June ’65

1865

June saw the last significant surrender of soldiers flying the Confederate flag. The final organized force to lay down its arms did so on June 18, 1865 at Doaksville in Indian Territory, now Oklahoma.

These Confederates were American Indians, and the number present was small. Their commander, Brig. Gen. Stand Watie, having heard of the April capitulations of Generals Robert E. Lee and Joseph E. Johnston on the eastern seaboard, had allowed many of his troops to go home.

The surrender was a formality but necessary, especially for Watie. It assured him federal protection from fellow Native Americans on the Union side who had hated and tried to kill him for nearly three decades.

That there had to be a surrender at all was ironic. Native Americans had no dog in the Civil War fight. They had been cheated and otherwise mistreated by both Northerners and Southerners ever since white men began arriving in the so-called New World that was “new” only to these late-comers.

But the Indians had an inter-tribal war of their own, and they used the larger conflict to help fight it. Watie, for instance, was despised by many of his fellow Cherokees. In 1835 he had joined chiefs who signed the agreement with the U. S. government removing them from their native southern Appalachian homelands and sending them to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears. Because of their backing of removal, Watie’s brother was assassinated and Watie himself survived several attempts on his life.

He and many of his so-called Treaty Party associates, being slaveholders and adherents of the “peculiar institution,” sided with the South. John Ross, titular chief of the Cherokees, ended up espousing the federal government which had instituted the removal he strongly opposed. So at the end of the war Watie and his followers needed protection against the Ross Cherokees, and they got it from the U.S. in their surrender.

For the Oklahoma Cherokees, the Civil War had been as costly as the Trail of Tears thirty years earlier. Their population of 21,000 fell to 15,000 during the four years. By 1863, a quarter of the children were orphans, a third of the wives were widows, nearly seven thousand Cherokees were refugees at U.S. Fort Gibson, and 300,000 head of their cattle had been taken by Union or Confederate troops.

By late 1865, nearly all the Cherokee survivors would be little more than alive, kept that way by government food allotments dispensed at Fort Gibson.

*

June may have been the most important month in shaping the South’s enduring postwar attitudes. The change resulted from a mistake, and the man who made it was President Andrew Johnson.

Congress was in recess at the time, so Radical, slavery-hating Republicans were not in Washington. The Southern Democrat Johnson saw a chance to beat them to the punch by doing his own version of Reconstruction. In June he quickly launched new, but old-style, state governments across the South.

He named new interim governors of Texas, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina before the Radicals could return and enact laws putting these states under the kind of temporary military rule to be expected in conquered territory at the end of a war.

Most of the men Johnson named had been little more than lukewarm to secession, but they, like Johnson–and even most of the wartime North–were less than friendly to the idea of citizenship for ex-slaves. The new governors swiftly instituted laws that all but copied their states’ prewar ones governing people of color.

So the brutal and bloody racial oppression that began sweeping the South, and would characterize it for another century, perhaps did not have to. In June, according to The Nation, “most Southern men looked forward to exemption from hanging and forfeiture of goods as the utmost they could hope for…

“They laid down their arms, denounced all attempts at guerrilla warfare, acknowledged that their slaves were free, and, in fact, gave the Government to understand that it had only to name the terms on which it would restore civil government in order to have them normally acceded to.”

Similarly, prominent journalist Whitelaw Reid, traveling around the war-sick and defeated region in May, assessed the prevailing attitude of the residents as ready to “promptly” accept any requirement for rejoining the United States, including the right of freedmen to vote.

But in June Johnson made Southerners begin to believe they could again have, in all but name, the supreme racial domination that had been the region’s hallmark before the war. Alabama Gov. Lewis Parsons would put it more succinctly in July:

“Every political right which the State possessed under the Federal Constitution is hers today, with the single exception relating to slavery.”

Even that “single exception” was an illusion. A Johnson emissary to the South in June assured the section’s eminent men that he felt that granting or restricting the right to vote should be left to the states. Anybody in the South, black or white, knew what that meant. No Southern state legislature would ever willingly give freedmen the right to vote. That in turn meant African Americans could never hope to gain the political muscle required to defend their meager properties or their own–or their families’–bodies.

The governor of Florida made this reality crystal clear. He told the freedmen to go back to the plantations, work hard, and “call your old Master ‘Master.’”

