A comparatively quiet military act that would profoundly affect Union politics occurred on the month’s first day.
The Confederates gave up Atlanta. Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman, ordered by General-in-Chief U. S. Grant to press Georgia’s defenders as hard as possible, had done so since May, pushing them steadily backward with his superior numbers. Atlanta’s fall meant the Confederacy had lost another state capital in Deep Dixie—along with Jackson, Miss., and Baton Rouge, La., plus Nashville and Little Rock on the northern border.
The Confederate Army of Tennessee under Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood was still fighting 20 miles south of downtown Atlanta when Hood learned that the critical railroad nexus had had to be evacuated. On Sept. 2 Sherman’s army entered it, and Sherman wired Chief of Staff Henry Halleck in Washington that the city “is ours and fairly won.”
Five days later, Sherman ordered all civilians out of the city, some of which had either been burned by Hood as his men pulled out or damaged by Federal cannon fire in the Federal siege. Sherman planned to do away with anything else that might afford aid to the Confederates.
“If the people raise a howl against my barbarity & cruelty,” the general wrote Halleck, “I will answer that War is War and not popularity seeking. If they want Peace, they & their relations must stop War.”
He informed Hood of his evacuation plan in a letter of Sept. 7, and Hood, outraged, replied two days later. He said Sherman’s proposal was “unprecedented” and “transcends, in studied and ingenious cruelty, all acts ever brought to my attention in the dark history of war. In the name of God, I protest…you are expelling from their homes and firesides the wives and children of a brave people.”
Sherman, rarely at a loss for words of vituperation when he felt them appropriate, returned Hood’s outrage in kind. Observing that Hood’s predecessor in command of the primary western Confederate army, Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, had himself called on Georgia citizens in the path of the armies to evacuate their homes, Sherman added:
“You who in the midst of Peace and prosperity have plunged a nation into War…expelled Union families by the thousands, burned their houses, and declared by an act of your Congress the confiscation of all debts due northern men…”
On the 11th, Sherman and Hood reached an agreement to allow a 10-day truce for the civilian evacuation.
Two weeks later, on Sept. 25, Jefferson Davis hurried south from Richmond to meet with Hood at Hood’s Georgia headquarters. Davis advised trying to regain all the ground lost to Sherman by raiding Sherman’s rail supply lines and forcing the Federal commander to retreat toward Chattanooga or drive straight east to the Atlantic Ocean. Either course would free up northern Georgia and spare Confederate war-materiel production facilities in the state’s southern portion.
It was a tall task that seemed beyond Hood’s talents, but Davis was desperate. Sherman’s irresistible advance had put the Confederate president under enormous political pressure. Georgia Gov. Joseph Brown, a continual thorn in Davis’s side, was reported to be considering contacting Sherman to try to make peace for his state independent of the Richmond government. Some North Carolina newspapers were advocating reuniting with the Union. And soldiers from places such as Texas were said to be joining secret “peace societies” with names like Heroes of America.
In their talks after Atlanta’s fall, Davis and Hood likely didn’t know that Grant on Sept. 10 had pushed Sherman to keep pressuring Hood wherever Hood went. But as September wound down and Hood kept moving northward, Sherman gave up the pursuit and began planning how he might reverse directions and put Hood and Davis in even more of a vise.
Pressure was building almost everywhere on almost everybody. In Union-held territory, the Confederacy was sustaining significant losses but also making significant strides.
On Sept. 4 the celebrated Confederate cavalryman John Hunt Morgan was killed trying to escape Union troops who surrounded him in Greeneville, Tenn., and the following day ten percent of voters in Louisiana ratified a new state constitution abolishing slavery. On Lake Erie on Sept. 19, a Confederate attempt to capture the Federal gunboat Michigan and use it to free a prospective Confederate army imprisoned on Johnson’s Island failed miserably.
But Confederate cavalry was on the move and making headway. In northern Alabama, Maj. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest was raiding and destroying Sherman’s rail supply lines, and Maj. Gen. Sterling Price was reinvading Missouri.
Forrest departed Verona, Miss., on Sept. 16 with 4,500 troopers. On Sept. 24 he surrounded and captured a railroad-guarding Federal garrison at Athens, Ala., and the next day, ten miles north of Athens, he captured and burned the hundred-yard-long, seventy-foot-high Sulphur Branch Trestle.
