February 22, 2000
by Kay Kimbrough
CONFEDERATE HOME FRONT: MONTGOMERY DURING THE CIVIL WAR
William Warren Rogers, Jr.
University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, 1999.
Montgomery, Alabama was founded in 1819 by combining two existing towns, East Alabama and New Philadelphia. The favorable climate and rich soil produced cotton and corn that could be sent down the Alabama River to Mobile and to distant markets. The removal of the state capital from Tuscaloosa to Montgomery in 1846 insured the growth of the new city. In 1846 the population numbered 3000; in 1860, nearly 9000. The residents were equally divided racially, with about a hundred of the black population free. Slaves lived next door to their owners in smaller houses, while free blacks lived on the edge of town.
Rogers' history deals with the years from 1860 until 1865, when the war ended. The narrow focus of his study presents a vivid picture of life in a small city that was booming for the wealthy planters, bankers, lawyers, doctors and entrepreneurs, but was less comfortable for the small tradesmen and workers. Slaves, of course, were at the bottom of the social and economic pyramid. Among the wealthy, there was a "well-educated intelligentsia. Henry Hilliard, soon to raise a strong voice against secession, had been a classics professor at the University of Alabama." Music, theatre, elaborate dinners and balls, horse racing, reading and politics entertained the social elite.
Two activities crossed all social and racial lines: church-going and drinking. Rogers notes that "Like other Americans in the nineteenth century, Montgomerians consumed alcohol frequently and often in large quantities." In spite of this love for entertainment and strong drink, "Recreation and commerce abruptly ceased on Sunday....Whites and blacks attended church together"
The first chapter sets the stage for the tragedy of the Civil War and the impact it had on what had been a thriving city with a bright future. "Montgomery in 1860 was a place of wealth, architectural taste, and obvious commercial vigor." The presidential election started the chain of events that changed the city, and the rest of the South, forever. In 1860 most Montgomerians were in agreement with secessionist William Lowndes Yancey or Henry Hilliard, who "advocated defending states' rights within the union."
Secession fever seized the city, populated by "the highest concentration of secessionists in the state," and the news that the secessionists had prevailed in the final vote of the Alabama convention of 100 delegates by sixty-one to thirty-nine precipitated a mass celebration that lasted through the night. Although only the twenty-fourth largest city in the slave-holding states, Montgomery was chosen to be the provisional capital of the Confederacy because of its access by water and rail, the central location, the enthusiasm of the people for the cause, and the "adequate accommodations." Its short-comings proved to be many, however, and in a few months the capital was moved to Richmond, leaving a disappointed Montgomery "empty and silent." Richmond was closer to the battle lines, and the disadvantages created by "high prices, the mosquitoes, the heat, or constraints of space" in Montgomery contributed to the decision. Rogers points out that "Many Montgomerians were no less mercenary than they were patriotic." Price gouging was the rule during the capital's short life.
Montgomery subsequently became a center for storing and dispensing supplies and for a safe place to send the Confederate wounded. "The city became the destination for thousands of wounded, sick , and dying troops traveling by steamboat or by rail." Eventually, six hospitals were created,...Another function of Montgomery as a military post was the manufacturing of weapons. Operations were small because of the lack of skilled labor and equipment. Both were scarce in this new nation that was not yet industrialized. All the problems that hindered the efficiency of the Confederacy as a whole were present in Montgomery. Rogers concludes, "What emerged from the welter of departments in Montgomery was the Confederate infrastructure in microcosm.,"
The war changed daily life in the city, although the citizens tried to continue as usual. The Southern economy would be ruined at the end, merchants who could provide goods for the military prospered. Manufacturers of gun powder, rifles, sword handles, and peanut oil made profits. The economy failed because of the currency policy of the Confederate government of printing more money when revenues did not it needs: "Unfortunately, as treasury notes proliferated, prices soared, and the value of money plummeted." Rogers also points out that the Federal blockade caused shortages of essential goods, creating empty store shelves and empty coffers.
Chapter Five describes the efforts of the city government to help the poor, especially the wives and children of conscripted men who had no means of support, to keep the treasury solvent, and to provide necessary services for maintaining safety. Rogers objectivity prevails throughout the book, but he does express admiration for the city leaders: "In Montgomery, officials faced serious challenges, but they did so with some success, and city government served its citizens well."'
The women of Montgomery also receive Rogers' respect for their ceaseless efforts on behalf of the wounded and dying soldiers in the military hospitals. Fine ladies served as nurses, a daunting task in view of the suffering at a time when what remedies existed were scarce or non-existent. "In Montgomery's evangelical society, church organizations institutionalized sacrifice." Socks and uniforms were provided by the women of churches and synagogues: "Jews and Gentiles shared an antipathy toward the United States of America that transcended theological differences." Relief efforts of all kinds were carried out by both men and women on the home front. The community was united in adversity.
Unionists in the South were simply not acknowledged in the post-war Confederacy. Rogers examines the group of Montgomery Unionists who never numbered more than thirty. He reminds the reader that Unionist existed in every town and city of the South. These dissenters were as varied as the far more numerous secessionists. William Bibb, of a prominent family that was staunchly Confederate, is quoted: "'I wouldn't give the Union for a thousand of your Confederacies.'" The other Unionists were equally loyal to the United States, but they did not have Bibb's status in the community and wisely kept their views quieter. In spite of Bibb's connections, there were suggestions of running him out of town and even of hanging him.
Montgomery was spared a battle and much destruction of human life by surrendering days before the war's end. The Federal troops were there for two days only, but they managed to destroy everything that might be useful to the Confederate troops. Rogers notes the irony in the losses of David Carter and his family, who "counted more losses than most Montgomerians." Carter was a loyal Unionist The loss of property was extensive, but the city remained safe.
Rogers summarizes the city's experience in his epilogue: "Alabama's capital...was a scene of human complexity. Under duress, some individuals emerged as magnanimous and philanthropic." The complexity is exemplified in the case of "the most outspoken Unionist in the city," William Bibb. His mother was Sophia Bibb, the leader in the city's war effort on behalf of the wounded. When questioned about caring for the Union wounded at Soldiers Home Hospital, she answered, "'they were suffering men, and shall be made as comfortable as our Confederate soldiers.'" Rogers labels her "a heroine," but asks of her son, courageous in his refusal to hide his views, "Did his views make him any the less honorable?"
This book is so full of details, events, and characters that history comes to life. One of Rogers' lessons, whether intended or not, is that life in the 1860's in Alabama was as complex and full of irony as life in Alabama in the year 2000. The citizens of that time struggled with poverty, inadequate health care, crime, air and water pollution and political differences. Education was available for only a privileged few. Rogers presents plenty of good and bad examples of responses to these problems without losing his fair assessment of this complex era.