On June 15, U. S. Sen. Henry Wilson of Massachusetts wrote to General Oliver O. Howard, commissioner of the new Freedmen’s Bureau, beseeching him to “do all that can be done for the protection of the poor negroes” because “this nation seems about to abandon them to their disloyal masters.”

Indeed. In the South, almost no whites cared to champion the cause of the freedmen. Ex-Confederate landowners wanted them to be only powerless laborers. And most white unionists also opposed enfranchising them, thinking they would vote the way their late, and now restored, masters told them to.

So the primary political battle in the South in June of 1865 was not between whites and freedmen but, rather, between rich planters who had always held power in the region and poorer whites who had never been allowed to significantly participate in government. The freedmen got little attention from either of these groups, except as pawns.

*

The war was over, but the good, or at least relieved, feelings sweeping the nation were deceptive and short-lived. As the South’s elites saw Johnson giving them back the power they had always wielded over Dixie’s black and poor-white populations, sectional bitterness quickly revived.

One of the earliest triggers of Southern resentment came on June 30, when a Johnson-named military commission found eight people guilty of conspiring with John Wilkes Booth to kill President Lincoln. Four were sentenced to hang–including a lone female, Mary Surratt, whose crime seems to have been that she operated the rooming house where Booth made his plans.

These harsh, and seemingly unfair, punishments did not satisfy the many Northerners who thought the whole South deserved punishment for starting the war. Meanwhile the South, emboldened by Johnson, slapped the face of these revenge-minded victors.

South Carolina and Mississippi refused to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery. Georgia’s legislature elected Alexander Stephens, the recent vice president of the defeated Confederacy, to the United States Senate–while he was still imprisoned awaiting trial for treason. Mississippi elected to its governorship a former Confederate brigadier general who had not even received his presidential pardon.

That was not near all. Less than half a year past the war’s last surrender, Southern states would send to Congress a horde of former Confederate officials: four generals, five colonels, six cabinet members, and 58 members of the Confederate congress.

The racial climate in such an atmosphere was all too predictable. From the South, New York Tribune writer Whitelaw Reid informed his friend, powerful abolitionist Congressman Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, that Southern ex-slaves were being told that emancipation had been a passing Union fancy cancelled out by the South’s surrender.

“The masters tell them,” Reid wrote Stevens, “that slavery is to be restored as soon as the army is removed; that the government is already mustering the army out of service; that next year, when the State is reorganized, the State authorities will control slavery.”

Outraged abolitionists such as Stevens were not the only people taken aback. Even President Johnson–whose “excessive tenderness,” in the words of The Nation, had “roused” Dixie’s leaders “to their old audacity”–was red-faced. Johnson had to plead with his fellow Southerners to tread lighter.

In many cases, he would do so in vain.

*

Having sowed the wind by overplaying the pat hand Andrew Johnson dealt it, the South reaped what many Southerners have ever since decried as the whirlwind of Reconstruction.

But this whirlwind, actually one of American racial history’s most naively hopeful chapters, lasted just nine years. The North, never a strong advocate of minority rights at best, wearied of trying to change a region violently determined not to comply.

The South exchanged its Confederacy for one with a small “c.” It resumed its former role as spiritual seat of ultra-conservatism within the United States, from which it loosed ghosts of Confederate rage that still haunt America’s social and political landscape.

Jefferson Davis’s aristocratic Confederate oligarchy out-bungled the Union and lost the shooting war it started, but it employed race phobia, fear of the federal government, and, when pressed, lynch mobs and back-shooting ambushers to capture and hold the postwar “peace.”

In important ways, the Lost Cause didn’t lose.

[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; Between Two Fires: American Indians in the Civil War by Laurence M. Hauptman, Free Press 1995; Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1865-1877 by Eric Foner, Harper & Row 1988; Thaddeus Stevens: Scourge of the South by Fawn M. Brodie, Norton Library 1966; Yankee Stepfather: General O. O. Howard and the Freedmen by William S. McFeely, Yale University Press 1968.]

 

This, the 50th month of the Civil War covered by this blog, is this narrative’s concluding Civil War entry. But in the above, the author has tried to suggest that June 1865 was by no means the war’s final month. Rather, it was the end of organized shooting by formal military units wearing the blue and the gray. Gunfire and other violence continued, however, and not just until 1877, when the federal government recalled the last of its troops from the South. As attested by the other half of this ‘Civil War & Civil Rights’ enterprise, the struggle for America’s soul raged for much more than a century. It persists today.

