May ’65


Subsequent Confederate surrenders, all minor compared to the April ones of the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of Tennessee, kept coming.

General Richard Taylor–commanding Confederates in Alabama, Mississippi, and eastern Louisiana–capitulated on May 4 to Maj. Gen. Edward Canby at Citronelle, Ala., 35 miles north of Mobile.

On May 9 at Gainesville in west-central Alabama, a Taylor subordinate, Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, disbanded the tattered remnants of his long-feared cavalry. This epic warrior whom many had assumed would fight to his last breath showed he was as practical as he was fierce. To politicians appealing to him on May 3 to keep fighting, he interrupted them and said:

“Men, you may all do as you damn please, but I’m a-going home.”

In any further battle, it had become obvious, his few remaining troopers would be outnumbered ten to one.

“To make men fight under such circumstances would be nothing but murder,” Forrest told the eminent noncombatants. “Any man who is in favor of a further prosecution of this war is a fit subject for a lunatic asylum and ought to be sent there immediately.”

On the 10th, Maj. Gen. Samuel Jones surrendered his Florida troops at Tallahassee the same day that infamous guerrilla William Clarke Quantrill (whose barbarous rabble most notably included future famed outlaws Jesse and Frank James and Cole Younger) was killed while raiding at Taylorsville, Ky.

Arkansas-Missouri leader Jeff Thompson laid down the arms of his remaining forces at Chalk Bluffs, Ark. on May 11. On the 19th, the CSS Stonewall gave up to Federal authorities in the harbor at Havana, Cuba.

A more major surrender was also percolating. On May 13, the Confederate governors of Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana prevailed on Trans-Mississippi commander Edmund Kirby Smith to recognize the hopelessness of their cause, but die-hard subordinates led by Brig. Gen. J. O. Shelby threatened to arrest him if he did. On May 26, however, Smith’s representative, Lt. Gen. Simon B. Buckner, met with a representative of Maj. Gen. Canby to discuss terms.

In the meantime, the last formal battle of the Civil War occurred at Palmito Ranch, Tex., near Brownsville, on May 12-13. It was, anticlimactically, a Confederate victory–as well as a pitiful affair that featured several of the worst traits of the concluding four-year conflict.

U.S. Col. Theodore H. Barrett arrived at Brazos Island green and rank-hungry. He quickly exploded a truce maintained there since March by both sides in realization that the war was ending. Ignoring orders, Barrett took 800 Federals and attacked 350 Texas Confederates grandly calling themselves the Cavalry of the West. The Confederate commander, though, was a worthy adversary, a storied Indian fighter and former Texas Ranger named John S. Ford.

From Palmito Ranch, a hillock between Brownsville and Brazos Island, Ford opened up on the attackers with 12-pounder cannons and then charged. Chasing Barrett’s Federals for miles, he killed 30 and captured 113 while sustaining only five minor casualties. Included among the U. S. force was a portion of the 62nd Colored Infantry as well as some Texas Union cavalry, and after the battle there were allegations that some of these were shot while trying to surrender. Ford insisted otherwise.

In late May, to avoid formally capitulating, Ford disbanded the Cavalry of the West.


Meanwhile, the shooting was yielding to a less-violent cousin: politics.

Perhaps most symbolic of the death of the Confederacy and increasing progress toward a modified U. S. normalcy was the Federal capture on May 10 of Confederate president Jefferson Davis. In early morning, the 4th Michigan Cavalry surprised Davis, his wife, his secretary, and Confederate Postmaster General John H. Reagan in camp at Irwinville, Ga. They were still half-asleep and exhausted, having been on the run southward since early April.

Rushing to escape, Davis grabbed his wife’s overcoat instead of his own, and Varina Davis threw her shawl over her husband as he hurried out. The diverse garb gave rise to a widely-circulated–and false–story that Davis, who was also wearing spurs, was hiding in female attire when taken.

A week before the capture, Confederate Secretary of State Judah Benjamin had left Davis’s party as the fleeing group crossed the Savannah River. Benjamin told Davis he would try to get to Cuba and the Bahamas to do diplomatic business, but that was likely a ploy.

The danger of accompanying the man who had become America’s number one fugitive, following the killing of Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth in April, was mounting.  New U. S. President Andrew Johnson, who suspected Davis of helping plan the Lincoln assassination, had offered a stupendous reward of $100,000 for his capture.

Benjamin confidentially told Postmaster General Reagan that his intent was to put all the distance between him and the all-but-dead Confederacy that he could, “if it takes me to the middle of China.” Benjamin ended up not having to go nearly that far. His flight landed him in England, where he became a highly successful lawyer.

