February ’64

1864

The winter war–the one with which Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant were determined to give the Confederates no respite–continued.

Lincoln was meanwhile deciding to put Grant, his most successful general, in charge of all Union forces. The master politician, however, first had to make certain Grant would not bite the hand that fed him. Grant’s congressional sponsor, Illinois congressman and Lincoln adviser Elihu Washburne, assured the Chief Executive that the general had no presidential ambitions.

Washburne knew whereof he spoke. Grant, as a soldier, cared little for politics or politicians. In January, he replied immediately and emphatically to a leader of the Ohio Democratic Party who had written seeking permission to nominate him.

“The question astonishes me,” Grant wrote back. “I do not know of anything I have ever done or said which would indicate that I could be a candidate for any office whatever…I shall continue to do my duty, to the best of my ability, supporting whatever Administration may be in power, in their endeavor to suppress the rebellion and maintain national unity, and never desert it because my vote, if I had one, might have been cast for different candidates…Your letter I take to be private. Mine is also.”

In December, Washburne had introduced legislation reviving the rank of lieutenant general, which no one had held permanently since George Washington. Although the bill did not name Grant, everybody knew the revived rank was to be for him. With it, he could take the position of general-in-chief, whose present occupant, Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck, was senior to Maj. Gen. Grant.

On Feb. 24, Congress made it law.

                                                *     *     *

On Feb. 3, Lincoln ordered Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman to prepare for a campaign on the Red River to rid Louisiana and Arkansas of all Confederate soldiery. That campaign could not start, though, until March, when the Red annually rose with the spring rains.

Sherman, Grant’s subordinate and philosophical partner, got busy in the meantime. He took 25,000 men out of Vicksburg on Feb. 3 and, per Grant’s wish, headed east toward Meridian to wreck the railroad and much else between the two towns.

Sherman also ordered Brig. Gen. William Sooy Smith, cavalry chief of his Mississippi military district, to ride southeast from Memphis to Okolona with 7,500 horsemen and meet Sherman in Meridian a week or so later. He wanted Smith to destroy rail communications from Okolona to Meridian and then from Meridian to Selma, Ala.

Moving fast, Sherman reached Jackson on Feb. 4. His opposition was 20,000 Confederates under Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk, but they were scattered across the state. Sherman kept going, and Polk’s patchwork force steadily withdrew from his front.

Heavy and continuing rains delayed Smith. He did not leave Collierville, Tenn.–more than 200 miles north of Meridian–until Feb. 11, the approximate date he had been scheduled to link up with Sherman. Sherman didn’t get there, either, until three days late, Valentine’s Day, but he offered Meridian no Valentine. While awaiting the Memphis cavalrymen, he set his men to wrecking the place.

Sherman was here beginning to become the Sherman of history. He would later write that for five days his men labored “hard and with a will” in Meridian in a “work of destruction.” He added that the town “with its depots, statehouses, arsenals, hospitals, offices, hotels and cantonments no longer exists.”

That he wanted Smith to wreak the same kind of punishment on the Okolona route is reflected in his orders to the cavalry chief. Besides wrecking the rails, Sherman wrote, Smith was to take “liberally” from forage and “standing corn in the fields, as well as horses, mules, cattle, etc. As a rule respect dwellings and families…but mills, barns, sheds, stables, and such like things use for the benefit of your command.”

In Meridian, Sherman and his men waited in vain for the Memphis horsemen. Smith advanced as if acutely conscious that he was on his own deep in enemy country–and that he had been warned by Sherman that the Confederate cavalry demon, Maj. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, was near. By Feb. 18, Smith had gotten only to Okolona, halfway to Sherman.  

Smith was well-advised to be wary. Forrest had not become known as the Wizard of the Saddle for nothing. He could read Federal minds. By Feb. 9, less than a week after Sherman left Vicksburg and before Smith reached Collierville from Memphis, Forrest at Oxford wrote a subordinate:

“I am of opinion the real move is in direction of Okolona and Meridian.”

