November–Nov. 8, specifically–offered the Confederacy its last best chance of survival. The date was that of the presidential election, which pitted Union Maj. Gen. George McClellan, nominee of the Peace Democrats, against incumbent Abraham Lincoln.
The height of the stakes was lost on nobody.
On Nov. 2, Secretary of State William Seward notified New York City Mayor Charles G. Gunther of a reported plot by Canadian agents of the Confederate government. The reported plan was to torch Gotham, long America’s largest and most important city, on the day the votes were cast.
On Nov. 6, authorities in Chicago, the leading metropolitan bastion of Lincoln’s support, arrested nearly 100 men on charges of participating in further election-day intrigue. The plot’s alleged, sketchy, and perhaps fanciful scheme was to release the several thousand Confederate prisoners at Camp Douglas on the city’s southern edge, seize voting-places, stuff ballot boxes, and burn the city.
No such act would have surprised Lincoln much. He knew his opponents were legion. Back in August, he had told a friend he expected not only to be “beaten” but also “beaten badly.” Since then, though, he had continued to show his unique political genius by still hewing to the center, cottoning neither to the abolitionist radicals in his own party nor to rabidly racist Democrats who hated them.
Otherwise, he did little in his own defense. He attended none of the many and increasingly larger marches held for his candidacy and did not campaign. He did not seek to postpone the election, which as President he could have done on grounds of military emergency, or to cancel the draft call for September, which Republicans pleaded for. Who won the election, he said, would be exclusively the “business” of “the people.”
By contrast, the Democrats went over the top. Their opposition to Lincoln and his emancipation policy was racist in the extreme. They routinely referred to him in print in such terms as “Abraham Africanus the First” and held that the first of his personal Ten Commandments was “Thou shalt have no other God but the negro.”
His unenthusiastic choice of Democrat Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, a former slaveholder, as his vice presidential running mate was one of many actions he took, or didn’t take, to show his reservations with either extreme. Although he did join Congress in proclaiming Nevada a new state on Oct. 31, he didn’t rush through the necessary legislation and didn’t try to hurry the admission of Nebraska and Colorado, whose voters, like those of Nevada, would have supported him. Nor did he try to rush the re-admission of Louisiana and Tennessee, which were in the process of Republican reconstruction.
Yet on Nov. 8, to the horror of Northern Democrats and doubtless all Confederates, he won in a landslide. He was given 55 percent of the popular vote, including about 120,000 of the 155,000 ballots of Union soldiers. And he trounced McClellan in the electoral college, 212 to 21.
On Nov. 25, either out of sour grapes or just inability to get the reported plot going on time, Confederate sympathizers set fire to ten of the most prominent hotels in New York City.
A week earlier, Confederate President Jefferson Davis had written to a group of Georgia state senators excoriating a proposal that individual states be allowed to negotiate their own separate peace plans with the Union.
No wonder such plans would interest Georgians. They were all but unprotected now.
Confederate Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood’s ploy to try to relieve pressure on the Peach State by drawing Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s Federal army northward, away from Atlanta, wasn’t working. Sherman’s capture of the Southern railroad center in October was getting much of the credit for Lincoln’s resurgent favor among voters, and the Union general was keeping much of his army there, rather than chasing Hood.
Sherman had sent Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas and some of the troops in Georgia to Nashville to resist the Hood move in that direction, and he assumed these were sufficient. He ordered the destruction of railroads and all other Atlanta sources of possible Confederate aid, and on Nov. 9, the day after election day, he issued initial orders for an epic overland march from Atlanta “to the sea.”
On Nov. 14, as Sherman’s men finished up their thoroughgoing railroad wrecking, Federal Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield arrived in Pulaski, just north of the Alabama-Tennessee boundary, to take command of the first line of defense against Hood’s impending Nashville campaign.
Two days later, carrying 20 days rations, Sherman’s 62,000 men left Atlanta in two columns, one headed east toward Augusta, the other southeast toward Macon. Opposing them were 10,000 Confederate cavalry under Maj. Gen. Joe Wheeler and 3,000 state militia.
On Nov. 18, Jefferson Davis ordered Georgia state commander Howell Cobb to press every available man into service and use slaves to obstruct roads in the Federal path. On the 21st, General William J. Hardee, assigned by Davis to command of the entire Georgia theater, decided Savannah was Sherman’s target and ordered the militia to oppose that Federal wing while Wheeler’s cavalry harassed the Union rear.
