For too long, people have equated the South with the Confederacy.
North Alabama is a distinct part of this state, one with its own history, that compliments, but never imitates, the histories of the Black Belt and the Gulf Coast. As a section of the Tennessee Valley it sits astride two of the vast regions that make up the American South– Appalachia and the lower section of the Mississippi River basin. Ours is a region that is both quintessentially southern yet decidedly non-Confederate.
For too long people have equated the two.
Madison county, and North Alabama’s, unique position emerged during two periods immediately preceding the Civil War: the 1860 Election and the 1861 Secession Convention. During the election, the counties of Madison, Marshall, and Lauderdale went for Stephen Douglas; Lincoln’s former rival in Illinois and candidate of the northern faction of the Democratic Party. Almost every other county in Alabama voted for Breckinridge. For the sake of comparison; Douglas carried one county in western Tennessee, six in eastern Georgia, and none in either Mississippi or Florida. The man garnered little of the southern vote.
Once it became clear that Lincoln carried the electoral tide, southern states began hosting secession conventions. Prior to the election, the legislature issued a resolution declaring that should Lincoln win, Alabama would hold a convention to decide its future place within the nation. Unionists from North Alabama pleaded with the governor, Andrew Moore, to simply accept the results and remain in the Union. Yet he ignored these pleas, and in December 1860, voters chose their delegates.
We all know that the majority of Alabama’s delegates chose secession, yet most from North Alabama voted against it. Opponents of secession were called cooperationists, and they were led by two men from Madison county: Jeremiah Clemens, a cousin of Mark Twain, and Nicholas Davis. Mid-convention Davis challenged a man to a duel for calling him a traitor to Alabama and Clemens, for the sake of political expediency, switched sides and voted for secession.
On January 11, 1861, Alabama left the Union. Troops swarmed across the state, heading north towards the battlefields in Virginia. Some might point out that a regiment from Huntsville fought at First Manassas, or that men from North Alabama fought under Lee until his Surrender at Appomattox. These are both true, but ignoring the rest of the region’s Civil War experience is disingenuous.
North Alabama provided rail links between the Mississippi River and the Atlantic Coast. The Tennessee River looped from its headwaters near Knoxville to its mouth at Paducah, Kentucky. Securing this region of the Tennessee Valley was integral to winning the war in the west. As such, Union gunboats landed at Florence in February 1862, seizing control of the river system. Huntsville served as the western control point for the Memphis & Charleston Railroad and its turn at occupation came next, in April 1862. North Alabama, previously shy about secession, soon settled in to occupation.
In fact, the Union Army found the Tennessee Valley friendly enough to not only occupy it uneventfully, but to raise a cavalry regiment, the 1st Alabama, from the men of Memphis and Huntsville. Formed in October 1862, it was the only white Union regiment raised in Alabama during the war, and its men served admirably during Sherman’s March to the Sea.
We are not Virginia nor Montgomery. There were no great clashes for North Alabama. We have no First White House of the Confederacy around here. Indeed, the most prominent figure from the Civil War to show up in North Alabama was General Sherman during a respite at what would become the University of North Alabama. Even Jeremiah Clemens, the only delegate from Madison county to vote for secession, spent the latter part of his life writing novels about heroic Union partisans battling it out with Confederate guerrillas in the mountains around Huntsville.
Y’all, in North Alabama, we don’t have that much “Confederate heritage” to preserve. If we want to be honest about North Alabama’s role in the southern narrative, then let’s put up a statue of 19th century abolitionist and local politician James Gillespie Birney, or open a museum dedicated to former slave and founder of the Alabama Normal College (now Alabama A&M University,) William Hooper Councill.
Trust me, the history of North Alabama is no Lost Cause.
About the author: John O’Brien is an independent researcher for Huntsville African American History Project, and a graduate of University of Alabama-Huntsville in History, where his honors included a Dr. John Rison Jones Award for “If You Burn It, They Will Come: The Housing Authority and Huntsville, 1941-1960,” published in the Huntsville Historical Review.