These Rugged Days: Alabama in the Civil War
© 2017 John Sledge
Although Alabama was not the site of as many bloody battles as Virginia and Tennessee in the Civil War, it was not a quiet backwater only troubled at the war’s end. From the Confederacy’s birthplace in Montgomery in 1861 to the coup de grâce burning of Selma in 1865, Alabama saw altercations, skirmishes, and at least one major battle throughout the war. These Rugged Days is a personal history of Alabama in the civil war, in which the accounts of battle are made more intimate and entertaining by unique stories from the ground.
When South Carolina seceded from the union, Alabama was one of the first states to follow, and its central location in the deep south seemed to recommend Montgomery as a capital – one supported by two major commercial rivers, no shortage of rich farmland, a secure port, and ample mineral deposits. As an example of like repelling like, however, the politicians who gathered in Montgomery in that humid spring were put off by the clouds of mosquitos. Although the seat of government moved to Virginia, Alabama’s rail lines and rivers were of great interest to the enemy. Union cavalry raided and captured several cities in northern Alabama early on, only to be driven out. Sledge notes that Florence and Huntsville would change hands several times throughout the war. Although many citizens of northern Alabama were unionists, and the first Union troops were careful not to step on toes, the eventual Union reprisals against civilian populations in the wake of guerilla war alienated the military and their civilian hosts against one another. Larger in scale was the siege of Mobile, the port of which fell in 1864. Mobile was an important port city for the entire South, hosting blockade runners who darted to Cuba and back with supplies long after New Orleans had fallen. The battle of Mobile Bay involved several ironclads, as well as the use of naval mines (or “torpedoes” – this battle gave birth to the expression, “Damn the torpedos, full speed ahead!”). The city itself, however, would not be taken until 1865.
Sledge opens the book with a story from his childhood, recounting the moment in which history became real: he and a friend discovered a half-buried Spencer carbine along a creek bed, one presumably dropped by an invading Yankee during Wilson’s raid. Throughout These Rugged Days, he draws on stories that add a human touch to the already lively account of daring raids, rebellious farmhands, and steady action. The chapter on Streight’s Raid, for instance, includes several humorous accounts – though the raid was bound for some level of absurdity from the beginning. It was a cavalry raid conducted on mules, who frequently gave their riders trouble and drew amused crowds. The troopers had their own laughs; in one abandoned town, a few newspapermen turned cavalry broke into the town’s news office and printed a broadsheet that presented the arrival of the Yankees as if they were a group of young men come to pay a social call. (“It is unknown how long the general and his friends will stay with us.”) The conclusion of that raid saw the troopers surrender to a force a third of their size after being bloodily harried for days. The rebel commander Nathan Bedford Forrest ‘put the skeer in’ his opponents by sending aides with orders to nonexistent companies and shuffling his two guns to appear like a battery of fifteen. Streight was not amused when he realized how small a force had taken him in. The book concludes with Wilson’s Raid, a large cavalry action that involved a running battle between carbine-carrying Yank cavalrymen fighting against a much smaller Confederate force led by Forrest. They sparred from Montevallo to Selma, where Wilson achieved his aim in burning the city and its naval foundries, which had helped make Mobile such a tough nut to crack. (Selma’s contribution to the naval war were honored in the good ship Selma, which was the last to surrender at Mobile Bay. )
Although there are other books on Alabama in the civil war, These Rugged Days is easily the most entertaining book I’ve read on the subject. The author has obviously inherited his father’s ability to weave a story that keeps audiences spellbound.
With the Old Breed, Gene Sledge. (Literally related: Gene Sledge is John’s father.)
The Yellowhammer War: The Civil War and Reconstruction in Alabama