Meanwhile, the toppled Confederate president whom Benjamin left behind was hustled off from Georgia to Nashville under heavy guard. By May 22 he was in chains in a cell at Fortress Monroe, Va.


Andrew Johnson, eventually to be labeled “His Accidency” by some contemptuous newspapers, had begun the war as a Union hero of the first rank. His impassioned speeches in the United States Senate, where he was the only member from a seceding state who refused to leave his seat, were crucial in rallying supporters to the Lincoln government.

But politics makes, as they say, strange bedfellows.

Soon Johnson had to adjust to Lincoln’s emancipation, a doctrine for which the formerly slaveholding Johnson likely had little love. Then, becoming president via Lincoln’s murder, he had to choose between allying himself with abolitionist Radicals who were deeply suspicious of him or with rich Southern planters whom he, as a plebeian former tailor, had long despised.

Having to make this choice put Johnson in a hard spot, and during May he gave little indication as to which way he would go. On May 10, a week after Lincoln’s much-viewed funeral train reached Springfield, Ill. and six days following the slain president’s burial, Johnson announced that armed resistance to the government of the United States was “virtually at an end.”

On May 29, a Johnson proclamation hinted at how he might decide to proceed. This man who had long thundered that “treason must be made odious and traitors punished” announced a general amnesty for all former Confederates except for the formerly high and mighty.

The latter, mostly ranking members of the Confederate government or its military plus anyone else owning more than $100,000 worth of property, would have to apply individually to Johnson himself for pardons. This created a platform on which Johnson and the former Southern ruling class might get on friendlier terms.

One of the most important consequences of Johnson’s proclamation was that all property, except the former slaves, was ordered restored to antebellum owners. This included lands that had been confiscated by federal authorities, many now being farmed by the new freedmen.

Other extraordinary governmental events were in the offing, too.

On May 1, Johnson ordered Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to appoint a nine-man military commission to try persons charged with planning or aiding Booth in the Lincoln murder. Five days later, Stanton did so. The appointees included abolitionist Maj. Gen. David Hunter and the future author of the novel Ben Hur, Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace.

On May 5, Connecticut became the 10th state to ratify the slavery-abolishing Thirteenth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution. A week later, President Johnson followed the wishes of Lincoln and Secretary Stanton by naming Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard to head the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands.

Howard was a devoutly religious and abstemious native of Maine, who opposed drinking and gambling among his men. Although a heroic soldier who was awarded both a Medal of Honor and a congressional resolution of thanks, he was intemperately described by Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman as a man who “ought to have been born in petticoats and ought to wear them.”

Under Howard’s leadership, the Freedmen’s Bureau, as it was generally known, became the one governmental agency that tried to guard the new rights of the former slaves in the face of immediate moves to compromise and cancel these rights by antebellum politicians whom Johnson’s lenient Reconstruction policy permitted to be reinstalled in Southern statehouses.

The Freedmen’s Bureau and its volunteer helpers from various relief organizations established many schools for ex-slaves, found them employment, negotiated wages from Southern planters and other businessmen hiring them, and resettled many on government land.

But, although it wasn’t so obvious at the time, Howard was in an impossible position in the South that was developing as 1865 approached its mid-point.  On one side President Johnson, who had named Howard to the post, would soon be seen to have no interest in seeing the Freedmen’s Bureau do more than procure workers for the wealthy Southern planters. The planters, for their part, already had no interest in any organization that would try to assure that blacks would be treated better than they had been as slaves.

Howard seems to have been a very fair-minded man. In May he wrote a Boston minister friend, who had connections with aid organizations, that poor Southern whites ravaged by the war “are now calling for aid, quite as much as the negroes, and I trust our benevolent Societies will not neglect them.”

The euphoria accompanying the end of the long war produced a rosy national view of the future. On May 22, President Johnson declared that on July 1 all Southern seaports except four in Texas would be open for business.

America would soon return to the greedy business of reaping its Manifest Destiny.

[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; Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour by William C. Davis, HarperCollins 1991; Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War by Patricia L. Faust, ed., Harper & Row 1986; When The War Was Over by Dan T. Carter, LSU Press 1985; and Yankee Stepfather: General O. O. Howard and the Freedmen by William S. McFeely, W. W.  Norton 1970.]



Detroit housewife Viola Liuzzo, 39, killed by KKK nightriders as she transported volunteers home from the Selma-to-Montgomery march, went un-mourned at the May trial of her accused murderer.

