January ’64


In 1861, many ebullient Southerners likely took for granted that their secession and the war it produced would enhance the South’s economy and harm the North’s. If so, they erred dramatically.

By January 1864, the beginning of the war’s fourth calendar year, whole sections of the South were laid waste and starving, while the North had become an economic colossus.

The North had both a multiplicity of raw materials and, most crucially, a manufacturing infrastructure already in place in 1861, and by the dawn of 1864 each of these had grown exponentially. The urgency of war had thrown companies that had been sleepily conservative into frenzied exertion to create great enterprises whose financial appetites and production ambitions were enormous.

The war’s cost in human life to the North, although not as great as in the South, was nevertheless huge. Innumerable rural communities across the Northeast and Midwest, just as in the South, were losing so many young, vigorous males that they would require decades to recover, if ever.

But the war’s economic effect in the North was another story. Loss of Southern markets to secession turned out to be barely a hiccup to Northeastern and Midwestern farmers. In addition to the great food supplies they were raising to feed the Union armies, they prodiced even more–and sent them to Europe in great and greater volumes.

Beef exports in the North rose from $1.3 million in 1861 to $2.8 million in 1863. Within one year during the war, Chicago doubled its stockyards’ meat-packing capacity by building two dozen packing houses. Between 1860 and 1865, the annual number of hogs slaughtered there more than tripled, from 270,000 to nearly a million.

Where Northern hog farmers had formerly sent salted pork down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to the South, they now sent it to the East and Europe via fast-multiplying railroads–which were also helping to enrich their stockholders by moving troops. Shipbuilding, and American naval power, also grew wildly, thanks to the needs of the war-long blockade of Southern ports. From March 1861 through the end of 1862 alone, the U.S. Navy grew from 42 ships to 427.

Despite the absence of the 11 Southern states, the total national product of the Union increased from $3.8 billion to $4 billion from 1860 to 1864.

Money for industrial development, scarce earlier, could by 1864 be had in fantastic sums. According to an 1863 issue of the American Railroad Journal, people “who, as the country entered upon ‘an era of national debt,’ saw nothing before it but widespread ruin,” turned out to be emphatically wrong. A number of New York banks were now able to pay out as much as $500,000 in cash per month–whereas they couldn’t have managed a tenth of that when they opened for business. In four years, bank stocks had tripled.

“The Yankees did not whip us in the field,” one Confederate leader would soon say. “We were whipped in the Treasury Department.”

The war the Charleston cannons had touched off was showing the remaining United States what an economic powerhouse it could be. 

                                                            *     *     *

Dixie’s deprivation continued to mount.

–On Jan. 4, Confederate President Jefferson Davis grew more unpopular by authorizing General Robert E. Lee to take from Virginia farmers the food and forage needed by his army. The farmers, many of whom had seen their land fought over and pillaged by both sides, were in many cases as hungry as the soldiers

–On a happier note, in Richmond on Jan. 8 Confederates celebrated the return of one of their most dashing heroes. Brig. Gen. John Hunt Morgan, the daring cavalry leader, had escaped from a federal maximum-security penitentiary in Columbus, Ohio. Treated as no more than a common criminal rather than a prisoner of war, he had been incarcerated for several months after his capture in July ended a disastrous–yet fame-enhancing–raid north of the Ohio River.

The general and six comrades tunneled out of the prison on Nov. 27. He and four of the six made their way south; the other two were recaptured in Louisville, Ky. On Jan. 8, Morgan received an adoring public in the Confederate capital.

–On Jan. 18, gatherings in North Carolina decried the Confederate law conscripting white males between 18 and 45. Such protests could be of little avail in a Confederacy increasingly outmanned by a much more populous North that now was also enlisting fugitive slaves and other African Americans. The Confederate government would soon dig even deeper into its civilian population, revising conscription eligibility to men between 17 and 50.

