December ’64


The Confederate Army of Tennessee–its ranks and officer corps vastly thinned by the failed assaults the previous afternoon at Franklin, Tenn.–headed to Nashville behind a fleeing Union army on Dec. 1.

The Confederate commander, Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood, seems to have gone to the heavily fortified Tennessee capital because he knew nothing else to do after the Franklin slaughter. Too weak now to consider attacking the entrenched Federals at Nashville, he dug in south of the city and waited for them to attack him.

On Dec. 5, he further enfeebled his tattered legions by sending the Confederacy’s greatest cavalryman, Maj. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, southeast to Murfreesboro with cavalry and infantry to oppose a Federal garrison of 10,000 on Hood’s right rear flank.

From Petersburg, Va., General-in-Chief U. S. Grant, worrying that Hood had made it from Atlanta to Nashville, on Dec. 6 ordered the Nashville commander, Maj. Gen. George Thomas, to “attack at once.” The next day, Forrest unsuccessfully struck the Federals at Murfreesboro. Thomas meanwhile disregarded Grant’s order and did not attack, instead reorganizing his cavalry and continuing to build an assault plan.

On Dec. 9, Grant wired him:

“I have as much confidence in your conducting a battle rightly as I have in any other officer, but it has seemed to me that you have been slow, and I have had no other explanation of affairs to convince me otherwise.”

“I can only say,” Thomas replied, “…that I could not concentrate my troops and get their transportation in order in shorter time than it has been done.”

If there had been no satisfactory reason for Thomas’s hesitation before, there was on the day Grant sent his wire. Tennessee’s unusually warm December turned to ice. A freak storm dropped temperatures precipitously amid wind-whipped sleet and snow.

Grant, out of patience, ordered Thomas replaced with Grant’s favorite fighting subordinate from his own earlier days commanding in the West. Maj. Gen. John A. (Black Jack) Logan hurried southward and reached Louisville on Dec. 15.

But he was too late. On the 15th, Thomas unleashed an overwhelming attack on Hood’s 30,000 men with 55,000 Federals. Feinting at Hood’s right, Thomas smashed the Confederate left in a two-day battle that all but obliterated the Army of Tennessee.

Hood’s shattered units, which had lost another 1,500 killed and wounded and some 4,500 captured to add to the 6,000 casualties at Franklin, managed a retreat only thanks to a cold and heavy rain. The dismal downpour hampered pursuit by Brig. Gen. James H. Wilson’s Federal cavalry, which had to try to round up its scattered horses in the deluge.

Forrest reunited with Hood’s whipped and suffering ranks at Columbia, Tenn., and masterfully managed the rearguard, which up to then had had to be entrusted to thin cavalry under a Forrest lieutenant, Brig. Gen. James Chalmers.

The last of Forrest’s men crossed the Tennessee River in northern Alabama on Dec. 27. Two days later Hood, his dream of reaching the Ohio River 300 miles north now spectacularly wrecked, headed his ruined ranks toward Tupelo, Miss., and oblivion.


The desperation felt on both sides was nearing unprecedented heights. Lincoln’s bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon, felt the effects stronger than most. On Dec. 10, Lamon reproved Lincoln for not guarding his own personal safety.

“You are in danger…,” Lamon wrote to the President. “To-night, as you have done on several occasions, you went unattended to the theatre. When I say unattended, you went along with (U. S. Sen.) Charles Sumner and a foreign minister, neither of whom could defend himself against an assault from any able-bodied woman in this city. And you know, or ought to know, that your life is sought after, and will be taken unless you and your friends are cautious for you (have) many enemies within our lines.”

Undeterred, Lincoln stuck to his business. On Dec. 18, he called for 300,000 more volunteers to push the Union cause to final victory.

Meanwhile, on Dec. 8 Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler had taken 6,500 men from his Army of the James down the James River to Fortress Monroe, Va., to join a naval force under Rear Adm. David Porter. Their prospective target was Fort Fisher at the mouth of the Cape Fear River in North Carolina.

The fort protected Wilmington, the last major seaport still open to Confederate vessels. Grant had wanted another officer, Butler’s second-in-command, to lead the operation, but Butler demanded to do it himself, and Grant relented and let him.

