May ’64


New Union general-in-chief U. S. Grant’s much-anticipated campaign to try to end America’s three-year-old civil war got rolling on May 3.

That night, Confederate scouts reported thick columns of Federals moving past campfires around Culpeper, Va., heading south toward the Rapidan River. Grant hoped to surprise Confederate commander Robert E. Lee and cross the Rapidan before Lee could react.

Grant’s 100,000-man Army of the Potomac successfully crossed on May 4, but it was no surprise to Lee.  He was waiting with about 63,000 troops of his own, and Grant had taken the exact route Lee wanted him to. On the Rapidan’s south side, the Army of the Potomac entered the forest- and thicket-choked area called the Wilderness–where, a year earlier under “Fighting Joe” Hooker, it had gotten whipped to a fare-thee-well by Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

Lee’s plan now was to pin Grant against the Rapidan in this dense region where the more numerous Federals could not move well or coordinate with each other. Lee hoped to make this the war’s final battle, annihilating Grant’s army. Grant’s aim, meanwhile, was to get between Lee and the Confederate capital at Richmond and make Lee come out of his trenches to fight. Grant, too, was looking toward a final battle.

Both men were accustomed to victory, but neither had faced a commander as strong-willed, superbly skilled, and combative as the other. It was a recipe for slaughter.


Grant had not intended to fight in the Wilderness. He never meant to get caught there.

But the Army of the Potomac–infused with caution by its creator and initial commander, George McClellan, and the handful of failed generals who had succeeded him–moved slowly yet again. And Grant, thinking he had stolen a march on Lee, decided to stop and wait for a linkup with reserve commander Ambrose Burnside, who was notorious for tardiness.

So Grant’s soldiers were still amid the defeat-haunted region when they encountered 40,000 Confederates under Richard Ewell and A. P. Hill blocking their path and entrenched to the eyes. As Lee had envisioned, the restricted movement required by the battle site cancelled out the disparity in numbers.

Because Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s corps would be unable to reach the field until the next day, Lee decided to wait until then to attack. Then he found Grant in his front itching to fight. So the battle that neither side expected to happen on this day began to unfold. The Confederates weathered Grant’s initial lunges, after which the Army of the Potomac returned to its more familiar defensive mindset.

Then Grant arrived at the front from behind the lines. Learning that Hill was now headed toward a vital crossroads, the Federal commander sent men hurrying to get there first. They did, and then held on under heavy attacks from Hill until they could be reinforced.

Some other Federal units–or, more accurately, their commanders–would fail Grant in this two-day fight. On this day, young Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren, ordered forward at 7 a.m., had yet to move at noon. Had he obeyed the order, Warren could have sprung through a hole in the Confederate line that had opened between the two Confederate corps of Hill and Ewell. By the time Warren finally ordered his men forward at 1 p.m., Lee had plugged the hole.

But the Federals continued to press, and Lee’s wings, despite having closed the gap, remained too separated to aid each other. Grant threw overwhelming strength against Hill, and Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was saved only by the fall of night.

Darkness had stopped the fighting, but not the suffering. The war’s Eastern front, although used to blood, had never seen fighting on this scale. Casualties were myriad, and fires broke out in the woods that night. The screams of the wounded, with some of the sufferers were being burned alive, keened ghoulishly amid the dancing shadows of the flames.

Yet the fighting on May 5 was no match for that of May 6. Grant readied a knockout punch, gathering a mammoth force under Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock and throwing it against Lee’s right. Hancock drove the Confederates in epic fashion until, with breathtaking power, Longstreet’s corps double-timed onto the field after marching ten miles.

Bunched tight and thick, Longstreet’s men struck Hancock front and flank. It became the Federals’ turn to be driven–until Longstreet himself went down with a shot to his neck. Burnside, for whom Grant had been waiting since the previous day, finally arrived in the Union line, and that and Confederate shock over Longstreet stopped Lee’s counterattack.

In late afternoon, as he had done disastrously with Maj. Gen. George Pickett at Gettysburg 10 months earlier, Lee sought to regain the initiative with a knockout blow of his own. He commanded the whole Confederate line to charge forward, and his riflemen attacked with fury. But Hancock held. Just as at Gettysburg, Lee lost irreplaceable men in an attack that proved futile.

