As discussed in the previous article (Coastal Point, July 20, 2018), the birth of the Confederacy took place in Montgomery, Ala., in 1861. Four years later, one of the final nails in its coffin was hammered home in the not-too-distant town of Selma.
Here, Union cavalry commander Maj. Gen. James H. Wilson routed the forces of Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest. Wilson also destroyed the important ordnance-manufacturing center located in Selma.
By October 1864, the Southern army was in retreat, and the survival of the Confederacy in jeopardy. Concern that President Jefferson Davis would transfer the theater of operations from Virginia to central Alabama and Mississippi led Wilson to propose an expedition into that area.
By early 1865, Wilson received approval to conduct a raid against Forrest’s units. His mission was to destroy the enemy’s forces, lines of communications and military resources.
The latter were principally concentrated in Selma — the most secure location for a joint Army-Navy ordnance production complex. It included a naval foundry, shipyard, army arsenal and gunpowder works, employing some 9,000 workers in 160 buildings.
Wilson’s powerful force numbered more than 13,000 men armed with seven-shot Spencer carbines. Forrest’s cavalrymen could only muster about 7,000; however, Wilson was aware that Forrest had overcome similar odds in the past.
Wilson’s march from northwest Alabama got under way on March 22. Forrest reorganized his generally unruly troops to deal with the impending attack.
Wilson sent Capt. L. M. Hosea with a flag-of-truce to Forrest’s base at Verona in northeast Mississippi, under a false pretext, in order to gain information. Armed with Hosea’s report, Wilson moved rapidly to beat Forrest to important points in Alabama.
The Union cavalry arrived in Elyton (now Birmingham) by March 28. From there, Wilson dispatched a brigade to Tuscaloosa to destroy the University of Alabama — a military school at the time, which produced many officers for the Confederacy.
Learning belatedly that Wilson was racing toward the southeast, Forrest deployed troops to intercept and delay his forces. From Rebel deserters and a captured dispatch, Wilson knew where every division and brigade of Forrest’s corps was located.
On April 1, the Union cavalry broke through Forrest’s blocking position at Ebenezer Church, 25 miles north of Selma, inflicted saber wounds on the Rebel commander and forced his troops to fall back into the entrenchments protecting Selma. The next morning, when Wilson began his march, he had a map of the Selma area supplied by an Englishman who had helped build the town’s defenses.
The Rebel forces behind earthworks and stockades crumbled under the Union cavalry’s multi-pronged attack late that afternoon. Forrest managed to escape, but more than 3,000 defenders — mostly conscripted civilians — were killed, wounded or captured.
Wilson directed the dismantling and destruction of the ordnance complex in Selma and went on to accept the surrender of the former Confederate capital at Montgomery. He overwhelmed the Rebel forces in western Georgia — demolishing every war-related facility along the way.
Although James Harrison Wilson is otherwise relatively obscure, Alabama’s citizens recall with mixed feelings his well-conceived and executed campaign through their state in 1865. It was arguably the most devastating cavalry expedition on either side during the long and destructive conflict.
Wilson became an adopted Delawarean following his marriage to Ella Andrews, the daughter of Col. John Andrews — onetime commander of the 1st Delaware Infantry Regiment. They resided in Wilmington, and Judge John P. Nields praised Wilson in a speech, calling him “Delaware’s greatest soldier.”
In 2003, I traveled Wilson’s route through Alabama, including a stop at Ebenezer Church, where an historical marker describes the action. The current church pastor provided his version of events that took place there in 1865.
In Selma, Jean T. Martin conducted a tour through the Old Depot Museum, which displays local Civil War artifacts, and described the few nearby foundry buildings surviving from that era. A visit to the University of Alabama Library in Tuscaloosa revealed that two buildings and a small guard house are the only remnants of the Union cavalry’s destructive sojourn there in 1865.
For additional information, see Sol H. Tepper’s “Battle for Selma.” To learn more about the Old Depot Museum, call (334) 874-2197.
My next investigation takes place in Augusta, Ga.
Tom Ryan is the author of the multiple award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign,” signed copies of which available at Bethany Beach Books, at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth, and at Allison’s Card Smart in Milford. His latest book, with co-author Rick Schaus, “Lee is Trapped & Must be Taken: Eleven Fateful Days after Gettysburg, July 4-14, 1863,” is due out from Savas Beatie in 2019. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.
By Tom Ryan
Special to the Coastal Point