On June 1, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant stepped down onto the threshold of his lowest point as the Union’s new general-in-chief. The place was specific and had a name Grant never forgot or wanted to be reminded of. It was the only battle he would ever say he completely regretted his part in.
Cold Harbor, Va.
At first, as he continued to push Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia back toward Richmond by seeking to turn its left flank, things went well. Union cavalry chief Phil Sheridan beat the Confederates to the crossroads of Old Cold Harbor and held on in the face of a comparative horde of arriving Confederate infantry. A Confederate charge by Joseph B. Kershaw’s division that day was spearheaded by troops under an audacious but inexperienced young South Carolinian, Lawrence Keitt, who made himself too prominent waving his sword on horseback. He was shot through the liver, and his men fled.
Many Southerners blamed the debacle on Sheridan’s use of new repeating carbines, but that wasn’t the only Confederate problem. Part of the fault lay with assigning Keitt and his green troops to lead the charge. And an intended assault in support of Keitt by a division of Confederates under Robert Hoke never went forward.
But the Union missed an opportunity, too. Two Federal commanders, Maj, Gens, Horatio Wright and Baldy Smith, got faulty directions to Sheridan’s position and didn’t reach it until 6 p.m., too late and too exhausted to counterattack.
The next day, the armies converged around another crossroads, New Cold Harbor, a mile and a half southwest of the other one. But rain, excessive heat, and mix-ups in organization and ammunition supply prevented a Union advance.
By now, Grant’s tactic of pushing past Lee’s right to shove the Confederates backward had run out of real estate. The only ground left to the east was swampy, and, anyway, pushing Lee any farther backward would invite the Confederates to use the impregnable fortifications in front of Richmond. So Grant decided on a frontal assault.
If successful, the attack could end the war in Virginia. But it would have to be made against a position that Lee had had two days to fortify. That night, veterans in the Army of the Potomac quietly wrote out their names and addresses on scraps of paper and pinned them to the backs of their uniforms so their corpses could be identified.
Their presentiments were well-founded. At 4:30 a.m. on June 3 the Union line went forward in a mammoth charge. In fewer than 60 minutes, some 7,000 Federals lay dead or bleeding in front of the Confederate entrenchments. Inside those trenches lay another 1,500 or so dead or wounded defenders.
From then on for more than a week, the two sides pot-shotted each other in a vicious ditch war that only maintained the stalemate. Meanwhile, Grant and Lee engaged in a cruel duel of one-upmanship that condemned the mountains of wounded, most of them Union, to die between the lines.
On June 5 Grant asked that unarmed details from both armies be allowed out to pick up the wounded. Lee insisted that the tradition of the request of a flag of truce be followed. Apparently because it had usually been up to the loser of a battle to ask for such a flag, Grant refused to do it. Semantics-ridden communications dragged back and forth, and it was June 7–four days after the battle—before anybody was allowed out to aid the wounded. Only two men of the thousands remained alive.
The sorry bureaucratic dance of the two commanders engenders suspicion that their sparring may have been partly personal, stemming from an incident in the Mexican War. There, the Virginia aristocrat, a brevet colonel, had upbraided the Ohio tanner’s son for his unkempt uniform–although Lt. Grant, as quartermaster, had been supervising troops in the hot and dirty job of gathering supplies from Mexican farmers.
Whether their struggle had now become personal or not, the first hour of the Union attack at Cold Harbor was one of the most deadly in the war. It helped fuel characterizations of Grant North and South as a butcher. From May 5 to June 12, he had suffered combined casualties numbering 39,259.
In Georgia, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s army was having more success geographically and numerically. Working against Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, a vastly outnumbered defensive genius who seemed disinclined toward combat, Sherman used the six weeks of Grant’s campaign against Lee to move from Chattanooga all the way to Marietta on the periphery of Atlanta.
But only on June 27, at Kennesaw Mountain, did Sherman resort to the kind of frontal assault that Grant attempted at Cold Harbor. Sherman’s ploy harvested the same grim result but much smaller numbers: 2,000 Federal casualties to 270 Confederate. To Sherman, though, the totals seemed to be similarly significant. With the blustering overstatement typical of him, he wrote his wife, Ellen:
“Death and destruction…now stalks (sic) abroad…I begin to regard the death & mangling of a couple of thousand men as a small affair, a kind of morning dash–and it may be well that we become so hardened.”
