“These Rugged Days: Alabama in the Civil War”
Author: John S. Sledge
Publisher: The University of Alabama Press
Price: $34.95 (Cloth)
There is surely no subject more written about than the American Civil War, so it is perfectly sensible to ask whether this book is needed. The answer is an unequivocal yes, and I learned a lot.
The War has, of course, been covered in many general histories of the state, including Ed Bridges’ very good new book “Alabama: The Making of an American State,” and it is the specific subject of Christopher McIlwain’s 2016 study “Civil War Alabama,” but that book stresses the politics of the era, especially Unionism in Alabama, which was far more widespread than most people think.
Sledge’s focus is military, the war in Alabama, but in early chapters, he does remind his readers that the vote in the legislature in January of 1861 was 61 for secession, 39 against. Most of the ayes came from the Tennessee Valley, where 63,000 slaves lived, slightly outnumbering whites, and from the Black Belt where slaves made up 80% of the population. Sledge suggests whites in the Black Belt countryside had a powerful fear of abolition, since they constituted only 20% of the population. In the hill counties like St. Clair and Winston where the slave population was only 3.4%, there was little appetite for secession and indeed many in those counties came around to the Confederacy late, reluctantly, and in some cases not at all.
Any slaveholders or non-slaveholders who had doubts about the morality of slavery might have been soothed by a publication of the Alabama Methodist Episcopal Church in January of 1861 stating: “African slavery as it exists in the South is wise, humane, and righteous, and approved by God and any measure looking to its overthrow can be dictated only by blind fanaticism.”
Also, one should never forget, cotton planters were fantastically rich, practically beyond imagining, and thus loathe to give up their slaves. Black Belt counties were among the richest counties in the entire U.S.
Alabama’s “aggregate agricultural wealth ranked fifth in the nation.”
“On the eve of the American Civil War,” Sledge writes, “The Heart of Dixie was widely regarded as a wealthy and rapidly developing place of great beauty and promise.”
But everything changed: “Alabama’s human and material losses were catastrophic, shattering its social, economic, educational and political structures.” Eighty-one thousand Alabamians “wore the gray,” and 16,000 died of disease or in battle. Countless others were mutilated in body and/or spirit.
Most of Alabama’s casualties occurred far from here. Men signed up for the Confederacy and went off to fight. Luckily for Alabama, one might say, the biggest battles of the Civil War took place in Northern Virginia, at Bull Run and Fredericksburg, briefly in Pennsylvania, at Gettysburg, and at Chickamauga in Georgia and Shiloh in Tennessee.
For these obvious geographical reasons, for the first three years not much fighting went on inside the state, but that would change toward the end, and Sledge insists the fighting in Alabama was important and often ferocious.
There were over 300 military “incidents” in 31 of the then 52 counties. These stories are worth telling.
Perhaps the most important land battle was Wilson’s Raid in early 1865. General James Wilson amassed his cavalry in the Tennessee Valley and struck south, through Jasper, on to the hamlet of Elyton (later to become Birmingham), then Tuscaloosa, burning the University on his way through, to Montevallo (Sledge’s hometown), the Bibb Naval Works, and Brierfield. There the Federals destroyed what had been the state’s “industrial heartland,” where guns, ammunition, and uniforms were manufactured. He then moved on to the heavily fortified Selma arsenal, capturing 5 siege guns, 10 field pieces, 60,000 rounds of ammunition, and more.
Readers will be surprised to learn what a strong industrial center Selma had been.
Of all the Alabama military operations, the most important, of course, was the Battle of Mobile Bay, and Sledge does it full justice. Alabama patriot and Mobile historian, Sledge seems downright proud of the way the Confederate blockade runners evaded the Union navy and brought not only supplies crucial to survival but also morale builders such as cigars and wine. Sledge describes hard times in Mobile during the war, to be sure, but adds: “Despite the omnipresent blockaders, Mobile developed a reputation as a pleasure capital during the war—the Paris of the Confederacy.” There were dances, plays, musical entertainments.
One might say “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
Nevertheless, he does full justice to the courage of the Union fleet, and to Admiral David Farragut who tied himself to the mast as his ships went through the desperate battle against the guns at Fort Morgan, the Confederate fighting ships and the famous “torpedoes.”
In his earlier books on Mobile cemeteries and ironwork, Sledge’s prose is clear and functional, but in “These Rugged Days” it is eloquent. This is narrative history at its best. One normally ignores blurbs, but on the back cover, filmmaker Ken Burns says of “These Rugged Days,” “I couldn’t stop reading it.”
I couldn’t either.
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.