And then suddenly it was over.
Not completely, of course. There still would be pockets of resistance and individual Confederates who would try to get to Texas to keep fighting or escape to Canada, England, or elsewhere to avoid surrender. Those hoping to become new Texans would most notably include the dying Confederacy’s president.
But they all would be increasingly endangered, alone, or captured. By the end of the month, every significant Confederate army east of the Mississippi was quitting the fight.
The end’s beginning came on April 1 at a remote rural crossroads called Five Forks, southwest of Petersburg, Va.
The Confederates had to hold Five Forks–“at all hazards,” commander Robert E. Lee told Maj. Gen. George Pickett, whom he had sent there. The position defended the Richmond & Danville Railroad, the last un-captured tracks that could expeditiously get Lee’s rapidly diminishing Army of Northern Virginia to North Carolina to join the 30,000 troops of General Joseph E. Johnston for an epic last stand.
It never happened. The mental debilitation of Lee’s surviving officers after months of continual pounding from Lt. Gen. U. S. Grant’s Federals is evinced by the fact that Pickett and two of his subordinate commanders, Thomas Rosser and William Henry Fitzhugh (Rooney) Lee, took that occasion to leave their troops and go a few miles north of Five Forks to bake and eat shad, then running in the local rivers. The generals’ lame excuse was that they didn’t expect the Federals to attack.
But the Federals, under Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan, did. Pickett’s 10,000 initially leader-less troops at Five Forks, assaulted by 27,000 Federals, scattered and fled except for several hundred killed and wounded and 4,500 who were captured. Lee’s right wing crumbled into nonexistence, and he did not even know it for hours. When he learned it, very early on Sunday, April 2, he sent an urgent message to President Jefferson Davis:
“I think it is absolutely necessary that we abandon our position tonight.”
Davis, who had deluded himself for months, got the word at 10:40 a.m. in his pew at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Despite having been repeatedly warned by Lee of the mounting danger, he was shocked. He left the church to wire back: “To move tonight will involve the loss of many valuables, both for the lack of time to pack and of transportation.” Lee’s many warnings had gone for naught. Davis had made no provision whatever for the calamity.
Lee got Davis’s wire in early afternoon. In an uncharacteristic lapse of self-control, he ripped it to pieces. Then he dictated an icy reply: “Your telegram received. I think it will be necessary to move tonight…”
Thus began a frantic, hotly-pursued, and increasingly surrounded week-long stampede that ended on the 9th eighty-some miles west of Petersburg. Just before he proffered his sword–and his remaining 26,765 troops–to Grant in the McLean House at Appomattox, Lee flatly rejected a suggestion from his artillery chief, Brig. Gen. Edward Porter Alexander: that they scatter and continue the fight as guerrillas.
Lee’s response has sometimes been viewed by historians as a reflection of his high-minded refusal to subject America to that kind of bitter scourge. Actually, it seems to have been more an evidence of Lee’s pragmatic engineer’s mind.
“There are here only about 15,000 men with muskets,” he reasoned. “Suppose two-thirds, say 10,000, got away. Divided among the states, their numbers would be too insignificant to accomplish the least good…Their homes have been overrun by the enemy and their families need them badly.
“We have now simply to look the fact in the face that the Confederacy has failed.”
Abraham Lincoln was with Grant’s army in front of Petersburg.
In late March he had come out to talk to his generals and escape the frets of Washington. He entered Richmond on April 4, the day after a fleeing Davis arrived in Danville, Va. Richmond had been burned by the retreating Confederates, and in its ruined streets Lincoln was cheered by Union soldiers and newly-freed black Virginians.
From Danville that day, the still-delusional Davis composed an address “to the People of the Confederate States of America.” It called for the very kind of South-wide guerrilla war Lee would refuse to countenance from Porter Alexander less than a week later. Davis said that losing Richmond, although disheartening, had a brighter side. Lee and his subordinate generals would no longer be tied to such cities as Richmond and could range freely, falling on and whipping detachments of Federals as they found them.
“Let us but will it,” he said, “and we are free.”
Among many problems with this rosy view was that to survive, their ragged bands of soldiers would have to base themselves in mountainous areas of the South populated by the people least loyal to their government, many of whom had been unionists all along. These would likely join with Federals to fight Davis’s guerrilla bands in the bands’ own backyards.