The proceeding, shepherded by Ku Klux Klansmen, began in Lowndes County, Ala., on Monday the 3rd. It lasted through the rest of the week. Alabama Klan Imperial Wizard Robert Shelton and Klan Klonsel–meaning counsel–Matt Murphy sat at the defense table with the accused, Collie Leroy Wilkins.

Waving a pistol and stamping on his hat, Murphy made his case for the defense in twenty minutes. He likely felt he needed to spend no more time on Wilkins, since convicting a Klansman of anything in Alabama was like putting an elephant into a thimble. So Murphy digressed into wild charges against everybody but Wilkins.

Liuzzo, he said, was “a white nigger who turned her car over to a black nigger for the purpose of hauling niggers and communists back and forth.” Liuzzo’s real killer, the Klonsel claimed, was likely Leroy Moton, the black teenager who was with her–and had been driving her volunteered automobile until a fellow civil rights worker told Liuzzo that Moton might not have a license. Murphy accused Moton of murdering Liuzzo himself “under the hypnotic spell of narcotics” after having sex with her, all of which could not have been more unsubstantiated.

But Murphy reserved his greatest outpouring of vitriol for Gary Thomas Rowe, the chief prosecution witness, a federal informant who had been in the car with the shooters. After he entered the courtroom with FBI inspector Joe Sullivan and a phalanx of assigned protectors, Murphy described him as “a traitor and a pimp and an agent of Castro and I don’t know what all.”

Murphy was a first cousin to Southern novelist Walker Percy, but blood seems to have been all Murphy and Percy had in common. That seems implicit in a confidence shared with Percy two years earlier by Civil War historian and fellow novelist Shelby Foote, Percy’s closest friend since high school. Two years before the Liuzzo trial, with the civil rights movement roiling Mississippi, Foote had written Percy from Memphis that he and his wife were considering moving to the Alabama coast.

“I feel death all in the air in Memphis,” Foote wrote, “and I’m beginning to hate the one thing I really ever loved—the South. No, thats wrong: not hate—despise. Mostly I despise the leaders, the pussy-faced politicians, soft-talking instruments of real evil; killers of the dream, that woman called them, and she’s right. Good Lord, when I think what we could have been, the heritage we perverted!—the misspent courage, the hardcore independence, the way a rich man always had to call a poor man Mister, the niggers who stood up for a century under what would have crumpled the rest of us in a month…All that; and now we trust it to the keeping of Ross Barnett!…I want to go live by the Gulf.



Ross Barnett, of course, was governor of Mississippi at the time, which was when James Meredith was taking his life in his hands to integrate Ole Miss. “That woman” was writer Lillian Smith, a Florida-born Georgian who used the phrase “killers of the dream” in the title of one of her novels decrying the segregationist South.

The Liuzzo trial jury, a dozen white males, stunned everybody by deliberating into a second day–and then hanging, 10-2, rather than issuing the prompt acquittal everybody expected. A juror later explained that they had been insulted by Klonsel Murphy’s lurid viciousness. But, reported The New York Times:

“No one, prosecutor or defense lawyer, had a kind word for the dead woman.”


The trial did not reflect well on FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

Syndicated writer Inez Robb declared herself “sorely” troubled by the “moral aspect” of an FBI informant being in the car of the murderers. Robb wondered what Rowe’s job was meant to have been. To observe? To participate? Or to prevent the killing? Robb said Hoover’s Bureau “owes the nation an explanation of its action in the Liuzzo case.”

The Director’s requisitely-sycophantic immediate subordinates rushed the May 17 column, which ran in 132 newspapers, to his desk. It was accompanied by a report on Robb which had turned up “no derogatory information.” The Director returned a curt response:

“Back in the ’30s or ’40s she vilified the FBI and me personally when I was in Miami.”

The subordinates dived back into their archives. They found Robb had criticized their crime-fighting boss for taking vacations in Mafia-run gambling spots on the Florida coast. The subordinates then recommended that Deputy Director Deke DeLoach be sent to sternly instruct Robb on Gary Thomas Rowe. Hoover said no to that idea, preferring to let the matter drop for reasons that seem all too obvious.

“She’s a ‘bitch,’” he scribbled back, “& nothing would be gained.”

