By William Barshop

Tuscaloosans are known to proclaim the town’s place in Civil War history by telling the story of the Union invasion on April 4, 1865. It’s a surviving seed of animosity for the North, but also a legendary tale for those who feel loyal to Tuscaloosa. Local attorney and historian Chris McIlwain says there’s much more than meets the eye when it comes to Tuscaloosa’s tangled relationship with the Confederacy that led to the burning of the University of Alabama.

McIlwain led the installment of the Sundown Lecture Series, “Civil War Tuscaloosa” Thursday, February 13 at the Jemison-Van de Graaff mansion, sorting through the accounts he has collected from that era of US history.

Reading various documents to illuminate the story were Marty Hamner, president of the Tuscaloosa County Preservation Society, Katherine Richter, executive director of the same group, Guy Hubbs, associate professor at Birmingham-Southern College, and Ian Crawford, the director of the Jemison mansion.

Perhaps the most elusive mystery of Tuscaloosa’s Civil War history is the true loyalty of Robert Jemison, Jr., himself, the namesake and original owner of the Jemison-Van de Graaff mansion. At times he was vocally pro-war, especially when running for Senator of the Confederacy, but some of his actions suggest he was secretly a cooperationist or a Union sympathizer, McIlwain said. For example, Jemison owned a bridge that allowed Union troops access over the Black Warrior River, a crucial element in the Union’s success in burning down the University of Alabama.

“What if [the bridge] had been demolished? Would they have been able to destroy the University?” McIlwain said. “Probably not.”

McIlwain did object to the grudge many Tuscaloosans hold for that particular attack.

“You hear a lot of people putting the hex on Union soldiers for burning down the University,” McIlwain said. “But the Confederates burned Cumberline University in 1868. This was not an uncommon act. A lot of times [universities] were being used for military purposes.”

One voice that contributed to the history brought forth in the lecture was Landon Garland, the University of Alabama’s president during the war. His letters and speeches help historians understand the politics of Tuscaloosa’s involvement with the war and the general feelings at the time leading up to it.

The panel also dug into publications like the Independent Monitor and The Tuscaloosa Observer, which published opinions and news that represent how the public felt about the conflict.

What these historians found was often a chilling amount of devastation to Southerners with no stake in the slave trade. McIlwain said most counts of Confederate deaths from Alabama alone were over 25,000, and a great deal of those soldiers did all they could to resist going into battle.

“If you couldn’t afford college, you couldn’t avoid the draft that way,” McIlwain said. “Some people used self-mutilation to avoid service.”

There were some stories on the more light-hearted side that McIlwain discovered. One troop he found amusing spent eight days in Tuscaloosa despite strict orders to “high-tail it up to Chatanooga” from a notoriously vicious general, Braxton Bragg.

“These boys knew how to party,” McIlwain said. “I think they hit every house of ill repute along the way.”

Around 40 people sat in for the event, including many older members of the community and some local students. The room was quiet as the audience listened intently to each letter, article and speech from Tuscaloosa’s past. There was some unrest when the mansion lost power momentarily, just as Richter reached a line written by Malinda Taylor, a soldier’s wife, telling her husband there is “no light before us.”

Chiemeke Zuri, a Tuscaloosa ethnologist and African-American historian, said she heard about the lecture in the newspaper, and was interested in how much “common knowledge” about Civil War history was true when applied to Tuscaloosa.

“I wanted to see what actually happened here,” Zuri said. “I love living here and I’m a history buff, so I got interested.”

Zuri was especially captivated with the story of the Jemison family and their legendary influence.

“I’d heard a lot of things about the Jemisons,” Zuri said. “It’s amazing all that happened in this house.”

Richter ended the event by appealing on the behalf of the Tuscaloosa County Preservation Society for anyone with first-hand accounts of the Civil war era to donate them to the cause of bringing history to light.

“If there are any Civil War diaries, letters, photographs out there, please let us know,” Richter said. “There’s a lot of missing history.”

The Sundown Lecture series will continue through October with a variety of subjects such as “19th Century Wedding Dresses” and “How to: Identify Real Silver.” Historic Tuscaloosa will also host a Mardi-Gras Jazz Brunch at the Battle-Friedman house on March 1.


McIlwain’s Busted Myths:

Myth: There were black Southerners fighting for the Confederates.

McIlwain said most Confederates were strongly opposed to arming slaves, and many said they wouldn’t fight if they had to fight next to a black man. McIlwain told the audience that if they heard someone assert this myth to “ask them to give you the rosters of those units.”

Myth: The war wasn’t all about slavery.

“It had everything to do with slavery,” McIlwain said. The various conflicts that plunged the nation into war all revolved around slave states’ desire to keep their slaves.

Myth: The Civil War was known as “the war between the states.”

That term wasn’t used until years after the war was over, McIlwain said. Most people simply called it “the war.”

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