Davis’s foe, Lincoln, returned to Washington on the 8th. On the 10th, as notification of Lee’s surrender reached the capital, a jubilant throng of 3,000, accompanied by a band, approached the White House and called for a speech. Lincoln deferred the speech to the next day but made a special request from the musicians. He asked them to play “Dixie,” which he said he had always liked and believed now belonged to the entire nation.
In the next day’s speech, Lincoln discussed reconstruction of the surrendering South. He defended the new loyalist government set up in the state of Louisiana but said he would have preferred that its new constitution enfranchise the “most intelligent” black Louisianans as well as all black Union soldiers. It was the first time any President had publicly advocated black suffrage.
Four nights later he was shot in the back of the head at Ford’s Theatre by actor/assassin John Wilkes Booth. Forever after, arguments would rage over how Lincoln would have carried out reconstruction, whether he would have been more lenient than the Radicals who took control after his death. He had said not much more than that he wanted no retribution against Southerners who would pledge renewed allegiance to the Union and “obey the laws.”
Perhaps the last phrase answers the question. It suggests that his leniency would have hardened when Southerners began virtual re-enslavement of Southern blacks under the reinstituted state governments he thought he favored.
Out in the hinterlands, the war was sputtering out.
Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the only other major Confederate army besides Lee’s, met with Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman on April 17-18 to talk surrender. With Lee’s army surrendered, Johnston had no hope of meaningful reinforcement. In their discussions, he and Sherman overreached by forging an agreement covering every other army besides Lee’s. Its terms provided that every Southern state government would be restored to the Union with its full antebellum authority; the South’s antebellum federal courts would be reopened; and all Southerners would be entitled to their former property.
When Sherman’s agreement was communicated to Grant on April 21, the commander of all U. S. armies blanched. Prewar antebellum “property” in the South obviously included slaves. When Grant took the Sherman document to President Andrew Johnson and the cabinet that night, everyone including Sherman’s friend Grant opposed it. As unobtrusively as possible, Grant went in person to Sherman in North Carolina, arriving on the 24th. He told Sherman that the agreement with Johnston must be renegotiated, and on April 26 Sherman and Johnston signed a document whose terms agreed with the generous but far less ambitious ones Grant had given Lee at Appomattox.
Farther south and west, 14,000 Federal cavalrymen under Maj. Gen. James Harrison Wilson had beaten a small collection of conscripts and militia under Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest at Selma on April 2. Forrest, only able to link up with reinforcements under subordinate Brig. Gen. James Chalmers after the battle, escaped to the northwest of Selma.
Other Federals under Maj. Gen. Edward Canby occupied Mobile, Ala. on April 12–“when it was of no importance,” later wrote Grant, who had tried to initiate a campaign against it many months earlier.
But the war’s disasters were yet to cease. One of fate’s cruelest was reserved for more than 1,600 newly-released and homeward bound survivors of Confederate prisoner of war camps, including many all-but-starved inmates of Andersonville. They drowned or later died of exposure in the Mississippi River when the boilers of the vastly overloaded steamboat Sultana exploded on April 27 near Memphis.
The Sultana sinking remains the worst mechanical accident in U.S. annals and one of the worst shipping catastrophes in world history.
Jefferson Davis, meanwhile, was trying to reach the Trans-Mississippi.
He and what remained of his government traveled by train to Greensboro, N.C.—which, unlike hospitable Danville, seethed with disloyalty. The train tracks ended at Greensboro, so from there the bureaucrats had to head overland by wagon. Davis had arrived at Lexington, N.C. when a telegram on the 16th informed him of Lincoln’s assassination. All sorts of wild rumors were afoot, but he said that if the telegram’s contents were true, “I fear it will be disastrous for our people, and I regret it deeply.”
Little wonder. If Lincoln was dead, the new U. S. president was Tennessean Andrew Johnson, the plebeian onetime tailor who for two decades had despised Davis as a symbol of the South’s haughty aristocracy.
On April 22 Davis was in Charlotte, where he planned to relocate his government when he got news of the Sherman-Johnston agreement basically surrendering everything Confederate south of Virginia. Within three more days he received the happy news that Washington had rejected that pact. He did not, though, immediately learn that Johnston, with whom he had quarreled throughout the entire war, was going ahead and surrendering at least his own army without even notifying Davis.