Most men in the Union camps that night reportedly thought they were beaten. They expected yet another retreat order the next day. That morning, sure enough, they were ordered to move out, but they were overjoyed to find their officers leading them still southward toward Richmond.

They began to realize then that they had a new kind of commander. Grant had lost 17,666 men in the Wilderness–a ghastly figure on the Eastern front–compared to about 11,000 Confederates, but Grant kept coming, refusing to let his dead die in vain. The road south rang with huzzahs.

Grant’s men headed for the road-junction village of Spotsylvania Courthouse. His goal was to get Lee out of his trenches so Federal strength could overwhelm the Confederates. But Lee’s men reached Spotsylvania first. Even so, Grant smashed the center of their mule-shoe-shaped lines, only to be stopped by a furious charge by Confederates under John B. Gordon.

As the month proceeded, Grant continued to attack and slide leftward, trying to turn Lee’s right. The week-long Spotsylvania battles were followed by a three-day one on the North Anna River. By May 31, Grant’s army had gotten to within 10 miles of Richmond and was approaching yet another soon-to-become horrific place: Cold Harbor.


If not winning unquestioned victories, the Army of the Potomac was at least gaining ground. Not so, though, for most of Grant’s other attempts at a coordinated territorial offensive.

Political general Ben Butler advanced cautiously up the Virginia Peninsula southeast of Richmond with 19,000 men–until May 19, when he met the Confederates in the Battle of Drewry’s Bluff. Then, even though just one wing of his army had been damaged in the battle, Butler turned and headed back to his starting place at Bermuda Hundred.

In Louisiana, also on May 19, the disastrous Red River campaign of another political general, Nathaniel Banks, sputtered to an ignominious end. Four days earlier in the Shenandoah Valley, Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel had got whipped and driven backward by Confederates under Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge.

The only successful part of Grant’s Virginia agenda, besides his own operation, was a May raid all around the Confederate army by Federal cavalry under Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan, who rejoined the Army of the Potomac on May 24. Sheridan had not reached Richmond on his ride, as had been hoped, but he had destroyed many supplies, taken prisoners, and mortally wounded Confederate cavalry hero “Jeb” Stuart in the Battle of Yellow Tavern on May 11.

On the political front, the May 13 issue of Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune reflected Northern discontent with the war. It contained an editorial calling for the Union Party, a coalition of Republicans and so-called War Democrats, “to nominate for President some other among its able and true men than Mr. Lincoln.” Eighteen days later, Radical Republicans met in Cleveland, Ohio, and nominated Maj. Gen. John C. Fremont, the Republican presidential nominee of 1856.

In Richmond, speaking to the opening session of the Second Confederate Congress on May 2, President Jefferson Davis accused the Federals of “barbarism.”

Papers discovered on the corpse of Col. Ulric Dahlgren, subordinate officer in the failed raid on Richmond by Union Maj. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick in March, had said that an object of the raid was to capture or kill Davis and his cabinet. The documents created an understandable sensation, especially in the South.


One arm of Grant’s campaign to exert South-wide pressure on the Confederates was proving as strong as that led by Grant himself. Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman, whose 100,000-man western Army had been headquartering in Chattanooga since the previous November, moved out toward the left flank of General Joseph E. Johnston’s 60,000-man Army of Tennessee at Dalton, Ga., on May 7.

Sherman’s orders from Grant were “to move against Johnston’s army, to break it up, and to get into the interior of the enemy’s country as far as you can, inflicting all the damage you can against their war resources.” Accordingly, Sherman’s first target was Atlanta, an important center of supply, industry, and communications.

Sherman went at his job much like Grant, pressing Johnston’s flanks rather than attacking Confederate trenches head-on. Under this pressure, Johnston retreated from Dalton to Resaca on May 12. On May 15, the Confederates pulled back again, this time to Cassville, Ga. On May 19, Johnston withdrew to Altoona, then again to Dallas on May 24. By May 31, Sherman and Johnston were sparring nearly 100 miles south of Chattanooga and were nearing Atlanta.

President Davis, his cabinet, and Southerners in general were alarmed.

