The Cherokees are said to have named a north Georgia creek Chickamauga–“River of Death”–because its waters were dangerous to drink. They could not have known how apropos the name would become in September 1863.
Peril would pervade the whole countryside, and the creek would give its Native American name to the bloodiest battle in the Civil War’s western theater.
But the armies of Federal Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans and Confederate General Braxton Bragg had to get to north Georgia first, and that was an involved process. Rosecrans, in masterly maneuvering, had pushed Bragg out of Middle Tennessee in July and August. Now the Federal general wanted to also maneuver Bragg out of Chattanooga, a railroad crossroads whose importance could not be over emphasized.
Rosecrans had made the Confederates withdraw by outflanking them, and now he did it again. By Sept. 4, Union troops had crossed the Tennessee River at Bridgeport and Stevenson, Alabama, southwest of Chattanooga. They were aiming for Bragg’s rear to cut off his supply line to Deep Dixie.
The moves worked to perfection. On Sept. 6, Bragg evacuated Chattanooga. But Rosecrans’s self-congratulation was premature. He assumed that Bragg was retreating, so he widely spaced his units to push through narrow gaps in the Georgia mountains as quickly as possible and follow up the Confederate skedaddle.
But Bragg was not skedaddling. After expecting Rosecrans to attack Chattanooga from the north so as to best maintain communications with Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s Army of the Ohio at Knoxville, the Confederate commander learned that most of Rosecrans’s army was instead well southwest of him. So he had departed Chattanooga only to reach a better point from which to strike Rosecrans’s separated units one at a time.
Meanwhile, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, having recently suffered appalling losses at Gettysburg, Pa., and Vicksburg, Miss., had ordered Bragg to hold Chattanooga. He demanded that Bragg whip Rosecrans and reverse the swelling Union tide. Now, on Sept. 9, Davis detached Longstreet’s corps from Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and sent it down a winding railroad through North Carolina to Bragg.
On Sept. 10, Bragg moved to ambush and defeat a major component of Rosecrans’s army. Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas’s corps, the central of Rosecrans’s three columns, stuck its nose through Stevens’s Gap into a prospective trap called McLemore’s Cove. Bragg, with his troops positioned to take advantage, ordered them to strike.
But they didn’t. First, Maj. Gen. Thomas Hindman moved too slowly and then sent just a scouting party forward. Next, Maj. Gen. D. H. Hill received attack orders, and he too didn’t obey. Bragg himself then vacillated before ordering Hindman, Hill, and Maj. Gen. Simon Buckner all to attack on the morning of Sept. 11. Instead Hindman, who was nearest to the enemy, called a council of war of his subordinates. Bragg angrily ordered him forward again, but by now the Federals had become suspicious and pulled back.
On Sept. 12, Bragg ordered one of his corps commanders, Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk, to launch an attack next morning to the north of Thomas against a Federal corps led by Maj. Gen. Thomas L. Crittenden. Polk outnumbered Crittenden, but he, too, decided to hold a council of war rather than go forward. By then, the Federals had concentrated, making the job more difficult. The opportunity had passed, and Bragg was enraged.
Rosecrans meanwhile began to understand that Bragg, rather than retreating, was looking for a chance to destroy him. Now the Union general, masterly at planning and maneuver but jumpy in execution under fire, reverted to his nervous combat personality. From Sept. 14 through the 17th, the Union general frantically tried to concentrate his separated units, and by the 18th he had them in better, although not perfect, position.
On the Confederate side, Maj. Gen. John Bell Hood arrived with the vanguard of Longstreet’s troops from Virginia. Longstreet and the balance of the corps were following closely. On the night of the 18th, Bragg ordered his more than 60,000 Confederates to attack the Federal left to try to isolate Rosecrans from Chattanooga.
At the same time, Rosecrans was ordering his nearly 60,000 men to attack the Confederate left to try to isolate Bragg from his southward communications.
* * *
While Bragg and Rosecrans jockeyed for position, other events were occurring.
–On Sept. 2, Union Maj. Gen. Burnside had entered Knoxville from eastern Kentucky. President Lincoln and General-in-Chief Henry Halleck quickly began urging Burnside farther southward to aid Rosecrans at Chattanooga. But Burnside stayed put.