On Jan. 27 General Braxton Bragg, who had resigned his command of the Army of Tennessee following its dramatic defeat at Chattanooga, was called to Richmond to confer with President Davis, provided Bragg’s health allowed it. Bragg was said to have been in ill health during much of his tenure of command and was reportedly suffering from headaches. Many, if not most, of his erstwhile soldiers thought he was a headache.

Desertion was rampant South and North. On Jan. 7, President Abraham Lincoln vacated an order for the execution of a deserter from the Union army. “I’m trying,” the President said wryly, “to evade the butchering business lately.”

On Jan. 13, Lincoln urged Union officials in Florida and Louisiana to begin organizing Union governments in their states as fast as possible under provisions of his recent Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction. Eight days later, unionists in Tennessee made plans to schedule a constitutional convention for the same purpose.

On Jan. 23, Lincoln approved a system under which freed slaves in captured territories could begin to work for their former masters for pay.  Maj. Gen. U. S. Grant would later believe he had had an unwitting hand in initiating this system during the Vicksburg campaign.

Needing some way to occupy and aid the mobs of liberated slaves that approached his lines, Grant saw that the “plantations were all deserted; the cotton and corn were ripe; men, women, and children above ten years of age could be employed in saving these crops.”

So Grant pressed into the breach Chaplain John Eaton, and “we together fixed the prices to be paid for Negro labor, whether rendered to the government or to individuals….Citizens remaining on their plantations were allowed the privilege of having their crops saved by freedmen on the same terms.”

                                                            *     *     *

The brightest of the fast-dimming hopes of the Confederacy now lay in Europe, but that was increasingly problematical, too.

The celebrated/infamous Confederate spy Rose Greenhow wrote Jefferson Davis from France on Jan. 2 that she had “come to the conclusion that we have nothing to hope from this side of the Channel.” She thought the Confederate effort in Paris was futile because the Confederacy’s delegated minister, John Slidell of Louisiana, cared more about Parisian socializing than about advancing his government’s diplomatic interests.

On Jan. 11, the fearless Greenhow wrote directly to Emperor Napoleon III and got an interview. Napoleon was courteous, but when asked directly to grant French recognition of the Confederacy he told Greenhow: “I wish to God I could. But I cannot do it without England.”

She soon wrote Davis again, saying she believed more than ever that England was the only hope. She then made preparations to re-cross the English Channel to concentrate her efforts there. 

                                                            *     *     *   

With most of the armies idled by winter, the war’s most effective general fidgeted, wanting to stay busy.

Grant, the Union’s preeminent officer by virtue of his victories at Vicksburg and Chattanooga, thought wintry conditions in the border states constituted no reason to stop work in the warmer Deep South. He hated the idea of giving the Confederacy a season to recuperate and perhaps recapture initiative.

What he wanted to do was take Mobile and then range inland to destroy Confederate war-making capacity in the southern sections of Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. He thought that would force Lee to leave Virginia to come south to save his supply bases.

Lincoln and General-in-Chief Henry Halleck doubted such a campaign would draw Lee out of the Old Dominion. And they were much more interested in seeing Confederate Lt. Gen. James Longstreet run out of upper East Tennessee, where he had retreated after his failed campaign to take Knoxville. Winter in the Tennessee mountains, Grant knew, would prevent Longstreet’s ejection until April at least, and Grant hated to give the Confederates that much time.

He began working on the art of the possible. By the end of January he had decided to send Sherman back to Vicksburg. From there, Sherman would take the Vicksburg army eastward all the way across Mississippi to Meridian, wrecking the railroad that connected the two cities and pillaging the countryside to such an extent that it could be of no further help to the Confederate war effort.

Grant and Sherman hoped to give the Confederates no respite to devise a new campaign of their own.

