The crowd standing below the capitol building portico in Montgomery, Ala., on Feb. 18, 1861, listened as Jefferson Davis spoke: “I enter upon the duties of the office to which I have been chosen with the hope that the beginning of our career as a Confederacy may not be obstructed by hostile opposition…”
When he expressed this sentiment at his inauguration as president of the Confederate States of America, Davis and many of his listeners were aware, however, that war with the North was inevitable.
Confederate leaders had stipulated in the provisional constitution that Montgomery would be the interim capital of the breakaway nation of seven states — South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. It was centrally located, and had excellent rail and water transportation facilities, and its citizens strongly supported secession.
At the time, Montgomery, situated on a bend of the Alabama River, was a city of almost 9,000 people, equally divided between whites and blacks — the latter of whom were mainly slaves. Montgomery was also the state capital and the dominant community within the central Alabama “Black Belt” of rich dark soil.
Despite economic progress prior to the Civil War, Montgomery had dirt streets and surrounding fields of cotton and corn. Few opportunities existed for blacks, free or slave, and application of the lash as punishment for misdeeds led to racial tensions.
When Davis’ temporary living quarters were deemed unsuitable, the government rented a residence for President Davis, his wife, Varina, and their two small children. That structure — since labeled the First White House of the Confederacy — still stands and is open to the public.
President and Mrs. Davis resided in the home for only a brief period. After Davis ordered Fort Sumter, S.C., in Charleston harbor fired upon on April 12, President Abraham Lincoln called for troops to stop the rebellion.
That led other states to consider leaving the Union. As an enticement for Virginia to secede, Rebel government authorities offered to move the capitol from Montgomery to Richmond.
The local populace met the proposal to abandon Montgomery with disappointment. The people took pride in having the Southern troops assemble in town before deployment to threatened areas, and being the center of government and social activity.
The transfer of the capital to Virginia, however, was a foregone conclusion, since Davis felt the need to be closer to the impending war zone. In addition, the business of government had severely tested Montgomery’s ability to provide services, and Richmond was much larger than the current capital.
Today, Montgomery publicizes itself as the “Birthplace of Civil War & Civil Rights.” In March 1965, the Rev. Martin Luther King led a protest march from Selma to the Alabama capitol in Montgomery, where Davis had been sworn in as president more than a century before, and succeeded in inducing the U.S. Congress to pass legislation to protect the rights of all citizens — including African-Americans — to vote.
Montgomery’s community leaders are now contending with the task of reconciling these conflicting events and integrating them as part of Montgomery’s heritage. As a result, Montgomery has become a popular tourist attraction for those who are interested in Civil War history and the early struggle for civil rights.
In early 2004, the Montgomery Convention & Visitors Bureau facilitated the first of a number of my visits to Montgomery. The Regent of the First White House of the Confederacy, Cameron Freeman Napier, conducted a tour of this well-preserved home that is furnished with period, as well as Jefferson and Varina Davis-related, artifacts.
I also visited the Alabama Department of Archives & History, where the staff displayed and described an extensive Civil War collection. Next stop was the Civil Rights Memorial, in the form of a circular fountain with an inscribed timeline of important events in the civil rights movement — located not far from the capitol building,
For further reading, see an article titled “Montgomery as the Confederate Capital: View of a New Nation” edited by James P. Jones and William Warren Rogers in the Spring 1964 edition of the Alabama Historical Quarterly.
For additional information, contact Montgomery Convention & Visitors Bureau at (334) 261-1100, and First White House of the Confederacy at (334) 242-1861.
Next, we will travel 50 miles eastward, to the town of Selma, Ala., where an important Confederate ordnance and naval foundry was located.
Tom Ryan is the author of the multiple award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” and “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War,” of which signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books, at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach and at Allison’s Card Smart in Milford. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.
By Tom Ryan
Special to the Coastal Point