Into Missouri Price led 12,000 cavalry. Native American Confederates under Brig. Gen Stand Watie attacked a Federal wagon train at Cabin Creek, taking more than 200 wagons and more than 1,200 mules. On the 27th, Price himself attacked Fort Davidson near Pilot Knob. The 1,200 Federals guarding the fort were forced to evacuate it that night and blow it up, and a band of Confederate guerrillas under William (Bloody Bill) Anderson that included future famous outlaws Jesse and Frank James pillaged and burned Centralia.
So the stress on Abraham Lincoln’s Union government was increasing, too, and not just militarily. On Sept. 1, the convention of Northern Democrats nominated Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan for president. McClellan looked formidable. Despite his record of battlefield vacillation, he remained a popular figure in the North as his successors heading the Union’s main eastern army produced costlier defeats than he had.
But in a letter accepting the nomination a week after it was proffered, McClellan took issue with a pivotal plank in his party’s platform. That plank, written by Clement L. Vallandigham of Ohio, leader of the so-called “Peace Democrats,” said:
“After four years of failure to restore the Union by the experiment of war…(we) demand that immediate efforts be made for a cessation of hostilities, with a view to an ultimate convention of the states, or other peaceable means, to the end that, at the earliest practicable moment, peace may be restored…”
Vallandigham was a Copperhead, a Democrat convinced that the war was being waged by Lincoln and the Republicans less for the restoration of the Union than–as Vallandigham had charged in a speech–for the emancipation of slaves, which Copperheads adamantly opposed. McClellan, too, opposed emancipation as a war aim, but he did not go along with giving up the fight.
“I could not,” the general said in his letter, “look in the face of my gallant comrades of the army and navy, who have survived so many bloody battles, and tell them that their labor and sacrifice had been in vain.”
On the other hand, unlike Lincoln’s insistence on unconditional Southern surrender, McClellan proposed that when any state desired to return to the Union, it should be “received at once, with all its constitutional rights.” In other words, slavery would be returned to its original constitutional, place.
Another major general who had been in the field politically against Lincoln for months, John C. Fremont–the Republicans’ initial nominee in 1856 and nominated again in May by an extreme antislavery rump of the party–could not abide the idea of the continued countenancing of slavery. Fremont quit the race on Sept. 19 and very reluctantly threw his support to Lincoln.
On Washington’s veritable doorstep, the war in the East sputtered on both sides of the lines.
Army of Northern Virginia commander Robert E. Lee, having to continually stretch his lines farther south of Richmond to meet the flanking sidles of Grant, begged Jefferson Davis on Sept. 2 to make changes in conscription and other army policies. “No man capable of bearing arms should be excused,” he wrote, and asked that to free up more front-line soldiers blacks replace ones being used as teamsters, cooks, mechanics, and laborers.
“It seems to me we must choose between employing negroes ourselves, and having them employed against us,” he said.
African Americans were, of course, already being used against the Confederacy, and had been for a year or more.
Lee also asked for the return of Richard H. Anderson’s corps, which had been borrowed by Maj. Gen. Jubal Early in the Shenandoah Valley. On Sept. 14, Anderson left Early for Lee’s Petersburg lines. On the 16th, Lee cavalry chief Wade Hampton captured 2,400 head of cattle, bringing much-needed beef to Lee’s hungry troops.
That same day, Sept. 16, Grant was absent from the Petersburg lines meeting with his own cavalry chief, Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan, in Charles Town, Va. He had an important message for Sheridan and decided to take it himself. He wanted Sheridan to attack Early in the Shenandoah and follow him south.
“I knew,” Grant later wrote, that “it was impossible for me to get orders through Washington to Sheridan to make (such) a move…they would be stopped there and such orders as Halleck’s caution (and that of the Secretary of War) would suggest, would be given instead, and would, no doubt, be contradictory to mine.”
On the 19th at Winchester, Va., Sheridan attacked Early’s 12,000 men with 37,000. Over the next two days the Federals drove the Confederates out of Winchester and southward, then routed them at Fishers Hill near Strasburg in a fight in which the Federal casualties were 162 compared to 1,235 Confederate.
The Shenandoah now lay open to Union sack and fire. On Sept. 24 Sheridan, with torches and empty wagons at the ready, prepared to take full advantage.
