December ’63


December brought its icy, miry roads. The major Union and Confederate armies headed into winter quarters while their leaders took stock and tried to reorganize.

The Army of the Potomac was the first to shut down major combat operations for the season. On Dec. 1, Maj. Gen. George G. Meade withdrew north of the Rapidan River, having failed at Mine Run at the end of November to turn the strongly-positioned right of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

Two days later Confederate Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, with Sherman driving hard toward him from Chattanooga, abandoned his siege of Knoxville. He pulled off northward to winter at Greeneville.

Sherman reached Knoxville on Dec. 6. Just the day before, he had received a startling message from Knoxville commander Ambrose Burnside.

For weeks, Union leaders in Washington had badgered Maj. Gen. U. S. Grant, commanding at Chattanooga, to send reinforcements to raise Longstreet’s siege of Burnside at Knoxville, who was represented as nearly out of supplies. Then on Dec. 5 Sherman got a dispatch from Burnside saying he no longer needed help.

When Sherman and his aides arrived in Knoxville the next day, they saw how true that was. East Tennessee’s predominantly unionist population had been keeping Burnside amply supplied. His troops were eating better than Sherman’s were.

Burnside had done a creditable job of defending Knoxville, but nothing else. Initially, he had been asked to aid Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans, Grant’s predecessor at Chattanooga, and had stayed put. He had done the same thing after Longstreet pulled out to Greeneville, offering no pursuit of the Confederates.

Longstreet’s continued presence in East Tennessee required the Union to keep in the area a significant force that otherwise might have augmented Federals opposing the Confederate Army of Tennessee in Georgia.

On Dec. 9 Burnside, widely criticized for his failings, was relieved of command at his own request. He was replaced by Maj. Gen. J. G. Foster. Longstreet, too, was making changes, dismissing some subordinates against whom he would soon file charges that would not stick.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis had an even larger officer problem. He had stuck with Lt. Gen. Braxton Bragg for far too long as commander of the Army of Tennessee before finally accepting his resignation at the end of November. Now Maj. Gen. William J. Hardee was temporarily in charge, but he refused to accept the job permanently.

Desperate, Davis repeatedly tried to persuade Robert E. Lee to be transferred from the Army of Northern Virginia to the Army of Tennessee. Again and again Lee gently but firmly refused, and Davis refused to order him to do it. So Davis was left with two alternatives, both of them men he deeply disliked: the heroes of First Manassas, P. G. T. Beauregard and Joseph E. Johnston.

On Dec. 16 Davis very reluctantly chose Johnston–who, like Lee, also did not want the job. Davis had no trouble ordering him to take it, though. Relations between that general and Davis had not been good from the start of the war. Some said its seeds were sown far earlier, in a possibly apocryphal fistfight when the two were cadets at West Point.

Whatever the truth of the fistfight, there is no question that for his entire career Johnston had been a jealous seeker of higher grade. In June 1860, he had been named brigadier general and quartermaster general in the U. S. Army, one of its highest ranks. But the appointment was tainted because it was made by Secretary of War John Floyd, a Johnston relative by marriage.

Floyd’s act vaulted Johnston over both Albert Sidney Johnston, no relation, and Robert E. Lee. Lee, earlier a close friend, privately told one of his sons that Joe Johnston had “been advanced beyond anyone in the Army & has thrown more discredit than ever on the system of favoritism…”

Prior rank in the U. S. Army nominally governed the ranks assigned to Confederate officers, but Davis placed Johnston fourth behind Samuel Cooper, Albert Sidney Johnston, and Lee. Joe Johnston protested bitterly.

During his Confederate service, Johnston became identified with Davis’s political opponents. Then his tepid and timid performance in Mississippi, where he was tasked with trying to rescue Lt. Gen. John Pemberton’s doomed army from Vicksburg in Davis’s home state of Mississippi, did not improve their relationship.

But, with Lee refusing to go west, Davis felt he had little choice now. It would be Joe Johnston, for better or worse.

*     *     *

Meanwhile, winter or no, the war kept rearing its head in a variety of places and ways.