Hood, meanwhile, was growing increasingly frustrated. He had to wait more than two weeks in North Alabama for Maj. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry to arrive to spearhead the Confederate drive on Nashville. Forrest was being substituted in Hood’s ranks for Joe Wheeler, whose cavalry had been ordered to be left behind in Georgia.
Forrest had been busy on the Tennessee River between Middle and West Tennessee. On Nov. 1, he took two captured Federal gunboats north toward an island south of the large Union supply depot at Johnsonville, Tenn. He soon lost both gunboats to the overwhelming Federal naval strength on the river, but on the afternoon of Nov. 3 he attacked Johnsonville with artillery from the Tennessee’s opposite–western–bank.
The forty-minute fusillade wrecked the depot along with many of the gunboats and transport vessels tied up at its wharves. Its warehouses and sheds went up in smoke. Rivers of whiskey, set afire, ran flaming down the bluff to the river. Forrest reported doing $6.7 million worth of damage, including the capture and destruction of four gunboats, 14 transports, 20 barges, and 26 cannons. A Federal report estimated the loss at $2 million, but did not include the four gunboats.
Because of flooded rivers and roads and exhausted horses, Forrest was unable to join Hood before Nov. 16. On the 21st, though, Hood and his 30,000 infantry plus 8,000 cavalry under Forrest departed Florence, Ala., for the Tennessee border, intent on isolating and defeating Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield’s 32,000 men at Pulaski before they could unite with Thomas at Nashville.
Hood turned out to be unable to bag Schofield. He was prevented by one of the great and least plausible lapses of the war.
At Spring Hill just north of Columbia, Tenn., Hood did get his army between Schofield and Thomas on Nov. 29–only to have his subordinates unwittingly allow the whole Schofield army, wagons and all, to creep past them overnight in the dark. Forrest’s cavalry, frazzled and nearly out of ammunition, had got to Spring Hill first but retreated northward to Thompson’s Station. Then Frank Cheatham’s infantry pulled back off the turnpike at Spring Hill after receiving a false report that no Federals had been seen.
So Schofield sneaked past Spring Hill into Franklin, setting up perhaps the greatest bloodletting, measured per hour, of the war. An angry Hood followed, and on the late afternoon of Nov. 30 he ordered a charge by more men, over more level open ground, than Robert E. Lee had directed George Pickett to attempt at Gettysburg.
“In front of their works,” a Confederate private later remembered, “was an open field with not a tree or ravine for a mile and a half. Just before the breastworks was an open ditch six feet wide and three feet deep. At the end of the ditch near the breastworks were placed poles sharpened spear-shape. Their main works were six feet at the base. The cannon-breast portion was cut down so that the guns, resting on oak logs, were on a level with our bodies. Behind the whole was a thicket of locust trees, as close together as they could possibly grow.”
The opening Confederate charge at 3:30 p.m. penetrated the Federal center and took eight cannons. The middle of the Union line was saved only by a furious counterassault by Ohio troops under Col. Emerson Opdycke. Much of the fighting here was hand-to-hand. Hood launched charge after charge, and fierce combat raged until after 9 p.m., at which time the locust thicket behind the Federal center was nothing but stumps.
As soon as the Confederate charges ceased, Schofield’s army resumed its rapid march to Nashville. Behind, it left a Confederate Army of Tennessee decimated by 6,300 casualties that included six dead generals. The latter included one of the absolute best to wear the gray: Maj. Gen. Patrick R. Cleburne, a prewar Arkansas druggist-turned-lawyer who had emigrated from Cork, Ireland after service in the British Army. He had compiled a record of leading infantry combatants that was second to none in the Confederate Army, and his death was calamitous to the Stars and Bars.
By contrast, Union casualties at Franklin were about 2,300. Before reaching the Tennessee town, Hood had lost to Civil War combat a leg and the use of an arm, and at Franklin he lost whatever had been left of his soldiers’ respect. A Union colonel later reported being told by a female Franklin resident that she saw Hood standing on a rise beside the road as his troops walked by after the battle. It was a wrenching sight.
“(She) heard them curse him awfully, and say: ‘You damned old fool–when are you going to have another killing? The Yanks have got one of your legs–I wish they had you whole damned body.’”
Such were the sentiments of Confederates who had to follow Hood to Nashville. There, more Federals awaited them behind stronger works.
[For more see The Civil War Almanac by John S. Boatner, Bison Books 1982; To Die in Chicago by George Levy, Pelican Press 1999; Lincoln by David Herbert Donald, Simon & Schuster 1995; The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War by David J. Eicher, Simon & Schuster 2001; and Generals in Gray: Lives of the Confederate Commanders by Ezra J. Warner, LSU Press 1959.]