Well, indeed. As Grant’s partner, Sherman could hardly shrink from horrific work. After Kennesaw Mountain he got back to it, gathering his strength to push Johnston farther back toward Atlanta.
One of the reasons Sherman was able to get so far in so short a time was that he shrewdly assigned subordinates to keep his supply line unmolested by the Confederate who was arguably his most talented enemy. Cavalry demon Nathan Bedford Forrest, who had begun the war as a private and was now a major general, was arguably the most effective Confederate commander in the West, and many Southerners were begging to have him added to Johnson’s army.
Sherman understood the extent of Forrest’s talents far better than Forrest’s superiors in Richmond did. The Union general’s fear of Forrest’s skill and ferocity seemed almost pathological, and he went to huge lengths to keep him busy nearly 300 miles away.
And busy Forrest stayed. On June 10, with just 2,800 Confederate cavalry, he took on nearly 8,000 Federal infantry and cavalry under Maj. Gen. Samuel Sturgis at Brice’s Crossroads in Mississippi. His plan for the battle, as disclosed to Colonel Edmund Rucker as they rode toward the crossroads, showed Forrest’s firm grasp of the link between topography and victory.
“I know they greatly outnumber the troops I have at hand,” Rucker later recalled Forrest saying, “but the road along which they will march is narrow and muddy; they will make slow progress. The country is densely wooded, and the undergrowth so heavy that when we strike them they will not know how few men we have.
“Their cavalry will move out ahead of their infantry and should reach the crossroads three hours in advance. We can whip their cavalry in that time. As soon as the fight opens, they will send back to have the infantry hurried up. It is going to be hot as hell, and coming on a run for five or six miles, their infantry will be so tired out we will ride right over them.”
The ensuing battle is regarded as Forrest’s masterpiece. He whipped Sturgis so badly that his troopers captured “250 wagons and ambulances, 18 pieces of artillery, 5,000 stand of small-arms, 500,000 rounds of ammunition, and all baggage and supplies,” he reported. He then chased the Federals for two days as they fled all the way back to Memphis.
Sherman was thus proved entirely correct. Forrest was the ideal Confederate to be kept out of Georgia.
Amid all this, politics proceeded apace.
On June 8, the National Union Party re-nominated Abraham Lincoln for president by a large majority. The only differing votes were 22 cast by the Missouri delegation for General Grant, who had been a Missourian for a few antebellum years. But once Lincoln had gotten all of the remaining 484 votes, Missouri changed its tally to give Lincoln the nomination by acclamation.
Andrew Johnson, the Tennessee Democrat who was the only Southern senator who had remained loyal to the Union, supplanted Hannibal Hamlin of Maine as the nominee for vice president. Lincoln never expressed a preference. That may have been a tacit admission that he preferred a War Democrat such as Johnson, whose loyalty he admired. Hamlin, very strong on the slavery issue, was probably more radical than Lincoln felt comfortable with.
Since early May, Grant had been revisiting in his mind the method he had used to win his Vicksburg victory.
A repetition of his momentous Mississippi River crossing–the largest body of water crossed by the largest number of troops in history up to that time–was looking more and more needed on the Richmond front. On May 30, surely knowing that his frontal assault at Cold Harbor might not break Lee’s line, he ordered chief of staff Henry Halleck in Washington to gather all the pontoons he could find and send them to City Point, Va., on the north bank of the James River.
On the morning of June 13, Lee’s army awoke to find empty Federal trenches in their front. The entire Army of the Potomac had managed to sneak away eastward to cross the James, half again as wide as the Mississippi.
Once on the James’s south side, Grant could threaten Petersburg and the less-protected underbelly of Richmond.
[For more, see Not War But Murder: Cold Harbor 1864 by Ernest B. Furgurson, Random House 2000; Training Ground: Grant, Lee, Sherman, and Davis in the Mexican War, 1846-1848 by Martin Dugard, Little-Brown 2008; The Civil War Almanac by John S. Boatner, Bison Books 1982; Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction by James M. McPherson, Random House 2001; Forrest at Brice’s Crossroads by Edwin C. Bearss, Morningside Press 1979; Lincoln by David Herbert Donald, Simon & Schuster 1995; Grant by Jean Edward Smith, Simon & Schuster 2001; and Lee by Clifford Dowdey, Little-Brown 1965.]
