January ’65

1865

Winter’s onset stalled most major military operations and pushed diplomatic thrusts toward center stage. But from both sides those initiatives were fitful and abortive. Neither chief executive–Abraham Lincoln nor Jefferson Davis–would budge from his fundamental position. Or could.

Davis could not voluntarily agree to the dissolution of the Confederate States of America that had elected him its leader. Lincoln, re-elected two months earlier and sworn for the second time to uphold the Constitution of the United States, could hardly countenance less than the return of Davis’s seceded states to the Union.

Having clung to this doctrine through some of his life’s darkest months, Lincoln now was winning the war. Thus he had no incentive to back away from the complete victory which, with the coming of this new year, seemed virtually in sight. And Davis, having seen his armies’ triumphs of ’61 and ’62 ultimately harvest only blood and ashes, became besieged by doubters across Dixie, increasingly detached from reality, and ill.

His profusion of troubles was such that the New York Times at mid-month reported speculation in Virginia that, owing to his “failing health, his still more rapidly failing popularity,” and Confederate military reverses, “we may infer that Jefferson Davis…may soon voluntarily yield the overwhelming responsibilities of his thankless and dangerous position to (General) Robert E. Lee.”

The Confederate New Year was bereft of hope. On its first day, Confederate War Department clerk John B. Jones mentioned in his diary a widely-held and discouraging view: that Davis “is considered really a man of ability, and eminently qualified to preside over the Confederate States, if independence were attained and we had peace

“But he is probably not equal to the part he is now called upon to play.”

Burdened from the outset with the habit of relying on friendships and personal prejudices in choosing vital personnel, Davis was understandably bitter at his critics. Many were urging localities to evade new Confederate laws that drafted more soldiers and confiscated more crops, animals, and other materials for Dixie’s dwindling armies.

As a longtime U. S. congressman and senator, Davis had championed local autonomy, but as the South’s president he had had to try to override it. And many of his opponents, he complained, had once been Confederate nationalists but now “invoke the cause of State rights to sustain a policy which…must tend to destroy the existence of the States of our Confederacy…”

The irony was supreme. The principle of localism so dear to Davis heroes Thomas Jefferson and John C. Calhoun–and a byword of Confederate dogma–was now, in Davis’s view, killing the Confederate nation.

Whether by states’ rights or fate, the impending death was no metaphor. Desertions from the tattered and hungry armies were wholesale, along with calls for states to make a separate peace. The Confederacy’s energetic and loyal chief of ordnance, Josiah Gorgas, reflected the widening abandonment of hope in his diary entry for Jan. 6:

“Where is this to end? No money in the Treasury, no food to feed Gen. Lee’s army, no troops to oppose (Maj.) Gen. (William T.) Sherman. There is a strong disposition among members of Congress to come to terms with the enemy.”

On that same day, Jan. 6, President Davis wrote to his long-critical vice president, Alexander Stephens, and upbraided Stephens for fomenting lack of popular confidence.

On Jan. 12, longtime U. S. presidential adviser Francis P. Blair arrived in Richmond to talk with Davis. Blair hoped to bring the two countries together by allying them to eject the French from Mexico. Neither Davis nor Lincoln liked the idea, though. After nearly four years of war, the military capacities of both governments were stretched to the limit. But Davis agreed to send a representative to a peace conference in February.

*

There remained an irresolvable sticking point. Lincoln insisted that any negotiation begin by regarding the war as a disagreement between sections of one country, the United States. Davis insisted that the basis had to be two countries.

The underlying contention was hardly new. It had divided American politics since their inception. The Confederacy represented an insular South championing the original Constitution and its sanctioning of slavery. The Union, welcoming streams of immigrants from slavery-hating Europe, was pressing toward a more progressive America.

Now, as the war approached its climax, the on-the-ground differences between these two competing national visions were widening.

The U. S. Senate had already passed a proposed constitutional amendment outlawing slavery, and on Jan. 6 the House–after voting it down in 1864–took it up again. On Jan. 9, a New York Democrat joined Republicans backing the measure. The strongest case cited against it was its complication of prospects for peace, an argument another New York congressman voiced on Jan. 10.

But Northern wheels of social progress by now were rolling beyond just the abolition of slavery.