Riding horses, Davis and his little party crossed the Catawba River into South Carolina on the 28th. The Chief Executive whose Confederacy was dissolving around him was still telling his amazed companions that they could somehow get to Texas and continue the war.
[For more, see The Civil War Almanac by John S. Bowman, Bison Books 1982; The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War by David J. Eicher, Simon & Schuster 2001; Lee by Clifford Dowdey, LittleBrown 1965; Grant by Jean Edward Smith Simon & Schuster 2001; and Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour by William C. Davis, HarperCollins 1991.]
Selma’s “Bloody Sunday,” though “smaller in scope,” was more consequential nationally than the front-paged pictures of Birmingham schoolchildren assaulted by police dogs and firehoses two years earlier.
That was the judgment of Stan Levison, arguably Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s shrewdest, most valued, and–to the FBI–most controversial advisor.
“For the first time, whites and Negroes joined the struggle in a pilgrimage to the Deep South,” Levison wrote in a long letter to King on April 7.
Levison based his opinion on more than the news. He had seen.
“In the Montgomery airport I was struck by the unfamiliarity of the participants,” he wrote. “They were not long-committed white liberals and Negroes. They were new forces from all faiths and all classes…from businessmen to pacifist radicals.”
Viola Liuzzo, the white Tennessee-rooted Detroit Teamster’s wife shot in the head by Ku Klux toughs on a rural road in Lowndes County, was an obvious example of Levison’s point. Stirred by the Selma killings of Unitarian minister James J. Reeb of Boston and local civil rights worker Jimmie Lee Jackson, and by President Johnson’s reactive “We Shall Overcome” speech to Congress, Liuzzo had driven to Alabama on her own in behalf of a justice fiendishly perverted in the South since Reconstruction.
There was a reason Levison wrote King his analysis of Selma instead of telling him by phone or face-to-face. The Kennedy White House, coerced by racist FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, had demanded that the civil rights leader dissociate himself from Levison. The basis was flimsy FBI “evidence” that Levison was a Communist, which King discounted. He renounced Levison with great regret and soon reinstated him in the inner circle, come what may.
Levison’s letter said King’s direction of the Selma campaign had made him “one of the most powerful figures in the country, a leader now not merely of Negroes but of millions of whites.” But not everything Levison wrote was laudatory. He also said King had “caused deep disquiet” on the last day of March by diverging from the “struggle for voting rights” to embrace an off-the-wall call for a national boycott of Alabama products.
King, Levison advised, should stay on his beaten path of arousing “the finer democratic instincts of the nation.” King-style nonviolence, the advisor said, bred courage, which in turn bred energy for political action. He added:
“Someone asked a Negro if he thought they would win, and he responded, ‘We won when we started.’ This is profound.”
But the great victory of Selma that Levison so carefully analyzed was demoralizing the victors. It presented a problem: What now?
Movement members exhausted from years of putting lives on the line in Dixie had become internally divided and paralyzed. Many, weary of shootings and beatings, were renouncing nonviolence. Their factions increasingly fixated on differing goals, and the disarray mirrored a psychological shutdown afflicting King himself.
Haunted by perpetual threat of assassination and Hoover’s spying into every aspect of his life, obsessed with his responsibility to the powerless and dispossessed for whom he labored (an urge so strong that he refused to move his family out of a rented apartment into a house), King sank into depression.
His funk stemmed in no small part from guilt over extra-marital affairs with which he seemed to compensate for his burdens. Tortured by self-recrimination, he promised close confidants he would give up these dalliances that provided the obsessed Hoover so much fodder.
But he didn’t.
April had begun with a contentious Southern Christian Leadership Conference meeting in Baltimore. There King, with assassination obviously on his mind, called for his longtime associate, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, to be formally named his successor in the event he became unable to serve. This was just one of several topics indicating that, as Levison had noted, the movement’s eyes were straying from the prize of Dixie voting rights.
Another diversion was the proposed national boycott of Alabama products. Such opponents as Whitney Young of the business-oriented National Urban League said it would cost thousands of black Alabamans their jobs. King aide James Bevel, who had the boycott idea and was never at a loss for a biting incendiary phrase, retorted that the urbane Young was the pompous wearer of “a fifty-dollar hat on a two-dollar head.”