 

1965

June 1965, like the same month an exact century earlier, made transforming changes in an ongoing national struggle.

June also forecast more and larger ones yet to come. Passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in August would precede by hardly a week a mammoth riot in the Watts section of Los Angeles. African Americans bereft of hope would burn down their own suburb, as if black people outside the South were symbolically shouting, “What about us? We’re oppressed, too.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., consensus leader of the Southern civil rights movement of the 1960s, was becoming ever more focused on a wider horizon filling up with the conflict in Vietnam. Thirty-three thousand American troops were already there, and generals were calling for 140,000 more.

King’s interest in the fighting was justified. Its role as a civil rights issue was burgeoning. Young black men–especially in the South, where they and their parents had no vote and little else–were far more likely than their white counterparts to be drafted, assigned to the infantry, and ordered to risk their lives for a recruiting-poster “American way of life”  open to virtually every American but themselves.

“From the outset, black U. S. soldiers were dying in Vietnam in horrifyingly disproportionate numbers,” John Lewis, then chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, later noted.

“While 10 percent of the nation’s population was black, one out of every four American fatalities in Vietnam was a black soldier. By late 1965, America’s front lines in Vietnam were so filled with black men–as many as 60 percent–that the soldiers called it Soulville.”

But Vietnam was not the only burning issue diverting the movement’s leaders from Southern injustices that had been their original target. While hundreds of marchers continued to be jailed on Southern civil rights battlefields that June, King and his associates were pulled toward the vastly more complex second front that Watts would soon represent: the urban non-South.

Northern industrial cities into which waves of African Americans had poured out of Dixie since the late 1800s had turned out to be far less than welcoming, cramming these new residents into squalid, crime-breeding tenements.

The hard-to-miss truth had to be faced. Not just the South, but America, was rotten with racial discrimination.

*

The month began, though, on more familiar turfs.

Now-famed sharecropper Fannie Lou Hamer, a leader of the upstart Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and some 70 other African Americans tried to picket on June 2 in Panola County, Miss., seeking a raise in their $3-a-day wages. It was the first attempt in the county in 30 years, and it got the pickets thrown out of the sharecropper shacks in which they had lived.

That same evening in Bogalusa, La., a Klansman pulled alongside a sheriff’s patrol car occupied by the county’s first two black officers. The two were hired to deal only with African Americans, but the Klansman shot-gunned them, killing one and wounding the other. The survivor radioed a description to headquarters, and Ku Kluxer Ray McElveen was soon arrested.

On June 4, President Lyndon Johnson addressed the graduating class of Howard University, the historically black Washington institution named for Civil War General O. O. Howard. The President said recent “tumbling down” of barriers to African American freedom was a beginning, not an end. Freedom, he said, “is not enough.” What Americans had to do was produce “not just freedom but opportunity…not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and a result.”

Freedom’s benefits, he implied, are cumulative and equal opportunity rarely reachable in one or two generations.

“You do not take a person who for years has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, and bring him up to the starting line of a race, and then say, ‘you are free to compete with the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.”

Johnson shunned political platitudes this day. He said that despite recent gains on paper, the majority of African Americans–relatives of the graduates in front of him–remained among the nation’s “uprooted” and “dispossessed,” deprived of education and the skills it imparted, confined to ghettos and “losing ground every day” while white Americans surged ahead.

Such realities, he said, “to the Negro are a constant reminder of oppression. For the white, they are a constant reminder of guilt.”

Guilt and its activators continued to proliferate. That very night, back in Bogalusa–where the state attorney general had swiftly disallowed state employee survivor insurance to go to the widow of the Klan-slain black deputy, and where prosecution of the murderer quickly stalled–some “half-witted white kids,” according to the sheriff, put bullet holes in a white deputy’s home to discourage police “race traitors.”

*

Then, 500 miles north of Dixie, Chicago cried out.

Long bloated by a continuing influx of African Americans fleeing Southern racial oppression and loss of subsistence employment to the mechanization of cotton-picking, the City of Big Shoulders met these new immigrants with a shoulder colder than it was big, crowding them into impoverished, dangerous, high-rise ghettos.

Ninety-four percent of the city’s schools were all-white or all-black, and when the Board of Education gave its de facto segregationist school superintendent a four-year contract extension after he had been scheduled to retire, the local NAACP called for a citywide five-day boycott of the schools.

