The State of Alabama was central to the Civil War, with the secession convention at Montgomery, birthplace of the Confederacy, inviting other states to form a Southern Republic, during January-March 1861, and develop constitutions to legally run their own affairs. The 1861 Alabama Constitution granted citizenship to current U.S. residents, but prohibited import duties (tariffs) on foreign goods, limited a standing military, and as a final issue, opposed emancipation by any nation, but urged protection of African slaves, with trial by jury, and reserved the power to regulate or prohibit the African slave trade. The convention invited all slaveholding states to secede, but only 7 Cotton States of the Lower South formed the Confederacy with Alabama, while the majority of slave states were in the Union and voted to make U.S. slavery permanent by passing the Corwin Amendment, signed by President Buchanan and backed by President Lincoln on March 4, 1861.
Even before secession, the Governor of Alabama defied the U.S. Government by seizing the 2 Federal forts at the Gulf Coast (forts Morgan/Gaines) and the arsenal at Mount Vernon, AL, in January 1861, to distribute weapons to Alabama towns. The peaceful seizure of Alabama forts preceded, by 3 months, the bombing and capture of the Union’s Fort Sumter (SC) on April 12, 1861.
Alabama was politically divided, voting to secede 61%-39% with most opposition by Unionists in northern Alabama, and citizens then joining both Confederate or Union forces. Issues of slavery also were divided, with emancipation denied, but slaves protected, allowed trial by jury same as free whites, and African Slave Trade was discouraged in the 1861 Ordinances.
Alabama provided a significant source of troops and leaders, military material, supplies, food, horses and mules. At the southern coast, the Alabama ports remained open (with Union blockades, but guarded by forts, floating mines and obstacle paths) for almost 4 years using blockade runners, until the Battle of Mobile Bay (Aug 1864) and the Battle of Fort Blakeley (April 1865) forced Mobile to surrender the last major Confederate port, in the heart of Dixie.
War practices were controversial, with land mines at Fort Blakeley exploding on Union troops even after the battle ended. Meanwhile, there were reports of Union colored troops shooting Confederate captives, but not the total race war as hyped before the War.
Some historians had concluded that Alabama seceded to make the institution of slavery permanent, but none of the Confederate States rejoined the Union when offered the Corwin Amendment to make State “domestic institutions” permanent. Therefore historians have debated the real causes of the Civil War, when both the Confederacy and the Union had voted to make slavery permanent in March 1861, such as avoiding the Union’s import tariffs as prohibited in Alabama Ordinance 12, but increased by Lincoln’s proposed Morrill Tariff, passed 2 months after Alabama left the Union.
After the election of Abraham Lincoln from the anti-slavery Republican Party in 1860, the State of Alabama decided to declare secession from the United States, in order to oppose the equality and citizenship of African Americans, and in order to prolong and perpetuate the practice of slavery in the state.
In December 1860, Stephen F. Hale, Alabama’s commissioner to Kentucky, wrote a letter to the latter state’s governor of Alabama’s justification for secession. In it, he voiced support for the Dred Scott decision, condemned the Republican Party for opposing slavery, and stated that the state’s secession, which would perpetuate slavery, was the only way to prevent prospective freedmen, whom Hale referred to as “half-civilized Africans”, from raping Alabama’s “wives and daughters”:
In the South, where in many places the African race largely predominates, and, as a consequence, the two races would be continually pressing together, amalgamation, or the extermination of the one or the other, would be inevitable. Can Southern men submit to such degradation and ruin? God forbid that they should. […] [T]he election of Mr. Lincoln cannot be regarded otherwise than a solemn declaration, on the part of a great majority of the Northern people, of hostility to the South, her property and her institutions – nothing less than an open declaration of war – for the triumph of this new theory of Government destroys the property of the South, lays waste her fields, and inaugurates all the horrors of a San Domingo servile insurrection, consigning her citizens to assassinations, and her wives and daughters to pollution and violation, to gratify the lust of half-civilized Africans.
— Stephen F. Hale, letter to the Governor of Kentucky, (December 1860).