[For more, see The Civil War Almanac by John S. Boatner, Bison Books 1982; Grant by Jean Edward Smith, Simon & Schuster 2001; The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War by David J. Eicher, Simon & Schuster 2001; General A. P. Hill: The Story of a Confederate Warrior by James I. Robertson Jr., Random House; and Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour by William C. Davis, HarperCollins 1991.]


Lyndon Johnson’s fight for the most progressive legislation in generations–the 1964 civil rights bill and other measures to transform America into a “Great Society”–faced increasingly vexing obstacles in May.

Opposition to full African American citizenship remained implacable in most of the South. On May 2, the anniversary of the pivotal first children’s march against the Birmingham police dogs, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. met with leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at Fisk University in comparatively moderate Nashville. To this meeting, SNCC Chairman John Lewis came with a split lip and a battered face sustained in picketing local restaurants.

By the month’s final week, Mississippi congressman Jamie Whitten was demanding that the federal government compensate his state for damage allegedly done by federal troops who safeguarded James Meredith’s integration of Ole Miss in 1962. Whitten claimed soldiers trampled down lawns, harmed airport runways, and, by “usurping” restroom facilities, caused relocation of a football game.  Whitten didn’t mention that people–not grass or toilets–had been not just damaged but killed by local racist mobs the troops were sent in to regulate.

Amid Johnson’s congressional struggles, much of the most heroic and dangerous civil rights work was being done at the grassroots level by SNCC, or “Snick” as its members called it. They had labored in near-anonymity in Mississippi and other places across the South since 1961, their life-on-the-line dangers–not to mention deaths–going ignored by federal law enforcement. They now began work on perhaps the most audacious and far-reaching project of their organization’s life.

On April 26, a mere 200 people at a SNCC rally in Jackson, Miss., had founded something they grandly dubbed the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

“It was,” black attorney Len Holt said, “ridiculous by any standard other than that of SNCC.”

It was certainly wildly ambitious, but in May SNCC put it in motion. Members began showing up, or trying to, at regular Democratic Party precinct and county meetings. Rebuffed, they started holding precinct and county meetings of their own.

Also in May, SNCC leaders trekked to college campuses across the North to recruit wealthy white students to help. Although such patrons were not popular with SNCC’s black rank and file, they were a necessity for what was to be styled “Freedom Summer.” As Chairman Lewis later wrote, these students from “Stanford and Berkeley, Swarthmore and Harvard, Mount Holyoke and Bryn Mawr” had the money to devote time to a summer in the South–and to make the required pledge of a $500 bond against possible arrest.

“SNCC could hardly afford to bankroll this operation,” Lewis concluded.

The goal, Lewis had disclosed in a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in late April, would be to “install some one thousand summer workers in Mississippi” to “teach in the Freedom Schools, staff Community Centers, (and) register as many as 400,000 Negroes on mock voting lists.”

The Freedom Schools themselves were a SNCC idea, brainstormed by member Charles Cobb. Cobb thought the abysmal and repressive education Mississippi offered young blacks should be supplemented by the white Northern students from top schools. He wanted them to become teachers in the Freedom Schools and encourage the cowed young Mississippians “to articulate their own desires, demands, and questions.”

“These (Northern students) are some of the best young minds in the country,” Cobb noted, “and their academic value ought to be recognized and taken advantage of.”

Part of the MFDP plan was for its candidates to challenge incumbent congressmen in four of Mississippi’s five congressional districts.  Then, after inevitably losing, they would file lawsuits contesting white citizens’ right to pick representatives for blacks. They would also send delegates to the national Democratic convention and demand the party seat them as Mississippi’s rightful delegates.

The federal government, meanwhile, would be challenged more immediately.

“Will the government, at last, take action on the intimidations, threats, shootings, and illegal arrests, searches, and seizures that are a direct result of voter registration activities?” Lewis asked the editors.

In the coming summer, his speech concluded, the government must decide to do what its Constitution required–or “make us all witnesses to the lynching of democracy.”


To the same point, on May 3 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached in his home church in Atlanta on “Who Is Our Neighbor?” Citing Christ as God’s gift of love to man, he said that whereas a robber’s philosophy is “What is thine is mine,” that of Christ is “What is mine is thine.” In characteristic soaring rhetoric, he went on to conclude:

“That is why the cross is more than some meaningless drama taking place on the stage of history…it is a telescope through which we look out into the long vista of eternity and see the love of God breaking forth in the night.”

