"1865 Alabama: From Civil War to Uncivil Peace" By: Christopher Lyle McIlwain, Sr.

Jan 22, 2018

“1865 Alabama: From Civil War to Uncivil Peace”

Author: Christopher Lyle McIlwain, Sr.   

Publisher: University of Alabama Press  

Pages: 276

Price: $59.95 (Cloth)

Christopher McIlwain, a practicing Tuscaloosa attorney, has been researching Alabama in the Civil War for over 25 years.

He has gone deeply into such primary sources as letters, diaries, drafts of legislation before the Alabama legislature and, especially, the editorial pages of the many Alabama newspapers during the years 1861-1865.

The result has been two books. "Civil War Alabama" focused on the ways in which Alabama was not united in its desire for secession and in its desire to maintain slavery.

Small landholders with no slaves were reluctant to be the poor men who would fight the rich man's war. Many North Alabamians held strong Unionist sympathies; and there were even Alabama cavalry units in the Union Army.

But the influence of the planters, reinforced by states' rights rhetoric and the misuse of scripture, prevailed, and four years of slaughter and destruction followed.

In this book, McIlwain focuses on the last of those four years, 1865. 

Richmond fell on April 1.

Lee surrendered his army on April 9.

Further resistance was futile and almost everybody in Alabama knew it. Alabama might have sued for a separate peace, preventing the destructive raids on Tuscaloosa and Selma. The railroads and industry of Alabama would have been mostly intact for postwar development.

Unfortunately, Alabama firebrands such as John Forsyth of the “Mobile Advertiser and Register” were not having it. His editorials were incendiary; any talk of compromise was treason to The Cause.

Winston Churchill is much admired for his wartime speech insisting that the British would fight on the beaches, in streets, and in the fields, and would never surrender. Fortunately for all, the British won.

Alabamians, spurning any peace offers at the February Hampton Roads Peace Conference, vowing to fight to the last man, to the last drop of blood, and then to fight in guerrilla bands and even possibly carry on the fight from across the Mexican border, gave ammunition to the radical Republicans and the die-hard abolitionists. 

Needless to say, talk of never-ending conflict discouraged badly needed Northern capital investment in the South. 

It was understood that Lincoln meant to impose a rather gentle reconstruction, "with malice toward none; with charity for all."

Confederates would almost all be pardoned.

Lincoln's plan might not have included Negro suffrage, and, despite the Emancipation Proclamation, there was even the possibility of a phasing out of slavery through apprenticeship programs.

When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in April, in a plot very likely hatched in Mobile, the South should have gone into mourning. Instead, “The Demopolis Herald” headline read "Glorious News." 

Now, nothing but complete destruction of the South's ability to wage war would do. 

The “New York Times” called for "a 'class revolution' in the South that would 'grind' the Southern aristocracy to powder." There should be executions of Rebel leaders, with most Confederates disqualified from any future political office, immediate, uncompensated abolition and Negro suffrage, and an army of occupation to see that Federal law was obeyed and no Resistance sprang up.

McIlwain ends his study with a page of what-ifs, roads not taken. The Reconstruction/occupation was harsher than it would have been under Lincoln. The economy, industry, race relations, public safety were all much worse than they needed to be.

For over one hundred years Alabama suffered as a result of its own stubbornness, terrible leadership and intransigence.

It didn't have to be this way. 

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.