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.

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