On Jan. 9 Secretary of War Edwin Stanton turned up in Savannah to talk strategy with Sherman–and, perhaps unwittingly, to push past emancipation. Looking into charges that Sherman had mistreated in “criminal” fashion some 10,000 black refugees who had followed his army across Georgia to the sea, Stanton met with 20 refugee leaders to get their feelings on Sherman as well as how they thought the government could best guarantee their new freedom long-term.

A spokesman for the 20 contradicted the charges that Sherman had mistreated them and went on to say that the refugees wanted to be placed on land that they could farm until they were able to buy it. The spokesman also asked that these lands be separated from those of white people because of the whites’ longstanding extreme racial prejudice against them.

On Jan. 16, Sherman took the extraordinary step of designating all abandoned and confiscated lands along the Georgia coast, including islands, for distribution among the refugees. Black families were to be given temporary titles to not more than 40 acres each.

Then on January’s final day, the House passed–by a vote of 119 to 56–the constitutional amendment ridding the nation of its history’s supreme evil. The abolition measure now went to the states for ratification, with the approval of three-fourths necessary to add it to the Constitution. Republicans contended that the states that had rebelled must be readmitted to the Union before they could participate–which of course, made the new amendment much more likely to pass.

Here again, irony was heavy. Had the South not seceded, an abolition amendment to the Constitution could never have passed Congress. And ratification by three-fourths of the antebellum United States would have been unthinkable.

*

On New Year’s Day Maj. Gen. Ben Butler, who had a penchant for exploding things to no avail, ignited a huge blast of gunpowder on the James River. The aim was to clear the final portion of a canal across a bend and speed passage of vessels up and down.

As had happened a month earlier in a Butler-led attack on Fort Fisher at Wilmington, N.C., the explosion failed to do its job. On Jan. 6 Butler, a militarily inept politician unloved by General-in-Chief U. S. Grant, was relieved of command of the Army of the James as well as of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina.

On Jan. 15, a second sally against Fort Fisher–led this time by Maj. Gen. Alfred Terry–did capture the fort. Terry’s soldiers and some naval sailors attacked it from opposite sides and took huge casualties but prevailed. Meanwhile, more than half of Terry’s 8,000 infantrymen had blocked the possibility of aid to the fort from 6,000 nearby Confederates under General Braxton Bragg. The fort’s fall closed Wilmington, the last major Confederate port.

The most important military activity in January, in terms of future significance, was by Sherman. On the 3rd, he sent some units forward from Savannah to Beaufort, S.C. On the 14th, they began moving farther north while the bulk of the army, delayed by heavy rains, remained near Savannah.

Sherman’s first target was North Carolina and the cutting of one of the last major supply lines left to Lee’s army in Virginia. Sherman hoped to deceive Confederate leaders about his aims, though, so on the 26th he sent a diversionary detachment northeast toward secession’s cradle, Charleston.

The Confederate armies in the west were all but helpless to oppose him. The once-proud Army of Tennessee, long mishandled by General Braxton Bragg and then nearly annihilated under Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood at Franklin and Nashville, arrived in Tupelo, Miss., from Nashville on Jan. 9. On the 12th, President Davis directed that some 4,000 men from the now puny force be sent to oppose Sherman, and most of the rest–totaling fewer than 18,000–were soon to follow.

Many, many Southerners believed they needed a supreme military commander– and not Davis, who had basically acted as such. On Jan. 16 the Confederate Senate passed, 14 to 2, a resolution advising Davis to (1) return the Army of Tennessee to General Joseph E. Johnston; (2) give General P. G. T. Beauregard command over Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina; and (3), most important, name Lee the South’s general-in-chief.

Lee didn’t want the position, which could hardly have been more thankless. From the war’s outset, his focus, interest, and heart had been totally with his native Virginia. But on the 19th, he reluctantly accepted the promotion from an insistent and desperate Davis.

The job’s chances of success had long since progressed from the improbable to the impossible.

[For more see The Civil War Almanac by John S. Boatner, Bison Books 1982; The New York Times Complete Civil War by Harold Holzer and Craig L. Symonds, eds., Black Dog & Leventhal 2010; Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief by James M. McPherson, Penguin Press 2008; Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour by William C. Davis, HarperCollins 1991; Lee by Clifford Dowdey, Little Brown 1965; and The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War by David J. Eicher, Simon & Schuster 2001.]

 

1965

As 1965 opened, two of the most controversial African Americans in history were pondering their all-too-probable assassinations.

