Editor’s Note: this article is repurposed from a presentation created by the Huntsville/Madison County Public Library
What was the catalyst for the Civil War?
In March of 1861, Abraham Lincoln began his term as the 16th President of the United States. Lincoln was against slavery, and out of fear that it would be abolished in the United States, 7 states seceded from the Union. Tensions were growing between northern states who opposed slavery and southern states who relied on slave labor for their economy. There were several attempts to compromise, but they all failed.
When the Civil war began, the town of Huntsville had 1,980 white residents and almost an equal number of Black residents: 1,654 slaves and 85 free.
President Abraham Lincoln, 1864, Civil War Photographs, Library of Congress / Jeremiah Clemens, Between 1844 and 1860, Daguerreotype Collections, Library of Congress
Alabama Votes to Secede
Most people in Madison County did not want to secede from the rest of the United States, however, a majority of Alabama counties voted to secede. Once the Civil War began, though, attitudes changed and everyone in Madison County fought to protect their home. This quote from Jeremiah Clemens sums up the feeling of Madison County citizens who opposed secession: “I am a son of Alabama; her destiny is mine...calmly and deliberately I walk with you in revolution.”
1863, “Railroads,” Photographs Collection, HMCPL Special Collections
During the Civil War, the city of Huntsville was occupied by the Union twice. Having control over the city gave Union soldiers an advantage because it meant they controlled a large section of railroad in North Alabama. The railroad was one of the ways the Confederacy transported soldiers and supplies. The image above is of the Huntsville train station during Union occupation.
Circa 1860, Digital Archives, HMCPL Special Collections
Do You Recognize this Building?
The First National Bank is still standing today in Downtown Huntsville. In this image Union soldiers are hoisting an American flag to show that Huntsville is no longer under the control of the Confederacy. Remember, the southern states were rebelling and no longer considered the American flag to be their flag.
Circa 1860, “Street Scenes-East Side Square,” Photographs Collection, HMCPL Special Collections
What was life like in Huntsville during Union occupation?
This image is of a Union soldier encampment in downtown Huntsville. Soldiers were camped throughout the city. Notice the empty streets? The Union monitored Huntsville citizens’ day-to-day activities. Social events were restricted, and citizens were less free to move around the city. Some Huntsville citizens who were known to support the Confederate government were even put in jail.
Union officers temporarily lived in the homes of Confederate officers during the occupation. Their wives and household staff cooked, and waited on the military men who they often referred to as “Yankee boarders.” Basic necessities such as food and clothing were scarce during the Civil War. Homes with “Yankee boarders” were fortunate in some ways because they gave the families money, food, and other goods.
May 14, 1862, Civil War Photographs Collection, Library of Congress
Life for Enslaved People of Color
During the war many enslaved Black Americans left the households of their owners for freedom. They became soldiers, laborers, and servants for the Union. Even though Union soldiers were fighting to end slavery, enslaved people were still considered property, and were called “contraband.”
From the Civil War diary of Mary Jane Chadick, we learn what life was like for enslaved people in Huntsville during this time. Mary Jane Chadick’s servant Corinna wanted to send her son, Jim, to a school for Black children at the West Huntsville church. Slaves were not sent to school, and rarely taught to read or write. Going to school was a step towards freedom for Corinna’s son. Mary Jane Chadick discouraged Corinna from taking Jim to school but Corinna was ready to embrace the freedom that the Civil War promised and took him to school anyway.
Eventually, Corinna took her son Jim and went to work as a chambermaid at the hotel where many Union officers were staying. In November of 1864, Mary Jane Chadick ran into Corinna one last time at the train station where enslaved Black people were being evacuated. Corinna was heading north to make her way in the world as a free person.
4th U.S. Colored Infantry, Company E, between 1863 and 1866, Civil War
United States Colored Troops (U.S.C.T.)
When the Civil War began, many enslaved Black men left North Alabama to join Union forces. These men were formed into separate regiments known as the United States Colored Troops. Six regiments were raised from Alabama, five of which were comprised mostly of former slaves.
Impressment and Emancipation
The word “Impressment” refers to Black Americans who were forced into service during the war. Impressment happened on both the Union and Confederate sides. During occupation, many of the enslaved Black Americans in Huntsville were impressed to work for the Union doing labor, while others were already impressed to work in military service with their Confederate owners.
When President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, abolishing slavery in the United States, arrangements were made to pay the impressed Black workers.
Visit the Huntsville's History
If you visit the Historic Huntsville Depot, you will find Civil War graffiti from soldiers on the third floor. You can also walk through the Twickenham District to see some of the places the troops occupied during the Civil War. You can also see many of the same stores and buildings in the Downtown Huntsville Square, including the First National Bank.