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Selma Alabama:
From Civil War to Civil
by Kathleen Walls

Live Oak Cemetary
Photo credit Selma- Dallas County Tourism

Indian lore says Selma is built where Chief Tuskaloosa met with explorer DeSoto. Whether that is true or just myth, no one knows for sure but one thing is sure Selma is filled with history. So much has happened in Selma since 1820 when it was officially incorporated. It was planned and named by William Rufus King who later became Vice President of the United States under President Pierce. He is interred in its Live Oak Cemetery, one of the few cemeteries in the South on the National Register of Historic Sites. The cemetery is the resting place of many other famous people including: Elodie Todd Dawson, staunch Confederate supporter and sister-in-law of Abraham Lincoln; Harriet Hooker Wilkins, a Selma suffragist who became the first woman elected to the Alabama Legislature; and Frances Hobbs, a real life Scarlet, who sewed her jeweler husband's most valuable stones into her petticoats, saving them from Union Army looters.

Strange that the history of Selma is most often associated with two historic epochs titled with the word “Civil”: The Civil War and The Civil Movement. Neither was at all “civil.”

The Saint James Hotel
Photo credit Selma- Dallas County Tourism

During the Civil War, Selma was one of the South's main military manufacturing centers until April 2, 1865 when Union General J. H. Wilson's troops captured Selma. It produced much needed supplies and munitions, and Confederate warships such as the ironclad Tennessee It touches a personal; note with me as my great-great grandfather, Captain John Roy, fled New Orleans when it fell to Admiral Farragut in April of 1862 to go to Selma. He was sent there by the Confederacy to establish a foundry but probably due to lack of funds that foundr ynever materialized however while there he worked with local cannon makers and possibly helped design a Confederate submarine.

For important visitors to Selma in the mid-19th century, the hotel of choice was The Brantley. This elegant hotel was built in 1837 high on a bluff facing the Alabama River. Today it is known as the Saint James Hotel.

During the Battle for Selma, the hotel became the Union headquarters and afterwards was used as home for the occupying officers. Perhaps this is why the hotel was spared the fiery end so many other building along Water Street suffered due to the explosions and burning of so many arsenals and munitions factories.

When the hotel's owner, Dr. Gee went to serve in the Confederate Army, he turned the hotel over to Benjamin Sterling Tower, his slave, who was later to be the first African American ever elected to Congress. At the time of his management, Tower added to the hotel and increased his own wealth so that by the end of the war, he was believed to be wealthier than his former master.

Jesse James Portrait from LOC

Prominent businessmen and plantation owners enjoyed the luxury the Saint James offered. Other not so savory visitors also took refuge at the Saint James as well. Two of those infamous guests were Jesse and Frank James.

16-year-old Jesse along with his older brother Frank joined Quantrill's Raiders, a volunteer unit of guerilla fighters that harassed Federal troops and sympathizers behind Union lines. After the war, Jesse and Frank continued their violent ways. By 1869, the brothers were notorious criminals with a huge reward on their heads. For some Confederate sympathizers, the brothers had a kind of Southern Robin Hood image of desperate men struggling to restore the old order. This image was due in part to John Newman Edwards, a Kansas City Times editor with dreams of restoring the Confederacy.

The brothers visited the hotel in March of 1863. They came to visit a cousin, John Green Norris, who had lived near them in Missouri. Norris had moved to Selma and become a respected citizen there. At the time of the James brothers visit he was a city councilman. When the James' brothers arrived in Selma, the aliases of “Williams,” Norris courageously offered to let them stay at his home. Realizing the danger this would creat for their cousin if they were found there, the brothers declined. They choose instead to stay at the Saint James. They felt safe enough to have a photograph taken during their stay. While at the hotel, they shot pool with the hotel manager, James Dedman, who later described the brothers as well-mannered and perfect gentlemen.

A young visitor studies the Kirkpatrick Home at Od Cahawba
Photo credit Selma- Dallas County Tourism

However, the Pinkertons were hot on the trial and the brothers fled Selma just ahead of their pursuers. Rumor has it the outlaws escaped by diving into the Alabama River and swimming to safety.

