Sunday, March 29, 2009

The West Point of the South

On January 19, 1830, the Alabama Legislature chartered a college in the small Colbert County community of LaGrange. Under the patronage of the Tennessee and Mississippi conferences of the Methodist Church, and with $10,000 subscribed by local citizens, LaGrange College became the first Alabama school to be designated as a college. Section 15 of the articles of incorporation prohibited the teaching of doctrine, limiting studies to the areas of science and literature. Therefore, the first faculty offered courses in mathematics, ancient and modern languages, and geology. By 1853-1854, LaGrange College had an enrollment of 230 students and an endowment of $50,000. Operations moved to Florence in 1855 and the college received a new charter as Florence Wesleyan University.

With the relocation of the faculty and many of the students, James W. Robertson established the LaGrange College and Military Academy in 1858 and became its first superintendent. The state of Alabama made provision for two young men from each county to be selected through a series of competitive examinations to be cadets. By 1861, 47 of 171 students were cadets, and the academy began to be referred to as "the West Point of the South," a title claimed by many such institutions throughout the southern states.

The outbreak of war in 1861 led many students to join the armies of the Confederacy. Organized in LaGrange, the 35th Alabama Infantry counted virtually all of the cadets among the 750 enlistees from Franklin, Lauderdale, Lawrence, Limestone, and Madison Counties. The regiment joined the brigade of General John C. Breckenridge in Corinth, Mississippi, with three members of the faculty serving as officers: Colonel J.W. Robertson, Colonel Edward Goodwin, and Major W.H. Hunt. The 35th Alabama saw action at Baton Rouge, Corinth, Port Hudson, and Baker's Creek. The regiment took part in the defense of north Georgia and Atlanta, suffered 35 casualties in General John Bell Hood's "slight demonstration" at Decatur, Alabama, and lost half its effective strength at Franklin. Following the Battle of Nashville, the remnants of the 35th Alabama fled east where they surrendered with the Army of Tennessee.

LaGrange was not spared the hardships of war. On April 28, 1863, the 10th Missouri Cavalry, USA, commanded by Colonel Florence N. Cornyn burned both the town and the academy. The 4,000 volume library and other buildings, along with chemical and physical apparatus were destroyed, with losses totaling $100,000. In 1904, Congress considered a bill to reimburse the trustees of LaGrange College and Military Academy for the loss of property during the war, but took no action.

Today, the memory of LaGrange College is kept alive by the LaGrange Living Historical Association. The site features buildings, a pioneer village, and an antebellum cemetery, as well as a small bed and breakfast.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Spanning States' and Civil Rights

About this time each year, Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge is in the news. There, on March 7, 1965, state and local law enforcement officers attacked approximately 600 Civil Rights marchers in a series of events that led to the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. One may ask why the Edmund Pettus Bridge and the events for which it is famous are proper for inclusion on a site dealing with the Civil War and the Tennessee Valley. The answer lies in the man, Edmund Pettus.

Edmund Winston Pettus was born in Limestone County, Alabama on July 6, 1821 to John and Alic
e Winston Pettus, the daughter of Revolutionary War veteran Captain Anthony Winston. Pettus received his education in Limestone County and at Clinton College in Smith County, Tennessee. After studying law in Tuscumbia with prominent attorney William Cooper, Pettus joined the bar in 1842 and practiced law in Gainesville. In 1844 he became solicitor of the 7th Alabama Judicial District.

In 1849, following service as a lieutenant in the Mexican War, Pettus traveled on horseback to California in search of gold, returning in 1851 to reestablish his law practice. His peers elected him Judge of the 7th Circuit Court in 1855, a position he held until his resignation and subsequent move to Dallas County.

With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Pettus served as commissioner to his brother, Governor John J. Pettus of Mississippi, but in August returned home and joined the 20th Alabama Infantry as a major. He became the unit's lieutenant colonel in October of that year, a rank he held until the siege of Vicksburg. Captured and exchanged there, Pettus received a promotion to brigadier general of a unit composed of the 20th, 23rd, 30th, 31st, and 46th, Alabama Infantry, a command he held until the end of the war. Pettus saw action at Port Gibson, Baker's Creek, Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge, Kennesaw Mountain, Atlanta, and Nashville. Wounded at Bentonville, North Carolina on March 19, 1865, he surrendered with Joseph Johnston near Durham, North Carolina on April 26, 1865.

Following the war, Pettus returned to the practice of law in Selma and served as the chairman of the Alabama delegation at each of the quadrennial meetings of the Democratic National Convention from 1872-1896. The state legislature appointed him to the United States Senate in 1896 and unanimously reelected him to succeed himself in 1902. The last of the Confederate brigadiers to serve in the United States Senate, Pettus died on July 27, 1907 before completing his second term. He was buried in Selma's Live Oak Cemetery.

Constructed in 1940 and named for a Confederate General and Old South politician, the Edmund Pettus Bridge served as a reminder of the Lost Cause, the Confederacy, and States' Rights for a quarter century. Since 1965, it has become one of the most recognizable symbols of the movement for Civil Rights. The irony is striking.