April ’64


The war for perpetuation or abolition of slavery was more important to the republic’s image than the death of the Confederacy itself, and in April that struggle continued to intensify.

On the 4th, President Abraham Lincoln, wrestling with how to let ex-Confederate states back into the Union without reintroducing the same slavery system, acknowledged worrying about the constitutional legality of following only his own views deeming slaveholding a crime against humanity. He said he assumed that taking the presidential oath “forbade me to practically indulge my primary abstract judgment on the moral question of slavery.

“…And I aver that, to this day, I have done no official act in mere deference to my abstract judgment and feeling on slavery.”

But within the constitutional framework, Lincoln’s views were taking ever-widening hold. On April 6 in New Orleans, a Louisiana convention of Union supporters passed a new state constitution banning slavery. Four days later, the U. S. Senate passed–by 38 votes to six–the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slaveholding in the entire U.S.

On April 15 Andrew Johnson, military governor of Tennessee and formerly both a slaveholder and strong supporter of the Southern system, made a speech in Knoxville in behalf of the nation’s new emancipation policy.

On the 17th, the Union Army’s new general-in-chief, Ulysses S. Grant, ordered a halt in prisoner exchange. Grant refused to swap healthy, well-treated Confederates for Federals, who were so starved in Southern captivity that they were no longer able to fight. Grant was certain that released Confederates would return to combat, and he knew that the nearly 150,000 of them held by the Union would constitute not only a whole army but one larger than any the Confederate leaders had in the field.

Slavery, too, was a major sticking point. Grant would not distinguish between white and black Federal soldiers. In any proposed exchange, he demanded that the Confederacy exchange Union troops regardless of skin color. He refused to exchange anybody as long as the Confederacy continued enslaving so-called U. S. Colored Troops.

The Confederacy, though, would not yield on the latter point. On April 30, Confederate President Jefferson Davis reiterated his earlier position:

“Captured slaves (i.e., black Union troops) should be returned to their masters…”

                                                            *     *     *

The war’s most infamous racial atrocity occurred on Apr. 12, the third anniversary of the firing on Fort Sumter.

Seven thousand Confederate cavalrymen under Maj. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest had been raiding in western Tennessee and Kentucky since March, trying to clear the Mississippi River of Federal garrisons and outposts from Memphis to Paducah. On April 4, Forrest wrote to his superior, Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk, that “in a few days” he planned to “attend to” 500 to 600 Federals at Fort Pillow, 40 miles north of Memphis.

“They have horses and supplies which we need,” Forrest wrote.

The Fort Pillow garrison consisted of the 13th Tennessee Cavalry (U.S.), approximately 300 recently-enlisted white Unionists mostly from West Tennessee, and around the same number of African Americans, members of the 2nd U. S. Colored Light Artillery and the 6th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery.

Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman, the department commander, apparently did not want them there. In January, he had ordered Fort Pillow abandoned, and it was. But in February, Sherman subordinate Stephen A. Hurlbut in Memphis disregarded the order and allowed the place to be re-garrisoned. Whether Sherman authorized this action is not known, but if so he chose not to remember doing so after the disaster that occurred there on Apr. 12.

His earlier order had been amply justified. The fort had been built to grandiose dimensions during the war’s earliest stages under orders from Gideon Pillow, then commander of Tennessee’s provisional army. By April 1864, it had become something of a trading center harboring escaped slaves and unionist refugees from the region’s bitter and increasingly savage guerrilla war.

Atop a bluff 300 yards above the Mississippi, the fort was far too large for the size of garrison the Federals could spare for such a remote outpost. It was also surrounded by higher hills from which sharpshooters could fire into most of it. The fort’s senior commanding officer, Maj. Lionel Booth, was killed by a sharpshooter early in the fight.

Forrest and 1,500 men had arrived there on the morning of the 12th. They surrounded the fort’s land side, and called for surrender after pushing the Federals out of two lines of outer parapets and onto the summit of the ridge overlooking the river. Forrest offered to treat every Union soldier in the fort as a prisoner of war, meaning he would not abide by the Confederate policy of re-enslaving the black troops. But if they did not surrender, Forrest said, “I cannot be responsible for the fate of your command.”

