On an evening in the first week of March, the desk clerk of Willard’s Hotel in Washington, D.C. was overwhelmed with business. He hurriedly informed the pair standing before him, a short and nondescript soldier and a 13-year-old boy, that all he had available for them was a virtual closet on the sixth floor.
Fine, the soldier said. The desk clerk shoved the registration book forward, spun to get the key, then accorded a casual glance to the name the soldier wrote.
“U. S. Grant and Son, Galena, Ill.”
The clerk’s eyes nearly popped out of their sockets. He dived for another key. Oh no, he stammered. There was, he had just remembered, a suite that President Lincoln had occupied for a week before his inauguration. Would that suffice?
Little wonder the clerk blanched. A couple of days earlier, on Mar. 1, Lincoln had nominated this rumpled soldier to be the nation’s general-in-chief, military commander of all its troops, and the next day the Senate confirmed his promotion to lieutenant general.
This unlikely-looking little man was none other than the warrior who had won more of the Republic’s greatest victories than any other–Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga–and had captured two whole Confederate armies. He was likely better-loved by the Northern populace than Lincoln himself.
But Grant had not wished to come east. He did not relish politicians, a species he tolerated only when he had to. Supreme commander or not, he planned to go back to the western theater, where he had logged his triumphs, and run the war from there. But Lincoln had summoned him, and Grant was a good soldier. He obeyed.
He had hardly arrived before the President invited him to a White House reception. Looking a little confused and not particularly happy, he went–and got his first look at the President, who towered over him at six-foot-four. The little hero was so short that he was asked to mount a couch so everyone could see him. He did, and his look turned, in the view of one eyewitness, to “scared.” Well might it. They mobbed him.
The next day, Mar. 9, he was officially commissioned lieutenant general and had to make a speech. He blundered through it, forgetting to comply with a Lincoln request that he say something nice about the Army of the Potomac and its officers.
Then, though, he and Lincoln had a private talk, and it seems to have relieved the minds of both. As Grant remembered it, Lincoln was glad to give up the job of bossing the war, saying he had had to do it himself because Grant’s predecessors would not.
The President even said he was certain some of his actions had been wrong. He also told Grant he did not want to know Grant’s plans, because if he knew them some politician or lobbyist would likely wheedle some part of them out of him.
The next day, Mar. 10, Grant went to Brandy Station, Va., to confer with the Army of the Potomac commander, Maj. Gen. George G. Meade. Meade, stung by newspaper criticism of his tardy pursuit of Lee from Gettysburg, had asked for a military court of inquiry. In the meantime, he presumed, Grant would sack him.
Grant had been inclined to do that, but the meeting went well. Grant kept Meade on.
The new general-in-chief had never been one to bask in authority, and he didn’t now. He attacked his work. By St. Patrick’s Day, he was back across the Appalachians in Nashville conferring with his close friend, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman.
The Washington visit had convinced Grant that he could not manage the war from the West–that the Washington politicians and lobbyists, always on the make, would intervene and change for their own benefit any orders he sent east. No, he would have to be near Washington himself and trust Sherman and his other closest friend and subordinate, Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson, to execute orders he sent westward.
But Grant did not intend to put himself where the politicos could get at him. Unlike his predecessors in the general-in-chief job, he planned to headquarter in the field with the Army of the Potomac, supervising Meade with a gentle hand. He must have known that few politicians would follow him to the scene of combat.
So on Mar. 23 Grant was back in Washington, preparing to inaugurate the only strategy he and Sherman believed could win the war–the same strategy that Lincoln had unsuccessfully tried to get his commanders to execute since 1861. Which was: all the Union armies must move forward at the same time, so the Confederate forces opposing them would be so embattled that they could not send troops to reinforce each other.
On Mar. 24, Grant went back to the White House to confer with Lincoln. Five days later, on Mar. 29, Lincoln informed Meade that there could be no court of inquiry on Meade’s conduct of the army after Gettysburg. Such a thing would be too divisive for the country.
* * *
Just prior to Grant’s initial arrival in Washington, Federal raiders reached Richmond on Mar. 1.