[For more see The Civil War Almanac by John S. Boatner, Bison Books 1986; The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War by David J. Eicher, Simon & Schuster 2001; Tried By War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief by James M. McPherson, Penguin Press 2008; Lincoln by David Herbert Donald, Simon & Schuster 1995; Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour by William C. Davis, HarperCollins 1991; Lee by Clifford Dowdey, Little-Brown 1965; and Personal Memoirs by U. S. Grant, Penguin Press reissue 1999.]
Discovery of three missing civil rights workers’ bodies in August, and the unsuccessful attempt by an integrated delegation to represent Mississippi at the Democratic National Convention three weeks later, spawned more Klan violence in the state in September.
On Sept. 2 Klansmen on a street in McComb, a center of persistent voter registration activity, administered a beating to a registration worker for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Three anti-black bombings occurred in the same town on the 7th, and another struck the home of a black minister there on the 9th.
On the 20th, four Klansmen tossed 14 sticks of dynamite onto the porch of the McComb home of Mrs. Alyene Quin, owner of a café that had served SNCC workers. The blast tore into the front rooms of the house, broke an eardrum of one of Mrs. Quin’s children, and gave minor bruises to another. The same night, a larger bomb destroyed Society Hill Baptist Church in McComb, one of whose deacons had been the sole adult in Mississippi to consent to sponsor a SNCC voter project.
On the 23rd, two more bombings occurred. That day, McComb police arrested 25 supporters of the civil rights movement, including a SNCC volunteer organizer, under a “criminal syndicalism” law enacted to combat registration of black voters.
Less than 48 hours after her home was bombed, Alyene Quin and two other McComb bombing victims were escorted into the Justice Department in Washington on Sept. 22, their transportation to the nation’s capital paid by members of the National Council of Churches. There the three poured out varied stories of hopelessness.
Matti Dillon told them her husband, Willie, a shade-tree mechanic who had repaired the car of a civil rights worker in his yard, had been arrested and charged with running an illegal garage–“when he doesn’t even have a garage.” Ora Bryant said her home was bombed two months before her activist church, Society Hill Baptist, received the same treatment. And Alyene Quin said she and her children were now homeless because all her friends in McComb were “afraid to have me in their house now.”
Two days later, on the 24th, the three were granted a low-profile meeting with President Johnson, who had been lobbied “strenuously” by the National Council of Churches to see the women. Johnson’s aides, hyperconscious of his presidential campaign against U. S. Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, had first turned down the meeting, but when syndicated columnist Drew Pearson took up the women’s cause, the aides relented. The President was told that the trio would be brought in through the back door and taken out the same way, but that reporters would doubtless get the story anyway.
Reporters did get it, with more than a little assistance from the women themselves. They held a press conference. To a reporter’s question about her reaction to statements by her county’s sheriff that McComb’s Negroes must be bombing their own homes, Alyene Quin countered with a question of her own:
“Do you think I would work 11 years to keep a house and then plant a bomb under it while two of my children were in it?”
A National Council of Churches spokesman, Presbyterian Eugene Carson Blake, told newsmen that “nothing in the history of Christianity is comparable to the mass destruction of houses of God in Mississippi.”
Meanwhile, the Mississippi establishment went to extraordinary lengths to try to stop leaks of damning information on the perpetrators of crimes against African Americans. State Judge O. H. Barnett, calling the Klan-colluding sheriff in the county where the three civil rights workers were killed “the most courageous sheriff in America,” demanded that FBI agents come to the county courthouse on Sept. 28 and turn over names of their informants on the killings.
Washington didn’t flinch. On the 25th, the Justice Department telegraphed all agents to refuse to testify, and on the 27th, two FBI informants attended a supreme session of the Klan in which Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers bizarrely said Ku Klux murders be committed “without malice,” as befit the Christian religion they adamantly claimed as their own. A summary of his remarks was in FBI hands before midnight.
On the 30th, President Johnson was told local officials were claiming that “Negroes are bombing their own homes”–and that it was the “Negroes” who were getting arrested.
Johnson had sincerely, though in vain, pleaded the civil rights cause with such powerful Southern friends as U. S. Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia, but his attempt to placate the white South by giving the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party only two at-large seats at the August convention bitterly divided civil rights adherents.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his deputy in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Andrew Young, worked convention delegates in behalf of the MFDP, but, as Young later wrote, they also regarded a Johnson triumph over Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater at the polls in November as of paramount importance. They gave two reasons:
–Johnson had signed the Civil Rights Act.
