Tuscaloosa attorney Chris McIlwain, for 25 years, has been practicing law all day and in the evenings and weekends researching the Civil War in Alabama. He read journals and diaries, the military records and, most especially, the many, many newspapers published all over Alabama during the conflict.
The result of this Herculean effort is, so far, three books.
Besides this present volume, "Civil War in Alabama," we have “1865,” a study of the year when Alabama might have escaped destruction with a separate peace. Selma, Brierfield and the coal and iron ore deposits around Birmingham, combined with functioning railroads, would have been left intact, making Alabama the undisputed industrial center of the South.
There is also a forthcoming study of the links between the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and die-hard forces in Cahaba and Mobile.
Previous Southern historians of the Civil War attempted to settle on an approach other than a narrative of total failure. How shall the catastrophe called the War of Northern Aggression or the War Between the States or more recently, the Civil War, be handled?
Early histories stressed two main points which we might call “unity” and “chivalry.”
McIlwain disputes both, citing abundant evidence — 166 pages of notes and bibliography.
“Unity” is what it sounds like. The premise was that all Alabamians were united in the struggle, were willing to give their all and never surrender. Historian Albert Burton Moore wrote “all hearts were in the cause.”
But unity was a myth from the start. The vote to secede was narrow. We all know of the so-called “Free State of Winston,” but that kind of resistance to the war was widespread. There were Unionists all over Alabama including a network in Montgomery. There was widespread spying for the Union and even guerilla warfare in different parts of the state.
Southeast Alabama, like the hill counties of north Alabama, was a region reluctant to go to war; men did not rush to volunteer. In March of 1862, conscription was begun, angering Unionists who before this had been willing to live quietly, if left alone. Squads of Confederate soldiers rounded up the conscripted. On raids in Tuscaloosa and Pickens counties “men who resisted were killed and the wives of those who eluded capture were placed in the county jail.…” In Talladega County, “Two women were publicly hung … for refusing to divulge the hiding places of their husbands who had fled….”
As the war continued, newspaper propaganda, of necessity, shifted tone. Early pronouncements may have been too optimistic. Leroy Pope Walker declared in April 1861 that in less than three months, the “Confederate flag would be waving from the Capitol in Washington.”
Walker also declared all the blood shed could be wiped up with a “pocket handkerchief.”
William Yancey went further and pledged to “undertake to drink all the blood” that would be shed.
When the war finally ended, early historians chose to ignore any internal dissension and stress the courage and sacrifices of Confederate soldiers. The Civil War in Southern accounts would be a story of bravery, and even chivalry.
Men on horseback, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, would be the heroes of the war, elevated to myth.
Most dashing of all the knights would be the daring cavalryman Nathan Bedford Forrest, known to all as the War Eagle.
His boldness would be stressed, even, McIlwain thinks, overpraised — not his earlier connection to the slave trade, nor his later association with the KKK, nor his failed leadership in April 1864, at Fort Pillow, when troops under his command massacred several hundred black Union soldiers who had surrendered. Says McIlwain, “Thanks to Forrest, the outnumbered Confederate troops elsewhere were … in significant jeopardy of retaliation.”
Studies of the antebellum South and the Civil War rightly stress the fantastic wealth that cotton brought to the Black Belt and other fertile regions. The result has been a connection in many minds between slavery and greed. Planters did not want to give up their luxurious lifestyle, and perhaps smaller farmers aspired to owning slaves and becoming billionaires themselves, thus generating a kind of unity among plutocrats and those who hoped to join them one day.
McIlwain does not dismiss this, but the real unifying effect of slavery in Alabama, he says, was not greed; it was fear. Alabamians knew of the slave insurrection on the island of St. Domingo (now occupied by Haiti and The Dominican Republic) in the 1790s in which “virtually every white man, woman and child who did not flee the island was massacred.”
John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry and Nat Turner’s brief rebellion in Virginia also threw scares into Alabamians. In the Black Belt where slaves outnumbered whites by six or seven to one, and even in North Alabama where the population was more balanced, whites feared abolition and the chaos and racial violence they thought it might bring.
The unity there was, was a unity of fear.
Confederate enthusiasts/apologists may not love McIlwain’s conclusions, but Alabamians will be talking about it for some time to come.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.