First Battle of Selma
Graduate, Albert G. Parrish H.S.,
Selma, Alabama, 1947
Importance of Selma to the Confederacy
Because of it's central location, production facilities and rail connections, the advantages of Selma as a site for production of cartridges, saltpetre, powder, shot and shell, rifles, cannon and steam rams soon became apparent to the Confederacy. By 1863 just about every war material was manufactured within the limits of Selma, employing at least ten thousand people within the city limits. The hull was laid for at least one Confederate ironclad, the Tennessee, and millions of dollars worth of army supplies were accumulated and distributed from Selma.
The following is a verbatim account of the Battle of Selma, excerpted from the book by John Hardy, "History of Selma", 1879.* The syntax is his and I have added a few locations for positions described.
While growing up in Selma I explored the breastworks east of the Range Line Road, played in a house in Burnsville where Lt. Gen. N.B. Forrest is reputed to have pulled a marauding Federal soldier out from under a bed where he promptly shot him, sawed lumber from cypress trees from the Blue Girth Swamp containing metal from the battle, and witnessed the salvage of guns from the adjacent Alabama River. I call this essay "The First Battle of Selma" because there has since been another battle, almost 100 years later, that may have been much more significant in the minds of men, the March across the Pettus Bridge in 1964.
The First Battle of Selma
"As a matter of precaution, it was thought best to fortify Selma; the work was put in charge of Col. Ledbetter, aided by Capt. Lernier, an experienced engineer, who, with the labor of a large number of slaves collected from the planters of the surrounding country, succeeded in the construction of a bastioned line around the city, from the mouth of Beech Creek, on the river, to the mouth of Valley Creek, where the same empties into the river, about four miles in length.
Previous Attempts on Selma
The capacities and importance of Selma, in it's relation to the Confederate movement, had been notorious in the North, and too great to be overlooked by the Federal authorities, as early as 1862. But to reach it with a Federal force baffled the ingenuity of the federal Generals. As the place grew in importance, the greater the necessity to reach it with a Federal force. Gen. Sherman first made an effort to reach it, but after advancing as far as Meridian, within one hundred and seven miles, retreated to the Mississippi River; Gen. Grierson, with a calvary force from Memphis, was intercepted and returned; Gen. Rousseau made a dash in the direction of Selma, but was mislead by his guides and struck the railroad forty miles east of Montgomery.
Finally, in the winter of 1865, through the advice of Gen. Thomas, who commanded the department of Tennessee, Gen. Grant selected Maj. Gen. J.H. Wilson, a prudent and sagacious officer, for the task of capturing Selma, with an independent command. After a careful canvas of the question, Gen. Wilson selected from the Federal army of the west, a force of about thirteen thousand men, and encamped them at Gravel Springs on the Tennessee River. After a thorough drilling and equipment unsurpassed by any calvary force of the world, on the evening of the 17th of March, 1865, this splendidly mounted and equipped force was ordered to march on the next morning. The Tennessee River was crossed, the force composed of the first, second and third divisions, commanded respectively by Gens. McCook, Long and Upton, were in motion to strike a blow that would be felt by the Confederacy. After burning the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa and destroying the iron works in Tannehill and Montevallo this force moved on through the mountainous country of Alabama, and with scarcely any opposition, until the first day of April, at Ebenezer church, near Dixie Station, on the Alabama and Tennessee railroad, 27 miles from Selma, Gen. Forrest made a stand; where it is said that Gen. Forrest and the brave Capt. Taylor, of the 17th Indiana Regiment had a running fight of over 300 yards, resulting in the death of Taylor---Forrest falling back upon Selma, pressed hard. On the night of the 10th of April this force camped at Plantersville, 22 miles from Selma. Here Gen. Wilson was informed by spies from Selma, that it was the intention of Dick Taylor (Commander of Confederate forces) to evacuate the place and make no defense---that Forrest himself advised it, and for a time led Gen. Wilson to believe he would meet with no resistance at Selma. (Wilson's headquarters house is still standing in Plantersville).
On Sunday morning, the 2nd of April, 1865, this force was again in motion, the advance arriving in view of the city about twelve o'clock, and Gen. Wilson himself arriving about 1 o'clock. The guns mounted, the movement of soldiers, and various other demonstrations inside the breastworks, were too plain to leave resistance in doubt, and by four o'clock, the whole force was in position to make the attack. Gen C.C. Andrews, who was in the force, gives the following account of the assault on the city by Gen.Wilson.
