of writs of habeas corpus and advocated rolling back black freedom and making peace with the Confederacy.
They went too far. Significant numbers of Northern Democrats had sons in uniform and were repelled by the extremism of their party’s nominees. They responded by either voting Republican or staying away from the polls.
On Oct. 18 at Chattanooga, unit after unit of hungry Ohio infantrymen threw their hats in the air and repeatedly hurrahed news that the Republican nominee for governor, John Brough, had beaten exiled Copperhead Clement Vallandigham by 100,000 votes.
The news, if not the margins, was similar in many other states where the outcomes had once been questionable. These included New York, Pennsylvania, Maine, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, and Maryland. In the all-important halls of Congress, Union backers became the majority–90 Republicans and so-called War Democrats against 72 opposition Democrats and Whigs. There were also 14 border state representatives of varying sentiment.
It was an ill omen for Confederate hopes that the North would tire of fighting.
* * *
The fighting meanwhile continued.
Army of Northern Virginia commander Robert E. Lee, despite being outnumbered, moved on Oct. 9 to try to capitalize on the North’s transfer of Hooker’s 20,000 men to Chattanooga. Lee moved northwest from behind the Rappahannock River toward Manassas and the rear of the Union Army of the Potomac’s right flank.
Skirmishing was frequent. As Union commander George Meade slowly withdrew, Lee ordered an attack by Maj. Gen. A. P. Hill on Oct. 14 at Bristoe Station. Hill forced Meade farther north toward the Potomac, but Meade’s withdrawal was orderly, and the Confederates lost 1,900 men to Meade’s 548. By Oct. 20, Lee had returned to his old line behind the Rappahannock.
On Oct. 16 and again on the 20th, Lincoln pressed Meade to attack Lee, but Meade could find no opening he liked.
The struggles for Charleston, S.C., the seat of secession, continued. They included novel measures. On Oct. 5, a Confederate ancestor of the modern submarine, the so-called semi-submersible craft David, torpedoed and extensively damaged a comparative Goliath in Charleston Harbor, the Union ironclad gunboat New Ironsides. It was the first successful such Confederate attack of the war.
It was also highly unusual. Another primitive Confederate sub, the H. L. Hunley, having already been retrieved from the ocean floor once, sank again on a practice dive. Its inventor and seven crew members drowned.
On Oct. 29, the Federals fired nearly 2,700 shells into Fort Sumter. In shelling that would go on for days, they would kill 33 Confederate defenders of the facility, but the survivors would not surrender.
* * *
Meanwhile, events were progressing at Chattanooga.
President Davis listened to the myriad complaints of Bragg’s subordinates, then on Oct. 18 ruled that Bragg would retain command. Instead of Bragg, Bragg’s foremost long-term complainer, Polk, would go. Davis reassigned him to Mississippi.
On Oct. 23, Grant–so injured that aides had to take him in their arms to remove him from his mount–arrived in Chattanooga after a hellish six-day trip through rain, mud, and another horse fall. He had had to take the 60-mile mountain road, passing thousands of carcasses of starved mules and horses, so he had had a firsthand look at his re-supply problem.
On arriving, he got what aides felt was a chilly reception from Thomas, who may have been miffed that Grant thought the Virginian had to be told to hold Chattanooga. Grant did not eat anything or change his muddy pants before requesting and receiving a briefing on the situation. He quickly approved a subordinate’s suggested solution.
On Oct. 26, Hooker’s men crossed the Tennessee River at Bridgeport and headed for Chattanooga. Just hours later, very early on the morning of the 27th, some 1,500 Federals floated down the Tennessee from Chattanooga to Brown’s Ferry and wrested it from a small, surprised force of Confederates. The Union detachment quickly laid a pontoon bridge for Hooker’s men to cross.
On the night of Oct. 28, Longstreet discovered a Hooker division posted alone at Wauhatchie. Bragg ordered Longstreet to make a night attack, which was highly unusual. It was also confused and unsuccessful. Both sides lost more than 400 casualties, and the attack achieved nothing.
The “cracker line,” as the hungry soldiers termed it, was suddenly open. Reinforcements had begun to reach besieged Chattanooga, and food and forage were soon to follow.
