September ’61 (2)


            Had this war been as short as average Americans assumed, the two men who would become its foremost faces would no longer be recognizable. Each spent the conflict’s sixth month as he had the previous five: toiling in obscurity, one in the wilds of western Virginia and the other in Missouri and southern Illinois.

            For one, obscurity was utterly incongruent with his previous life and social position. It fit the other perfectly. They could not have been less alike.

            Robert Edward Lee, patrician Virginia son of a front-rank hero of the American Revolution, had been the tiny prewar army’s preeminent soldier behind Winfield Scott. Compensating for the checkered career of his famous but flawed father, Robert was a perfect son. He became the top cadet at West Point, compiling a spotless record. He then enlarged on it as a distinguished career officer in the Mexican War and after. His image was quintessential perfection, down to the burnished buttons on his tunic.

            Ulysses S. Grant, by contrast, was hardscrabble. A product of the southern Ohio backwoods, he hailed from a household whose head earned his living tanning bloody, stinking animal hides. The youth went to West Point only because the father did not want to pay to educate him. He cared nothing for his tunic’s buttons, even whether they were fastened. His reputation, such as it was, soon became clouded, overhung by the specter of the bottle. He appeared perfect at only one thing–horsemanship. He was miraculous at that since just past infancy.

            The dominant images of both men reflect the myth that Confederate and neo-Confederate thinkers peddled concerning the nature of this war. Southern high society saw it as a conflict between the higher degree of culture of their slave-served drawing rooms and the intellectual squalor of dirt-floored rural cabins and grimy urban tenements in an increasingly industrial North. This is indeed myth. It ignores the South’s own grimy cabins, housing most of the men who fought for the Confederacy: the widely illiterate three-fourths of Southern society who could afford no slaves.

            Still, the myth had more than a grain of truth. The conflict was one of class. It pitted an elite of antebellum agri-businessmen long over-romanticized in Gone With The Wind against a Northern commercial colossus trumpeting each man’s right to support his family on his own land with his own labor. In contrast, the big Dixie planters controlled every aspect of their region’s life. They had to, to keep in check the human foundation on which their society rested.

            Ulysses Grant and Robert E. Lee did not always quite fit the stereotypes of the Southern view. Lee combined the aggressive warrior mindset with an engineer’s cool math. Having the good sense to improve ground he expected his troops to defend, he ordered them to dig trenches to protect themselves and preserve their precious numbers. But his hot-blooded volunteers in the Virginia wilds, scorning his prudence, fashioned the dergoatory nickname “Granny Lee.”

            Grant mastered math, too, but his natural bent was more artistic. At West Point he preferred reading adventure novels and drawing pictures to studying theories and theorems. He understood the theorems well enough that he once considered teaching them professionally, but they did not capture his imagination. Both men’s placid exteriors hid bonfires of inner aggression, but in September 1861, and for several months longer, Grant’s was less tempered with attention to defense. He held to an assumption popular among officers that making troops dig for protection encouraged them to fear.

            Lee’s phrasing of orders reflected his Tidewater plantation background. Gentlemanly, they tended to be benevolently equivocal, proffering to subordinates the leeway of carrying them out if the subordinates deemed them “practicable.” By contrast, Grant’s directives reflected his humbler, more work-oriented roots. They were exact, direct, and succinct, providing scant wiggle room.

            Both Lee and Grant had distinguished themselves in the Mexican War, but on different levels. Lee was a 40-year-old top captain on the engineer staff of General Winfield Scott. Grant was a 25-year-old second lieutenant continually braving enemy fire despite often being assigned to the rear. The only feeling either man tended to show in battle was grim relish of the maelstrom and an implacable will to win. 

            Their positions differed considerably on the issue that started this war, slavery. Frantic land speculations got Lee’s father jailed for nonpayment of debts. It left his family in a tight spot when the boy was barely out of swaddling clothes. But the straitened circumstances never erased from the youth’s mind his descent from two signers of the Declaration of Independence and his membership in the nation’s master class.

            He was to a manor born, literally. Although his father’s mistakes kept the son from living there long, Stratford Hall was a huge estate whose crowning residence was shaped like an H, with a grand central staircase rising to the second of two floors that offered four enormous rooms on each wing of both. Because of the downfall of the father, who died when the boy was 11, Robert spent much of his youth in much smaller houses in Alexandria. But he always regarded himself as of the planter aristocracy, rather than one of its poorer urban cousins.

            An upward marriage eventually put him in possession of 196 slaves, in addition to the house servants that his mother had been given when she married. He proves not to quite fit the image of the kindly master that has come down through glibber versions of Confederate history. His father-in-law apparently was such a person, for Lee complained that the inherited slaves were in the habit of doing little work. The father-in-law’s bequest included three imposing plantations. The bad news was an injunction that $40,000 in cash–a much larger sum then than now–be quickly raised from these properties for the maintenance of four granddaughters. And one of the three properties, Arlington, majestically located in sight of downtown Washington, was rundown and $10,000 in debt.