–On Sept. 5 near Charleston, S.C., General P. G. T. Beauregard ordered his Confederates to abandon Fort Wagner. But Beauregard retained control of Fort Sumter and other Charleston-protecting installations.
–On Sept. 8, Union Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks failed to plant the Union flag in Texas with an ill-fated army-navy expedition through Sabine Pass along the Louisiana-Texas state line. Lincoln had authorized the move to try to dissuade the French regime in Mexico from invading Texas. The Federals lost about 400 men and two gunboats.
–On Sept. 10, some 12,000 Federals under Maj. Gen. Frederick Steele, employing mostly cavalry clashes, captured the capital of Arkansas–Little Rock–from 12,000 Confederates under Maj. Gen. Sterling Price.
–On Sept. 22, in reaction to the loss of Little Rock, Confederate Col. Jo Shelby started northward from Arkadelphia with 600 horsemen on a fiery, hard-riding raid that would last into October.
–And Union Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant spent the final 26 days of September in bed in excruciating pain.
On Sept. 4, Grant badly injured himself in a horse fall after reviewing troops in a suburb of New Orleans. Perhaps the finest equestrian in the entire dis-United States, Grant was almost certainly drunk when the accident occurred, and it likely happened because he was bored.
After his capture of Vicksburg, Grant had pushed his superiors to let him take Mobile, but Lincoln postponed the Mobile move in the interest of Banks’s Sabine Pass venture. An unoccupied Grant was a danger to himself, and at New Orleans he not only apparently imbibed to excess but also indulged his habit of picking the most spirited horse he could find. On his way back into New Orleans, the whistle of a trolley caused the horse to shy, lunge, and fall, pinning one of Grant’s legs beneath it.
The accident put the Union’s best general in bed for three weeks and on crutches for at least another month.
* * *
At Chickamauga Creek on Sept. 19, action opened on the battlefield’s north end.
Maj. Gen. John Bell Hood had arrived that morning to take command on the Confederate right. His orders were to strike across Chickamauga Creek, then veer leftward, turning the Union left flank and taking position between Rosecrans and Chattanooga. Hood’s troops did that as other Confederates surged forward down the line.
In savage but indecisive fighting, the Confederates crossed the creek and pushed nearly to LaFayette Road, which ran north-south parallelling the stream.
By evening of the 19th, when plans had to be made for the 20th, Bragg’s status as the Confederacy’s least popular general was making itself felt in spades. And amidst this huge battle, he decided to divide his army into two parts and give command of one to the arriving Longstreet. Having three lieutenant generals, he demoted brave and competent but acid-tongued D.H. Hill in favor of the lackluster, equally egotistical Leonidas Polk.
Bragg’s worst problem was with Polk, an Episcopal bishop who had been trained at West Point but had swiftly swapped a soldier’s uniform for a cleric’s vestments.
Bragg verbally ordered Polk to attack at dawn on the 20th but never wrote out the order, a necessity in such a critical situation. Polk ignored the urgency, partaking of a leisurely breakfast. His men did not go forward until 9:30 a.m. Hill assumed operational field control of Polk’s troops and, once Polk sent them forward, handled them well.
The slugfest resumed in all savagery. The crisis came about 11 a.m. when Rosecrans, prevented by some trees from seeing a unit in line in his center, ordered Thomas J. Wood’s division out of its place in line to replace this division that did not need replacing. Wood knew it was a mistake, but just 90 minutes earlier the panicky Rosecrans had publicly upbraided him for not obeying an order. So now Wood obeyed.
By coincidence, in front of Wood’s vacated position, Longstreet had just finished preparations to charge. Longstreet generally seemed to prefer the defensive, but he knew how to mount an offensive, too. He massed his two divisions across a quarter-mile front five brigades deep in a power punch would have penetrated practically any line, let alone one that had a gaping, quarter-mile hole right in front.
Longstreet’s men poured through the hole, and Rosecrans and the whole Federal right fled north toward Chattanooga. Rosecrans’s left, commanded by Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas, intrepidly hung on until nightfall in a hastily-fortified position atop a hill on farm belonging to a family named Snodgrass. These last Federals then retreated.
Bragg had won a great victory, but it cost 18,500 casualties, and he failed to follow it up. Only slowly did he bring his army north to besiege Chattanooga. The shaken Rosecrans considered further retreat. Lincoln compared his behavior to “a duck hit on the head.”