On November’s opening day, with two to go before the presidential election, Democratic operatives learned of a Republican plot appropriating the name of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Adherents of GOP nominee Barry Goldwater were distributing 1.4 million leaflets in various cities urging African Americans to cast write-in votes for King. Hardly more than minutes after hearing of it, King arranged a news conference to describe the last-minute tactic–which would eventually result in a criminal indictment–as a “venomous” bid to trick black Americans into wasting their votes.
President Johnson, on the final lap of a long and thorough campaign tour, disputed a Goldwater claim that some prominent clergymen had displayed partisanship by criticizing scandal-fanning in the case of presidential assistant Walter Jenkins. The longtime Johnson aide had been arrested in October in a homosexual encounter, and the clerics had disparaged the pushing of prurient interest in the private choices of an individual to divert attention from more “fateful moral issues related to public life.”
Johnson closed his campaign on the steps of the Texas state capitol and recalled his boyhood to enunciate a classic progressive mantra. It was the opposite of the stated views of Goldwater and his most celebrated stump surrogate, actor Ronald Reagan.
“I…learned that government is not an enemy of the people,” Johnson said of his youthful self. “It is the people.”
He added that as a young Democrat supporting Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal during the Great Depression, he had “learned that poverty and ignorance are the only basic weakness of a free society, and that both of them are only bad habits.”
On election night, Nov. 3, Johnson buried the GOP’s King write-in stratagem and the Jenkins arrest controversy under a mountain of ballots. He trounced Goldwater by historic proportions, winning re-election to the White House by 61 percent and a margin of nearly 16 million votes–including 96 percent of America’s black vote. Goldwater won only five Deep Dixie states and his own Arizona, the latter by an eyelash.
As returns came in, a gratified Johnson exclaimed:
“God, I hate for it to be over, because the hell starts then.”
The “hell” promised not to be as bad as it might have been without his landslide victory, but it looked bad enough. The President rushed a core of advisers into work on the environment, education, and “urban problems.” But he forbade them from focusing on two of the most hellish problems: civil rights for African Americans and foreign policy in Vietnam.
Meanwhile, national pundits thumb-sucked over their typewriters and wrote articles that detected just half of the future impact of the 1964 election–while totally missing the other half.
They foresaw the most obvious, that Goldwater racists had run African Americans out of their century-long identification with the party of Abraham Lincoln for decades to come. The pundits did not, however, see what also should have been obvious: that by accepting the black ex-Republicans, the Democrats were also repelling legions of Southern whites who had been a backbone of their party since the Civil War.
So the Democrats’ racial problem suddenly became more white than black. In California, a staunchly Democratic state, a brand-new segregation law outpolled even Johnson. Proposition 14 enshrined in the Golden State’s constitution the right of property owners to refuse to sell their houses and lands to anybody they didn’t want to.
And deepest Deep Dixie–South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi–had installed 10 Republican congressmen, the first since Reconstruction. It was the beginning of a no-so-long goodbye.
King was as happy as Johnson to have the election over. He wanted to take off the kid gloves he had donned during the campaign and get back to criticizing the racial failings of the national establishment.
Like Johnson, he gathered advisers for input on where to go from where they were. Unlike Johnson, he also had to contend with a horde of friends and relatives who wanted to fill scarce seats in Oslo, Norway to see his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize. King had trouble saying no, so it was a mess.
As the month went on, his advisers would get heavy-handed in making his travel arrangements. Bayard Rustin sought for King an audience with British Prime Minister Harold Wilson, but added that he preferred that it didn’t look as if it was King’s idea.
On Nov. 4, the day after the election, King told a reporter that he expected to start demonstrating again soon for the right to vote in Alabama and Mississippi, where only 21 and 6 percent of African Americans had been allowed to register.
On Nov. 11, King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference held a retreat in Birmingham to chart strategy. It reconsidered an ambitious plan by ingenious James Bevel, the SCLC’s “direct action” chief, and his equally brilliant and even more indomitable wife, Diane Nash.
Ever since the Birmingham church bombing that had killed four schoolgirls in September 1963, Bevel and Nash had pushed a plan for a “nonviolent army” to paralyze Alabama, bring it to a standstill, and force its officials to give African Americans the right to vote. Bevel now suggested Selma as the appropriate place to test mass demonstrations that would begin with demands for civil rights and move quickly toward seeking voting rights.
On Nov. 15, King preached in Atlanta at his home church before flying to New York to repair his relationship with U.S. Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, a detractor of both nonviolence and the new civil rights law. Powell then took King and King lieutenant Andrew Young along to a Powell getaway site on Bimini in the Caribbean, where King worked on his Nobel Prize acceptance speech.