The Libby Prison breakout in February, and the arrival of 59 survivors in Washington, had provided unmistakable evidence of growing starvation in the two major Richmond P.O.W. detention centers: Libby, which housed Union officers, and Belle Isle for enlisted men. Time could not be wasted. The War Department had received a spy’s report that the tens of thousands of remaining prisoners would soon be spirited away to the Deep South (to a new and soon-to-be-worse Georgia facility called Andersonville), out of reach of possible rescue.
In response, Lincoln had authorized a two-pronged cavalry raid to free the prisoners. It would be led by Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick and Colonel Ulric Dahlgren. The goal was also to burn the Tredegar Iron Works and like industries as well as a Confederate arsenal.
But the plot went haywire. It called for Kilpatrick with 3,500 cavalrymen to attack the Confederate capital from the north while Dahlgren and 600 more horsemen slipped in from the south, burned Tredegar and other industries, and freed the captives while Kilpatrick’s larger force diverted attention. Then the two units were to reunite.
But Kilpatrick, a cocky braggart, lost his nerve when cannons were fired in his direction by Richmond’s home guard. He and his men fled without reaching the rendezvous site. Meanwhile, most of Dahlgren’s men lost contact with him in a blinding snow, and he and his remaining 70 troopers were ambushed by more home guards.
Dahlgren, already having lost a leg at Gettysburg, now lost his life. Papers found on his body included plans to kill Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet and encourage the freed prisoners to torch the whole of Richmond.
The Federal high command denied issuing the orders, which Dahlgren apparently wrote without his superiors’ knowledge.
Whatever their source, they caused an explosion of invective in the Southern press. The Richmond Daily Whig accused the Federals of being worse “barbarians” than “the Goth, the Hun, or the Saracen.”
* * *
Meanwhile, a panoply of other March events unfolded
Andrew Johnson–sole Southern member to continue in the U.S. Senate when the war broke out–was named military governor of his state, Tennessee, on Mar. 4. The same day, most of General Sherman’s men arrived back in Vicksburg after their destructive march to Meridian, Miss.
On Mar. 15, Lincoln transferred power in Louisiana from the military to a new civil governor in a reconstruction plan. Three days later, an Arkansas convention voted into law a new, pro-Union state constitution that abolished slavery.
But the war was hardly over. On Mar. 19, the Georgia legislature passed a vote of confidence for Jefferson Davis. It also suggested that after any large battlefield triumph a peace offer, predicated on Confederate retention of sovereignty, be made to the Union.
In Tennessee and Kentucky in the month’s final days, Confederate cavalry demon Nathan Bedford Forrest captured Union City, Tenn., on Mar. 24; less successfully attacked Paducah, Ky., on the 25th; and on the 26th, with Federal cavalry approaching, withdrew southward.
On Mar. 28, Confederate sympathizers in Charleston, Ill., attacked Federal troops. It was the largest violent protest against the war since the New York Draft Riots nine months earlier. In Charleston, five soldiers were killed and 20 wounded.
* * *
On March 10 the Union launched a long-planned campaign which Grant and Sherman opposed. Planned by Grant’s predecessor as general-in-chief, Henry Halleck, the effort was to go up the Red River and extend Federal influence in Louisiana and Texas. Grant and Sherman felt Mobile, Ala. was a more worthy target.
On the 10th, 17,000 Federal troops escorted by 13 ironclads and seven other gunboats headed down the Mississippi from Vicksburg. On the 12th, they arrived at the mouth of the Red and headed upriver toward Alexandria, La. There the plan was for them to be met by 10,000 of Sherman’s troops and 15,000 more from Arkansas.
The Federal expedition entered Alexandria on the 19th and took nearly 500 captives in minor actions on the 14th and the 21st.
Then complications developed. On the 24th, Sherman’s 10,000 men were recalled for a drive on Atlanta, and on the 28th, Confederate opposition in the Red River area began massing under General Richard Taylor. Plus the Red was dangerously low for moving the Union boats. Yet Banks ordered an advance to Shreveport.
