October ’64

1864

Confederate war-making strategies, particularly west of the Appalachians, became increasingly wild gambles in October. The undermanned aims of these gambits were all the same: to stave off Union drives that, if successful, would produce inexorable Dixie defeat.

Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood had so thinned his Army of Tennessee with head-on assaults around Atlanta that he left himself few alternatives. His ranks possessed insufficient manpower for further attacks on Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s Federals, so Hood headed northwest, hoping Sherman would pursue him away from Georgia.

Ahead of Hood in northern Alabama and Tennessee, Confederate Maj. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry was continuing its thoroughgoing work of destruction on the farther reaches of Sherman’s supply routes.

West of the Mississippi River, Maj. Gen. Sterling Price and 12,000 cavalry had already headed north in September, moving from Arkansas well into Missouri toward St. Louis. It was a foray that, if coordinated with Hood’s, could divert some Union units from Hood’s front.

Sherman, unwilling to abandon his designs on disemboweling the Deep South, also refused to leave his north-running supply lines to Hood’s depredations. So he now sent some troops hurrying northward on Hood’s trail while he kept an eye farther south on the prized grain fields and weapons-making factories that General-in-Chief U. S. Grant had ordered him to devastate.

On the eastern front at Petersburg, Va., Grant continued trying to spread his lines past the ends of those of General Robert E. Lee’s sorely outmanned Army of Northern Virginia. To keep Lee’s men as ill-fed as possible, Grant had also sent Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan west to the Shenandoah Valley to divest it of food, forage, and any other material that might aid Lee.

On the seas and rivers, the naval war presented its own vestiges of desperation. Confederate spy Rose O’Neal drowned on Oct. 1 when she tried to flee the British blockade runner Condor off North Carolina. After the Condor ran aground during pursuit by a Federal vessel, the small boat in which O’Neal was riding capsized in heavy seas.

On Oct. 8 a new Confederate craft, the Shenandoah, left England aiming to seize or destroy Union shipping, and on Oct. 29 the CSS Olustee ran the blockade at Wilmington, N.C., for the same purpose. On the 31st, seven Federal vessels captured Plymouth, N.C.

In Washington and Richmond, the warring presidential administrations took measures to try to sustain themselves and their causes.

Jefferson Davis, having run out of alternatives, named an old enemy, General P. G. T. Beauregard, to head the Confederacy’s huge but shrinking Western Department. Beauregard’s assignment was to coordinate the armies of Hood and Trans-Mississippi commander Richard Taylor–but not to interfere with their operations in the field.

The Union welcomed a new state, Nevada, while Democrats howled that Abraham Lincoln only wanted its three electoral votes for the presidential election in early November. Most people, including the President, expected the margin between the Republican Lincoln and Democratic challenger George B. McClellan to be close.

In the most bizarre move, two dozen Confederates, mostly escaped prisoners of war recruited by a young Kentucky lieutenant named Bennett Young, crossed the Canadian border into the town of St. Albans, Vt., on Oct. 19. They torched the town square, killed one civilian, and robbed three banks of a total of $200,000.

Young’s plan had been to pillage and burn several Northern towns to inaugurate a wave of terror. But citizens of St. Albans resisted, and the Confederates ended up fleeing back across the border to Canada. Young and half his men were quickly caught with $75,000 and put in Canadian custody.

*

On Oct. 1, Hood’s northwestward sidle got going. The bulk of the Army of Tennessee moved around Atlanta and started north. The next day Sterling Price, a former Missouri governor, occupied Washington, Mo., just 30-some miles from St. Louis, America’s eighth-largest city.

On the 4th, Sherman moved his headquarters north of Atlanta to Kennesaw Mountain to watch Hood. On the 5th, the Confederates launched a large but unsuccessful attack to destroy the railroad station at Allatoona, Ga., in his rear.

Union Maj. Gen. George Thomas, on orders from Sherman, arrived in Nashville on the 3rd to build up Union defenses against a Hood drive on Middle Tennessee.

The same day, Price fought Union troops west of St. Louis–and found that a Federal corps under Maj. Gen. A. J. Smith had been diverted there from Nashville. Having found St. Louis now too strong to attack, Price veered off northwestward. By the 9th, he had captured three towns in central Missouri near Jefferson City, and on the 14th he appealed to Missourians to reclaim their state for the Confederacy.

But even though some of his troopers took Glasgow and Sedalia, Mo., on Oct. 15, Price’s raid began unraveling. Three Federal forces began converging on him from the west, east, and south. Fighting front and rear on Oct. 17 near Lexington, 30 miles from Kansas City, he decided to try to defeat the Federal forces before they could unite.