King himself was bothered by the fact that Teamsters Union president Jimmy Hoffa gave the SCLC a check for $25,000 but would not commit to the boycott.
Another King subordinate, Andrew Young, proposed an alternative: that they push the nonviolent movement into Northern cities, where blacks were being victimized by subtler discrimination. The SCLC board, though, decried leaving their Southern church base to enter unfamiliar areas and face the competitive and often hostile NAACP. Longtime movement strategist Bayard Rustin cautioned that re-focusing their geographical emphasis would cost the cause supporters both North and South.
Back in Selma, it was all too clear that much was left to do at home. On Palm Sunday, April 11, a mixed-race group showed up for the 7:30 a.m. service at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and was told by an usher that although the bishop “says we’ve got to let you in,” they would not be given Communion.
Finally, they were allowed to sit on the back row and receive Communion after everyone else. But following the service, out on the church’s front steps, a member of the congregation called them “goddamn scum,” and the chief usher later told two white seminarians they were welcome as long as they weren’t accompanied by “nigger trash.”
Against the advice of Levison and several others, King took the movement to Boston on April 22. That day he addressed a joint session of the Massachusetts legislature, and the historic significance of the honor was not lost on him.
“For one who has been barricaded from the seats of government, and jailed so many times for attempting to petition legislatures and councils, I can assure you that this is a momentous occasion,” he told the lawmakers.
He added that he had come to Massachusetts “not to condemn but to encourage.
“It was from these shores that the vision of a new nation conceived in liberty was born,” he said, “and from these shores liberty must be preserved.”
He did not back away, though, from mentioning that liberty needed to be for all. Without mentioning Massachusetts, he emphasized inflammatory Boston themes of “school imbalance” and “de facto segregation.”
With the ever-malicious Hoover piddling with assigning agents to try to discern whether King had lied in saying that he had only once–eight years earlier–visited the controversial Highlander (“Communist training”) Center in Tennessee, King led a Boston march on Friday, April 23. Guarded by 600 policemen, he and crowds estimated at anywhere from 20,000 to 50,000 walked three miles out of the south Boston suburb of Roxbury in the rain.
In a comment following a speech on the Boston Common–where he beseeched Americans not to be “a nation of onlookers”–he made diversionary anti-Vietnam War headlines by saying he had no objection to movement leaders speaking against war as well as against segregation.
On April 30 he was back in Atlanta trying to forge a truce with disaffected, bellicose leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. SNCC had furnished many of the movement’s most heroic grassroots workers.
“Our conflicts with SNCC in Selma…had to do with the breadth of some of their objectives,” King aide Andrew Young later wrote. “Our objectives were simple: we wanted to clearly demonstrate to the nation that black citizens were being effectively deprived of their right to vote in Selma…and that Selma was not an anomaly: it was representative of many other towns in the black belt.
“As in Birmingham, there were activists…for whom incremental progress was unacceptable. But I always stressed that nonviolent social change requires reconciliation and forgiveness. The people of Selma had a lot to forgive, but without forgiveness no real change could take place.”
SNCC chairman John Lewis, who had had his skull fractured by Selma’s purported lawmen, was a fellow believer with Young and King in peaceful demonstration, but he was feeling increasingly alone in his own organization.
Lewis later recalled sadly that Selma “was the last act for the movement as I knew it. Something was born in Selma during the course of that year, but something died there, too. The road of nonviolence had essentially run out.”
The Ku Klux Klan and its racist back-shooters. cowardly killers of even women, were finally stirring desperate blacks to physical resistance. Lewis wrote that he could hardly blame movement members who saw Viola Liuzzo’s death as “one more reason” to start hitting back.
“We’re only flesh,” he would tell a writer for the New York Times who asked for his Selma recollections. “I could understand people not wanting to get beaten anymore. The body gets tired. You put out so much energy and you saw such little gain. Black capacity to believe white would really open his heart, open his life to nonviolent appeal, was running out.”
Selma, Lewis later reflected, “was the last act” for the ascendancy of nonviolence in the movement.
“After that,” he wrote, “we just came apart.”
[For more, see At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years 1965-68 by Taylor Branch, Simon & Schuster 2006; 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 and Michael D’Orso, Simon & Schuster 1998.]
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