            Lee resented and resisted a provision of the will mandating the freeing of these slaves after five years. Sale of some of them, after all, would have satisfied the will’s other requirements with ease. His mood was unhelped by an antebellum New York newspaper, which  chided him–as a relative by marriage to the great Father of His Country–for treating them badly.

            Grant, too, married into a family that owned human beings, but on nowhere near the scale of the Virginia Custises. The Missouri Dents did give daughter Julia a few slaves, but the only one Grant himself ever held title to, he freed. He was no abolitionist, but he seemed to feel for bondsmen. Unlike the baronial Lee, Grant had calloused his hands in fields alongside hired laborers black and white.

            Grant endured hard times after his 1854 resignation from the army in a reputed whisky stink. He went to farming in Missouri, but, despite characteristically implacable effort, weather disasters and financial reverses ruined him. He ended up peddling firewood in shabby clothes on St. Louis street corners to feed his family. He pawned a watch for $20 to give them a Christmas. By secession’s eve, he was employed in a Galena, Ill., leather shop belonging to his father.

            Whereas Lee turned down an offer to be the first field commander of the primary Union army, Grant barely made it back into the Union army at all. The governor named him colonel of the 21st Illinois only after the unit’s first commander had to be removed for inability to manage the men.

            As both soldier and civilian, Lee–unlike many members of the Southern ruling class–worked hard at planning and gathering useful information and was very careful with his money, but he was nowhere near as familiar with the difficult life of most Americans of his day as Grant. The two men’s appearances reflected as much. Lee was a carefully resplendent spiritual descendant of Winfield Scott. Grant idolized the Mexican War’s other general, careless dresser Zachary Taylor. Like Taylor, Grant was fixated on substance, not show.

            It is little wonder that the Southern-promoted cavalier-vs.-workingclass image of the Civil War survived so long. It mirrors the looks of the conflict’s two giants.

(For further information see Reading The Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee by Elizabeth Brown Pryor, Penguin 2007; Lee by Clifford Dowdey, Little-Brown 1965; Grant by Jean Edward Smith, Simon & Schuster 2001; and The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War by David J. Eicher, Simon & Schuster 2001.)



            When–back in May–Jim Bevel alighted from a Freedom Ride bus into police custody in Jackson, Miss., he was aware of what he was doing. In case he wasn’t, an officer processing him into jail reminded him.

            First, Police Captain J. L. Ray asked his name.

            “James Luther Bevel.”

            A typist committed it to paper in the proper blank on the arrest form. And his hometown? The officer doubtless expected an answer like those of most of the others: some college town Up North, safely beyond the Tennessee border. From Bevel, he heard no such place.

            “Itta Bena, Mississippi.”           

            The office’s several typewriters, which had been gathered into one room to dispatch the Riders into cells as quickly as possible, stopped clacking. The police captain raised widening eyes and accorded Bevel a look he might have given a giraffe strolling into the station. Then his eyes narrowed.

            “Now, boy,” the officer said, “you ought to know better than to come back here.”

            Bevel knew, all right. Grandson of a white slaveholder of antebellum Dixie, he was number 13 of 17 children born into a large family of cotton-picking sharecroppers. When he was 10, his mother left his father and went to Cleveland, Ohio, taking most of his siblings. Three years later, she came back to Mississippi and, as Bevel told it, kidnapped him from his father. She then took young Jim, too, to Cleveland, where he went through much of high school.

            But after his mother died, the youngster returned to the Itta Bena area to graduate. He then defied his devout father’s pacifism and entered the navy, lending himself to the profession of arms to earn money to attend seminary. So, as an adult Mississippian older than his peers, he was more than mature enough to know the peril of Freedom-Riding into the Magnolia State in 1961.

            He and his fellow Jackson jail-ees refused to make bail. Authorities shuttled them from the town jail to the county prison farm, then on to Parchman Penitentiary. By the time Bevel came out in July, he had decided to stay in Mississippi. He did not want to let racism, no matter how ferocious, chase him from his native state.

            He began organizing locals to fight Jim Crow. He thought the recruits should be young, high school-age or below, not yet crushed by the harsh rules the Deep South enforced on the subsistence existence it allowed African Americans.

            Florida-born Bernard Lafayette, Bevel’s roommate at American Baptist College in Nashville, refused to let him go such a dangerous course alone. The two began recruiting youths on Jackson-area playgrounds and schoolyards. Lafayette took a friendly approach, Bevel a tougher one, exploiting the teen urge to rebel against elders. The youths idolized the Freedom Riders as much as their parents shrank from the infamous outsiders and the danger they brought to town. Bevel dared the kids to join their epic fight.

            Bevel and Lafayette were by no means alone amid the racist totalitarianism that was Jackson and the rest of Mississippi. Their friend John Lewis had gone back to Nashville to enroll at Fisk University, but SNCC’s perilous foothold for black freedom in the Mississippi state capital remained manned–and woman-ed–by three other intrepid Riders.