More than 60,000 students walked out on June 10. A companion group of 252 adults got arrested the next day. On the 12th, 196 more people were arrested, including Catholic nuns and the Chicago insurgency’s leader, teacher and minister Al Raby. Raby had gotten his baptism in the fire of nonviolent demonstration by answering Dr. King’s plea for help in Selma, Ala., and now Raby and his fellow demonstrators begged King to help them rally their crusade.

The Chicago appeal opened new divisions within King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and they festered after the Watts riot in August.

One of King’s most effective associates, Andrew Young, opposed diverting SCLC resources and efforts outside the South. Young saw Watts–and, by inference, Chicago and other Northern cities–as fundamental departures from the movement’s central goal. Such diversion raised “issues that went beyond the largely middle-class focus of the Southern movement,” Young contended.

“Watts,” on the other hand, “was a cry for help from the unemployed, the displaced, the disinherited.”

On June 12, King agreed to visit the Windy City, and on the July 6-7 visit he announced he would be back for a longer stay beginning on the 24th.

In the interim, Watts ignited. A remark the conflagration elicited from Robert Kennedy, Young later recalled, heightened King’s Chicago commitment. Young said Kennedy told King that focusing on the South “had neglected the problems of the North and the cities.” King, “personally…wounded,” told Young that Kennedy was right.

Young angrily disagreed.  He reflected that Chicago’s black population was perhaps as big as all of Alabama’s.

“I said, ‘Look, Martin, here we are with about a half-million-dollar budget and maybe a hundred staff members, and this rich boy who has the resources of the entire federal government at his disposal is telling us we haven’t done enough? I think we’ve done a helluva lot.”

Young felt their organization had nowhere near the resources “to sustain two major campaigns in far-off geographical areas.” He “felt we could help the Northern cities more” by registering the hordes of prospective black voters in Dixie. Doing that could change “the political climate in the South and, thereby, in the nation.”

King remained un-persuaded.

Meanwhile, a Mississippi event would dramatically illustrate that civil rights efforts were finally bearing some positive fruit. Sex had always underscored the complete domination of Southern whites over African Americans, with black men continually being killed on flimsy charges of raping white women while white men raped black women with impunity.

In Forrest County on July 13–coincidentally the 144th birthday of the county’s namesake, Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest–a white man had lured a 15-year-old black girl from her home on a pretense of babysitting for the man and his wife. Instead, he took the girl to a remote area, viciously foiled her efforts to flee, and raped her. Taken to a hospital by a passing motorist who found her wandering in a daze, the girl told police what happened and picked her attacker out of a lineup. Authorities who wanted no more national attention on Mississippi got him indicted by a grand jury.

In the November trial, the man proved to be unmarried, while a white doctor testified that the girl had been a virgin. The defendant was convicted. It was the first time since Reconstruction that a Hattiesburg jury had found a white man guilty of raping an African American female–and sentenced him to life in prison.

*

With fewer than three more years of living left, and his nonviolent movement fracturing toward militant resistance in such groups as the Black Panther Party, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. nevertheless would wade into wider worlds of suffering.

He would champion myriad new causes: those of marginalized tenement dwellers in Chicago, garbage collectors in Memphis, and many others, meanwhile not neglecting the savagery still tyrannizing the Deep South.

Sky-high tensions would go higher. Cowardly Klan-style ambush murders would continue to strike down civil rights adherents in the South while assassinations of sympathetic political figures elsewhere would rock the whole nation. In 1967 and ’68, Watts-style riots in several more major cities would set America afire.

Amid it all, on April 3, 1968, King suddenly ascended to a revered place in American history. The bullet that sent him there, long expected by its victim, had come from the rifle of a man in hiding.

[For more, see At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years1965-68 by Taylor Branch, Simon & Schuster 2006; Walking With The Wind: A Memoir of the Movement by John Lewis and Michael D’Orso, Simon & Schuster 1998; An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America by Andrew Young, HarperCollins 1996; At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance–A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power by Danielle L. McGuire, Alfred A. Knopf 2010; and The Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader: Documents, Speeches and Firsthand Accounts from the Black Freedom Struggle, 1954-1990 by Clayborne Carson, David J. Garrow, Gerald Gill, Vincent Harding, and Darlene Clark Hine, eds., Penguin Books 1991.]

 

The above concludes the four-year ‘Civil War & Civil Rights’ narrative. In time, on this site, the author hopes to begin another blog dealing with kindred themes. Many thanks for reading.

 

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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