At the Alabaman secession convention in January 1861, one of the convention’s members stated that the state’s declaring of secession was motivated by slavery:
The question of Slavery is the rock upon which the Old Government split: it is the cause of secession.
— G. T. Yelverton, speaking to the Alabama Secession Convention, (January 25, 1861).
In an 1861 speech delivered by Alabaman politician Robert Hardy Smith, Smith stated that the State of Alabama had declared its secession from the United States over the issue of slavery, which he referred to as “the negro quarrel”. In the speech, he praised the Confederate constitution for its un-euphemistic protections of the right of its citizens to own slaves:
We have dissolved the late Union chiefly because of the negro quarrel. Now, is there any man who wished to reproduce that strife among ourselves? And yet does not he, who wished the slave trade left for the action of Congress, see that he proposed to open a Pandora’s box among us and to cause our political arena again to resound with this discussion. Had we left the question unsettled, we should, in my opinion, have sown broadcast the seeds of discord and death in our Constitution. I congratulate the country that the strife has been put to rest forever, and that American slavery is to stand before the world as it is, and on its own merits. We have now placed our domestic institution, and secured its rights unmistakably, in the Constitution. We have sought by no euphony to hide its name. We have called our negroes ‘slaves’, and we have recognized and protected them as persons and our rights to them as property.
— Robert Hardy Smith, An Address to the Citizens of Alabama on the Constitution and Laws of theConfederate States of America, (1861).
Newspapers in Alabama also supported secession to preserve slavery. According to one newspaper in Montgomery, slavery was a “religious institution”.
Upon declaring its secession from the United States, Alabama adopted a new state constitution. In it, it forbade the emancipation of slaves by the state itself, or by “any other country”, such as the United States of America, which the Confederacy was at war against at the time:
No slave in this State shall be emancipated by any act done to take effect in this State, or any other country.
— Article IV, Section 1, Constitution of the State of Alabama, (1861).
Alabama joins the war effort
Antebellum Governor Andrew B. Moore energetically supported the Confederate war effort. Even before hostilities began in April 1861, he seized U.S. facilities, sent agents to buy rifles in the Northeast, and scoured the state for weapons. Despite some resistance in the northern part of the state, Alabama joined the Confederate States of America. Congressman Williamson R. W. Cobb, a Unionist, pleaded for compromise. He ran for the First Confederate Congress, but was soundly defeated (he was subsequently elected in 1863 on a wave of anti-war sentiment, with war-weariness growing in Alabama). The new nation brushed Cobb aside and set up its temporary capital in Montgomery and selected Jefferson Davis as president. In May the Confederate government abandoned Montgomery before the sickly season began and relocated in Richmond once Virginia had declared that it had seceded.
Some idea of the severe internal logistics problems the Confederacy faced can be seen by tracing Davis’s journey to Montgomery from his home in Mississippi, the next state over. From his plantation on the river, he took a steamboat down the Mississippi to Vicksburg, boarded a train to Jackson, where he took another train north to Grand Junction, then a third train east to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and a fourth train to Atlanta, Georgia. Yet another train took Davis to the Alabama border, where a final train took him to Montgomery. As the war proceeded the Union seized the Mississippi River, burned trestles and railroad bridges, and tore up track; the frail Confederate railroad system faltered and virtually collapsed for want of repairs and replacement parts.
Some idea of the severe logistical problems the Confederacy faced, with the capital city at Montgomery, can be seen by tracing the difficult journey into Alabama which Jefferson Davis made to the Confederacy’s provisional capital from his home in Mississippi, the next state over, to assume the presidency on February 16, 1861. From his plantation on the river, he took a steamboat down the Mississippi to Vicksburg, boarded a train to Jackson, where he took another train north to Grand Junction, then a third train east to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and a fourth train southeast to Atlanta, Georgia. Yet another train took Davis west, back to the Alabama border, where a final train took him to Montgomery. He was in a hurry, but it took five days. As the war proceeded, internal transportation became much more difficult. The Union seized the Tennessee and Mississippi rivers, burned trestles and railroad bridges, and tore up track; the frail Confederate railroad system faltered and virtually collapsed for want of repairs and replacement parts. For example, The Mobile and Ohio Railroad connected the main port at Mobile to points north, ending in Columbus, Kentucky. Historian James Doster reports that when the war ended, “Only a fourth of the rolling stock remained, and that was in bad condition. The repair shops were ruined. The 184-mile roadway from Okolona to Union City was damaged by decay and destruction of bridges, trestlework, crossties, and water stations”. The port of Mobile was blockaded by the U.S. Navy, but some small, fast blockade runners got through at first, carrying out cotton and bringing in luxuries, food and munitions.
