The Battle of Mobile Bay-- "When the Blue and Gray isn't Black and White"

Jul 28, 2014

Alabama Public Radio is looking back on the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Mobile Bay. The engagement, on August 5, 1864, was a turning point in the “war between the states.” APR listeners heard about the re-enactment of the Battle of Resaca yesterday, but that’s not the end of the story. An Alabama cavalry unit took part in the actual battle. And, we warn you, there’s a twist.

The sound of cannons and rifle fire was music to the ears of hundreds of Civil War buffs. They all braved the rain on this wet, muddy Saturday near the town of Resaca, Georgia-- just over the border from Northeast Alabama. “What’s kind of neat is that this re-enactment is taking place on part of the actual battle ground,” says Ken Padgett. The Georgia native is acting as the General of today’s re-enactment. During the real battle in 1864, Confederate General Joe Johnston faced General William T. Sherman from the North.

“Resaca was basically a draw between the two armies,” says Padgett. “But with the Federals’ superior numbers, they outflanked the Confederate army and crossed the rivers downstream and threatened to cut off the Confederate retreat. So, they had to pull back in the middle of the night.”

One unit that took place in the actual battle was a rag tag group from Madison County called the 1st Alabama Cavalry. It’s okay if you’ve never heard of them. Historians have. “Actually, they did a lot,” says Dr. John Kvach. He teaches history at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, not far from where the First Alabama Calvary first formed. “They served and they fought and they died, and they sacrificed just like every other unit that was fighting throughout the war.”

But, this is where the story gets a little complicated. During the Presidential election of 1860, not everybody in Alabama liked slavery or the thought of the South breaking away from the Union. Kvach says that left the men of the 1st Alabama Cavalry in a bind on election day. “You might be voting for your very own destruction by voting for secession,” he says. “Yet, you’re also voting for how you feel about the direction of your party, your country, and the future of your family. So, for many people, this was a very, very difficult decision.” And, that decision may have raised eyebrows in Alabama in 1860… “Their convictions pushed them toward supporting the Union, by becoming part of the Union forces. They fought a number of skirmishes and major battles, and in fact became a guard for General William T. Sherman.”

“Sherman is a bad word around Alabama. He’s not one of our favorites,” according to Sallie Cox of Birmingham. She found out about the 1st Alabama Cavalry while researching her family tree. Judging from the pile of documents on her dining room table, Cox has been keeping busy. She wanted to qualify to join the Daughters of the American Revolution. After a little digging, she found something a little different. Namely, Captain Fernando Cortez Burdick of the 1st Alabama Cavalry. He went by Frank.

“Great. Great…I think it’s two greats. Grandmother…..yeah, it’s great great grandfather, right,” she recalls. Cox considers herself an Alabamian, even though she was born in Tennessee. She does have relatives up north, and when word got out that one of her ancestors fought for the Union. Well, you know… “Nobody up there seem to think it’s all that odd,” says Cox. “Frankly, I do.”

A small black and white photograph of Burdick appears to resolve any doubt about his loyalties. Cox found it during her research. In it, a young looking Burdick has a closely trimmed beard. His military uniform is Union blue… “To me, it looks like he’s been sleeping in it….but, they did that!"

The fact that Frank Burdick was a southerner who fought for the Union doesn’t bother historians like John Kvach. What does bug him are the stereotypes about the North and South that can make stories like Burdick’s such a novelty. “What I tell my students is that history isn’t black or white, it’s gray,” he says. But, getting that idea across has been an uphill climb. Kvach says most people think of the North in the 1860’s as industrial and the South as a bunch of wealthy plantation owners sipping mint juleps. Kvach says that’s bunk popularized by books like “Gone With The Wind.” “In 1860, if taken as a separate nation, the South was the fifth most industrialized nation in the world,” says Kvach. “In the upper South there were a lot of iron foundries, railroads were huge. In the deep South, there were cotton factories that were making yarn, that were making cloth.”

The one thing everyone seems to agree on is how war pitted brother against brother. Remember Ken Padgett, the general in charge of the re-enactment of the battle of Resaca? That hobby has helped turn him into an amateur historian. Padgett says he heard a lot of stories across the South similar to the 1st Alabama Cavalry… “And you had relatives who were loyal to the Union, and those who were rebellious and were loyal to the Confederacy,” says Pagdett. “So it was not uncommon for soldiers on both sides to come across some of their wounded relatives on the field.”

And that idea hits close to home for Sallie Cox. There’s a portrait that hangs on the wall in her dining room. It’s a painting of two men, one in Union blue and the other in gray.” “This is Fernando Cortez Burdick, and the other is Robert Alexander Hill. Their children married. His son married his daughter,” she says. “These are my great great grand parents.” And it should come as no surprise that while Burdick fought for the Union, Hill was for the Confederacy. “The thing that I thought was so interesting what that both of them were at the battle of Shiloh, and we always joke in the family that great great grandpa Burdick shot great great grandparent Hill, which didn’t happen, but it makes a great story.” Cox admits if he had, she wouldn’t be here as their descendent. Burdick and Hill returned to Madison County after the war to form Cox’s branch of the family tree.

So, it appears everything was resolved…

“I consider myself Southern. I’m no Yankee,” says Cox.

Okay, not everything.