As June’s thermometer rose toward Southern summer’s heights, so did the Caucasian savagery of a New South acting too much like the Old. From St. Augustine’s historic Slave Market to the backwoods of Mississippi, crescendos of violence reverberated.
On June 4, Atty. Gen. Robert Kennedy met with President Johnson concerning “Freedom Summer,” the impending influx of young and mostly white Northern voter registration workers into Mississippi’s hothouse of hate.
Kennedy told the President that Mississippi law enforcement officials allowed Ku Klux Klan violence when not actually participating in it. The man charged with killing local civil rights leader Medgar Evers had been turned loose by a jury following his second mistrial, and Kennedy decried a surge of forty-odd racial arrests, beatings, and bombings.
That same day, Kennedy’s nominal but hardly subordinate underling, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, held forth to author William Manchester on his theories concerning the “cold and evil” mindset of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.
Hoover had just had his agency do a security review of the National Council of Churches and had found the NCC not overtly Communist but meriting suspicion. Kennedy’s Justice Department, by contrast, saw the NCC as heroically trying to restrain civil rights provocateurs in the pervading tinderbox atmosphere.
The FBI continued in its racist director’s chosen role of aide to the Southern lawmen Kennedy complained of. Ever-widening wiretaps on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had found that King assistants were renting a beach cottage for him in St. Augustine.
The long-smoldering St. Augustine movement had flamed to life again briefly during the much-headlined visit of Boston socialite Mary Peabody in April, but had achieved no breakthrough and was dormant again. Now King, on a week-long fundraising trip to California, sent Andrew Young into St. Augustine to stoke the movement spirit while tamping down provocation.
Non-provocation, it turned out, was impossible. The demonstrators’ mere request for their constitutional rights seemed enough to set off mobs of racists gathering at St. Augustine. As May ended, some 250 whites had attacked and routed nonviolent marchers as well as media representatives.
FBI agents sought permission to bug the beach cottage rented for King, and word of the place’s location spread. Only hours after the FBI request, unidentified riflemen fired a dozen shots into the structure. When President Johnson complained about the shooting to Florida Sen. George Smathers on June 4, Smathers, noting that King was not hit, called the incident and stories of similar episodes “a damn plant” by King henchmen. Florida Gov. Farris Bryant was similarly resistant to reality.
Then a U.S. district judge who earlier had seemed to side with the white establishment appeared to balk at blasé coddling of brutality by lawmen. The sheriff and police chief had refused to characterize the white crowds as armed or menacing, but when the sheriff, ordered by the court, read a list of his 169 extra deputies and included the name of a pig farmer who headed a 1,000-member hunting club, the judge erupted in outrage.
“Why, that man’s a convicted felon in this court!” he said.
Little wonder the jurist had had enough. On June 7, while King was off speaking at a college in Connecticut, the beach cottage was set afire for the second time since being shot into on May 28.
On June 9, Andrew Young led 300 marchers in another foray to the Slave Market and was knocked to the pavement. He got up and continued to march until knocked down twice again with a blackjack by an assailant who then stood over him, kicking.
A Boston University chaplain, one of very few white marchers, got the same treatment until a 12-year-old African American boy threw himself down over the chaplain’s body. The attacker sauntered off while police did nothing.
On June 11 King, back in town, was arrested for demonstrating for the right to eat at a segregated restaurant. On June 12, following another march to the Slave Market by 200 demonstrators, Dixie segregationist J.B. Stoner held a rally there.
“There’s nothing in the Constitution that gives Congress the authority to tell us we’ve got to eat with niggers!” Stoner roared.
On June 18, a grand jury demanded that King and his minions show “good faith” by leaving St. Augustine for 30 days. King said he would–if the community first established a biracial committee to study the city’s problems.
On June 20, demonstrators avoided the now hyper-dangerous Slave Market and instead integrated an all-white beach–and got beaten to their knees in the surf as they waded in. Florida Gov. Bryant revoked all rights of nocturnal assembly in the city, after which U.S. District Judge Bryan Simpson, who on June 9 had held that blacks had a right to assemble, now ordered Bryant to show why he should not be held in contempt.