On Dec. 8, a gang of Southern sympathizers in Massachusetts hijacked the U. S. merchant ship Chesapeake in waters near Cape Cod and fled toward Canada before being chased and recaptured by Federal ships off Nova Scotia.

Three days later, a Union shell blew up a powder magazine at Fort Sumter. Eleven defenders died and 41 were wounded, but the garrison refused to capitulate.

On Christmas Day, Federal troops captured a salt factory at Bear Inlet, N. C.,, and others skirmished with Native Americans near Fort Gaston in California. The same day, Confederate shore batteries in South Carolina did great damage to a U. S. Navy ship, the Marblehead.

Already raising the temperature of belligerency was the fact that 100,000 African Americans had become U. S. soldiers by the end of the year. Twenty regiments of them had been recruited in the Mississippi Valley alone.

And in an event that must have nettled many in the Confederacy, a dead Confederate general’s wife took the oath of allegiance to the Union. Emily Helm–whose husband, Brig. Gen. Ben Hardin Helm of Kentucky, had been killed at Chickamauga in September–was granted amnesty by Abraham Lincoln.

She was Mrs. Lincoln’s half-sister.

*     *     *

On Dec. 7, both congresses–Union and Confederate–began deliberating, with both chief executives at pains to deal with the lengthening war.

In Washington, Lincoln’s message to the Union lawmakers announced plans for an ever-larger army and arrangements by which whole states could return to the Union. Meanwhile in Richmond Jefferson Davis, with ever-diminishing ranks, was trying to keep his multiplying critics from throttling his administration.

Lincoln’s message, the equivalent of what is now the annual State of the Union speech, promised amnesty to Confederates. It would provide a complete pardon “with restoration of all rights of property except as to slaves” to all but the highest-ranking Confederate officers and officials. These enemy elite would have to swear to be loyal to the U.S. Constitution in the future and promise to obey congressional acts and White House actions on slavery.

To nudge seceded states back into the Union, Lincoln pledged to recognize them as among the United States again as soon as 10 percent of their populations signed the oath of allegiance. He made plain, though, that there would be no regression on the subject of slavery.

“While I remain in my present position,” he said, “I shall not attempt to retract or modify the emancipation proclamation, nor shall I return to slavery any person who is free by the terms of that proclamation.”

But by employing stronger proofs of loyalty and acceptance of emancipation, he obviously hoped to prevent “‘the disturbing element’”–i.e., the same Southern senators and congressmen who had left seats in Washington to secede–from being “brought back into the government” and thereby increasing the probability of “a renewal of the terrible scenes through which we are now passing.”

In Richmond, the Davis haters–led by Senator Henry S. Foote of Mississippi, whom Davis had despised since they had literally had a knock-down-drag-out fistfight and near-duel in the 1840s–went after the Confederate president tooth and tong.

Foote called for a congressional investigation of the disaster at Chattanooga, which Davis, in his state of the Confederacy message, mostly blamed on “misconduct by the troops.” Foote blamed the debacle on Davis for his long retention of Bragg in the Chattanooga command. Then he went on to vilify Davis for placing Davis’s friend Pemberton in command at Vicksburg and for Longstreet’s unsuccessful Knoxville campaign.

On Dec. 14, Foote proposed a resolution prevailing on Davis to remove from command any general not popular with the army and the Confederate populace. He also decried the fact that Bragg had resigned two weeks earlier and yet no permanent replacement had been named.

“The country is tired of the delay, and every moment becomes more and more perilous,” Foote declaimed.

Congress was not nearly Davis’s only travail. Richmond, crammed with refugees from parts of the Confederacy lost to Union armies, was crime-infested and hungry. A Davis friend told the president that the good times of ham, lamb, jelly, and jam were gone and it was now down to grits. Men tried to make counterfeit money to buy exorbitantly priced food, and soldiers were deserting the army to try to go home and make a crop to feed their families. Desertion was punishable by death, and pardoning them was up to Davis.

For Davis and his Confederacy, it was the end of a year of horrors. As the Richmond Examiner put it on Dec, 31:

“Today closes the gloomiest year of our struggle.”