On Oct. 22, a portion of his men under Brig. Gen. Joseph Orville (Jo) Shelby drove ahead and pushed the western Federal force backward to Westport, where they attacked it again the next day. But the Federals stopped Shelby and mounted an attack of their own, and Price’s scheme fell to pieces. In the Battle of Westport 20,000 Union troops defeated 8,000 of Price’s Confederates, each side losing about 1,500 men.

Price retreated over the Kansas border with a long wagon train of captured supplies. He was caught and roundly defeated on the 25th, losing another thousand men, four generals, and 10 cannon. Price’s foray was the last Confederate threat to Missouri, and it came too early to aid Hood’s projected drive into Middle Tennessee.

To lead that push, Hood wanted Forrest’s cavalry, which was still amid its work on the far reaches of Sherman’s rail lines. While he waited for Forrest, Hood took his men from northwest Georgia–where he skirmished with some of Sherman’s men at Rome on the 10th–into Alabama.

By Oct. 26, Hood had the Army of Tennessee in the center of northern Alabama at Decatur and was continuing westward, still waiting for Forrest.

That hard-bitten general, meanwhile, had been very busy. He had fought at Florence, Ala., on the 6th. On the 10th, Federal troops transported by boat sought to attack him farther west at Eastport, Miss., but his men foiled the move by damaging the boats and leaving the Federals without transportation. They barely got away from him.

On the 29th, his troopers captured a steamboat. The next day they took two transport vessels and a gunboat, the Undine, and decided to start their own navy.

*

On the other side of the Appalachians, most attention was riveted on Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, the closest breadbasket to Lee’s army at Petersburg. The Shenandoah’s fruitful fields were now under the sway of Federal Maj. Gen. Phil Sheridan, their bounty either going up in smoke or being hauled away in Union wagons.

“Tomorrow I will continue the destruction of wheat, forage, etc., down to Fisher’s Hill,” Little Phil at Woodstock reported to Grant at Petersburg on Oct. 7. “When this is completed the Valley, from Winchester up to Staunton, ninety-two miles, will have little in it for man or beast.”

Having done his job with a vengeance, Sheridan began pulling back northward. Confederate cavalry forces under Maj. Gen. Jubal Early by now were too outnumbered to do more than harass him. At Tom’s Brook on Oct. 9, the Federal cavalry turned and attacked, smashing Early’s cavalry, chasing it several miles, and capturing hundreds of men and 11 guns. Sheridan then sent one of his corps to reinforce Grant.

But the Valley was not yet quite subdued. As Sheridan withdrew, Early slipped back into its lower (northern) reaches and, on the 18th, began carrying out a two-pronged plan to capture Sheridan as punishment for his Valley depredations and then smash the Federals camped at Cedar Creek north of Strasburg.

But Sheridan wasn’t at Strasburg when the Confederates attacked. He had spent the night in Winchester, 20 miles from his army. By the time he arrived at Cedar Creek in the late morning of Oct. 19, he found his men retreating in chaos and some of his officers shouting, “The army’s whipped!”

“You are, but the army isn’t!” Sheridan shouted back.

Aided by a lull created by Confederates falling out of ranks to celebrate and plunder the battlefield, Sheridan rallied his troops and counterattacked late in the day. Early’s men panicked and fled.

The Sheridan-Early battles were the major ones in the east, but there were smaller, uglier ones, too. On Oct. 2 at Saltville in southwestern Virginia, some victorious Confederates, mostly Tennesseans, killed more than 100 wounded black troops after a Federal attempt to capture the important salt-producing center failed.

In September and October, Lt. Col. John S. Mosby’s Confederate raiders clashed with Federal officers in a mini-war of mutual retribution. A Union lieutenant was killed after he blundered into Confederate lines. Federals captured and killed six of Mosby’s men, and Mosby troopers then shot and killed the lieutenant son of U. S. Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs.  Sheridan ordered a town burned in retaliation.

Federal surgeon Daniel Holt described the “wholesale” devastation of the Shenandoah as “laying waste the most beautiful Valley the sun ever shone upon.”

South Carolina diarist Mary B. Chesnut was even more sorrowfully lyrical.

“These stories of our defeats in the Valley fall like blows upon a dead body,” Chesnut wrote. “Since Atlanta I have felt as if all were dead within me, forever.”

[For more, see The Civil War Almanac by John S. Boatner, Bison Books 1982; The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War by David J. Eicher, Simon & Schuster 2001; A World On Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War by Amanda Foreman, Random House 2010; Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War by Patricia L. Faust, ed., Harper & Row 1986; and Generals In Gray: Lives of the Confederate Commanders by Ezra J. Warner, LSU Press 1959.]