Malcolm X, dogged by assailants from the Chicago-based Nation of Islam, was found by FBI surveillance to be registering in hotels under a pseudonym, “M. Khalil.” And Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., new winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, was designating a successor to lead the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the event of his death.

*

On the new year’s second day, King was headed from Atlanta to Selma, Ala., one of the South’s hardest-knuckled bastions of bigotry. Fewer than 200 of Dallas County’s 15,000 adult blacks had been allowed to register, and King saw Selma as the starting point for desegregation and registration of blacks throughout Alabama.

Accompanying King was his longtime associate, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy. King told Abernathy he had doubted he would survive his previous summer’s trip through Mississippi and was now naming Abernathy to succeed him at his death.

Abernathy objected only weakly. Regarding himself as co-leader of King’s movement, he had sometimes seemed to envy King’s prominence. He said now that he had always expected to be killed alongside King. The two then traded joking eulogies of each other.

Arriving in Selma that same day, they began a long-delayed work. It was meant to be their response to the Birmingham church bombing of September 1963, and it had two goals: (1) to coerce all of Alabama into racial equality and (2) to address egregious local grievances in Selma.

The statewide part of the focus was inspired by a grand plan drafted by the indomitable Diane Nash and her husband, James Bevel. To memorialize the four bomb-slain Birmingham schoolgirls, they envisioned mobilization of a “nonviolent army” that would march to the statehouse in Montgomery, block roads and communications, and paralyze the proudly racist administration of Gov. George C. Wallace.

The local focus, by contrast, was less grand than pitiful. Two employees of a nursing home had been fired for trying to register to vote on a Freedom Day three weeks after the Birmingham bombing. The pair had been photographed so other prospective employers could know who they were and avoid hiring them. And they had been so physically abused that nearly 40 fellow employees walked off $18-a-week jobs in protest.

Local leader Amelia Boynton appealed to the SCLC. She asked its leaders to buy the terminated workers a “high-powered sewing machine” with which they could become self-employed and avoid starvation.

King’s new campaign faced two daunting hurdles. First, Selma’s blacks had to be persuaded to violate a six-month-old injunction forbidding “assembly of three or more persons in a public place” in behalf of civil rights. And local churches were needed to supply assembly areas for the demonstrators.

King and his associates had a bit of luck, though. The brutal Dallas County sheriff, Jim Clark, had gone to the Orange Bowl in Miami to see the University of Alabama play Texas. And the opposition was fragmented. Selma’s city police, under Chief Wilson Baker, preferred a subtler style of resistance less likely to attract national notice.

That first night, Jan. 2, King grandly defied the court injunction with a ringing speech to seven hundred at Brown Chapel AME church.

“Today marks the beginning of a determined, organized, mobilized campaign to get the right to vote everywhere in Alabama,” he announced to cheers. “If we are refused, we will appeal to Gov. George Wallace. If he refuses to listen, we will appeal to the legislature. If they don’t listen, we will appeal to the conscience of the Congress…

“We must be ready to go to jail by the thousands.”

James Bevel started signing up marchers as soon as King left the rostrum.

*

Three days later, the civil rights leader was called home to Atlanta by his wife.

Coretta King had opened some mail routinely sent to their home by the SCLC office. It contained an audio recording that she first thought was just another King speech taped by a fan. Instead, it was a collage of hotel-room sounds purporting to be King parties and sex encounters sent by a fellow African American. Mailed from Miami before the Kings left for Norway for the Nobel ceremony, it said King’s “end is approaching.”

“There is but one way out for you,” it added. “You better take it before your filthy, abnormal, fraudulent self is bared to the nation.”

The package was from the FBI. It was inspired, if not actually brainstormed, by Director J. Edgar Hoover. For years Hoover had lobbied for the Nobel Prize for himself, and he had been outraged that King got it. The senders expected King to open the so-called “suicide package” before he left for Oslo and perhaps be moved to kill himself before receiving the prize.

King did not consider obliging them after the fact. He called a meeting of his closest advisers for the weekend of Jan. 8-10 and quickly divined the identity of the sender. Their hotel rooms had obviously been bugged, and who but the FBI could do that?

“They are out to break me,” King said.

On Monday, Jan. 11, King associates Andrew Young and Ralph Abernathy went to the FBI to accuse the Bureau of spreading malicious material to selected officials and reporters. FBI Assistant Director Deke Deloach lied and said no agent would do that. He compounded the lie by saying that the Bureau had no interest in King’s private life.