Meanwhile, on June 10, West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd (who later would acknowledge having been a Grand Cyclops in Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s) finished the longest Senate filibuster in U.S. history.
Byrd had staged his marathon, of course, to try to block President Johnson’s civil rights bill. When Byrd finally sat down, the Senate passed the bill 71 to 29.
On June 9-11, Mississippi edged back toward the forefront of the nation’s consciousness as grim civil rights workers girded for Freedom Summer. In Atlanta, at the final Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee staff meeting before the monumental effort was to begin, knowledge of the lethal probabilities hung over the assemblage like a shroud.
Sharp disagreements on nonviolence as well as expected friction between impoverished, marginally educated local African Americans and rich white Northern students overlaid stark, cold terror. SNCC’s Prathia Hall put it into words.
“No one can be rational about death,” she said. “What is happening now is that for the first time as a staff we are coming to grips with the fact that this may be it.”
Hall then lashed out at the federal fear of places like Mississippi. She said she wanted to “bring our blood to the White House door.
“If we die here, it’s the whole society which has pulled the trigger by its silence.”
Challenging the movement’s archetypal code of nonviolence, black Mississippi activists stockpiled guns and ammunition. Even SNCC’s Greenwood office did it until leader Bob Moses sent Stokely Carmichael on a mission to remove all such weapons.
On June 16 in an auditorium in Oxford, Ohio, veterans of the Mississippi movement tried to prep the first 200 young student Freedom School teachers. The vets and the newbies mixed warily. When some of the students tittered at a film showing poor black Mississippi farmers saying they wanted the vote so as to get their dusty local road paved, SNCC staffer Hollis Watkins stalked out, unable to abide the students’ condescension.
Five days later a coed from Drew University in New Jersey, on her first day of work in the Freedom Summer headquarters in Meridian, followed procedure and reported that three of the workers had not checked in at 4 p.m. that afternoon, as required. Sitting nearby, another new volunteer, a female student at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, wrote a letter home reporting that “we’re all sitting here in the office…nervous as hell.
“…This morning Mickey, who’s the project director, and Chaney, a local staff member, and Andy, who’s a volunteer, all went out to one of the rougher rural counties to see about a church that was burned down a few days ago…No word from them of any kind. We’ve had people out looking for them, and they haven’t found anything…”
Most Mississippi civil rights veterans were still in Ohio, so Mary King at Southern Christian Leadership Conference headquarters in Atlanta began a night-long phone stint. She called the FBI office in New Orleans (Mississippi was the only state without one), individual agents stationed in Mississippi towns, John Doar of the Justice Department, and, among many others, Claude Sitton of the New York Times. She reported that the trio of workers—Mickey Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney—were missing in Neshoba County.
On June 22, Neshoba Sheriff Lawrence Rainey told reporters the three had been arrested for speeding and been held six hours, then released at 10:30 at night. The sheriff added that if the trio was missing, it was because “they just hid somewhere trying to get publicity out of it, I figure.” Mississippi U.S. Sen. James Eastland offered a concerned President Johnson the same laconic opinion.
Then Native Americans reported finding a burned-out station wagon on a Choctaw Reservation near Philadelphia, Miss., and Atty. Gen. Kennedy ordered an immediate investigation. The vehicle turned out to have the license plates of one driven by the missing trio. When Sheriff Rainey and deputies rushed to the scene with howling sirens, the FBI, whose director was now responding to direct presidential pressure, stopped them from seeing the car until after the FBI had gathered evidence.
The New York Times front-paged the story on June 23, and by June 24 some 2,000 demonstrators were converging on the Justice Department in Washington. Seven hundred marched in New York, and another 100-plus in Boston. SNCC sat-in all day in Chicago.
Meanwhile, leaders of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission assured federal investigators that they had reports that the missing trio continued to be seen–especially in Alabama. As J. Edgar Hoover resisted presidential demands for the FBI to become more involved, Mississippi sheriff’s deputies and other Klan-ish elements methodically arrested and/or otherwise terrorized out-of-state visitors.
At least one of the new civil rights volunteers was so traumatized that he fled back north.
[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, HarperCollins 1996; In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s by Clayborne Carson, Harvard Press, 1982; and “Racial Matters”: The FBI’s Secret File on Black America, 1960-1972 by Kenneth O’Reilly, Free Press 1989.]
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