Tuscaloosa During the Civil War

by Dr. Robert Mellown

Tuscaloosa, located far from the major theatres of the Civil War, was spared from violence until the closing days of the conflict. Throughout most of the war years its role was primarily one of support in the form of manpower, services, and supplies.

The University of Alabama, located about a mile from downtown, had converted to a military form of governance in 1860. After Alabama seceded from the Union the following year, it became the “West Point of the South,” supplying the Confederacy with 7 generals, 25 colonels, 14 lieutenant colonels, 21 majors, 125 captains, 273 staff and other commissioned officers and 294 private soldiers. Their contributions are memorialized on the university campus by a large granite marker on the main quadrangle north of Denny Chimes, and by a beautiful Tiffany memorial window in the W.S. Hoole Special Collections Library.

Tuscaloosa provided about 30 military units to the Confederate Army. These included such outfits as Lumsden’s Battery, the Warrior Guards, and Pegues Company. It is estimated in all that Tuscaloosa provided about 3,500 men to the Confederacy. Their service is memorialized by a marble monument located just inside the entrance to Greenwood Cemetery.

Tuscaloosa was the site of some of the earliest P.O.W. prisons during the Civil War. Located deep in the heart of the Confederacy, it was thought that Yankee prisoners would have less chance of escaping North. After Bull Run, the first major battle of the war, prisoners were shipped to Tuscaloosa where they were housed in warehouses at the foot of River Hill and in the business district in the two, two-story brick buildings once located on the NE and NW corners of the intersection of Greensboro Avenue and University Boulevard. Sergeant Henry Wirz, who would later oversee the Andersonville prison in Georgia and become the only man hanged for war crimes by the Federal government, commanded the prisons here.

After 1862, military hospitals were located at Tuscaloosa in the former Indian Queen Hotel once located downtown and also in the east wing of the still incomplete Alabama Insane Hospital (Bryce Hospital). Confederate soldiers who died as a result of their wounds were buried in Greenwood Cemetery and probably in the cemetery at the asylum. Union soldiers who died in Tuscaloosa were also buried there. However, their bodies were disinterred by the Federal government in 1865 and moved to national cemeteries.

Tuscaloosa was not a major manufacturing center, but it did have several factories that contributed towards the war effort. The Leach and Avery Foundry near the river produced cannons and cannon balls, the Black Warrior Cotton Factory provided cloth, and C.M. Foster’s tannery made shoes. A niter works located near the University (on the site of the Tutwiler Hall parking lot) was used to produce explosives. Also, in Northport, Dr. S.J. Leach operated a factory that made hats for the army.

For the first year or so of the war, Tuscaloosa prospered. The University of Alabama, then a military school, experienced record enrollments, and construction projects downtown and at the Insane Hospital continued. By 1863, though, Tuscaloosa began to feel the effects of the war. Supplies and equipment became increasingly expensive and difficult to obtain, and the town was overrun with refugees. As war news worsened townspeople worried about an inevitable invasion. In 1863, University President Landon C. Garland wrote to Gov. John Gill Shorter predicting that , “If the enemy ever reach this place, they would not leave at this University one brick standing upon the other.” His gloomy prediction and Tuscaloosa’s worst nightmare came true in the spring of 1865.

On March 29, 1865 Gen. John T. Croxton with 1,500 cavalry men left Elyton (Birmingham) with orders to proceed directly to Tuscaloosa “to destroy the bridge, factories, mills, university, and whatever else may be of benefit to the rebel cause.” En route the soldiers destroyed stores at Jonesboro (Bessemer) and the iron works at Tannehill. Near Trion (Vance) on March 21 the Federal troops engaged in a brief skirmish with a brigade of Confederate cavalry in which a number of men on both sides were killed. Rather than continue on down the Huntsville Road, Croxton and his men moved westward and approached Northport on the evening of April 3rd taking the town by surprise.

Twelve members of the home guard tried to stop the Federal troops from crossing the river into Tuscaloosa by tearing up the floor of the wooden covered bridge that connected the two towns. In the ensuing skirmish one member of the guard, Captain Benjamin Eddins was mortally wounded--the only death in the invasion of Tuscaloosa. A detachment of Federal quickly re-laid the floor of the bridge while others began to set fire to the hat factory located in Northport. On the Tuscaloosa side of the river citizens set fire to the tax-in-kind store to keep it from falling into enemy hands, while others rushed to the University to sound the alarm. The cadet corps under its commandant, Col. James T. Murfee, marched down University Boulevard and met Croxton’s forces in a brief engagement just east of the intersection of University Boulevard and Greensboro Avenue. Only one casualty was suffered by the cadets when Cadet Captain John H. Murfee, a brother of the Commandant, was shot in the foot.

According to historians, “The cadets averaged fifteen or sixteen years of age and were equipped with muskets of poor quality, while the Federal troops were using Spencer repeating carbines which were the best type of gun used in the war. Dr. Garland, realizing the fight was an unequal contest, ordered the cadets to retreat.” The cadets hastily returned to the University, destroyed ammunition and supplies, filled their haversacks with food, and marched eastward along the Huntsville Road. The town and campus were now left to the mercy of the enemy.

As in Northport, Tuscaloosa citizens were caught by surprise. A wedding in a downtown residence was even interrupted and many of the men, including the groom-a Confederate officer--were arrested. Sporadic looting took place and stores and businesses were destroyed that night and the next day. Private homes were not burned though many terrified civilians were harassed and in some cases robbed by marauding soldiers.

The following morning on April 4th troops marched out to the University and destroyed the campus by throwing “flammable torpedoes” into the doors and windows of the public buildings. By afternoon most of the University was in flames with the exception of the observatory which was somehow overlooked and several faculty houses. The President’s Mansion was actually set on fire, but due to the bravery of Mrs. Garland, the fire was extinguished and the house allowed to remain. Ironically, the small guard house, the only structure built on the campus with a specific military purpose, was not burned.

Gen. Croxton also had clear orders to destroy the town’s factories and bridge and soon the skies over every part of Tuscaloosa were filled with smoke as the tannery, niter works, cotton factory, etc. were put to the torch. Unfortunately, Tuscaloosa, which had managed to get through four years of the nation’s most bloody conflict, ran out of luck within less than a week before Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. Peace was soon restored, but it was to be decades before Tuscaloosa fully recovered from the disastrous Yankee invasion of April 3-4, 1865.

For more information see:

Clinton, Matthew W. Tuscaloosa, Alabama, its Early Days, 1816-1865. Tuscaloosa: Zonta Club, 1958.

Hendrix, Beasey S. A Short History and Muster Roll of Confederate Units from Tuskaloosa County, Alabama. Tuscaloosa: Colonial Press, 1988.

Hoole, W.S. and E.H. McArthur. The Yankee Invasion of West Alabama, March-April, 1865, Including The Battle of Trion, The Battle of Tuscaloosa, The Burning of the University, and The Battle of Romulus. University: Confederate Publishing Co., 1985.

Hubbs, G.W. Tuscaloosa, Portrait of an Alabama Community. Northbridge, Ca.: Windsor Pub., 1987.

Wolfe, Suzanne. The University of Alabama, A Pictorial History. Tuscaloosa: Univ. of Ala. Press, 1983