–Goldwater’s platform, if he won, would not only “prevent further gains in the area of civil rights” but also threaten everything the movement already had achieved.
King and Young thought African Americans should be glad to get what Johnson had already done for them and save their further wants for after the election. Young ran into trouble, though, when he tried to take that message to SNCC. He later collectively quoted SNCC officers Jim Forman and Cleveland Sellers as accusing him and King of “selling us out!
“You ain’t been getting your heads whipped in Mississippi. While you niggers been staying in fancy hotels eating chicken, we been sleeping on floors in Mississippi, glad to find some grits. Y’all come through with nice cars, make a speech, and run back to your fancy churches in Atlanta…Don’t come here with this bullshit about what we ought to be glad to get!”
Young reasoned that the election coming in November was a real one, not a mock exercise such as the one they had tried to stage in Mississippi for nonregistered blacks to practice participating in. If they had gotten the MFDP seated at the Democratic convention, he said, and doing that got Johnson defeated at the polls, what would they have accomplished?
SNCC chairman John Lewis used quieter and more measured words, but he was just as opposed as Forman and Sellers. He said SNCC had shed too many members’ blood to compromise now.
“The trouble with the civil rights bill (is) it doesn’t protect us; it was open season on us in Mississippi this summer,” Young quoted Lewis. “People were murdered in Philadelphia (Miss.), and there is no punishment. When we try to register to vote, we get sent to jail, we are beaten, we are threatened. We can’t back down, we’ve come too far.”
Lewis himself later wrote that he believed white Democrats’ abandonment of the MFDP at the convention “was the turning point of the civil rights movement”–and more. Until the convention, in spite of all the obstacles they had faced, SNCC’s underpaid, perpetually endangered volunteers had believed in American democracy, Lewis wrote.
“Now, for the first time, we had made our way to the very center of the system…had played the game exactly as required, had arrived at the doorstep and found the door slammed in our face.”
Lewis wrote that had delegates from all the states been allowed to vote on seating the MFDP, Mississippi’s “regular,” all-white delegation would have been replaced, but that “power politics at its worst” doomed the MFDP. And the clout of that politics had been wielded by “Lyndon Johnson, the consummate power politician.”
Because of Johnson’s fear of losing the formerly “solid” Democratic South to Goldwater, Lewis theorized, Johnson lost something far more substantial, not just for himself but for America “as the decade began to turn dark.” What was lost was “the faith of the people.
“That loss of faith would spread through Lyndon Johnson’s term in office, from civil rights and into the issue of Vietnam. That loss of faith in the President would eventually grow into a loss of faith in the federal government as a whole, and it would extend out of the 1960s into the ’70s and ’80s and on up to today.”
But Johnson’s immediate fears of the South were justified, as was quickly and very publicly seen. South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond on Sept. 16 announced that he was not just voting for Goldwater. He was switching parties and becoming a Republican.
The FBI continued doing all in its vast power to demonize King, the civil rights movement’s most prominent face, as an associate of Communists and a sex-obsessed hypocrite.
On Sept. 13, King flew to West Germany to attend a rally at the invitation of Chancellor Willy Brandt. Then he crossed the Berlin Wall to preach at a church in Communist East Berlin and receive an honorary degree from the Theological Seminary of Berlin.
The same day, having learned by clandestine King wiretaps that King had asked the Vatican for permission to visit Pope Paul VI, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover directed that the Vatican be given the same sort of scurrilous wiretapped recordings that it had earlier used to dissuade Marquette University from granting the civil rights leader an honorary degree. An agent handed Francis Cardinal Spellman an FBI file purporting to show “the unsavory nature of King’s character, both from a subversive and moral standpoint.” The agent warned the cardinal that granting King a papal visit might help him achieve a Nobel Prize.
Hoover was soon informed that Spellman was honored that the FBI director would entrust him with such a mission and was proud to undertake it. Nevertheless, it failed. The Pope granted King a 25-minute audience on Sept. 18. Hoover was thunderstruck.
“I am amazed,” he wrote, “that the Pope gave an audience to such a degenerate.”
[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; 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.]
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