There was ample reason why the Confederate port at Wilmington had remained open. Fort Fisher was huge, another of several forts that at one time or another during the war had been termed “the Gibraltar of the Confederacy.” It boasted more than 50 heavy guns and extensive breastworks.

The little campaign was a typical Butler boondoggle. The political general prefaced his attack with a pummeling of Fisher with artillery plus the explosion of a barge loaded with nearly 250 tons of black powder on the beach near the fort. All the latter did was shower with sand everybody anywhere around. And the attack, launched on Christmas Day, was driven off by cannon fire after Federals captured 300 Confederates outside the walls.

Grant had ordered Butler, in the event of a repulse, to lay siege to the fort, but Butler retreated. Grant then angrily replaced him as head of the Army of the James with another former Western subordinate, Maj. Gen. Edward Ord, and planning got underway for a fresh attempt to close the Wilmington port.


Sherman, who had set out from Atlanta on Nov. 16 with 60,000 men, was in the county bordering that of Savannah by Dec. 10. He had fought only harassing attacks by local militia and Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler’s Confederate cavalry as his men devastated a swath across Georgia, but at Savannah he encountered stiffer opposition.

Confederate Maj. Gen. William J. Hardee commanded only 10,000 men, but they had flooded the rice fields around Savannah, leaving only a few narrow roads by which to get into the city. And Sherman, who had daringly disengaged from his supply base and “lived off the country” in his run across Georgia, began to suffer for lack of supplies for his now-stationary army, particularly forage for his horses.

From where he was, he could almost see the Atlantic Ocean, but because of a Confederate installation, Fort McAllister, which guarded the mouth of the Ogeechee River, he could not reach the sea and the supply aid of a Federal fleet lying offshore.

As Sherman began to besiege the city, on Dec. 12 he sent a division south to attack Fort McAllister and its puny garrison of 250 men. The assault cost 134 Union casualties but reportedly lasted just fifteen minutes. Sherman then was able to contact Rear Adm. John Dahlgren on the Atlantic, and a much-relieved Lincoln finally heard from Sherman a month after he had exited Atlanta and vanished from Federal oversight.

Sherman obtained via Dahlgren some siege guns from Federally-held Port Royal, S.C., some 30 miles north of Charleston, and he informed Hardee of their arrival on Dec. 17. As usual, Sherman did not resort to the niceties of euphemism.

“I have already received guns that can cast heavy and destructive shot as far as the heart of your city,” his note to Hardee said.

“I am therefore justified in demanding the surrender of the city of Savannah and its dependent forts, and shall await a reasonable time your answer…Should I be forced to resort to assault, and the slower and surer process of starvation, I shall then feel justified in resorting to the harshest measures, and shall make little effort to restrain my army.”

That army, “bummers” as they had become known, had achieved an outsized notoriety by the trail of smoking destruction they had blazed across Georgia. In fact, the legend of the extent of their depredations had outstripped reality–as it continued to do later in many history books.

But the reality was more than bad enough. It encouraged Hardee to decide to escape across the Savannah River northward up the still-usable road to Charleston and beyond. On the night of Dec. 20, he did, along with his 10,000 vastly outnumbered men.

Savannah was Sherman’s–with none of the expected destruction.

“No city was ever occupied with less disorder or more system…,” Sherman wrote to his father-in-law. “…it is a subject of universal comment that though an army of 60,000 men lay camped around it, women and children of an hostile People walk its streets with as much security as they do in Philadelphia.”

Sherman now, in a grand gesture, handed Savannah to the man ultimately in charge of the Federal waging of this war, the one who had refused for three and a half years to let its recurrent horrors dissuade him from insistence on victory.

“I beg to present you as a Christmas present the City of Savannah,” Sherman wrote Abraham Lincoln on Dec. 22, “with 150 heavy guns & plenty of ammunition & also about 25,000 bales of cotton.”

Sherman’s army had harbored no wish to harm Savannah. Not so the city and state at the heart of secession that lay just to the north and open now to Union incursion.