On the 20th, Sherman gave up on Smith and started back to Vicksburg. Smith seemed to be looking for an excuse to go back to Memphis, too, and the next day, he got one. He ran into Confederate cavalry under Jeffrey Forrest, brother of the major general. Jeffrey retreated, trying to draw Smith into a trap set up by his brother, but Smith, a brilliant engineer before the war, refused to follow. Instead, he recognized the trap, retreated, and tried to get Jeffrey Forrest to follow him.

Worried that the elder Forrest was about to be reinforced by Confederates under Maj. Gen. Stephen Lee as well as state guard troops, Smith launched a diversionary attack against the younger Forrest while withdrawing his main force northward. Here occurred one of many famous incidents in the career of Jeffrey’s older sibling. The elder Forrest was riding hard to the front to see what was happening when he encountered a hatless trooper who had tossed aside his gun and was running away on foot.

Forrest leaped from his horse, grabbed the hapless soldier, threw him to the ground, and began beating him with a piece of brush. Then he picked him up and shoved him back toward the fighting. “Now, God damn you,” he said, “you go back there and fight. You might as well get killed there as here, for if you ever run away again you’ll not get off so easy.”

Discerning that Smith was retreating, Forrest set his much smaller force–2,500 compared to Smith’s 7,500–on Smith’s heels. Forrest chased him for days, and Smith got back to Memphis on Feb. 26, having returned from West Point in half the time it had taken him to get there. Sherman was livid.

                                                *     *     *

The Federal and Confederate governments meanwhile made far-reaching decisions.

On Feb. 3, President Jefferson Davis, in an action reflective of the dangerous state of unrest in his Confederacy, recommended suspension of writs of habeas corpus for spies, deserters, and citizens found fraternizing with the enemy. On the 17th, the Confederate Congress did Davis’s bidding and also widened the ages of prospective military draftees to between 17 and 50. Vice President Alexander Stephens protested.

“Far better that our country should be overrun by the enemy, our cities sacked and burned, and our land laid desolate,” protested Stephens, who had become a bitter Davis opponent. The Confederacy’s people, Stephens went on, “should (not have to) suffer the citadel of their liberties to be entered and taken by professed friends.”     

On the 24th, Davis further outraged his ever-burgeoning throngs of critics. He appointed Braxton Bragg, arguably its least successful major officer, to have charge of “the conduct of military operations in the army of the Confederacy.”

Ironically, Davis took this action just as the Union was elevating its most successful general, Grant, to the corresponding Union position. Lincoln was gearing up for a massive drive to end the war. On Feb. 1, he had called for a half-million more draftees for the Union armies. He also approved a measure under which slaves in Union-held territory could enlist, with $300 compensation given to their masters.

Lincoln’s view of African Americans also seemed to undergo significant change. Canceling plans to colonize San Domingo with freed slaves and other African Americans, the President sent a ship to bring back those already sent there who wanted to return. He had apparently realized that black people born in America regarded it–not some Caribbean or African jungle–as home.

On Feb. 28, Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton authorized a daring cavalry raid on Richmond to free some 13,000 Union war prisoners there. Federal officials had received reports that Union prisoners were dying of starvation at the rate of a hundred a month.

The urgency of such a mission had been emphasized in mid-February, when survivors of the war’s greatest prisoner-of-war prison break began arriving in Union lines from Libby Prison in Richmond. There, 109 Union officers had escaped through a two-foot-wide tunnel laboriously dug with a couple of caseknives, a broken shovel and similar unlikely tools under the leadership of Colonel Thomas Ellwood Rose of the 77th Pennsylvania Infantry and Major A. G. Hamilton of the 12th Kentucky Cavalry.

About half of the 109 then made it 100 miles to Union lines, eluding dogs and cavalry in ragged clothes in bitter winter weather. Many had been crucially aided with food and shelter by slaves, who were more than familiar with the process of helping runaways–just not so many white ones.