At almost exactly the same time, on May 19 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., best- known leader of the movement for which Viola Liuzzo–and many other people–had  died, persuaded a powerful Chicago cleric, judge, banker, and politician, Dr. Archibald Carey, to go to Washington to reason with the FBI. King hoped to head off a rumored impending press attack on him orchestrated by the Bureau and based partly on information from phone taps and hotel room bugs and partly on the Director’s political and racial biases. The attack was thought to be scheduled for the last week in May.

DeLoach fended off Carey with a lie of implication.

“I…told him…the FBI had plenty to do without being responsible for a discrediting campaign against Dr. King,” DeLoach later recalled.

The truth was, the Bureau had been responsible for a number of just such campaigns, secretly feeding damning wiretapped information on King’s private life to friendly newspapermen. After the meeting, Carey advised King to do more of what Carey had already urged King to do: publicly praise the egomaniacal Hoover.


Meanwhile, emblematic of the increasing fractionalization of the movement, a number of civil rights leaders participated in a mammoth “national teach-in” on the Vietnam War.

A radio hook-up connected 122 college campuses in, as one writer put it, a “battle of the eggheads” that pitted academics against government officials. It occurred, on radio and off, for a week beginning on May 15. In California especially, it splintered into a Free Speech Movement whose promoters flamboyantly advocated talk that was inflammatorily vulgar.

Noted historian Arthur Schlesinger and not-yet-famous Daniel Ellsberg were among those who spoke for the Johnson Administration. Aging socialist Norman Thomas, former Presbyterian minister and perennially unsuccessful candidate for president, bemoaned white churches that he perceived to be retreating from backing civil rights while favoring the Vietnam conflict, thus reverting to their “familiar role of opposing all wars except the one they are in.”

Former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee giant Bob Moses, now calling himself Bob Parris after recoiling from four years of traumatic life-and-death struggle in Mississippi, told a crowd at Berkeley that Americans, deceived by government officials and warmongering newspapers, mistakenly “believe that they’re in Vietnam fighting Communism as the manifestation of evil in the world.

“You’ve got to be prepared to offer (them) a different reality,” he said.

The splintering of the movement by the Vietnam War was natural and even justified. The Vietnam struggle, like the South’s baldly racist status quo, had at least two powerful civil rights aspects. First, America’s military draft sent to Southeast Asia mostly poor white and black American youths who had neither the clout nor money to go to Canada or graduate school. Second, it sent them there to kill even poorer people, both soldiers and civilians, who had little idea what Communism even was.


On May 20 Dr. King addressed 2,000 members of the American Jewish Committee at the Americana Hotel in New York–after the hotel first had to be evacuated because of a bomb threat.

King spoke on nonviolent protest and said its roots stretched back to the beginnings of American revolutionary thought. He noted that it had benefited a number of causes other than that of black rights, including women’s suffrage, and added that its aim was to make the U.S. Constitution more perfect, not to disobey it.

In a May 23 sermon in his home church, Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta, he used a phrase he would more famously employ again later, saying he had “been to the mountaintop” and that whatever else happened to him in his life wouldn’t matter, because “I have seen the promised land.”

He looked back on how far he had come from the Montgomery bus boycott of 1954. He ended by recalling his recent march back into Alabama’s capital city from Selma “to stand right at the place where Jefferson Davis stood and say that the old cradle of the Confederacy is now rocking.”

Seeming to play on Alabama’s Heart of Dixie nickname, he added:

“Dixie will one day have a heart–because we are moving now!”


They definitely were.

The Selma victory had shoved consciousness of the necessity of action onto Congress, where on May 26 the Senate voted 70-30 against cloture. That opened the way for passage of the Voting Rights Bill of 1965, and the next day that momentous bill passed the Senate. John Tower of Texas and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina cast the only Republican votes in opposition.

Mourning what was in effect the South’s loss of the constitutional states’ right to engage in racial oppression, Thurmond claimed to preach the funeral of the U.S. Senate, which he described as the “final resting place of the Constitution and the rule of law, for it is here that they will have been buried with shovels of emotion under piles of expediency, in the year of our Lord, 1965.”

The nation’s second President Johnson, reigning exactly a century after the first, was such a master of manipulation that he seemed a national colossus at the time. But the 1965 Johnson, just like the 1865 one, stood on the brink of a fall few saw coming.

[For more, see At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years 1965-68 by Taylor Branch, Simon & Schuster 2006; The Correspondence of Shelby Foote & Walker Percy by Jay Tolson, ed., W.W. Norton, 1997; ‘Racial Matters’: The FBI’s Secret File on Black America, 1960-72 by Kenneth O’Reilly, Free Press 1989; and In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s by Clayborne Carson, Harvard 1981.]



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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