“The truth is(,) the whole army is burning with an insatiable desire to wreak vengeance upon South Carolina,” Sherman wrote Chief of Staff Henry Halleck in Washington. “I almost tremble at her fate, but feel that she deserves all that seems in store for her.”

The writing increasingly seemed to be on the wall. On Dec. 30, longtime advisor to U. S. presidents Francis Blair Sr. penned a note to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, a friend of the Blair family, and asked to come to Richmond to talk peace. Blair had wanted to go earlier, but Lincoln had told him to wait until Savannah fell.

With skepticism as to whether anything would come of it, the President now gave his approval.

[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; and Lincoln by David Herbert Donald, Simon & Schuster 1995.]


Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. began the last month of 1964 by meeting on its first day with his nemesis, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

The civil rights leader and his associates hoped it would be a “peace” meeting. They were naïve. Hoover despised King. He regarded him as a towering hypocrite with a penchant for sexual degeneracy and far too friendly with Communists or their dupes.

King did not know it, but Hoover was out to ruin him. He knew Hoover was wire-tapping his telephones and those of some of his friends, but he did not know Hoover had agents bugging every hotel room on his speaking itinerary and tape-recording as many of his private hours–especially the most potentially damaging ones–as they could access.

For this Dec. 1 meeting, King had been coached. Chicago preacher-banker-judge-politician Archibald Carey had gotten himself out of Hoover’s doghouse by persistent flattery, and he advised King to talk to Hoover about small matters rather than large ones.

Hoover likely thought King would arrive at his office like a whipped dog. The FBI had long been sharing with friendly politicos, and other people of influence, top-secret purported evidence of King’s Communist ties and recordings of him in compromising positions.

And, although King would not know it for more than another month, in late November the Bureau had sent to him from Miami–instead of Washington, the origination point–some of what was meant to be taken as damaging personal material. It was addressed to his office at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and made to0 sound as if it came from a fellow African American. It suggested that King commit suicide before the general public became aware of such evidence as was in this package.

The day before King was to meet with Hoover, Congress of Racial Equality leader James Farmer called to say he had heard from well-placed sources that the FBI had evidence of marital infidelity and Communist connections as well as Swiss bank accounts belonging to King. Beseeched by Farmer for a response, King denied bring financially corrupt or having Communist leanings. On the personal matters, he was more equivocal.

In the Hoover meeting on Dec. 1, King was polite but no whipped dog. He made a point of leaving to associate Ralph Abernathy the job of saying what an honor it was to meet Hoover, and he reiterated his opposition to Communism. Hoover then pointedly–in the light of King’s leadership of years of protest demonstrations–said that “trouble” gave Communists a door through which to “move in.”

Hoover bragged that his agents had “put the fear of God” in the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi and were about to bring to trial a gang of suspects in the much-publicized murders of three civil rights workers in Neshoba County, Miss., the previous spring.

The FBI Director went on to all but insult King’s intelligence by advising him that he and his fellow civil rights leaders should concentrate on getting African Americans registered to vote. Civil rights volunteers had for years been losing blood and lives–including those of the famous trio in Neshoba County–doing just that, with no FBI aid until very recent months.

But the meeting, and Hoover, had been so comparatively pleasant that King and his associates, as they continued to hear rumors about FBI hostility, decided there were “two Hoovers.” Andrew Young, present at the Hoover meeting, later wrote that one Hoover was “the perfectly respectable gentleman we met.” The other “ranted and raved and called Martin names” and continued to wiretap his telephones.


Met by reporters outside Hoover’s office after the meeting, King said Hoover had told him arrests were imminent in the murders of the Mississippi trio. Three days later, it proved true.

On Dec. 4, the FBI took into custody 19 people in Neshoba and Lauderdale counties, including the Neshoba County sheriff and his chief deputy. The next day, King and an oversized party left for Oslo, Norway for the Nobel Prize presentation.

On the way to Oslo, they stopped in Britain. There Malcolm X, a rival but also a fellow target of FBI surveillance, had been condemning King’s doctrine of non-violence. Debating a Member of Parliament at Oxford University on Dec. 3, Malcolm had received a standing ovation for saying black Americans should put aside “this wishy-washy love thine enemy approach.” On Dec. 5, he said King’s doctrine of nonviolence was “bankrupt” and condemned him for accepting “a peace prize in the middle of a war.”

