Christopher McIlwain’s Civil War Alabama is a landmark book that sheds invigorating new light on the causes, the course, and the outcomes in Alabama of the nation’s greatest drama and trauma. Based on twenty years of exhaustive research that draws on a vast trove of primary sources such as letters, newspapers, and personal journals, Civil War Alabama presents compelling new explanations for how Alabama’s white citizens came to take up arms against the federal government.A fledgling state at only forty years old, Alabama approached the 1860s with expanding populations of both whites and black slaves. They were locked together in a powerful yet fragile economic engine that produced and concentrated titanic wealth in the hands of a white elite. Perceiving themselves trapped between a mass of disenfranchised black slaves and the industrializing and increasingly abolitionist North, white Alabamians were led into secession and war by a charismatic cohort who claimed the imprimatur of biblical scripture, romanticized traditions of chivalry, and the military mantle of the American Revolution.And yet, Alabama’s white citizens were not a monolith of one mind. McIlwain dispels the received wisdom of a white citizenry united behind a cadre of patriarchs and patriots. Providing a fresh and insightful synthesis of military events, economic factors such as inflation and shortages, politics and elections, the pivotal role of the legal profession, and the influence of the press, McIlwain’s Civil War Alabama illuminates the fissiparous state of white, antebellum Alabamians divided by class, geography, financial interests, and political loyalties.Vital and compelling, Civil War Alabama will take its place among the definitive books about Alabama’s doomed Confederate experiment and legacy. Although he rigorously dismantles idealized myths about the South’s “Lost Cause,” McIlwain restores for contemporary readers the fervent struggles between Alabamians over their response to the epic crisis of their times.
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About the Author
Christopher Lyle McIlwain Sr. is an attorney in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, who has spent the last twenty-five years researching nineteenth-century Alabama, focusing particularly on law, politics, and the Civil War. His article “United States District Judge Richard Busteed and the Alabama Klan Trials of 1872” appeared in the Alabama Review.
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Civil War Alabama
By Christopher Lyle McIlwain Sr.
The University of Alabama PressCopyright © 2016 University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
The "Lawyers' Revolution"
To think we have been fighting four years to prevent the slaves from being freed [and] now to turn round and free them to enable us to carry on the war. The thing is outrageous. — Pvt. Grant Taylor, nonslaveholder, Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, January 11, 1865
Secession required three basic ingredients. First, a majority of active voters would have to be convinced that a termination of Alabama's connection to the Union created by their forefathers was necessary. Second, a procedural mechanism would have to be adopted to accomplish that termination. And third, Alabama's ability to defend its decision militarily would have to be beefed up. The groundwork for each of these essential elements was laid in January and February 1860.
The role of convincing the public that secession was necessary was filled by a radicalized faction of Alabama lawyers. Advanced education, practiced skills in public speaking, and professional and financial success led to a unique level of influence for lawyers within Southern communities. Lawyers, indeed, comprised the most powerful and influential profession in the United States for most of the nineteenth century. Without the application by pro-secession lawyers of their powers of persuasion, it is questionable whether secession or civil war would have occurred. In fact, one Alabama historian labeled what was about to take place as a "lawyers' revolution."
Contemporaries and historians have pointed to Montgomery lawyer William Lowndes Yancey as the primary leader of this faction (see figure 1). Born in Georgia in 1814, Yancey was reared in South Carolina until his lawyer father died of malaria in 1817 and his mother moved the family back to her childhood home on a Georgia plantation. In 1821, she married a Northern-born Georgia schoolmaster and Presbyterian minister, whom young Yancey came to despise for his perceived mental and physical cruelty to Yancey's mother and authoritarian control over Yancey and Yancey's brother. Yancey was scarred for life, with bouts of depression that he self-medicated through drug use and poor self-esteem for which he overcompensated with acts of violence and egotism.