            There was Paul Brooks, who back in May had come to Birmingham with the Nashville shock troops that coordinator Diane Nash dispatched, replacing the two original buses of Riders who had been bombed and ax-handled into quitting. There was Brooks’s girlfriend Catherine Burks, who had coolly bantered with Birmingham Police Chief Eugene “Bull” Connor as he unceremoniously hauled the Nash-dispatched reinforcements back out of Birmingham under cover of darkness to the Tennessee border.

            Then there was the redoubtable Nash herself. She, along with Bevel, was the co-general of their little nonviolent army–and the steadier one. Bevel, brilliant and courageous but also erratic, was susceptible to distractions, including female ones. Nash, just as courageous and as able to cut laserlike to the heart of freedom issues, had supplied much of the very soul of the Nashville movement. She had publicly challenged Nashville’s mayor face-to-face, pushing him into calling for integration of the Tennessee capital’s department-store lunch counters. She had run the movement’s tiny Nashville office.

            A pretty Chicago native, she was a skillful, relentless strategist; an implacable, out-front, nonviolent warrior; and an intrepid user of her pale skin to infiltrate racism to gather information. In 1961, she was perhaps as close as the student movement’s machinery could come to an irreplaceable part. Now, in Mississippi, a portion of her job was assigning tasks to new helpers flooding Jackson from the north to fill up its jails. She had to keep track of each so that none would get lost–in the ultimate and most horrific sense of that word.

            While she, Bevel, Lafayette, Burks, and Brooks worked at their stressful labor in Jackson, they watched events in McComb. It was more rural and thus, they thought, even more dangerous. On the day after Bob Moses’s August 29 beating in Liberty, Miss., Bevel went down to preach to the hardy few McComb faithful.

            “The attitude of a lot of people is, ‘Don’t get in trouble,’” he shouted in his incendiary style. “Let me tell you. Negroes have been in trouble (in America) since 1619…How can you get in trouble when you’re already in trouble? You’re in trouble until you become first-class citizens.”

            Bevel returned to McComb to deliver more sermons as the violence in outlying counties continued in September. Then, in the month’s final week, came the climactic assassination of farmer Herbert Lee, a local helper of SNCC’s Robert Moses, by State Representative E. H. Hurst. The Lee killing underscored the likelihood that in Mississippi theirs would be a fight to the death. Either racist oppression would die or they would–and there was no guarantee that the former could prevent the latter.

            Hurst’s story of the Lee encounter was ridiculous. It had, however, the ultimate Southern advantage: it was told by a white man backed up by witnesses. Lee had attacked Hurst with a tire iron. Hurst had defended himself by hitting Lee in the head with his pistol. The blow caused the pistol to accidentally go off. Lee’s body was found lying on the tire iron, or so authorities claimed.

            The day after the murder, Moses read in the McComb Enterprise-Journal a brief front-page item about how Hurst had shot his black attacker in self-defense. “That was it,” Moses added. Case closed.

            “You might have thought he (Lee) had been a bum,” Moses said. “There was no mention that Lee…had a family, that he had nine kids, beautiful kids, that he had been a farmer all his life in Amite County and that he had been a very substantial citizen. It was as if he had been drunk or something and had gotten into a fight and gotten shot.”

            There were witnesses of each race. Moses hunted up a black one, a 42-year-old logger of minimal education named Louis Allen. Allen readily admitted to Moses that he had lied and that Lee had had no tire iron or any other weapon.

            What really happened, Allen said, was that Hurst had tail-gated Lee to a cotton gin. Hurst had brandished his pistol. Lee said he would not talk to Hurst as long as he held a drawn gun. Lee jumped out of the passenger side of his truck, but Lee ran around to that side of the vehicle. There he shot Lee in the head.

            Allen, a father of three, told Moses that to protect himself and his family he had given the authorities the story he was instructed to tell. But he did not like doing it. He knew Lee as a good citizen, and, as he put it, you can’t ask forgiveness of the dead.  

            At Lee’s funeral, the distraught widow approached an already-conflicted Robert Moses. “You killed my husband!” she screamed at him, beating her own body in anguish. “You killed my husband!”

            She was right, more or less. Moses knew that his voter registration classes, which Lee had attended, had been a large factor in the homicide. But he also reflected that the real killer was the Jim Crow system. Nothing symbolized that more eloquently than the fact that the man who pulled the trigger was an elected member of the Mississippi legislature.

            So long as Jim Crow ruled, every black in Mississippi–and any white brave enough to help–ran the same risk. Bevel, knowing the place like the back of his hand, had had it dead right. They were all in trouble whenever a white person wanted to put them there.

            (For further information see Parting The Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 by Taylor Branch, Simon & Schuster 1988; The Children by David Halberstam, Random House 1998; The Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader by Clayborne Carson, David J. Garrow, Gerald Gill, Vincent Harding, and Darlene Clark Hine, eds., Penguin 1991; In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s by Clayborne Carson, Harvard University Press 1981; The Struggle for Black Equality 1954-1980 by Harvard Sitkoff, Hill and Wang 1981; and My Soul Is Rested: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement in the Deep South by Howell Raines, Penguin 1983.)


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