by John Sledge
On the eve of the American Civil War, Montgomery, Alabama was a
provincial state capital with only 9,000 residents, half of them
slaves. Dirt streets ran
through the town and cotton and corn grew right up to the city limits.
A correspondent for the London Times compared it "to a small
Russian town in the interior."
Yet this unimposing little city was chosen as the first capital
of the Confederate States of America, and even after the seat of
government was removed to Richmond, Montgomery continued to play an
important role in the Southern cause.
A new book examines Montgomery’s wartime history in
Rogers, an assistant professor of history at Gainesville College, Georgia, correctly observes that while historians have exhaustively studied the major battles and personalities of the War Between the States, "comparatively little attention has been devoted to the Southern homefront." In this absorbing book, Rogers contends that the story of Civil War Montgomery "reflects the strengths, weaknesses and, with vivid resonance, the life of the greater Confederate homefront." Indeed, this volume serves as an admirable model for future studies of Confederate cities, perfectly balancing as it does political, economic, social and military considerations.
Rogers masterfully describes antebellum Montgomery and its inhabitants. "Montgomery in 1860 was a place of wealth, architectural taste, and obvious commercial vigor," he writes. Residents lived in "a wide cross section of domiciles-impressive, commonplace, and the frankly disreputable" and at night "gas lamps bathed the streets in a faint, uncertain light." Rogers makes a valiant attempt to reconstruct slave life in Montgomery, but his sources are limited. "Most slaves simply adapted," he writes, "and strove to fulfill the expectations of the white world while attending to their own interests as best they might." Females made up half of the free white population, but "exerted minimal economic influence."
Montgomery was chosen as the Confederacy’s first capital because it was well positioned with good water and rail facilities, had a large number of hotel rooms and was thought to be safely distant from federal forces. On February 18, 1861, Jefferson Davis was inaugurated as the Confederacy’s first president on the capitol steps (the exact spot is today marked by a well-worn brass star). William Lowndes Yancey, a local lawyer and famous fire eater memorably declared, "The man and the hour have met." A Montgomery photographer recorded the scene in one of the most famous images in American history.
Montgomery’s advantages as a capital quickly diminished as the Confederate government grew. Furthermore, everyone complained about the heat and the mosquitoes. After the capital moved to Richmond, Montgomery became a major quartermaster depot and as casualties began to mount, the site of six large hospitals.
The war years strained the small city’s resources. Most able-bodied men were called away to the armies, and the tiny police force had to contend with unruly soldiers and convalescents in addition to the usual local criminals. In the summer of 1862, 40,000 Confederate soldiers passed through Montgomery on their way to Chattanooga, overwhelming local authorities. But even as the war ground on, Montgomery’s residents found release by going to the local theatre and watching travelling shows.
Montgomery was safely removed from actual fighting for much of the war, but towards the end became a target for federal cavalry forays. Incredibly, only minimal efforts had been made to fortify the city. Confederate General Braxton Bragg wrote that "a mere raid may destroy Montgomery…this is no fancy sketch." As Union forces began to penetrate central Alabama, local authorities hurried to throw up defenses, using mostly slave labor. These attempts were woefully inadequate, and in the spring of 1865 Yankees under the command of James Harrison Wilson rode into Montgomery without opposition. As Rogers notes, by then most residents were "more fearful than defiant."
In the final analysis, Montgomery was ill prepared for the Civil War, and struggled to meet the most basic needs of its residents and the Confederate government. The story of that struggle is well told in Professor Rogers’ new book.