After moving to the Alabama Black Belt in the 1830s, Yancey practiced law, edited a newspaper, planted cotton, got involved in Democratic Party politics, and was gradually caught up in the increasingly militant proslavery Southern rights movement. In the late 1840s, he became an outspoken critic of the National Democratic Party's failure to adequately ensure the rights of slaveholders in the nation's new western territories and also was an early proponent of secession as the only method to prevent the abolition of slavery. He was initially savaged for this by the press in Alabama. Yancey was, wrote a Mobile newspaper editor in 1848, not motivated by principle, but by "his ruling appetite — a thirst for notoriety" and "that disease of excessive ambition and egotism."
But Yancey persevered and the Montgomery Advertiser, one of Yancey's key supporters, would conclude that "he was more, perhaps, than any other person, instrumental in producing the separation of the Southern from the Northern States." A much less admiring John Forsyth, a Georgia-born lawyer and newspaper editor in Mobile whose later influence as a propagandist for the Confederate war effort would be second to none, would observe that "the truth of history ... requires the observation that posterity must unite with the present generation in pronouncing, in view of Mr. Yancey's instrumentality in precipitating the late war upon an unprepared people, that his public career as a Southern statesman was an unmixed calamity to the People of the South." But Yancey was actually only the most gifted orator of the secession faction; many other Alabama lawyers were critically important in moving Alabama toward secession — and war.
In 1859, Forsyth accurately described the major hurdle faced by Yancey and the pro-secession faction when he wrote that the Union "will last until the South finds it more intolerable to remain in it than the risks and chances of separation, until some great vital antagonism shall come to stir up the deep recesses of the Southern heart, and force it in revolutionary action to sever the political ties that bind it to the [Union]." That "vital antagonism" for slaveholders and nonslaveholders alike was the existence of a direct, immediate threat to the institution of slavery.
In antebellum Alabama, 33,730 slaveholders had a direct, economic stake in keeping the 437,271 slaves working to produce 42 percent of Alabama's 1860 per capita income (see figure 2). In addition, as Montgomery lawyer Milton Saffold would later explain, some nonslaveholders shared this economic tie to slavery: "The 30,000 slaveholders have drawn into dependency upon them — their families — the learned professions, the lawyer, the doctor, preacher, teacher, editor, merchant, mechanic — all professions, trades, and employments, because the slave agricultural interest, the only one developed, paid them incomes; and they gave to the towering monopoly their allegiance." Although some members of these groups may have conceded that slavery in Alabama was not destined to be permanent, all slaveholders had expected to be permitted to diffuse the institution over an extended period of time and without economic loss — either to the West or toward Central and South America — just as the northeastern states had done to the South in the late 1700s and early 1800s while developing their industrial economies.
But still, nonslaveholders with no significant economic stake in slavery actually composed a majority of Alabama's voting population. The fact that many of them fought and died in the Civil War has long been cited as evidence that the war was not over slavery from the South's standpoint. To them, however, freed slaves represented not only economic competitors but potential perpetrators of violence. It cannot be overemphasized that perceptions of white Alabamians of the violent tendencies of blacks had been profoundly shaped by a cataclysmic but now largely forgotten eighteenth-century event, the epicenter of which was the Caribbean island of St. Domingo. Today known as Haiti, it had been the most profitable and, therefore, most important colony of France. Africans had been brought there, enslaved, and exploited to produce cash crops (sugar, coffee, cotton, and indigo) in a plantation system. But a successful, large-scale insurrection by the slaves occurred in the 1790s and, in the end, virtually every white man, woman, and child who did not flee the island was massacred.
Many cultural myths were, for political purposes, produced and perpetuated by the partisan press in Alabama and elsewhere during the later manipulation of the resulting racial paranoia: Blacks were naturally violent and barbaric. Large concentrations of slaves were inherently dangerous. Any talk of emancipation and equality would provoke a slave insurrection, and the actual abolition of slavery would mean the doom of whites. Free blacks desirous of equal rights with whites, in collaboration with white abolitionists, would most likely be the provocateurs of that doom. Once in control, blacks were not capable of governing effectively or attaining economic success, and the result would be misrule and economic ruin. Such stories, rooted in the St. Domingo massacre, were told and retold throughout the nineteenth century.