"He directed Gen. Long to assault the works by moving diagonally across the road upon which his troops were posted, while Gen. Upton, at his request, with a picked force of three hundred men, was directed to penetrate the swamps upon his left (Blue Girth Swamp), break through line covered by it, and turn the garrison's right, the balance of his division to conform to the movement. The signal for the advance was to be the discharge of a single gun from Rodney's battery, to be given as soon as Upton's turning movement had developed itself.
Before that plan could be executed, and while waiting for the signal to advance, Gen. Long was informed that a strong force of Confederate calvary had been skirmishing with his rear, and threatened a general attack upon his pack train and led horses. He had left a force of six companies well posted at Valley Creek (northwest of the city), in anticipation of that movement. Fearing this affair would compromise the assault upon the main portion, Long determined to make the assault at once; and without waiting for the signal gave the order to advance.
His command was formed in line of battle, dismounted, the 17th Indiana Mounted Infantry on the right, and next, from right to left, the 123rd Illinois, the 98th Illinois Mounted Infantry, the 4th Ohio Calvary, and the 4th Michigan Calvary, comprising 1500 officers and men. They had to charge across open ground 600 yards to the works, exposed to the fire of artillery and musketry, and that part of the line they were to attack was manned by Armstrong's brigade, regarded as the best of Forrest's corps, and numbering 1500 strong. Long's division sprang forward in an unfaltering manner. It's flanks had some difficulty crossing a ravine and marshy soil; but in less than 15 minutes it had swept over the works and driven the Confederates in confusion toward the city. But the loss was considerable, and among the wounded was Gen. Long himself, who was temporarily succeeded in command by Col. Mint. Gen. Wilson arrived on that part of the field after the works were carried. He at once notified Upton of the success, directed Col. Minty to form Logan's division for a new advance, ordered Col. Vail, commanding the 17th Illinois to place his own regiment and the 4th United States Calvary, Lieut. O'Connel, and the Board of Trade Battery, Capt. Robinson commanding, and renew the attack. The garrison had occupied a new line, but partially finished, on the edge of the city. A bold charge by the 4th United States Calvary was repulsed, but it rapidly reformed on the left. It was now quite dark. Upton's division advancing at the same time, a new charge was made by the 4th Ohio, 17th Indiana, and 4th Calvary, dismounted. The troops, inspired by the wildest enthusiasm, swept everything before them, and penetrated the city in every direction. Upton's division met with little resistance. During the first part of the action, the Chicago Board of Trade Battery occupied a commanding position and steadily replied to the garrison guns."
The loss in Long's division was forty killed and two hundred sixty wounded. Among the latter were Gen. Long himself, Cols. Miller, McCormick and Briggs. Gen. Wilson's force engaged and in supporting distance was nine thousand men and eight guns.
The garrison fought with great coolness and skill. Forrest was reported to have been engaged personally in two or three romantic combats; and he, with Gens. Armstrong, Roddy and Adams, and a number of men, escaped by the Burnsville road (south-east of Blue Girth Swamp), who were followed by a party of Upton's division until long after midnight, capturing four guns and thirty prisoners.
The fruits of Wilson's victory were thirty-one field guns and one thirty-pounder Parrott, two thousand seven hundred prisoners, including fifty officers, and an immense amount of stores of all kinds.
As soon as the troops could be assembled and got into camp, Brevet Brig. Gen. Winslow was assigned to the command of the city, with orders from Gen. Wilson "to destroy everything that could benefit the Confederate cause."
Thus we have the Federal account of the capture of Selma, and it "scarcely does the subject justice".