At the outbreak of war, the state’s economy was weak; during the war it declined further. Before the war, most people worked in agriculture. The largest industry was the railroads, followed by gristmills then sawmills. Perhaps 17% of the state’s White population was in military service, but this was skewed to a much larger percentage of the economically valuable young men. The full crops planted in 1861 were harvested by those left behind, but the 1862 planting was smaller. Further, many counties suffered a drought in 1862, which further reduced harvest production.
In Coosa County, corn production was down by 150,000 bushels from 1861. Twenty counties (of 67) were unable to produce any surplus of corn. This brought hunger to families left behind by many Confederate soldiers. Wartime conditions made it difficult to move food from areas of surplus to those that were suffering.
Poverty became widespread as shortages drove up food prices. During the war, the legislature provided almost twelve million dollars in poverty relief funds. In 1861, the state recorded 7% of White families as indigent. In 1862 the figure was 34%, it rose to 39% the following year.
Harsh conditions at home encouraged many soldiers to desert. A November 1864 list shows some 7,994 men had left their units.
Later, bread riots hit Mobile in both April and September 1863. By 1864, roving bands of “corn women” wandered the state begging and stealing, as encouraged in the Book of Leviticus 23:22, to leave edges of crops for the poor to harvest.
Alabama was not the scene of any significant military operations, yet the state contributed about 120,000 men to the Confederate service, practically all the white population capable of bearing arms. Most were recruited locally and served with men they knew, which built esprit and strengthened ties to home. Medical conditions were severe; about 15% died of disease, and 10% from battle. Alabama had few well-equipped hospitals, but it had many women who volunteered to nurse the sick and wounded. Soldiers were poorly equipped, especially after 1863, and often resorted to pillaging the dead for boots, belts, canteens, blankets, hats, shirts and pants.
Uncounted thousands of slaves worked with Confederate troops; they took care of horses and equipment, cooked and did laundry, hauled supplies, and helped in field hospitals. Other slaves built defensive installations, especially those around Mobile. They graded roads, repaired railroads, drove supply wagons, and labored in iron mines, iron foundries and even in the munitions factories. As they were enslaved, the labor of slaves was involuntary, their unpaid labor was forcibly impressed from their unpaid masters. About 10,000 slaves escaped and joined the Union Army, along with 2,700 white men who had remained loyal to the Union.
Thirty-nine Alabamians attained the rank of general or admiral, most notably Admiral Raphael Semmes. Josiah Gorgas was the Chief of Ordnance for the Confederacy. He located new munitions plants in Selma that employed 10,000 workers until Union raiders in 1865 burned down the factories. The Selma Arsenal made most of the Confederacy’s ammunition. The Selma Naval Ordnance Works manufactured artillery, turning out a cannon every five days. The Confederate Naval Yard built ships and was noted for launching the CSS Tennessee in 1863 to defend Mobile Bay. Selma’s Confederate Nitre Works procured niter for gunpowder from limestone caves. When supplies were low, it advertised for housewives to save the contents of their chamber pots—urine was a rich source of organic nitrogen.
Alabama soldiers fought in hundreds of battles. The state’s losses at Gettysburg were 1,750 dead plus even more captured or wounded—the famed “Alabama Brigade” took 781 casualties. In 1863 Federal forces secured a foothold in northern Alabama in spite of spirited opposition from Confederate cavalry under General Nathan B. Forrest.