On May 10, King was in Washington to appear on the TV news show Face the Nation. There he attacked a source of the problem of federal non-enforcement of African American civil rights: FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. After newsmen sniped at King’s undelivered promise of more large civil rights demonstrations–like the epic 1963 battle in Birmingham–in 1964, they asked about continual FBI statements concerning Communist infiltration of the civil rights movement.

“I am very happy that this question came up,” King said. It was “unfortunate,” he said, “that such a great man as Mr. Hoover allowed himself to aid and abet the racists.”

The truth, of course, was that the “great man” not only aided and abetted racism, he practiced it–and was a pal and hero to hordes of Klan-sympathizing Dixie lawmen. Having become head of the FBI less than a decade after the triumph of the Communists in Russia, Hoover perhaps understandably remained fearful of Communism. The trouble was, his fear seemed pathological, seeing Communists behind every act of civil disobedience in behalf of a freer American society.

Hoover tried to speak for the Kennedy and Johnson administrations on civil rights demonstrators, but he wasn’t always allowed to. The Justice Department for which he worked had plenty of dissenters from his views, beginning with Atty. Gen. Robert Kennedy.

King’s Face the Nation remarks on Hoover fanned flames already blazing. A couple of days earlier, a Hoover underling had tried to push the Justice Department into authorizing another FBI statement on Communism in civil rights activities, and press secretary Ed Guthman had demanded that the statement also say that such fears “should not distract us from the fact that (racial) discrimination does exist.”

Hoover’s representative objected.  The Director, the aide said, did not “philosophize.”

Hoover may by then have begun to feel a bit warier than usual. On May 8, Johnson made a large to-do of celebrating Hoover’s 40th year on the job and of relaxing the compulsory retirement age of 70 in Hoover’s case. But Johnson retained for himself the right to decide when the FBI chief would have to go.


May held warning signs for Johnson, too. He drew large crowds wherever he went touting his “Great Society” and “War on Poverty,” including mobs in Atlanta, but danger was in the air.

On May 19, Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace, implacable enemy of constitutional rights for people he sneeringly called “the nigras,” won 43 percent of the Democratic primary vote in Maryland–and a majority of that primary’s white votes. The previous month he had taken a third of votes in the party’s primary in historically progressive Wisconsin and near 30 percent in Indiana.

The President soldiered on. In a May 22 commencement speech to graduates at the University of Michigan, he called for building an American society better than that of 1964, where more than a quarter of Americans–including (he did not have to say) many in the South’s wretchedly unequal “separate but equal” system–had not finished high school.

“We must give every child a place to sit and a teacher to learn from,” he said. “Poverty must not be a bar to learning, and learning must offer an escape from poverty.”

The threat to such progress lay not with just the South’s conservative, racist lawmakers. A nasty little war was brewing in Southeast Asia. On May 27 Johnson called his old friend and mentor–and civil rights opponent–Georgia Sen. Richard Russell, chairman of the Armed Services Committee. They talked long about the growing conflict in Vietnam.

Russell said it was “a mess” that would “get worse.” He said the U.S. should install a new Vietnamese government that would tell the U.S. to get out, and take that as an excuse to leave. When Johnson asked about Vietnam’s strategic importance, Russell said it didn’t have any.

Johnson and Russell agreed that China would come in if the U.S. got involved in a ground war in Vietnam. Russell basically said such a war would do China a double favor, relieving its population problem while killing young men whom America could not afford to lose. Russell scoffed at Republican calls for air campaigns to minimize U.S. casualties. He noted that despite overpowering control of the air over Korea in that conflict, the U.S. never cut off supply and communications routes, “and you ain’t gonna stop these people either.”

Johnson said he didn’t “have the nerve” to send young American fathers there to die but saw no way around it. He feared Americans would impeach a President who cut and ran.

“We’re in the quicksands up to our neck,” Russell agreed, “and I just don’t know what the hell to do about it.”

[For more, see Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-65 by Taylor Branch, Simon & Schuster 1998; Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement by John Lewis with Michael d’Orso, Simon & Schuster 1998; and In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s by Clayborne Carson, Harvard 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
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