For many years, William Yancey and other so-called Original Secessionists had been stating their case for secession by playing on this paranoia and citing periodic instances where growing opposition to slavery in the North was becoming evident. But none of those incidents had constituted a direct and immediate threat to the institution of slavery in the South. The leaders of opposition to secession in Alabama had, therefore, been successful in calming public fears. Secession, Unionists had long argued, was a remedy that would "plunge the country into irretrievable ruin" and "would kill the patient instead of relieving his suffering." Most Alabamians, therefore, remained focused on their railroad projects and other commercial interests.
The creation in the 1850s of the Republican Party (what some derisively called the "Black Republican Party"), which was opposed to the spread of slavery into the western territories of the United States, had been worrisome. But the relatively slavery-friendly Democrats had won again in the 1856 presidential election — this time with Pennsylvanian James Buchanan at the head of the ticket and a Kentucky slave owner, John Cabell Breckinridge, as his running mate. Even Yancey had publicly conceded in August 1857 that there was "hope for us in the Union" because the South "has the power to control that great Democratic Party," which had "the controlling power in the Union." But other secessionists remained committed to their goal and impatiently awaited what Yancey called the "next inevitable aggression." In a letter to a Georgian, James Summerfield Slaughter, that was later leaked to the press, Yancey privately predicted that when that occurred, "we shall fire the Southern heart, instruct the Southern mind, give courage to each other, and, at the proper moment, by one organized, concerted action, we can precipitate the cotton states into a revolution."
For Yancey and other Alabama lawyer-secessionists, abolitionist John Brown's ill-fated 1859 paramilitary raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in an effort to spark a slave insurrection finally provided that crucial next aggression. To them it was a gift of God. According to the Montgomery Mail, edited by Montgomery lawyer Johnson Jones Hooper, "Providence sent us JOHN BROWN." Heretofore, Southerners could construe Northern intentions as comprising at worst a long-term threat to slavery with little risk in the near term of actual acts of violence to back up that threat, so Southerners were therefore shocked when some Northerners lauded Brown for his bravery in support of freedom. Wrote Hooper, Brown's sudden and unforeseen attack on October 16, 1859, had "radiat[ed] upon the sentiment of the North a light which enabled us to see the very heart-strings of Black Republicanism." Even the pro-Union Tuscaloosa Independent Monitor admitted that "Old Brown" was a "God send" to the secessionists, those traitors and "unprincipled political demagogues, of all parties, who prey upon spoils from the public; who, void of patriotism, look not beyond the present times, are reckless of the future, and would care not at all if the temple of our liberties is prostrated by ruthless hands if they can plunder its sanctuary and avoid the ruins."
The first mention in the Alabama press of the attack by Brown's group was in a brief telegraphic report in the Mobile Daily Register. A "serious riot" at Harpers Ferry, the entry read, had resulted in the "Arsenal and town" being taken possession of by "the mob, which numbers 600." The next day, the Tuscaloosa Independent Monitor dispelled any impression that this was merely a labor dispute like those that had arisen in the North in the wake of the economic Panic of 1857. "From the most reliable accounts it seems that a handful of fanatics — whites and negroes — instigated by some Northern abolitionists, took possession of the government arsenal." Even more ominously, it was reported that maps had been found indicating Brown's planned invasion route was through the plantation regions in the South, including the Alabama Black Belt with its high slave-to-white ratios.
The initial reaction to this news was stunned silence. Not normally at a loss for words, John Forsyth admitted to his readers that "the insurrection a few days ago, at Harper's [sic] Ferry, as it was reported to us by the telegraph, was an event so unexpected, so extraordinary and startling that we have reserved comment upon it until we could better understand and realize the nature and merits of the affair." But as the facts were reported, fear quite naturally turned into a desire for revenge against those who were responsible. A north Alabama widow, Sarah Espy of Cherokee County, wrote that the "newspapers are filled with the abolition riot at Harper's Ferry. A great excitement prevails, in some of the Southern states in consequence. May the Northern assassins be put down with their free-negro allies." And, she fearfully concluded, "may the women and children of the South be saved from their Northern murderers."