1964

Pressure from the federal government and the bloodied civil rights workers who had embarrassed it into action began producing tics in the racist face the so-called Solid South showed the world.

It happened even in the state fearsomely reputed to be most solid of all: Mississippi.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. took public note. On Oct. 1 in Savannah, Ga., speaking to an evening crowd of 2,000 that overflowed the sanctuary of Saint Paul AME Church into rain-drenched streets, he pointed out several departures from the establishment’s traditional norm. One was that Mississippi’s governor, Paul Johnson, had departed from the Ku Klux fiction that African American Mississippians had dynamited their own homes.

“Some were bombings by white people,” Johnson had said.

Newspaper editor Oliver Emmerich in McComb printed a “Statement of Principles” backing “equal treatment under the law,” and 650 people publicly endorsed it.

The mounting pressure producing these aberrations included foundation-less talk that President Johnson was about to send in troops and proclaim martial law.

By contrast, an FBI arrest of three Klansmen on the streets of McComb on the day of King’s speech was no rumor. The trio basically confirmed to agents that their klavern conducted weekly bombings of sites they chose by drawing names from a hat. The three were plainly prepared for any eventuality. Their car contained four high-powered rifles, a pistol, eight wooden clubs, brass knuckles, a box of explosives, a deputy sheriff’s badge, and, the New York Times wrote, a ghoulish-sounding “black leatherette hood and apron.”

They and their friends had been well armed from the beginning. The U.S. Civil Rights Commission would soon report that the majority of McComb-area bombings had been perpetrated by the South Pike Riflemen’s Association, less formally known as the “Wolf Pack.” It had been purposely founded as an affiliate of the National Rifle Association so members could buy weapons and ammunition at a discount.

On Oct. 3, in an action that rocked the establishment and its Klan minions, FBI agents arrested the sheriff, deputy sheriff, and three other lawmen of Neshoba County, where a trio of civil rights workers had been murdered and buried in an earthen dam a few months earlier. The charge was beating African Americans they had arrested. FBI sources reported that in the wake of the arrests of the officers, several members of local klaverns fled the area.

But such cracks in the monolith were only hopeful harbingers of a better but distant future. A judge in Jackson suspended the sentences of the arrested trio of McComb bombers, along with eight others similarly charged, on grounds that they had been “unduly provoked” by outside invaders “of low morality and unhygienic.”

The decision was so egregious that it prompted unusual public condemnation from FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, who had long since proved himself no friend of civil rights. He said the judge was guilty of “blindness and indifference to outrageous acts.”

The day the judge set the Klan bombers free in Jackson, police in McComb jailed 13 civil rights workers for sharing meals without a license in their McComb Freedom House. So much for equal treatment under the law.

*

Meanwhile, the summer’s much-publicized Freedom Project in Mississippi began to morph into broader dissent. White students who had done so much to both aid and complicate the Mississippi drive for black rights began applying its explosive implications on their home campuses.

In September a Berkeley, Calif., philosophy student named Mario Savio–who had worked on Freedom Summer in McComb–became a leader on student freedom issues back at Berkeley. He also raised hackles in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee by designating himself “Chair, Friends of SNCC.” Poor but proud, SNCC was sensitive to any appearance of takeover by comparatively wealthy white collegians.

In late September the Berkeley campus administration had closed a 26-foot-wide strip of concrete on which students had set up tables from which to disseminate papers advocating positions on a variety of issues, including the specter of U.S. militarism. A protest ensued on Oct. 1. During it, a Congress of Racial Equality staff member was arrested after handing out literature on James Chaney and Mickey Schwerner, the CORE staffers who had comprised two-thirds of the famous trio martyred in Neshoba County.

Savio, who had been dispensing campus information about the McComb racial struggles, took a leading role in the unrest. He climbed atop the arresting officer’s squad car to explain how the arrest happened, then was followed to the car’s roof by other speakers–whose weight finally flattened the car’s roof. The student body president asked Savio to help him negotiate with university officials, and Savio did–after shouting that no protester should leave until the arrested CORE member, Jack Weinberg, was released.

Weinberg spent 32 hours in the surrounded squad car before the university president signed a negotiated agreement. Five hundred Highway Patrolmen dispatched to the campus saw Savio then instruct the crowd of 4,000 protesters to “rise quietly and with dignity and go home.” Weinberg finally was allowed to be taken downtown.

The upshot was portentous. The civil rights movement had birthed another major crusade: American college students opposed to the developing Vietnam War.