And it was nowhere near over.

[For more information, see The Civil War Almanac by John S. Boatner, Bison Books 1982; Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour by William C. Davis, Harper Collins 1991; Lee by Clifford Dowdey, Little Brown 1965; Reading The Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters by Elizabeth Brown Pryor, Viking 2007; and Lincoln by David Herbert Donald, Simon & Schuster 1995.]


Amid the horror and grief of the first television-covered presidential assassination, a new day had dawned for American civil rights. The nation couldn’t realize that yet–many worried that it had been set back–but glimmers of hope were already beaming across the horizon against the glowering clouds of history.

The new President, perhaps his era’s master politician, seemed to know in his bones that Lee Harvey Oswald’s bullet had changed everything. No longer did a Democratic administration have to tread fearfully, trying to sneak progress past the Solid South. It was the time to push hard into a politics mellowed by mourning.

No one could have been better fitted for the task than the man to whom it fell. For decades Lyndon Johnson had shown the hard-fisted will to capitalize on any advantage.

And now the advantages were not small. One was Johnson himself. This President was not from Massachusetts, historical bastion of elite education, white-collar urbanity, and slavery’s abolition–all historical archenemies of traditional Dixie. Rather, Johnson hailed from a downscale Texas teachers college, wore cowboy hats, and had made the halls of Congress echo with the coarse lingo of ranch hands’ bunkhouses.

Most important, Johnson grasped that his predecessor was more powerful in martyrdom than in life. Many hard days of suffering remained, but the nation now had a leader who would not shrink from using his muscle to liberate the South’s black masses from the terror-filled serfdom that had denied them liberty for a century.

*     *     *

Johnson started by reconnecting, through telephone calls and White House meetings, with onetime fellow progressives from whom he had become estranged during his Dixie rise to power. At the same time, he forged new connections with others he hardly knew.

One of the latter was Dr. Martin Luther King, whom he invited to the White House on Dec. 3. The two huddled for nearly an hour, during which Johnson held forth on how he planned to get President Kennedy’s civil rights bill out of the House Rules Committee by Christmas. The new President surprised King by not even mentioning the pall of rumored Communism hanging over King’s cadre of lieutenants, a bugaboo that had been an enduring Kennedy refrain.

On Dec. 7, Johnson held his presidency’s first news conference and doubtless gladdened the hearts of conservative Southern Democrats by talking about plans to pinch government pennies. Because Mrs. Kennedy and the children had yet to move out of the White House, Johnson and Lady Bird had not moved in, but he projected the image of the hard worker he truly was and the job that had so suddenly fallen on him. He said he felt as if he had already been President a year.

But the conservatism he presented to the cameras was belied behind the scenes. The very afternoon of the press conference, he warned Georgia Sen. Richard Russell, an old friend and mentor, that he was going forward with the Kennedy civil rights bill.

“I’m not going to cavil and I’m not going to compromise,” he said. “I’m going to pass it just as it is, Dick, and if you get in my way I’m going to run you down. I just want you to know that, because I care about you.”

“If you do run over me,” Russell replied, “it will not only cost you the South, it will cost you the election.”

Johnson seemed more worried about his standing with civil rights leaders than with the South to which he was born and bred. He bridled at any press report which implied that he was acting toward African Americans the way they expected a Jim Crow-era Southerner to. When Jet magazine’s Dec. 23 issue incorrectly reported that he had refused to be photographed with King, he dug out the picture from files and got the statement corrected. In a Christmas call to Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, he protested.

“I had my picture made with every damn one of ’em,” he said.

By the time he talked to Wilkins, he was home in Texas for the holidays. There he gave unmistakable indication of not only the new direction he had in mind for his native South but also of his iron determination to take it there.

He took White House secretary Gerri Whittington to a Dec. 31 reception at the Forty Acres Club, an off-campus retreat for faculty members of the University of Texas. Whittington thus became the first African American ever admitted to the club, which then and there forsook discrimination against African Americans for all time. To questions, the management explained its new policy bluntly:

“The President of the United States integrated us on New Year’s Eve.”