Three days later, still on remote and virtually telephone-less Bimini, King was besieged by helicopter-borne reporters seeking comment on criticism leveled by J. Edgar Hoover.
In a rare press interview, the FBI Director had recalled King saying in 1962 in Albany, Ga., that he thought the FBI had not arrested whites who openly assaulted nonviolent African Americans in Albany because the Bureau’s local agents were Southerners who sympathized with local whites. The Director, incensed ever since, now told the National Women’s Press Club that, because of such comments, he considered King “the most notorious liar in the country.”
Aides wanted King to hit back hard, but he didn’t. In a brief statement which he hurriedly crafted himself, he took the high road.
“…(Hoover) has apparently faltered under the awesome burden, complexities, and responsibilities of his office,” King said in his response. “…I have nothing but sympathy for this man who has served his country so well.”
The next day King followed up with a telegram pressing his advantage in the wake of this obvious overstep by the FBI chief. He said he had no idea as to the motivation for “such an irresponsible accusation” and added that in 1962 he had only “sincerely questioned” the Bureau’s performance in “bombings and brutalities against Negroes.”
By Nov. 25, King and his advisers were trying to decide (1) what Hoover wanted from them, (2) whether he was doing these things at Johnson’s behest, and (3) whether they should meet the FBI chief head-on or seek a rapprochement. They also pondered another question: (4) Where were they vulnerable?
King said he was confident no amount of FBI snooping could prove he was financially corrupt. And he thought the Communist influence often charged by Hoover was so ridiculous that he proposed reestablishing his former working partnership with left-wing attorney Stanley Levison. But regarding his private life, he was less sanguine.
Some things there, he conceded, “could be exploited.”
They already were being exploited. And exaggerated. Hoover, aghast that King had been named recipient of the Nobel Prize, appeared obsessed with ruining him. His Bureau pushed toward overt intimidation to remove King from the civil rights movement.
In early November, an FBI agent approached Eugene Patterson, editor of the Atlanta Constitution, and said King was about to take a mistress on a Caribbean vacation. The agent said that in light of the paper’s coverage of King as a Christian leader, Patterson should let the FBI position Constitution photographers at the Miami airport to shoot the departure–but forbade any mention of the FBI’s role in taking the pictures. Patterson said no, condemning “peephole journalism.”
A little later, the agent–apparently having learned that King’s Caribbean holiday was a speech-writing trip as a guest of Congressman Powell–came back to tell the nonplussed Patterson that no King paramour would be at the Miami airport, after all.
Hoover quickly learned that his interview with the women’s press club had been a mistake. Even as it progressed, an aide had tried to get him to put “off the record” his “liar” charge as well as his insistence that King was “controlled” by Communists and was personally “one of the lowest characters in the country.” Hoover had refused.
Hoover then overreacted to King’s telegram about having questioned the Bureau’s handling of “bombings and brutalities against Negroes” in 1962. By the next night, Nov. 19, the director had had the Atlanta office of the FBI compile a detailed list of civil rights cases in which the FBI had been present since the beginning of the Freedom Rides.
Hoover aides recommended that he not reply to King’s telegram nor further amplify his own remarks. He agreed, but said the Bureau should “tak(e) the aggressive” and not “allow lies to remain unanswered.”
It followed orders. By the 20th, it had assembled new material from its bugging of salacious goings-on in King’s hotel rooms and sent it–very back-door–to religious groups, reporters, and civic leaders. And a letter purporting to be from an African American in Miami (instead of from Washington, its source) went to King, suggesting he commit suicide “before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.”
On Nov. 27, Assistant FBI Director Deke DeLoach met with Roy Wilkins and told him that if King wanted war “we certainly would give it to him.” DeLoach ended by urging Wilkins to press other black leaders to coerce King into retiring to the presidency “of Morehouse College or something.”
This was hardly legitimate business of government in a democracy.
[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; “Racial Matters”: The FBI’s Secret File on Black America, 1960-1972 by Kenneth O’Reilly, Free Press 1989; and My Soul Is Rested by Howell Raines, Bantam 1977.]
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The long term consequences of the 1964 election for political party realignment are especially cogent. While the movement of African Americans to the Democrats and white southerners to the Republicans had been underway for some time, after 1964, the shift was dramatic and the impact for the 21st century almost politically unimaginable. The wily Richard Nixon saw what was happening, however, and he gave new energy and direction to the “reconstruction” of American politics which was underway.