[For more, see War for the Union: The Organized War, 1863-1864 by Allan Nevins, Scribners 1959; The Civil War Almanac by John S. Boatner, ed., Bison Books 1982; Rebel Raider: The Life of General John Hunt Morgan by James Ramage, University Press of Kentucky 1986; A World On Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War by Amanda Foreman, Random House 2010; Personal Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant  (reissue), Penguin Classics 1999.]


The new year was not a week old when a key–and ridiculous–civil rights case from Alabama reached the docket of the nation’s highest court.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s visit to Washington for the Supreme Court deliberations would give sensational grist to the shameful mill of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who seemed obsessed with King’s sex life. But just two weeks later Hoover would learn that the presidential replacement for assassinated John F. Kennedy would be less easy for him to bully into ostracizing King.

Lyndon Johnson could be a bully himself. He was no man to be pushed around.

                                                *     *     *

The Supreme Court case–The New York Times v. Sullivan–originated in a 1960 advertisement placed in the Times by friends of King. Its purpose was to raise funds to defend him against incessant attacks by attorneys representing, as the ad put it, “Southern violators of the Constitution.”

Birmingham Police Commissioner L. B. Sullivan was not mentioned in the ad, but he claimed to be defamed by it by inference. He and other plaintiffs sued the Times and four of King’s preacher colleagues–Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth, Joseph Lowery, and S. S. Seay–whose names appeared in small print at the ad’s bottom. A lower court decision in Alabama had awarded the plaintiffs $500,000, the largest libel settlement in Alabama history. It also had confiscated cars and land belonging to the four ministers.

The Supreme Court deliberated for two days, and on the overnight of Jan. 6-7 King and his party returned to their rooms at the Willard Hotel with no idea of the technological ambush awaiting them.

FBI men working for Hoover had previously gotten from the Willard not only information as to which rooms King would be using but also permission to bug every one of them. How else, after all, was the Willard management to respond to a request from the FBI?

That night produced several reels of tape for Hoover’s eager ears, and it was potentially disastrous for King. It captured the sounds of an apparent orgy, with King himself crying out in profane joy during the amatory antics.

Hoover, whose job was supposed to be catching criminals instead of philanderers, reacted with racist exultation.

“This will destroy the burrhead!” he crowed on Jan. 7. In a memo, he soon wrote that “King is a ‘tomcat’ with obsessive, degenerate sexual urges,” and the next day, Jan. 8, the FBI’s assistant director restated the Bureau’s aim “to take (King) off his pedestal and to reduce him completely in influence.”

Hoover’s men then decided to suggest to the IRS a fuller scrutiny of King’s tax returns. Thus one of the most powerful agencies of the U. S. government planned to enlist another one in its rogue intent to ruin one of the nation’s most morally-concerned, if morally flawed, citizens.

Hoover and his aides pondered whether to let the tapes be heard by Hoover’s boss, Atty. Gen. Robert Kennedy. One aide suggested that if Kennedy heard them he might chide King and alert him to the need to change his behavior, thus depriving Hoover of more ammunition for his campaign to marginalize King.

“No,” Hoover decreed. “A copy need not be given AG.”

He had been ignoring Kennedy since Nov. 22, anyway. Perhaps he assumed that assassination of the Attorney General’s brother, the President, had robbed “AG” of his power. Hoover wanted to ingratiate himself with the new power, President Johnson.  On Jan. 14, he had an aide deliver transcripts of the Willard recordings to the White House, and the aide reported that Johnson had appeared impressed.

Maybe not, though, as it turned out. Almost immediately Johnson, instead of appearing repelled by King, seemed determined to get closer to the civil rights leader. White House spokesmen announced that Johnson had personally asked King, NAACP leader Roy Wilkins, James Farmer of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Urban League’s Whitney Young to meet with him on Jan. 18.

That meeting offered King and the others a pleasant surprise. Unlike his predecessor, who had continually prevailed on them to accept less than they wanted in congressional legislation, Johnson assured them that he was going to get the pending civil rights bill passed “without a word or a comma changed.” Hoover, when he heard about the meeting, must have been jolted.