Malcolm was in England because, having just returned from a five-month tour of Africa, he had fled America again after being there barely a week. It was plain that he feared–and was justified in fearing–death at the hands of the Nation of Islam, the religious organization he had formerly served. FBI sources reported an internal Nation directive that he be assaulted on sight. Earlier in the month, an ex-member apparently influenced by Malcolm had been beaten to death on a New York street.

But Malcolm X was no coward. Had he been one, he never would have made himself persona non grata in the Nation by criticizing its leader, Elijah Muhammad of Chicago, for some of the same things Hoover was accusing King of: financial corruption, religious hypocrisy, and sexual misconduct.

After less than a week in England, Malcolm returned to the U. S. There, at a seminar in Harlem, a platform ceremony had to be delayed because no one wanted to sit next to a man whom rumor had it might be shot at any time. Oddly, in light of his recent comments, on Dec. 17 Malcolm told reporters he regarded King as “a friend of mine and one of the foremost leaders of Negroes in their fight for recognition as human beings.”


That same day, Dec. 17, King arrived back in the U.S. from Norway. He had been feted and honored by leaders of the world, and he had made a speech designed to make them and their peoples think. He had accepted the great prize, he said, on behalf of a movement that had seen more defeat than victory.

He recalled that “only yesterday in Birmingham, Alabama, our children, crying out for brotherhood, were answered with fire hoses, snarling dogs, and even death.” Only yesterday, he said, “in Philadelphia, Mississippi, young people seeking to secure the right to vote were brutalized and murdered.

“Therefore, I must ask why this prize is awarded to a movement which is beleaguered and committed to unrelenting struggle, to a movement which has not won the very peace and brotherhood which is the essence of the Nobel Prize.”

The ceremonies had hardly ended–the receptions were still in progress–when reporters came in with news that, in Mississippi that a day, a federal judge had declined to even take to a grand jury the cases of the 19 people arrested in Neshoba and Lauderdale counties in connection with the murders of the trio of civil rights workers.

Now at a rally of 8,000 to 10,000 people in an armory in Harlem, King looked back on his Nobel experience. Noting that he had met and talked with “kings and queens” and “the prime ministers of nations,” he said that such was not “the usual pattern of my life, to have people saying nice things about me.” To experience that, he said, was “a marvelous mountaintop” and he wished he could stay on it.

“But the valley calls me,” he cried. “…I go back with a faith that you shall reap what you sow. With that faith, I go back to the valley.”

It was no long trip–just to his hometown. The New York Times reported on Dec. 29 that Atlanta’s elite were resisting having a January dinner honoring him and his prize.


Meanwhile, Malcolm X tried to remain alive. Reports were now legion that he was targeted for murder–not so much by Caucasian oppressors as by his former fellow associates in the Nation of Islam.

On New Year’s Eve, he was visited in Harlem by 37 young workers in the past summer’s violence-plagued Mississippi Freedom project. He cautioned them against being fooled by a nation that, with another war heating up, wanted to use them for its own ends.

America was, he said, “a country that’s supposed to be a democracy, supposed to be for freedom, and…they want to draft you and put you in the Army and send you to Saigon to fight for them, and then you’ve got to turn around and all night long discuss how you’re going to just get a right to register and vote without being murdered.

“Why, it’s the most hypocritical government since the world began!”


Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Chairman John Lewis had returned from an extended visit to Africa in late November–to find his organization, which had been at the lonely, bloody forefront of the South’s civil rights battles since 1960, turning on its own.

SNCC’s leaders were consumed with fights among themselves over the tension between white Northern students and black Southerners–and over the question of whether SNCC’s leaders, such as Lewis, were taking the organization in the right direction anymore. Lewis thought the way to save SNCC was to once again concentrate its members’ attention and energy outside themselves.

“And,” he later wrote, “I had a good idea where that target might be…


[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; and Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement by John Lewis, Simon & Schuster 1998.]

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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