The inexperienced officer onto whom command of the fort had fallen with the death of Booth was a West Tennessee lawyer, William Bradford. He replied negatively to Forrest’s capitulation demand, and Forrest ordered a charge over the ditch and walls surrounding the fort’s last bastion. Some Confederates later said they understood that Forrest had ordered them to kill everybody in the garrison. Others, though, reported seeing him draw his own pistol to stop the resulting bloodbath.

It was a strange, deluded defense. Bradford obviously had counted on aid from the cannons of a gunboat, the New Era, on the river 300 feet below, but Confederates who had gotten down to the river bank before or during the surrender negotiations poured such hot rifle fire into the portholes that the gunboat crews could not man their pieces. Some of the fort’s defenders apparently continued to resist while others tried to surrender.

Old South fears of armed blacks and Confederate hate of home-grown unionists apparently caused Forrest to lose control of his men. Bradford himself was killed after the battle was over. To try to capitalize on what had been done, Forrest boasted that the blood of the slaughtered had crimsoned the Mississippi for two hundred yards. Blacks could not effectively fight Southerners, he claimed.

The Confederates reported casualties of just 14 killed and 86 wounded, while nearly 300 members of the approximately 600-man garrison died in or after the battle, two-thirds of them African American. It was the worst blot on Forrest’s name throughout the war.

Few, though, seemed to recognize a larger truth. Killing and mutilating black members of the garrison–as well as whites aiding them–was a logical product of a savage system that for decades had meted out horrendous punishments to African American slaves and to whites who wished to aid the black quest for freedom.

                                                *     *     *


Meanwhile, the rolling disaster that was the Red River Campaign ground toward an ignominious end.

At the beginning of the month, the river barely rose enough to allow the last of the 30 transport vessels and 13 gunboats to pass beyond Alexandria, La. Other, larger boats had to remain at Alexandria, dangerously thinning the campaign’s supply line.

Confederate General Richard Taylor and 16,000 troops fell back, but stayed between Federal commander Nathaniel Banks and Shreveport, Banks’s target. On the 8th, the two armies met at Sabine Crossroads, where well-positioned Confederates routed the 20-mile-long column of Federals. The next day, at Pleasant Hill, the Federals defeated the Confederates with a counterattack. But the Pleasant Hill victory was Pyrrhic. The Union drive halted there–partly because a reinforcing Federal force, scheduled to arrive from Arkansas, didn’t. Banks began to retreat, which was as hard as advancing. The river level was dropping to three feet in some places, trapping the gunboats and transports.

On Apr. 25, Banks’s army began arriving back in Alexandria. It was greeted by an order from General Grant suspending the campaign. But the boats remained stuck. The Federals had to build dams to raise the water around the vessels, then open chutes to allow the vessels to float from dam to dam back to Alexandria.

*     *     *.

Back in Washington, Grant on Apr. 27 issued orders for joint moves of his major armies within a week.

Maj. Gen George G. Meade and the 100,000-man Army of the Potomac were to advance toward Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Another 19,000 men under Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside were to move into the place formerly held by Meade. Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler was to start a smaller force up the Virginia peninsula toward Richmond. Sherman was to get his 100,000-man western army moving from near Dalton, Ga., toward Atlanta. And Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel was to lead 6,500 men from West Virginia into the Shenandoah Valley.

On Apr. 7, the Richmond government ordered Lt. Gen. James Longstreet back to northern Virginia from East Tennessee, where Longstreet had wintered following the failed Knoxville campaign.

On Apr. 30, Confederate President Jefferson Davis suffered a personal blow that was doubly horrifying because it was so unexpected. Five-year-old Joseph Evan Davis was playing with siblings in a downstairs room at the Confederate White House while Varina Davis prepared her husband’s noon meal. The children went out onto a balcony, and young Joe, climbing on a railing, fell 20 feet onto brick pavement below. He died in minutes with his older brother, Jeff, praying fervently at his side.

The boy’s father prayed, too, a few hours later, while looking at the little body, prepared for burial. “Not mine, oh Lord, but thine,” Davis said.          