Soon Grant could do what he wanted to. Attack.
[For more see The Civil War Almanac by John S. Boatner, ed., Bison Books 1982; War for the Union 1863-64 by Allan Nevins, Charles Scribner’s Sons 1947; Grant by Jean Edward Smith, Simon & Schuster 2001; The Shipwreck of Their Hopes: The Battles for Chattanooga by Peter Cozzens, University of Illinois Press 1994; This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga by Peter Cozzens, University of Illinois Press 1996; and The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War by David J. Eicher, Simon & Schuster 2001]
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech at the March on Washington in late August had made him the unquestioned leader of the civil rights movement, but by October that status was proving to be no blessing.
It had made King an even bigger target of not just virulent Dixie racism, which was unfortunately natural, but also of J. Edgar Hoover’s obsessively anti-communist FBI, which wasn’t. For both reasons, King became an even greater danger to the Kennedy administration, which had very weakly championed his cause, anyway.
King’s resources shrank as his national profile rose.
–FBI scrutiny and insistence by Attorney General Robert Kennedy had caused King to part ways with prime fundraiser Stan Levison, whom FBI Director Hoover stoutly maintained–with no hard evidence whatsoever–was a tool of Moscow. Kennedy knew better, but was reluctant to oppose Hoover, who held damaging personal secrets on Kennedy’s brother, the President.
–The staff at King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta was in turmoil, partly because King refused to discipline an erratic but brilliant young subordinate, James Bevel, for bridling under the rigid and commanding leadership style of a more senior aide, Wyatt T. Walker. On Oct. 3, Walker said he was quitting.
With these deepening problems in his ranks as well as in his SCLC pocketbook, King had to increasingly divide his energies. He must continue to field White House protests against his threats of street demonstrations for African American rights on the one hand while, on the other, encouraging local campaigns in the most dangerous citadels of virulent and violent racism in Deep Dixie.
* * *
On Oct. 4, a Friday, Hoover’s second-in-command formally requested that his boss try to enlarge the Bureau’s already-considerable effort to catch King consorting with Communists. Assistant Director William Sullivan asked Hoover to get Robert Kennedy to approve the wiretapping of King’s home in Atlanta.
This was a particularly vulnerable time for the Kennedys. Investigating the President’s personal relationship with women had been an ongoing interest of Hoover, and one of these women, named Ellen Rometsch, now became an object of frantic Kennedy concern. Her roots in Communist East Germany promised to make her doubly interesting to the obsessive Hoover.
Rometsch’s looks were compared by a contemporary to those of actress Elizabeth Taylor. She had been brought into the circle of Washington’s powerful men by Bobby Baker, a protégé of Vice President Lyndon Johnson when Johnson was still the U. S. Senate’s Democratic leader. But Baker was becoming a huge liability. He was about to be sued by a contractor for not delivering on a contract the contractor had paid him to get. This threatened to bring Rometsch into newspaper headlines.
The Kennedys had secretly deported Rometsch back to Europe in August, but now, thanks to Baker, Europe began to seem not far enough away. With Hoover becoming more dangerous than ever, Robert Kennedy could not just brusquely reject the request to wiretap the King home.
On Oct. 10, the Senate ordered its Rules Committee to investigate Baker. On the same day, Robert Kennedy met with Courtney Evans, his liaison with the FBI, to urge the Bureau to forget its latest King wiretap request. Kennedy reasoned that the best way to get evidence of Levison’s alleged communist influence on King was the already-existing wiretap on Levison, the alleged Communist. But the Levison wiretap had produced nothing having to do with communism, just information on inner workings of the SCLC.
Kennedy added that wiretapping King’s home, if it ever became public, would be a political disaster for the Administration. Not only had King’s national profile been enhanced by the March on Washington, but also the Birmingham church bombing that killed four African American girls had boosted national support for his cause.
There was something else, too. Kennedy did not mention, but had to have known, that if he folded under the pressure and granted the Hoover request, it would hand Hoover a club to hold over him and his brother for the rest of their time in the White House.
The FBI refused to let the Administration off the hook, though, and Kennedy caved and signed off on the new King wiretaps. He later said there would be “no living with” Hoover if he hadn’t.