King did not let it deter him. He was back in Selma on Jan. 14, where his lieutenants had been busy. Night workshops were operating in the city’s five wards, and Diane Nash had made maps of the street addresses of blacks old enough to vote. Two-person teams uniting the SCLC with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the first freedom organization to arrive in Selma in 1962, canvassed the neighborhoods.

King scheduled a new Freedom Day for the following Monday. He told the Thursday meeting that on Monday they would march to Selma’s courthouse to attempt to register. They would send blacks to seek civilian jobs held only by whites. And for the first time they would try to desegregate hotels and restaurants under the new civil rights law. The city’s black youth began demanding to participate. In one ward, 40 young people passed up a high school basketball game to demand roles on Freedom Day.

*

On Monday morning, American Nazi leader George Lincoln Rockwell waited with Sheriff Clark, Clark’s deputies, an auxiliary volunteer “posse,” 60 reporters, and a mob of bystanders as King led some 300 marchers to the courthouse.

Rockwell stepped forward to call King a Communist and challenge him to debate. King offered him 15 minutes to speak at that night’s mass meeting and told him how to get to the First Baptist Church. King then led the testing of eight restaurants and successfully integrated seven. He also successfully became the first African American to sign the register at the historic Hotel Albert.

As the crowd surged around him, a white man asked to see him a minute. When King complied, the man–Jimmie George Robinson, a member of the National States Rights Party–knocked him down with a sucker punch and then kicked him in the groin. A white woman, jumping onto a chair to see better, screamed “Get him! Get him!”

Suddenly SNCC’s legendarily nonviolent chairman John Lewis sprang forward and, in his own words, “put a bear hug on” Robinson.

“It was just a visceral reaction,” Lewis later wrote. “I didn’t strike the man, though I thought about it. I don’t think I’ve ever come as close to hitting someone as I did at that moment. Maybe it was because Dr. King meant so much to me…But that moment pushed me as close as I’ve ever been to the limits of my nonviolent commitments.”

Selma police hauled Robinson off. They also arrested Rockwell but dropped the charges when he agreed to leave Selma the next day.

On Wednesday, Jan. 20, King was reported by the media to be “conspicuously” absent from President Johnson’s inauguration ceremonies. The day before, he had deployed more marchers to the courthouse, and 50–including a teacher and a female third grader–defied police orders to confine themselves to a back alley to await a chance to register to vote. Police herded the 50 to jail with electrified cattle prods but, in the publicity-charged atmosphere, quickly turned them out again. On inauguration day, 200 more demonstrators marched to jail.

As the week went on, a critical corner was turned. Schoolteachers, brandishing toothbrushes signifying their willingness to be jailed, turned out nearly en masse to risk their jobs by taking to the streets with their students. Other professions followed.

On Monday, Jan. 25, King led 250 marchers to the courthouse. They included Annie Lee Cooper, one of the two fired nursing-home workers. When Sheriff Clark twisted her arm, the 235-pound Cooper knocked him down onto the sidewalk with her fists. Three deputies then held her down while Clark hit her with his nightstick–in front of clicking news cameras–before hauling her to jail in two pairs of handcuffs.

Still, nobody was permitted to register to vote

*

Malcolm X, dodging ambushes by members of the Nation of Islam at his New York home and in the streets, said in response to a questioner at one of his lectures that he was “hurt” by seeing on TV the physical attack on King, a fellow black man.

Chased by eager assailants through hotel lobbies and in cars on the streets as he trekked from New York to Los Angeles seeking court assistance against Elijah Muhammad of the Nation of Islam, he sat for a televised interview in Chicago. There he criticized Muhammad for committing sexual improprieties with secretaries and for dispatching underlings to injure fellow Muslims.

When the interviewer inquired about his softening of an earlier stance in which he had depicted all whites as “devils,” Malcolm said he had “gotten older.” The interviewer then asked if he wished to apologize for those earlier characterizations. Malcolm said no.

“I don’t think the burden is upon any black man in this society to apologize for any stand that he takes,” he said. “…Most of us are attracted to…extreme(s), primarily because of the extreme negative condition that we live in.”

[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; Walking With The Wind: A Memoir of the Movement by John Lewis with Michael D’Orso, Simon & Schuster 1998; and The Autobiography of Malcolm X with the assistance of Alex Haley, Grove Press 1965.]

 

 

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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