In addition to the civil rights bill, Johnson was mulling even more congressional help for the disadvantaged. In his State of the Union speech on Jan. 8, he had called for a “war against poverty,” and in the Jan. 18 meeting he asked the civil rights leaders for their views, and notably not just on race.

On Monday, Jan. 20, King met at Black Mountain in North Carolina with twenty-some of his own advisers to talk about Johnson’s strong stance in their behalf. They debated whether to address white poverty as well as black, which would dilute some of the power of their message on the severity of the strictures of the white power structure on Southern African Americans.

In the manuscript of a book being rushed into print, King decided to try to do both, decrying the economic injustices associated with race but changing a proposed “Negro Bill of Rights” to a “Bill of Rights of the Disadvantaged.”

 The tide appeared to be turning, but King remained a target of Caucasian hate. The airline flight on which he left Asheville on Jan. 22 was delayed for three hours by a bomb threat. On the 26th, a man called the Denver, Colo., fire department to warn that a bomb would destroy a church in which King was preaching. In Milwaukee on the 29th, there was yet another bomb threat against an auditorium in which he was holding a rally.

Milwaukee police told King that FBI bomb experts had been told of the situation. The police of course had no more idea than King that the FBI cared only that such threats might inhibit the King private life that so enthralled the Bureau’s obsessed director.

                                                *     *     *

On the ground in Mississippi, the situation remained grim–but sudden and astonishing rays of promise appeared.

A rainy Tuesday, Jan. 22, had been designated Freedom Day in Hattiesburg. It was to be a voter registration demonstration at the Forrest County Courthouse by leaders of the Mississippi movement–and some Northern clergymen. The establishment reaction dumbfounded the authors of the “day.” Their effort turned into the first state-protected civil rights demonstration in the history of Mississippi.

“We got to protect the niggers that want to vote,” one of the chagrined assembled policemen explained to an aghast observer.

There were, of course, special reasons for this turnaround. Forrest County Registrar Theron Lynd was fighting a federal lawsuit over his failure to allow even one of his county’s 8,000-plus blacks to register in more than three years, and the establioshment did not want the negative publicity of having its officers attack Northern–white–clergymen.

So they gave in, a little. While whites could roam the courthouse at will, the black registration-seekers were only allowed into the building four at a time. Others had to stand outside in the rain while Lynd and his staff slow-walked each quartet, taking one applicant at a time.

Outside, SNCC leader Bob Moses, a thorn in the Mississippi establishment’s side for three years, tried to help a potential registrant into the courthouse. When a policeman tried to arrest him for disturbing the peace, Moses said he was going to make a citizen’s arrest of the policeman for violating federal law. SNCC chairman John Lewis called on FBI agents present to help Moses enforce federal statutes prohibiting interference with people lawfully trying to register. The FBI men ignored Lewis, merely noting the proceedings in their notebooks. The police took Moses to jail.

The demonstrators grabbed the minimal advantage they had so unexpectedly gained. They stunned the establishment by refusing to break up, instead standing all day in the rain. Throughout the next day, Jan. 23, they marched again. Then they attended Moses’s trial that evening, sitting together in defiance of the courtroom’s ritual segregation.

There they won another little victory. After they refused an order to segregate themselves, the female judge allowed them to stay where they were, “provided you do not create a disturbance.” It was the first courtroom integration in Hattiesburg history.

Freedom Day turned into a protracted siege of the Forrest County courthouse. It continued through–and beyond–the month’s last day, when Moses bonded out of jail.

Meanwhile, reinforcements streamed in. New waves of ministers and student volunteers from the Midwest, the Mountain West, and the Northeast answered the call to help stop Mississippi’s determined miscarrying of justice.

[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 In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s by Clayborne Carson, Harvard University Press 1981.]

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 www.hydraislandgreece.com.
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