From 1861 the Union blockade shut Mobile Bay, and in 1864 the outer defenses of Mobile were taken by a Federal fleet during the Battle of Mobile Bay. On April 12, 1865, three days after the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Courthouse, the city of Mobile surrendered to the Union army to avoid destruction following the Union victories at the Battle of Spanish Fort and the Battle of Fort Blakely. The Magee Farm, north of Mobile, was the site of preliminary arrangements for the surrender of the last Confederate States Army east of the Mississippi River. Confederate General Richard Taylor negotiated a ceasefire with Union General Edward Canby at the house on April 29, 1865. Taylor’s forces, comprising 47,000 Confederate troops serving in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, were the last remaining Confederate force east of the Mississippi River.
Union occupation of northern Alabama
After the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers were taken, Union forces temporarily occupied Northern Alabama until the fall of Nashville allowed permanent occupation of counties north and west of the Tennessee River, while the Union blockade applied pressure in the southern part of the state.
Unionists in northern Alabama
There was a small loyalist element in northern Alabama; it needed Union military support to survive. On the one hand, with Union troops present, Southern Unionists were finally able to come out of hiding, join the Union Army if desired, and care for their families, who were now protected from Confederate partisans. On the other hand, Union troops doubled the amount of regional foraging compared to the Confederates. Federal foragers in Northern Alabama were, for the most part, an adventurous group that were aided by loyal Unionists, and they took all they needed for their vast forces, often raiding farms and homes previously struck by the Confederates.
Before the arrival of Federal troops, local Unionist resistance networks were based on underground cells that aided pro-Union Loyalists by means of finances, contacts, supplies, and much needed local intelligence. Recruits from Alabama who had joined Union regiments used their familiarity with the social network and physical geography of the homefront to locate, rescue, and recruit beleaguered Unionists still behind Confederate lines. Loyalists were given assurance of safety and a job if they were to give the U.S. forces supplies, information, contacts, and money. Some Loyalists were drafted, and some were volunteers. White Unionists used the army as a tool to defeat the forces threatening to destroy the old Union, and their families and neighborhoods along with it. The most well known unit composed entirely of Alabama Unionists was the 1st Alabama Cavalry Regiment (Union). Of the 2,678 white Alabamians who enlisted in the Union Army, 2,066 served in it.
Union partisans were motivated by a sense of duty and obligation to the Union cause and a need to protect their family and Unionist friends. They were also motivated by a desire for vengeance for all the wrongs they had suffered at Confederate hands throughout the war. Unionist guerrilla bands were typically fairly compact, numbering between twenty and a hundred men. They were independently organized, but were loosely associated and actively supported by occupying Union forces. Their missions included acting as spies, guides, scouts, recruiters behind enemy lines, and anti-guerrilla fighters to protect Union forces and infrastructure.
Not only did the U.S. Navy’s blockade shut down exports, it blocked essential imports. Women had charge of making do. They cut back on purchases, brought out old spinning wheels and enlarged their gardens with peas and peanuts to provide clothing and food. They used ersatz substitutes when possible, but there was no real coffee and it was hard to develop a taste for the okra or chicory substitutes used. The households were severely hurt by inflation in the cost of everyday items and the shortages of food, fodder for the animals, and medical supplies for the wounded.
Jonathan Wiener studied the census data on plantations in black-belt counties, 1850–70, and found that the War did not drastically alter the responsibilities and roles of women. The age of the groom went up as younger women married older planters, and birth rates dropped sharply during 1863-68. However he finds that plantation mistresses were not more likely to operate plantations than in earlier years, nor was there a lost generation of women without men.
The women of the Alabama Unionists helped with long distance communication networks, and they were able to move freely from town to town because of their gender. When these women lost their husbands, it was often a struggle to survive, and they were completely ostracized by the pro-Confederate women. Storey finds that their intense loyalty to kin, neighbors, and nation strengthened the Unionists against Confederate ideological pressures so much that they preferred to abandon the slave system and their high socioeconomic status in order to remain true to the Union.
According to historian Margaret M. Storey, “Regardless of the Union’s ambivalence toward slaves and slavery, black men and women in Alabama” saw the Union occupation as the surest path to freedom. With regard to Union foraging and the practicing of hard war, while some slaves and free blacks “viewed the loss of goods as negligible in light of the security and opportunities”, for others “federal occupation brought them loss of even small property [and] meant increased vulnerability to whatever white people won the war.”