Washington was now in the market for another Chattanooga commander.
[For more, see 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; This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga by Peter Cozzens, University of Illinois Press 1996; Papers of U. S. Grant, John Y. Simon, ed., vol. 9, Southern Illinois University Press, 1964-2008; Chickamauga: Bloody Battle in the West by Glenn Tucker, Bobbs-Merrill 1961; and Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War by Patrica L. Faust, ed., Harper & Row 1986.]
Now came time for implementation of major provisions of the Birmingham settlement, fruit of the victorious spring demonstrations against dogs and firehoses. The burning question was whether white Alabamans would go along with introductory token integration of public schools. The answer was not long coming.
The situation swiftly devolved into a war. The numerous sides included:
–A reelection-minded Kennedy Administration, bent on the seemingly impossible task of holding onto both the Northern black vote (there was then no Southern one) and the majority of Southern whites, who since the Civil War had been Democrats.
–Ambitious Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who hungered to let his state’s racial crisis vault him into a national competition with Kennedy in the 1964 presidential election.
–Birmingham Mayor Albert Boutwell, who tried to fend off school interference by both Wallace’s National Guard and federal troops that could be sent by Kennedy.
–Civil rights leaders who were determined to exploit cracks they had broken in walls banning them from rights of citizenship since Reconstruction.
* * *
The tension exploded–literally–in “Bombingham” on Sept. 5.
Another dynamite blast rocked the Birmingham home of black civil rights attorney Arthur D. Shores. Outraged black Birminghamians hit the streets. Police responded by deploying a riot tank, and the demonstrators started throwing rocks. Armed police killed one demonstrator and sent 21 others to hospitals. That same day, Wallace persuaded Boutwell to postpone the integration of five black students into three Birmingham schools.
The following Monday, Sept. 9, when the five African American students were finally to show up for school, Wallace’s Alabama National Guard was there to prevent them–except at one institution, located in Huntsville, which the Guard unaccountably failed to cover. So six-year-old Sonnie W. Hereford IV became the first black Alabaman to enroll in a previously all-white school in the so-called Heart of Dixie. And the sky did not fall.
But Wallace’s military ploy did. On the next day, Sept. 10, President Kennedy nationalized Wallace’s Guard and ordered it withdrawn from Birmingham, thus allowing black students to enroll. A majority of white students, most doubtless encouraged by their parents, promptly left. But not all. At one high school, football players and cheerleaders demonstrated against rock-throwing anti-integration demonstrators.
Wallace, though, had accomplished his primary goal. On Sept. 13 he flew to Baltimore to announce his candidacy for president in the Maryland Democratic primary.
Then, like a natural disaster of national proportions, came a horror reminding all America of the sadistic heart of white supremacy. On Sunday, Sept. 15, a Ku Klux Klan-planted bomb at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham killed four young female Sunday Schoolers dressed in white to take part in an adult service scheduled a few minutes later. Their bodies were blown apart past recognition, and many other churchgoers, children and adults, were injured.
Many white Southerners blamed the bombing on the marches for civil rights led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. King responded the next day. He said that the bombing was the result of not enough stress on the importance of civil rights, not too much.
An editorial by editor Gene Patterson of the Atlanta Constitution put the blame on white Southerners who “go on electing politicians who heat the kettles of hate”; “who raise no hand to silence the mean and little men who have their nigger jokes”; “who stand aside in imagined rectitude and let the mad dogs that run in every society slide their leashes from our hand, and spring.”
Inspired by reports of a grief-stricken mother of one of the victims gazing in horror on the scene while holding the blood-stained white shoe of her daughter, Patterson continued:
“This is no time to load our anguish onto the murderous scapegoat who set the cap in dynamite of our own manufacture. He didn’t know any better…We, who know better, created a climate for child-killing by those who don’t…We hold that shoe in our hand, white Southerner. Let us see it straight, and look at the blood on it.”