[For more, see The Civil War Almanac by John S. Boatner, Bison Books 1982; The Lincoln Encyclopedia by Archer H. Shaw, MacMillan 1950; The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War by David J. Eicher, Simon & Schuster 2001; Libby Prison Breakout by Joseph Whelan, Public Affairs 2010; River Run Red: The Fort Pillow Massacre in the American Civil War by Andrew H. Ward; “Fort Pillow” by John Cimprich in the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History & Culture, Carroll Van West, ed.-in-chief, Rutledge Hill Press 1998; and Jefferson Davis: The Man and the Hour by William C. Davis, HarperCollins 1991]


The New York Times opened April with a large and memorable front-page picture. It showed Mary Peabody, mother of Massachusetts Gov. Endicott Peabody, in the custody of a cigar-smoking, cattle-prod-brandishing sheriff in St. Augustine, Fla.

It was no April Fools joke. Mrs. Peabody had come south the day before to try to help integrate facilities in America’s oldest city. Her arrest created a national sensation. U.S. senators, worrying about Peabody’s welfare, beseeched the Justice Department and the FBI for briefings. Her son called Florida Gov. Farris Bryant to ask for her protection.

TV titan Walter Cronkite promised Mrs. Peabody a spot on his CBS News program the night of April 1 if she would bond out of jail for an interview. She refused. The Yankee grandmother said she would rather remain in jail with her new compatriots. Had she decided otherwise, she doubtless would have been better able than most of her fellow prisoners to cough up the stiff $200 to $2,000 bond that the sheriff, L.O. Davis, demanded of the demonstrators. The white ones, he seemed to think, might as well stay in jail.

“These bums will all be back here for holding hands with niggers,” he predicted.

There were so many white demonstrators in jail that in Mrs. Peabody’s cell five women had to sleep on the floor. On April 2, Davis deputies tried to jail even the lawyers to keep them from going to court. The arrival of a reporter stopped that, but when they got to court it was just a variation of the old Dixie story. The federal judge, appointed by former President Truman, showed no sympathy, especially for the white out-of-towners.

“Somebody goes and sticks their head in a noose and then complains that the rope burns their neck,” the judge acidly told the attorneys.

Before bailing out and heading home to Boston on April 2, Mrs. Peabody got the St. Augustine movement much newspaper ink and TV time. Within days, she was on NBC’s Today show. In a jail press conference on April 1, she sweetly scandalized Sheriff Davis by saying she had liked the grits she had for breakfast despite having to eat them with her fingers. And after bonding out she told a mass meeting about the bravery she had seen.

“I feel as if a wall were crumbling,” she said.

                                                *     *     *

It wasn’t, actually. But the visit of Mrs. Peabody and her Bostonian friends was not for naught. It had raised segregation’s ugly profile in an especially eye-catching way, especially above the Mason-Dixon Line. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. swiftly capitalized.

“I have been so deeply inspired by your mother’s creative witness in Florida,” King wired in a public message to Peabody’s governor-son.

For King, Mrs. Peabody’s trek to St. Augustine had been a ray of light in a dark time. Troublingly, during the first week of April Alabama Gov. George Wallace, self-declared arch-enemy of racial integration, captured a third of the Democratic primary votes in normally progressive Wisconsin. That same day, the Boston Globe reported that in Cleveland, Ohio, a white Presbyterian minister had been crushed by a bulldozer when he refused to move while demonstrating against the building of a segregated school.

Other issues were more personal. King refused to endorse a rowdy civil rights “stall-in” proposed by some integrationists to try to disrupt the opening of the New York World’s Fair on April 22. He would not advocate anything that might turn into violence

He also argued with fellow Southern Christian Leadership Conference preachers about his wish to hire openly gay ex-Communist Bayard Rustin to replace the resigning Wyatt Walker as SCLC executive director. And, on April 15, he became the prime target of a syndicated column charging that Communists were infiltrating the civil rights movement and that he, King knew it and continued to accept Communist aid and counsel.

The author of that syndicated column was Joseph Alsop, relative of the Roosevelt family and voice of the vociferously anti-Communist wing of the Democratic Party. King feared that the column signaled that President Johnson had taken up a message tirelessly hurled at King during the Kennedy Administration. A King aide, however, was soon told by Burke Marshall of the Justice Department that, instead, the column probably resulted from an irresponsible leak by the FBI.

The truth was likely even darker. Since 1957, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had had on file some graphic photos showing an Alsop seduction by male KGB agents during a trip to Russia. Hoover confidentially showed these photos to select friends in government and the press, and Alsop had to continually wonder if the information would become public. He surely knew his column and his career were in Hoover’s hands.