 

[For more, see the Civil War Almanac by John S. Boatner, Bison Books 1982; The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, vol. 9, by John Y. Simon, ed., Southern Illinois University Press 1980; Life of General Nathan Bedford Forrest by John A. Wyeth, Morningside Press 1975 reissue; and Libby Prison Breakout by Joseph Wheelan, Public Affairs 2010.]

1964

Murders, fire-bombings, shotgun blasts, and Ku Klux membership increased across the South in February.

In Washington, Congress agonized over President Johnson’s civil rights bill. Half a million minority students in New York boycotted their public schools, which they characterized as unfit places to learn anything positive. And FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, an octopus of wiretaps, tried to ingratiate himself with the new occupant of the White House with more scurrilous gossip gleaned from his telephone surveillance.

Meanwhile, there occurred mainstream omens for the future. The Beatles, tousle-haired British harbingers of a youth revolution favoring peace and love, landed in America for the first time and all but started riots–which heartened potential backers of comparatively young, tousle-haired Bobby Kennedy for the presidency.

And a boxer becoming the most important Muslim convert up to that time whipped a champion who had been assumed unbeatable. The unlikely victor’s name, for a few days longer, would remain Cassius Clay. 

*     *     *

On the month’s first day, President Johnson named Sargent Shriver, marital member of the uber-rich Kennedy clan, head of a War on Poverty. To his credit, Shriver, already head of the Peace Corps, had tried to refuse on grounds that he knew nothing about poverty. But Lyndon Johnson was no man to turn down.

On that same day, Feb. 1, reports of one of the grimmest possible incidents of authentic poverty circulated in Mississippi. A poor black logger named Louis Allen was finally put out of his misery by an ambusher in anything but a mercy killing. Two years earlier Allen, courageously or naively, had told Mississippi law authorities of seeing state legislator Eugene H. Hurst shoot down in cold blood a black farmer named Herbert Lee who had attended voter registration meetings.

The Lee killing happened in September 1961, and since then Allen’s logging business had gone to ruination. Now, with just a second-grade education, he was penniless and reluctantly deciding to leave Amite County for employment in Milwaukee, where he had a brother. He bought a railroad ticket for Feb. 1, but felt he needed a letter from a white employer for a letter affirming that he could drive a bulldozer.

On Jan. 31, he made the request, and that night Mississippi racists showed their determination that he would not escape punishment for telling the truth. A shotgun discharge tore off half his face as he tried to crawl to safety under his pickup truck at the gate to his farm.

Bob Moses, the black New York-born and Harvard-educated onetime high school math teacher who by now was a mystical and indomitable leader of the Mississippi movement, immediately visited the widow. On Feb. 2, he headed back to Hattiesburg with his mind cleared of doubts about whether he should favor endangering white, mostly-Northern students by asking them to help with a Mississippi voter registration campaign planned for the coming summer. He decided his would be a voice in the affirmative.

A stirred-up Mississippi was nothing less than racial hell, but, even there, some saw signs of hope. On Feb. 7, a Mississippi jury deadlocked in trying another ambusher–swaggering Byron de la Beckwith–who in dark of night had hid behind bushes and shot Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers in the back with a high-powered rifle.

Five members of the all-white all-male jury voted to convict. The Saturday Evening Post called the refusal to acquit him a “victory for the law” in Mississippi.

Determination to support Beckwith and other back-shooting ambushers, or something, elicited reinforcements official and unofficial.

The mayor of Jackson presented to press cameras a beefed up police force with a new armored wagon and announced: “There will be no unlawful marching and peaceful picketing.”

And in Brookhaven some 200 men gathered to form a more disciplined and bloodlust-ful arm of the Kluxers led by a man named Sam Bowers. The initiation pledge of these so-called White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan proclaimed:

“We are men who humbly submit to the Will of Almighty God and who beseech him for guidance in our works, but we will not under any circumstances see the Nation and its Constitution destroyed without violent, Physical resistance.”

Literature distributed by the White Knights claimed to have 91,000 members in Mississippi. In February, Bob Moses wrote to a Northern supporter that “Klan activity” included five murders in southwest Mississippi, “three whippings, scattered shootings, 180 cross burnings.”