As a result of the bombing, the Saturday Evening Post elected not to publish a diatribe by Richmond, Va., editor James J. Kilpatrick that it had been considering. Kilpatrick’s piece epitomized the white establishment mindset that Patterson decried. Kilpatrick noted accomplishments of various subgenres of the white race and then wrote:
“And where is the Negro in this human parade? There are respected Negro teachers, lawyers, doctors, writers. Of course there are. But in general terms, where is the Negro to be found? Why, sir, he is still carrying the hod. He is still digging the ditch. He is down at the gin mill shooting craps.”
Then, in a final pair of sentences unmistakably demeaning civil rights workers’ continually bloodied demonstrations to remove the walls holding so many black Southern Americans where Kilpatrick said they were, Kilpatrick added:
“He is still lying limp in the middle of the sidewalk, yelling he is equal. The hell he is equal.”
This was too much for even the conservative Post. It returned the piece to Kilpatrick terming it “bad taste in the extreme” and “inflammatory.” It neglected, however, to denounce the piece for what it was: quintessential intellectual dishonesty.
Hell no, he wasn’t equal. He–and she–had never been allowed to be.
* * *
The aftermath of the Birmingham church bombing prompted one of the giants of the movement to return to the forefront with another radical proposal.
Diane Nash had been raising the daughter who nearly had been born in a Dixie prison–and only hadn’t been because a Mississippi judge, quailing at the prospect of the worldwide publicity the birth would have generated, bowed to Nash’s steel determination and awarded her the freedom she had refused to ask for.
But all along Nash had balanced her child-rearing responsibilities with infusing her iron will and intellectual prowess into the great Birmingham street campaign of the spring. There she had contributed the key to victory, insisting–along with her husband, James Bevel–that King put children on the front lines of demonstrators facing dogs and firehoses and let their agony grab the attention of the nation.
The Birmingham church bombing made Nash and Bevel so angry they nearly renounced the nonviolence they had scrupulously espoused since joining the movement in Nashville in 1960. They first thought of investigating the Birmingham murders, discovering the identity of the bombers, and hunting down and killing them.
But they settled on an alternative: a massive assault on Alabama society.
Nash had committed to paper a detailed plan to shut down the state’s government and drive from office Wallace and his hated highway patrol chief, Col. Al Lingo. She provided a blueprint for the raising of a huge nonviolent army that would encircle the state capital in Montgomery and bring its operations to a standstill. She wrote that the job would consist of such tactics as “severing communication from state capitol bldg…Lying on railroad tracks, runways, and bus driveways…Close down the power company.”
But Dr. King, to whom she submitted this proposal, passed. He was too busy preaching funerals of the just-murdered then to think about longer-range measures. He also had an upcoming meeting with President Kennedy about the crisis. So he rejected the idea of a strategy session to implement Nash’s plan. Angered, she thought he was too mesmerized by the prospect of more talks with national political figures.
On Sept. 19, King met with Kennedy in Washington, but under circumstances that proved humiliating. Just before he arrived, the Administration announced that it saw no legal precedent for sending federal marshals into Birmingham. Instead it named two people to mediate the crisis, a corporate attorney and Earl “Red” Blaik, a famous West Point football coach whose teams never included an African American.
* * *
John Lewis, 23-year-old chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, had endured beatings on picket lines and Freedom Rides and was as iron-willed as Nash. In the meeting with King, Lewis had supported her idea of shutting down Montgomery.
But SNCC’s radicalism had become even more of a movement outlier after Lewis’s uncompromising speech in the March on Washington on Aug. 28. So Lewis, Nash, and others realized they would have to act on their own, without King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. As Lewis himself later wrote:
“Diane’s vision of a ‘move’ that fall did not die after that meeting with King.”
Rather, its scope quickly became the blueprint for Deep South freedom campaigns. SNCC decided to hold a mock election by Mississippi African Americans to dramatize how they had been shut out of the white voting process. They put forward candidates for a so-called Freedom Party.
But SNCC didn’t forget Alabama. On Sept. 23, Lewis flew into Selma, where nearly 200 Alabama state troopers had arrested 63 people and had beaten others in demonstrations that erupted the day after the Birmingham church bombing.
On Sept. 24, Lewis himself joined the Selma demonstrators. He was quickly arrested by troopers using electric cattle prods.
[For more see Parting The Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 by Taylor Branch, Simon & Schuster 1988; The Race Beat: The Press, The Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff, Random House 2006; and Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement by John Lewis with Michael D’Orso, Simon & Schuster 1998.]
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