[For more, see Grant by Jean Edward Smith, Simon & Schuster 2001; The Civil War Almanac by John S. Boatner, ed., Bison Books 1982; and Libby Prison Breakout by Joseph Wheelan, Public Affairs 2010.]
Obedience to God was a prime stated force behind both the civil rights movement and its implacable Southern foes. In March, the month Christians observe the seminal holiday of Easter, religion–real or hypocritical–made many newspaper headlines across the nation.
Nation of Islam boss Elijah Muhammad in Chicago and his rebellious Harlem follower Malcolm X competed for spiritual dominance over brand-new heavyweight boxing champion Cassius Clay. Malcolm gave Clay an X for his middle name, signifying African names lost in slavery. On Mar. 6, however, Muhammad one-upped Malcolm. He gave the boxer a whole new identity, saying his former name had no “divine meaning.”
“Muhammad Ali is what I will give him, as long as he believes in Allah and follows me,” Muhammad said.
The rebuffed Malcolm X was fighting on two fronts. While seeking independence within the Muslim faith, he also attacked the Christian Baptist, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Contending that telling life-risking civil rights workers not to defend themselves was “criminal,” Malcolm advocated mobile strike units of black riflemen to defend African American rights to life and property when civil lawmen wouldn’t do it.
On Mar. 9, Malcolm X made his first appearance on the front page of the New York Times. The paper reported his announcement that he was leaving the Nation of Islam. He said he needed more independence to “cooperate” in civil rights work, but added that portraying the nonviolent movement as a revolution was “nonsense.”
“There can be no revolution without bloodshed,” he said.
Malcolm X’s views made King’s sound stodgy and old-news, but black leaders excoriated Malcolm. Jackie Robinson charged in his newspaper column that while white colleges “flooded” the sensational Malcolm with speech invitations, the number of black colleges that had invited him could be counted on one hand, “if there are any.”
King himself cut to the meat of the matter. King observed that “this new turn of events”–Malcolm’s attack on nonviolence–“is…an indictment against…a society whose ills in race relations are so deep-rooted that it produces a Malcolm X,” he said.
Stark symptoms of that society’s trouble lay along the highway that the new heavyweight champion had traveled, out of fear of flying, to New York from his victory ring in Miami. He had arrived at Harlem’s Hotel Theresa on Mar. 1 in a chauffeur-driven Cadillac, but decried being barred from restaurants and restrooms through Dixie.
Much of the time, he recalled, “I had to eat out of a bag.”
* * *
Nothing showcased the societal “ills” King mentioned more bizarrely than the U.S. Senate on Mar. 16.
In bitter resistance to the civil rights bill, patrician Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia employed a large map to propose an amendment “inflicting on New York City, the city of Chicago, and other cities the same condition proposed to be inflicted by this bill on the people of Winder, Ga., where I live.”
The amendment mandated mammoth resettlement of Southern families of color outside the South. Russell demanded that racial proportions be equal in every state. A total of 637,263 black Alabama families would be redistributed among other states. California, meanwhile, would get 776,445 blacks from the South, Alaska 16,976.
Russell’s was a ploy to make national a tactic that had been used routinely by Southern states in drawing legislative and congressional lines. The aim was to decrease the influence of progressive voting (to the extent that it existed) by reducing its proportion in relation to the general population of each district.
Objectors were numerous. They found the measure as much of a departure from the Constitution and practicality as black calls for a separate African American nation.
* * *
Other manifestations of religiosity–including some of the most hypocritical–occurred behind the scenes. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover privately defended his lily-white ideas of morality by every unethical means he deemed prudent, meanwhile grasping for more national influence with which to encourage their implementation.
Hoover used the tentacles of his widening secret wiretap network as whips to flog the repute of people he found undesirable. Most seemed to have skins darker than his.
In early March, he took secret shots at a favorite target. On Mar. 4, his agents were aghast to learn that Marquette University, which had given Hoover an honorary degree in 1950, planned to confer one on King. Hoover quickly supplied friends at the university private peeks into the Bureau’s questionably-obtained information on the civil rights leader’s messy private life, as well as his so-called “communistic” links.