Growing hysteria led to suspicion that the Northern-born residents of Alabama were among the estimated twenty thousand "abolition emissaries" supposedly sent by Brown and "scattered throughout the Southern States." Following the death of a Northerner in Marengo County, the Eutaw Whig claimed that three letters from John Brown had been found in the man's personal effects and that he was "from appearances ... an active agent or emissary of the men who were at the bottom of the Harper's Ferry plot." A few days later, the Montgomery Mail reported the arrest of a man in Prattville "on suspicion of unsoundness" and the discovery of more letters from Brown supposedly in his possession. "We would advise," Montgomery editor Hooper shrieked, "that the citizens of Prattville and the adjacent country immediately organize a Committee of Vigilance, try the case fairly and if the defendant be found to have held correspondence of any sort with the old devil BROWN, hang him within twenty-four hours. It is nonsense — nay, it is madness — to talk of law for such offenses. Let our people protect themselves, asserting their inalienable right of self-defence. The law has cracks, crevices, flaws; jails are sometimes unsafe; a strong rope and a stout tree never do fail."
So-called vigilance committees had already been formed in Dallas and Lowndes Counties in 1858,and according to the Selma Reporter, a peddler suspected of being an "abolition emissary" was almost lynched after a trunk he had left in a Cahaba hotel apparently after leaving town in a hurry was found to contain documents implicating him as "one of the men stationed on this line of old Brown's marked map." After being apprehended in Marion and returned by a deputy sheriff to Cahaba, "an excited crowd surrounded him, and it was feared that he would be punished severely without judge or jury, but the crowd was calmed, and he was lodged in jail." However, the peddler was by no means safe. "He will," it was said, "be allowed ten days ... to prove himself innocent of any criminal intentions. If he fails to do this, he will doubtless suffer severely, as he certainly should." Law, order, and individual rights were crumbling in this atmosphere of fear and suspicion.
Even moderates were counseling the formation of volunteer militia companies or the augmentation of existing companies. "The recent nefarious attempt at Harper's Ferry, to get up an insurrection among the slaves, though it proved a signal failure — not one slave, it has been asserted, having joined Brown and his confederates — should," counseled one newspaper editor who was a Black Belt Union Democrat, "prove a warning to the South to be always prepared to meet such emergencies. And the cheapest and most efficient plan for accomplishing this object, is to organize efficient Volunteer Companies." Of course, the danger in taking such a step was that someone would want to go further and actually use the force for more than defensive purposes, or at least to defend aggressive action that would not otherwise have been taken.
Excerpted from Civil War Alabama by Christopher Lyle McIlwain Sr.. Copyright © 2016 University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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Table of Contents
List of Figures ix
Foreword G. Ward Hubbs xi
Part I Alabama Secedes 9
1 The "Lawyers' Revolution" 11
2 "A Leap in the Dark" 27
3 "There Will Be a Revulsion" 34
Part II The War Begins 45
4 "Sprinkle Blood in the Face of the People" 47
5 "Food for Sad and Gloomy Fits" 60
6 Evil Times 70
Part III The Decree of the Nation 91
7 "Yankeeizing Southerners" 93
8 "The Struggle of the Masters" 105
Part IV The Hard War 111
9 The Destroying Angels 113
10 The Reconstructionists 120
11 The Slaughter Pen 128
12 The River of Death 136
Part V In Search of Peace 149
13 "God Close This Terrible War" 151
14 War Eagle! 160
15 The Horrors of the Black Flag 167
Part VI Bowing Down to Mars 173
16 "Retrograde Movements" and "Backward Advances" 175
17 Rousseau's Raid 182
18 The Fall of Mobile Bay and Atlanta 193
Part VII The Death Throes of a Rebellion 205
19 "On the Wrong Side of the Line of Battle" 207
20 "Rats to Your Holes" 219
21 "Balls and Parties Are All the Rage" 226
22 Franklin, Nashville, and Disintegration 236
Part VIII "The Holocaust" 241
23 "Ne-Gotiation" or "Ne-Grotiation" 243
24 "The Day of Jubilee Am Come!" 252
25 Conclusion 264