The Florida Klan seemed not to want to be outdone. In early February a well-established campaign of mayhem in the Sunshine  State erupted in St. Augustine. Homes of integration-supporting African Americans were firebombed, burned, or shot into. On the 7th, the house of a family which had volunteered its children for the first year of court-ordered integration of a local elementary school went up in flames.

On the 14th, the car and garage of a Baptist pastor were set afire, and that midnight the former head of the St. Augustine NAACP, a dentist, heard that his own dental office was in similar danger. When he rushed there to protect it, nightriders fired shotguns into his house, missing his wife and daughters but killing his dog.

Such are the heroics of racism. 

                                                            *     *     *

To the north, related events were proceeding.

In New York on Feb. 3, apparently sparked by the segregation protests of African Americans in the South, a half-million minority students stayed home to decry their New York City schools as places not fit for learning. Bayard Rustin, a preeminent planner of the recent March on Washington, was an adviser to the school boycott.

Northern politicians worried that such demonstrations would splinter support for the civil rights campaigns in the South. Meanwhile, out of the public eye, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who abhorred and feared Rustin’s leftist links, got busy. Having learned through wiretaps that Rustin was planning to attend a reception for a Soviet writer, on the 6th Hoover had his Bureau leak it to the New York Daily News. “Boycott Chief Soviets’ Guest,” the resulting headline read.

Leaks to newspapers with the avowed aim of damaging reputations were standard for Hoover. The Bureau was also tarring the Nation of Islam’s rebellious Malcolm X in a story in the country’s largest black newspaper, the Chicago Defender. The story planted there was that Malcolm had not been suspended by Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad for the stated reason that he criticized President Kennedy after the assassination but, instead, because his disciples were characterizing Malcolm as a “religious fanatic” and “hard to control.”

Hoover meanwhile was trying to forge strong ties with the new occupant of the White House. His supreme target, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was now laboring under a grave misapprehension about the new administration. King thought Johnson was not as politically fearful of the Movement as Kennedy had been. He missed the fact that Johnson was obsessing about possible Democratic primary opposition and that Hoover was inserting his wiretapped gutter gossip about King–without King’s knowledge, of course–into the contested middle between the two political antagonists.

On Feb. 17, the White House sent for a Hoover subordinate. The purpose was to warn the Bureau that Kennedy’s Justice Department was saying the FBI was trying to leak to the press derogatory stories about King. Such articles could sink the administration’s civil rights bill, the FBI representative was told.

Meanwhile, Southern segregationists in Congress thought they had come up with an ingenious idea to stop the bill. A Virginia congressman had proposed an amendment providing that gender be added, making it illegal to discriminate in employment and other areas on the basis of sex as well as by race, etc. They apparently thought this new element would cause such delay that the bill would die.

A female representative, recognizing the intent, said the amendment was being advanced at the wrong time. Rep. Edith Green of Oregon said there had been “ten times, maybe a hundred times, as much humiliation for the Negro woman” as for her white sisters. Meanwhile, White House operatives were moving around the floor reminding Democrats that Johnson had demanded there be no change in the wording of the bill as passed by either House or Senate, because if they had to reconcile two versions it would likely stall in conference committee.

The amendment nevertheless passed, 168 to 133, but it did not work to the advantage of the House segregationists. Banning of discrimination by gender as well as race seemed to make the bill stronger. On Feb. 10, the whole civil rights bill passed the House 290 to 130.

On Feb. 25, brutish boxer Sonny Liston was knocked out and supplanted as world heavyweight champion by a prohibitive underdog, unforgettably mouthy Cassius Clay, a friend of Malcolm X.

Malcolm then introduced Clay as Cassius X Clay. He explained in a press conference that the X stood for the identity blacks had lost to slavery, under which white slaveholders forgot African names and called the slaves whatever they wanted to.

 

[For more, see Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-65 by Taylor Branch, Simon & Schuster 1998; An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America by Andrew Young, Harper Collins 1996; and The Race Beat: the Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of America by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff, Alfred A. Knopf 2006.]

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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