Thus Hoover–nothing if not cunning as well as, some might say, cowardly and creepy–was doing to Alsop what he was also doing to King: spying on him and then using whatever information he mined from the gutter to bully both men into conforming to his arch-conservative agenda.

But there was a difference. He did not necessarily want to ruin Alsop, but he certainly wanted to ruin King. The latter, though, unlike so many others inside and outside government, was not afraid of him. Finally understanding who his most powerful hidden bureaucratic enemy was, King called out Hoover in a California airport press conference on April 23. He charged the FBI director with doing exactly what Hoover meant to do–assist resisters to civil rights. King also attacked Hoover as a lawman.

“It would be encouraging to us if Mr. Hoover and the FBI would be as diligent in apprehending those responsible for bombing churches and killing little children,” King thundered to about 50 reporters and a few unidentified FBI agents, “as they are in seeking out alleged Communist infiltration in the civil rights movement.”

This challenge was, at the very least, concerning to Hoover and his minions. An FBI report of the event sounded taken aback, saying King had mentioned Hoover by name and had dared him to “come forth with it” if he had “real evidence” of Communist infiltration. And California wiretaps in King’s California hotel rooms provided more cause for concern. They left no doubt that King did not intend to be pushed around.

“I want to hit him hard,” King said of Hoover in one tapped conversation. “He made me hot, and I wanted to get him.”

King likely would have gotten even hotter had he known Hoover was bugging hotel rooms and telephones virtually everywhere he went. He suspected some of it, but had no idea of the extent.

                                                *     *     *

Another important person, too, did not seem afraid of Hoover.

President Johnson, sweating a continuing Senate filibuster of his civil rights bill by Southern Democrats, had not seemed swayed by Hoover’s King divulgences. King was a religious leader, after all, and Johnson was amid a campaign to make others of that profession take stands in behalf of racial fairness.

It was working–somewhat. On April 28, more than 5,000 clerics from across America assembled at Georgetown University in what the New York Times described as the largest such gathering in international religious history. There the Rev. Eugene Carson Blake of the National Council of Churches decried the Dixie notion that the civil rights bill’s mandating of equal treatment for African Americans would constitute reverse discrimination against white people, especially white business owners.

“How can any Christian or Jew sit still when such an immoral argument is voiced?” Blake said. He added that neither the Old nor the New Testament contained a passage supporting property rights over human rights. “Have we learned nothing,” he said, “since the day Amos thundered against those who, for profit, degraded men?”

Instead of Hoover, the President worried about a decidedly un-worshipful lead article about himself in Time. It depicted him endangering the lives of terrified reporters as he drove them at high speeds across his Texas ranch, dodging cows and spilling the scribes’ paper cups of beer. To counter that impression, Johnson on April 22 took reporters on another excursion, this time through the most deprived corners of Appalachia, to illustrate the need for his War on Poverty.

American poverty, of course, had large racial components, and Johnson’s stance brought them to the fore. On April 29, more than 100 ministers entered the halls of the Senate to push for the civil rights bill. Prayer rallies besieged the Capitol. Johnson himself glorified abolitionist preachers of the antebellum era and talked about how they had been ostracized and their churches burned in behalf of a right which, though vociferously argued, was theologically inarguable.

Yet the news media chose to obsess on a press conference in which Johnson coarsely lifted his twin beagle dogs by their ears. And many major church organizations seemed to recoil in horror from the idea that they should act against racial unfairness, especially in their own churches. Southern Baptists voted against backing laws to guarantee rights of blacks. Methodists fought over whether to bring African American members into the same organization with whites, instead of segregating them in a so-called Central Jurisdiction. After election of their church’s first African American executive, northern Presbyterians saw elders revolt and re-kindle a drive to take the church out of the quest for racial progress. Thus Johnson preached to a divided choir, but he kept on.

“Today, as we meet here,” he told more than 200 religious leaders at the White House on April 29, “again the problem of racial wrongs and racial hatreds is the central moral problem of this Republic.”

“Your job as prophets in our time,” he told them, was to “reawaken the conscience of your beloved land.”           

[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, HarperCollins 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 www.hydraislandgreece.com.
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