*

On Oct. 1, the momentous election campaign pitting moderately liberal Lyndon Johnson against ultraconservative Barry Goldwater entered its last full month. Ironically, in light of future developments, Johnson was the peace candidate.

The first week turned traumatic for the President. On Oct. 7, after subbing for Johnson at a White House cocktail party, longtime Johnson aide Walter Jenkins was arrested for “disorderly conduct (pervert)” in a YMCA bathroom with another male. In that day when virtually all gays were deep in the closet because those who weren’t were treated as criminals, it was a major scandal.

But it died quickly, buried under more significant news. Within a week of Jenkins’s shaming, Premier Nikita Khrushchev lost power in Russia, England’s Conservative government fell, and China set off its first atom bomb.

Johnson had not been at the White House the night of the party at which Jenkins stood in for him because he was taking his frenetic campaign to the Far West, even to Goldwater’s hometown of Phoenix, Ariz. Aides told him his re-election would likely be by a landslide, but Johnson barnstormed like a man determined to make sure. Yet even in the South, he did not dodge the traditionally taboo issue of civil rights. To the contrary, in fact.

In a banquet speech at a New Orleans hotel, he shrewdly praised the populism of the controversial deceased Louisiana governor Huey Long and abhorred that Wall Street barons had conspired to hold the South’s economy down “by appealing to our animosities,…dividing us.” Then he made an abrupt rhetorical left turn.

“Whatever your views are, we have a Constitution and a Bill of Rights, and we have the (new Civil Rights Law of 1964),” he said. “Two-thirds of the Democrats in the Senate voted for it, and three-fourths of the Republicans…and I am going to enforce it.”

He drove the point home with a thrice-repeated shocking word which he introduced with a story. He said an old, dying senator “whose name I won’t call” had told a Texas congressman that he wished he could go home and make one last–and finally honest–speech that might actually benefit his Dixie constituents.

“‘I feel like I have one in me,’” Johnson quoted the old senator as saying. “‘The poor old state, they haven’t heard a Democratic speech in thirty years. All they ever hear at election time is, Nigger, Nigger, Nigger!’”

A thunderstruck hush fell over the banquet hall. No president had ever uttered that word publicly. Then the hall erupted in a seven-minute ovation.

But Johnson and his advisers knew they had to walk a thin and difficult line on race. They had to go after the African American vote indirectly to keep from alienating the white one. There was another reason it had to be indirect, too. Democratic operatives had few contacts within this voting bloc that until the 1960s had almost totally embraced the Party of Lincoln.

Their best solution to the problem was to enlist the help of the Atlanta preacher who this very month had, in the eyes of the world, become the most important American of African descent. On Oct. 14 that preacher, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., learned he had been named winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Racists everywhere yelped. Bull Connor, former head of police in Birmingham, said the Nobel Committee was “scraping the bottom of the barrel.” The St. Augustine, Fla., police chief called King’s honor “the biggest joke of the year.” Among associates, J. Edgar Hoover belittled the new prize winner as “top alley cat.” Atty. Gen. Robert Kennedy, on the other hand, praised the decision, saying King’s honor was “richly deserved” and would inspire the world with “the greatest of American ideals.”

As requested, King began campaigning for Johnson, but he did it as obliquely as Johnson’s men back-doored their seeking of the black vote. He never mentioned the President’s name. Speaking from a flatbed truck on carefully-chosen street corners in Chicago and at churches and black playgrounds in Cleveland, he shouted over and over, “You know who to vote for!” as aides bellowed “All the way!”– while leaving out, but unmistakably calling to hearers’ minds–the “with LBJ!” that was the second half of Johnson’s campaign slogan.

On Oct. 22, at the behest of the principal of a junior high in a black neighborhood in Cleveland, King even took his campaign to a too-young-to-vote crowd.

“I believe firmly that America will be a better nation,” the new Nobel laureate concluded that school-hall speech. “I believe firmly that Negroes and white people will be able to live together as brothers…so I ask you to work hard, study hard…and join us in the movement for freedom.”

King, of course, was not that election’s sole proxy campaigner. Goldwater had one, too, a lightly regarded (especially by Goldwater) Hollywood actor who headed California Citizens for Goldwater. In an Oct. 27 national TV speech, this actor supplied what Time Magazine called “the one bright spot in a dismal campaign.”

It was Ronald Reagan.

[For more see Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-65 by Taylor Branch, Simon & Schuster 1998; The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America 1932-1972 by William Manchester, Little-Brown 1974; In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s by Clayborne Carson, Harvard Press 1981; 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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