Inside The City
While matters were going on thus on the outside, it would be well for us to look on and see what was taking place on the inside. Gen. Wilson's visit was expected for ten days, but the Confederate forces were so scattered over the country, and especially the calvary part of it, that to centre a force at Selma was utterly impossible. Ge. Forrest's forces had been reduced to a mere handful, and really, the only reliable force in reach was Gen. Armstrong's, numbering only about fifteen hundred. There were a large number of "boom-proof" officers [Hardy's description] and stragglers in the city, upon whom little reliance could be placed. But on Saturday it was determined that the place should be defended. Everybody who could walk was called upon to go to the breastworks, with whatever arms could be procured. Squads of armed men were traversing the streets, and examining various buildings for soldiers to go to the breastworks, sparing nothing that wore pantaloons, and by Sunday, 12 o'clock, there were collected in the ditches around the city, about four thousand persons, not more than two thousand of them reliable, to meet a force of nine thousand of the flower of the Federal army, and equipped in a manner unexampled in the history of ancient or modern armies. Confederate Gen. Dick Taylor left the city as fast as a steam engine could take him, about twelve o'clock on Sunday, leaving command of the city divided between Gens. Forrest, Adams and Armstrong,and as the latter had control of the only real force in the fight, was gallant enough to meet the invaders at the point of the first attack, on the Summerfield road, and Long's division felt the result. A large number of the women and children had been sent out of the city. A number of the quartermasters, too, had gone with their supplies, mostly to Meridian. The assault was made, and no one who comprehended affairs could doubt the result. The Federal forces, with the flush of victory, entered the city in the hour of night, and terrible scenes of plunder and outrages were witnessed in every direction.
At the breast works, the Confederates fought with all the vigor their arms and experience allowed.
About ten o'clock Sunday night, the first house set on fire was the three story brick building on the corner of Water and Broad Streets, the third story of which had been used by the Confederates for a year or so, as a guard house for Union men and skulkers from the Confederate service. It was said this house was set on fire by a man by the name of Gibson, who had been imprisoned in it. From this house, others along Broad Street took fire and were consumed. Next day, the Arsenal and the Naval Foundry and all the places of Manufacture were set on fire by an order from Gen.Winslow, Commander of the Post, in charge. The fire continued to rage until about Tuesday night, by which time the city was nearly destroyed. During this time there was scarcely a house in the city, either private or public, but what had been sacked by the Federal soldiers. The small contents of private stores were most wantonly destroyed, and by Friday morning there was but little of any kind of property left in the place. The 2,700 prisoners, comprising almost every man in the city, were huddled together in a large stockade just north of the Selma and Meridian railroad track, on the east of the Range Line Road, near where the Matthews cotton factory now stands. This stockade was built and had been used by the Confederates. In this pen, in which a dry place scarcely large enough for a man to lay down could not be found, were the prisoners kept until Saturday morning, when they were all paroled and allowed to go wherever they pleased or could. On the 6th of April Gen. Wilson met Gen. Forrest at Cahaba, for the purpose of arranging for an exchange of prisoners, but no definite arrangement was effected. On the 9th, Wilson's forces commenced evacuating the place by crossing the river on pontoons, and by the 10th his entire force had succeeded in crossing the river. Thousands of negroes had flocked to the Federal camps, of all ages and sex, and after crossing the river, four regiments were organized out of the able-bodied black men in and around the Federal camps. To these regiments proper officers were assigned, and those unable to bear arms were driven from the camps. Gen. Wilson, in speaking of these regiments said, "that in addition to subsisting themselves upon the country, they would march thirty-five miles in a day, and frequently forty." About four hundred wounded Federal soldiers were left behind in Selma, all huddled together in the different stories of the present hardware store of John K. Goodwin.
A scene of utter ruin was presented. The commons around the city were almost covered with dead and crippled animals, and the people without means to move them. A meeting of the few citizens of the place was held, all went to work and in a few days all the dead animals had been hauled and thrown into the river. Subsistence was collected from the spoils and wastes of provisions, thus enabling the people to get a scanty living.
It is due to both Gen Wilson and Gen. Winslow, to say, that in no instance, after Sunday night, when they were applied to for protection to person and private property, but that protection was readily given, and by Tuesday evening almost every private family in the city had a soldier or soldiers stationed on their premises.
Taking into consideration the severity of the battle, and the overwhelming number of Federal forces, the small loss of the Confederates was remarkable. Of the 4000 persons in the battle, there were not more than twenty Confederates killed, and scarcely as many wounded.
The federal wounded remained in the city for about two weeks, when Gen. Steele came up the river with gunboats and transports and removed them to Mobile.
With the fall of Selma and the evacuation of Richmond, Va., on the same day, Sunday, 2nd April, 1865, did the Confederacy fall."
* Selma; Her Institutions, and Her Men, By John Hardy.
Selma, Alabama: Times Book and Job Office (T.J. Appleyard, Manager),1879
Reprinted in 1978 by the The Reprint Company, Publishers
Spartanburg, South Carolina
Ono Island, AL