By 1892 the hotel had become an Alabama version of Skid Row. It wasn't until the 1990s, when it had sunk to the level of a tire-recapping factory, that it was rescued and restored to its former glory and renamed the Saint James.

Old red brick columns of Cahawba's Crocheron mansion mark where Confederate General Forrest met General Wilson to discuss the exchange of prisoners after the Battle of Selma
Photo credit Selma- Dallas County Tourism

The Old Cahawba Archaeological Park is a restoration of what was Alabama's capital between 1820 and 1826. Due to its propensity to flood, the capital was moved to Tuscaloosa. The city was nearly abandoned but then rebuilt when the railroad put in a line, which passed nearby. It became a major distribution point for cotton to be shipped on the Alabama River.

During the War Between the States, it was the site of a Union prison. During reconstruction, it became an enclave of former slaves who divided the city into small plots of land to farm and freedmen who used it as a relatively safe place to discuss political strategy. Today, it is preserved by the state and offers an interesting glimpse into the past. You can wander the ruins and speak with an archeologist about the significance of the site.

Even though so much of Selma was lost to the fires that accompanied the city's fall to Union forces, much has also been saved. A good place to view the best of Selma's antebellum homes and buildings is in the Old Town Historic District. It is Alabama largest historic district. Beautiful Sturdivant Halll is one of the district's showpieces.
Sturdivant Hall

The house was designed by a cousin of General Robert E. Lee, Thomas Helm Lee for Colonel Edward T. Watts. It was built in 1852-1853. The Watts only lived in it for 11 years and in 1864 Mr. John McGee Parkham purchased the home. Parkman and his family seemed to prosper while he lived in the home. He became president of the bank where he worked. However, Mr. Parkham was dealing in cotton futures, and using bank money. When the futures fell, the Federal Authorities who were still occupying Selma during reconstruction, arrested him and sent him to the former Confederate prison at Cahaba.

Parkman was a popular man in Selma. Friends believed he was unjustly imprisoned as most other bankers were doing the same thing. So they bribed one of the guards to leave his cell door open. Parkman rushed out to a waiting boat but one of the guards shot and killed him. His wife sold the house and left Selma in disgrace. Parkham was buried in the old Live Oak Cemetery.

Brown Chapel

One of Selma's landmarks that span both the Civil War and the Civil Movement is Brown Chapel. Built in 1866 by Freedmen, it was the first African Methodist Episcopal Church in Alabama. In 1965, national attention focused on the striking Byzantine style church. 600 African-American protesters gathered there on March 7 with plans to stage a peaceful march to the state capital. When the marchers reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge, just six blocks away, local deputies and state troopers began beating the marchers with clubs. The clubs and tear gas dispersed the marchers but a new movement swept the South. Civil for all were now demanded! It had been promised in the earlier civil Act of 1964 but without the all-important right to vote that legislation was worthless. As images of the Selma March and its consequences flashed into homes across the nation history began to unfold. ABC called it “Bloody Sunday” and like all battles, it had consequences.

From a tiny church in Montgomery, a new general stepped in to command his bloodied but unbeaten army. Then little-known Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. marshaled his troops for another peaceful assault on the old powers that be. On March 9th, he led a symbolic march to the bridge. There the authorities again stopped the marchers. King avoided bloodshed and instead had his people kneel and pray. This march was never intended to be anything but a symbol focusing even more attention on Alabama. Then on March 21st, after winning a federal injunction allowing the march, he set out again from Brown Chapel with around 3,000 followers. When he arrived in Montgomery, he was at the head of a triumphant 25,000 marchers, both Black and white. Within five months of that fateful day, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Act of 1965.

The Civil battle finally empowered the descendants of those freed by the outcome of the Civil War.. Selma Alabama was in the hub of both.

www.SelmaAlabama.com
Selma-Dallas County Tourism & Convention Bureau
912 Selma Ave.
Selma, AL 36701
info@SelmaAlabama.com

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