Marquette then found a way to renege, saying that conferring the degree would conflict with King’s public appearance schedule. King knew of the intent to confer the degree, but he had no idea why the scheduling problem had developed. The FBI similarly kept Springfield College in Massachusetts from giving him the same kind of honor.
.* * *
In Mississippi just prior to Easter, there were memorable confrontations between hopeful integrated visitation teams and all-white Protestant churches.
On Mar. 22, Palm Sunday, across the street from the state capitol in Jackson, a multi-racial group of five entered a side door of the grand Galloway Memorial United Methodist Church to try to join the worshippers. They were grabbed by their arms and hustled out by ushers, but not before one cried out in protest.
The small female Ph.D from Syracuse University informed the shocked congregation that she was from India. She asked how they would feel if their women or missionaries visiting her homeland were treated the way she was in theirs.
Two other Galloway visitants, white Rev. Edwin King and his wife, were not arrested for this attempted “kneel-in,” which had happened to them before. This time they were treated as was the Indian woman, so they went on to a second white Methodist church to be barred again before calling it a Mississippi Sunday.
In Washington three days later, President Johnson met with 150 prominent Southern Baptist reverends and beseeched them to correct that kind of behavior. Reminding them of their influence over the powerful of their cities and towns, he asked them to help pass the civil rights bill.
“Let the acts of everyone, in government and out, let all that we do proclaim that righteousness does exalt the nation,” he said.
* * *
Easter evening, Mar. 29, the mother of the governor of Massachusetts and three friends–including African American Esther Burgess–arrived from Boston at the airport in Jacksonville, Fla. Mary Peabody, mother of Gov. Endicott Peabody and wife of Episcopal Bishop Malcolm Peabody, had come to lend her influence to the civil rights struggle, and she quickly began getting disabused of some Northern notions.
On the drive to St. Augustine, the grandmother of seven said that she was sure her nonviolent training would not be necessary once she explained herself to her Dixie hosts. “I do not believe they will deny me the pleasure of lunch with my Negro friend,” she said.
The Rev. Hosea Williams, a veteran of Southern jail marches, turned in his driver’s seat to try to ready her for what was coming.
“Mrs. Peabody,” he told her, “these folks will deny Jesus.”
That night, they attended a mass meeting at Zion Baptist Church, where Mrs. Peabody heard Northern clerics and their wives describe cut-with-a-knife-style tension they had encountered that day handing out freedom leaflets to tourists.
The next morning she and her three friends went to a restaurant for breakfast. When the waitress brought their meals, Mrs. Peabody complimented her on the fact that the establishment served “colored people.”
“We don’t,” the waitress said.
Mrs. Peabody informed her that she already had. Light-skinned Esther Burgess was black, Mrs. Peabody said. The four were made to leave.
Later that day, when she and her party sat down at an empty table in a motel bar, the local sheriff, with dogs and some other officers, appeared and told them to leave. Mrs. Peabody asked to hear the exact words of Florida’s “undesirable guest” law. Officers got a copy and read it to her. She said none of its unpleasant descriptions applied to her party. The sheriff told her to leave or go to jail. She and her white friends left, but Burgess stayed and was arrested.
Peabody then tried to attend morning communion at an Episcopal church. She found its doors locked and her new acquaintance, the sheriff, standing guard. A church official told her the vestry considered her visit political, not worshipful.
Yale University chaplain William Sloane Coffin arrived in St. Augustine on Mar. 31 and told Mrs. Peabody it looked wrong to civil rights workers for Burgess to be in jail while Mrs. Peabody and her other friends weren’t. Mrs. Peabody called her son, the governor, to ask if he would be politically damaged if she was arrested. He told her to do as she wished.
She went to jail. As she entered, she spoke to Burgess in the jam-packed cell for black women. A local, in awe, burst out, “You look just like Miss Eleanor Roosevelt.”
“We are cousins,” Mrs. Peabody responded.
[For more, see Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-65 by Taylor Branch, Simon & Schuster 1998; and An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America by Andrew Young, HarperCollins 1996.]
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