Many of the Confederate guerrillas in northern Alabama were detached cavalry units that were used to great advantage in protecting the home front, as opposed to serving in the main army. The primary mission of the pro-Confederate guerrillas was to attempt to keep intact the Confederate social and political order. They assisted the war effort in their own backyards by hunting down and arresting Unionists, conscripts, and deserters. In addition, they terrorized Unionists by destroying their property and threatening their families. Confederate guerillas were made up of four types of fighters–the first half of these were under Confederate supervision, being either detached cavalry or enlisted men fighting close to home. The other units either fought disguised as noncombatants or were simply outlaws looking for blood-letting opportunities. These men were not under Confederate control and were as interested in profit as helping the Southern cause.
Unionists in southern Alabama
Not all Union partisans were confined to the Union-occupied areas of Alabama. In the southeast Alabama counties of Dale, Coffee and Henry (which included present-day Houston County and Geneva County, as well), for instance, guerrillas led by local Unionist John Ward operated virtually at will during the last two years of the war, finding refuge in the vast pine forests that covered this region. These renegades sometimes worked with regular U.S. forces based in Pensacola, Florida, and their depredations led several leading citizens of these counties to petition the governor, T.H. Watts, for military assistance against them. Local citizens, such as Methodist minister Bill Sketoe of Newton, were even hanged by Home Guard elements for alleged acts of collaboration with these guerrillas.
Battles in Alabama
Battle of Athens
Battle of Day’s Gap
Battle of Decatur
Battle of Fort Blakeley
Battle of Mobile Bay
Battle of Newton
Battle of Ebenezer Church
Battle of Selma
Battle of Munford
Battle of Sulphur Creek Trestle
Battle of Spanish Fort
Alabama soldiers fought in hundreds of battles; the state’s losses at Gettysburg were 1,750 dead plus even more captured or wounded; the famed “Alabama Brigade” took 781 casualties. Governor Lewis E. Parsons in July 1861 made a preliminary estimate of losses. Nearly all the white men served, some 122,000 he said, of whom 35,000 died in the war and another 30,000 were seriously disabled. The next year Governor Robert M. Patton estimated that 20,000 veterans had returned home permanently disabled, and there were 20,000 widows and 60,000 orphans. With cotton prices low, the value of farms shrank, from $176 million in 1860 to only $64 million in 1870. The livestock supply shrank too, as the number of horses fell from 127,000 to 80,000, and mules 111,000 to 76.000. The overall population remained the same—the growth that might have been expected neutralized by death and emigration.
Deputies from the first seven states to secede formed the first two sessions of the 1861 Provisional Confederate Congress. Alabama sent William Parish Chilton, Sr., Jabez Lamar Monroe Curry, Thomas Fearn (resigned March 16, 1861, after first session; replaced by Nicholas Davis, Jr.), Stephen Fowler Hale, David Peter Lewis (resigned March 16, 1861, after first session; replaced by Henry Cox Jones), Colin John McRae, John Gill Shorter (resigned November 1861; replaced by Cornelius Robinson), Robert Hardy Smith, and Richard Wilde Walker.
The bicameral First Confederate Congress (1862–64) included two senators from Alabama—Clement Claiborne Clay and William Lowndes Yancey (died July 23, 1863; replaced by Robert Jemison, Jr.). Representing Alabama in the House of Representatives were Thomas Jefferson Foster, William Russell Smith, John Perkins Ralls, Jabez Lamar Monroe Curry, Francis Strother Lyon, William Parish Chilton, Sr., David Clopton, James Lawrence Pugh, Edmund Strother Dargan
Alabama’s two senators in the Second Confederate Congress (1864–65) were Robert Jemison, Jr., and Richard Wilde Walker. Representatives were Thomas Jefferson Foster, William Russell Smith, Marcus Henderson Cruikshank, Francis Strother Lyon, William Parish Chilton, Sr., David Clopton, James L. Pugh, and James Shelton Dickinson. Congress refused to seat Representative-elect W. R. W. Cobb because he was an avowed Unionist; therefore his district was not represented.