*     *     *

Much of the problem, though, would not be so easy. The month offered many examples, including a particularly repellent one in terror-ridden Mississippi.

On Dec. 5 in Oxford, the government presented its case against a county sheriff, a state highway patrolman, a police chief, and two police officers charged with the savage beatings of civil rights workers in the Winona, Miss. jail back in June. The jury deliberated an hour, then exonerated all five.

There were fears for the lives of two prosecution witnesses, both of them black inmates of Parchman Prison who testified they were bribed with a pint of corn whisky to help with the beatings when the lawmen became arm-weary. The defense claimed the charges against the officers were lies inspired by teachers at a “Communist training school” in Tennessee.

Septima Clark of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a onetime teacher at the school they referred to, Highlander Folk School, attended the trial and wrote the school’s director that a man sitting in front of her said of the charges, “I know Russia had something to do with it.”

Discordant notes sounded in the North, too. On Dec. 1 in Harlem, Malcolm X of the Nation of Islam spoke on “God’s Judgment on White America.” He charged the slain President with many failings without ever mentioning the assassination. After the speech, though, somebody in the crowd asked what he thought about the Kennedy murder. Malcolm said he thought it was “chickens coming home to roost” because of white America’s clandestine campaigns against people of other colors around the globe, particularly in Africa and Asia.

He added that the much-noted “climate of hatred” on which the assassination was being blamed was no aberration but, instead, was the norm in America. The crowd cheered the “chickens” remark, so Malcolm added another line that he credited to his roots as a onetime farm boy. Applied to the assassination, it was incendiary.

“Chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad,” Malcolm said. “They’ve always made me glad.”

*     *     *

On Dec. 15 in his hometown of Atlanta, King addressed what the New York Times called “the first civil rights demonstration in the South since President Kennedy’s assassination.”

King had been warned by President Johnson that any new demonstrations would threaten potential passage of the civil rights bill, but he told 4,000 people standing in the rain that “we are the conscience of America and its troubled souls.” He counseled that they follow words of their slave forebears: “Walk together, children, doncha get weary.”

King could have been talking to himself. There was plenty of cause for weariness. His Southern Christian Leadership Conference was beset with mounting unpaid bills; seemingly unceasing legal battles; the resignation of a key King lieutenant, Wyatt Walker, who had demanded a large raise and unquestioned authority over another key lieutenant, the flamboyant, erratic, but brilliant James Bevel; and the problem of whether to replace Walker with fiery Bayard Rustin, who had had extreme leftist ties in the past, or quiet church executive Andrew Young.

King’s biggest problem, though, was one he had no idea the extent of: Director J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.

Reluctantly given a free hand by U.S. Atty. Gen. Robert Kennedy–who knew Hoover had secret information about personal indiscretions of Kennedy’s brother, the assassinated President–Hoover had gone wiretap-happy. Suspecting virtually every civil rights figure of being Communist, he was obsessed with bringing King down. He tapped the civil rights leader’s office, home, and even hotel-room telephones. Agents were instructed to make their reports in two categories, money and sex.

On Dec. 23, seven of the FBI’s top bosses assembled in a session professing to be “aimed at neutralizing King as an effective Negro leader.” The agenda added: “We are most interested in exposing him in some manner or another in order to discredit him.”

The logistics of the Atlanta wiretaps was a tacit admission of illegality. Instead of running the taps from the telephone company to the local FBI office, agents were told to route the King taps through a sham engineering firm for which office furniture was even rented. Fifteen agents were assigned to the job.

The report on the Dec. 23 meeting, which ended on Dec. 24, concluded with an ominous sentence:

“We will, at the proper time, when it can be done without embarrassment to the Bureau, expose King as an immoral opportunist who is not a sincere person but is exploiting the racial situation for personal gain.”

[For more, see Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-65 by Taylor Branch, Simon & Schuster 1998; Racial Matters: The FBI’s Secret File on Black America 1960-1972 by Kenneth O’Reilly, Free Press 1989; 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
This entry was posted in '63, December. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s