* * *
King did not let up on his pressure on the Administration, either.
With the SCLC coffers empty of bail money, he could not encourage more supporters to go to jail in further demonstrations. But he also could not let up and lose the momentum that prior ones had already won. So he ran frantically around the country threatening demonstrations that he knew could not be launched.
He visited Birmingham four times in October. On Oct. 8 Selma, Ala., civil rights worker Amelia Boynton invited him there to speak in support of a voter registration campaign she had initiated. October 7 had been “Freedom Day” in Selma, a day when some 350 local blacks had defied local authorities and queued up in front of the Selma voter registration office on one of two days when citizens could apply to register.
The line of black registration candidates hardly moved all day. The people in it had to stand under the withering gaze of more than 100 police officers and four FBI agents as well as the more sympathetic eyes of two Justice Department lawyers and a couple of dozen reporters and photographers.
At the end of the day, only a very few people had been allowed in to even apply to register, and two volunteers who tried to go around the police to offer those in line sandwiches while they waited were clubbed to the ground and arrested. The ridiculous charge against them was “interfering” with those attempting to get the right to vote.
It was a measure of just how vicious and thoroughgoing South Alabama racism was that Boynton and others felt the day to have been a success. Just standing in the line was an act of heroism. Never before had anywhere near that number of African Americans in Selma summoned the courage to ask for this fundamental right of citizens.
King made it to Selma on Oct. 15. He came in a rental car borrowed from a black Justice Department employee because at the last minute an SCLC vehicle was unable to make the trip and the Justice staffer was staying at the same Birmingham motel King was. On Oct. 18, Alabama Gov. George Wallace charged that the Justice Department had conveyed King to Selma and thus was sponsoring subversion of Alabama law.
* * *
Selma’s “Freedom Day” took its inspiration from a larger effort unfolding in Mississippi. On Oct. 14, indomitable grassroots civil rights leader Bob Moses announced that the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee would hold a mock election to demonstrate black Mississippians’ desire to vote–and dramatize the fact that they were prohibited from it.
The grand scale of the Mississippi idea, in part, took its inspiration from the massive one the implacable Diane Nash submitted in vain to King following the Birmingham church bombing that killed the four girls.
Whereas the Nash plan was to paralyze Alabama’s white racist establishment with massive nonviolent sit-ins in government offices and lie-ins on state highways and airport runways, the Mississippi plan would present a statewide Freedom slate of candidates for governor and lieutenant governor and get as many “votes” as possible by canvassing the state’s black counties where only a tiny fraction of the population was allowed an actual ballot.
With help from about 80 white students from Yale and Stanford, they collected 90,000. A mere fraction of the black population of Mississippi, it was nevertheless an impressive number of people who dared to challenge Mississippi’s too-often-murderous racist power structure.
* * *
Back in Washington, J. Edgar Hoover continued his bullying of a Kennedy Administration hampered by its leader’s intimate indiscretions. On Oct. 21, Robert Kennedy approved a second Hoover wiretap of King, this time of his SCLC offices.
Then Kennedy learned that Hoover was circulating through the Pentagon an FBI report describing King as “an unprincipled man” who was “knowingly, willingly, and regularly” getting advice from communists.
Kennedy angrily asked why the Pentagon. What connection could the Army have to the communism Hoover alleged King was being influenced by? On Oct. 25, Kennedy got Hoover to promise to recall the report to prevent leaks, but the harm was done.
Rain continued to pour. On Oct. 26 an Iowa newspaper broke the story that “party girl” Rometsch had been deported and that she had links to U.S. “officials of high rank.”
On Oct. 28, Kennedy walked to Hoover’s office, rather than haling the FBI director to his, to ask Hoover to urge senators investigating Bobby Baker to confine their probe to the security aspects of the Rometsch case, not its other details. Those could harm the United States, the Attorney General said.
All this further armed Hoover–and hurt King, who had no clue as to how closely he was beginning to be listened to.
[For more, see Parting The Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 by Taylor Branch, Simon & Schuster 1988; Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-65 by Taylor Branch, Simon & Schuster 1998; In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s by Clayborne Carson, Harvard University Press 1981; and Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement by John Lewis, Simon & Schuster 1998.]
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