- War’s Desolating Scourge: The Union Occupation of North Alabama by Joseph W. Danielson, and: Lincoln’s Trident: The West Gulf Blockading Squadron During the Civil War by Jr. Robert M. Browning
Until Rousseau’s and Wilson’s raids late in the Civil War, the only portions of Alabama to experience direct hostilities were the Gulf Coast and the Tennessee Valley. As early as Christmas 1861, Confederate and Union gunboats were dueling at the mouth of Mobile Bay, and the following February, after the fall of Fort Henry, Yankee timber-clads boldly steamed up the Tennessee River all the way to Florence. Two months later, Huntsville was occupied by General Ormsby Mitchell’s federal troops, and north Alabama was transformed into a seething hotbed of rebel resentment and guerilla raids, met initially by exasperation and, all too soon, iron-fisted retaliation. [End Page 191]
The war was a distinctive and significant experience at each end of the state, as demonstrated by two new studies. Both books are successful and will serve as useful references for years to come. In War’s Desolating Scourge, Joseph W. Danielson, a historian at Des Moines Area Community College, capably presents the story of north Alabama’s occupation by federal forces and the Union’s steadily decreasing tolerance for rebel dissent and guerilla resistance. In Lincoln’s Trident, Robert M. Browning, chief historian of the U.S. Coast Guard, has authored a sweeping history of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron and its role in winning the war for the North.
At secession, north Alabama’s loyalties were starkly divided between the prosperous Tennessee Valley counties, with their big plantations and high slave populations, and the hill counties immediately to the south, distinguished by hardscrabble farms and fiercely independent people. Danielson’s emphasis is on the valley communities where Confederate sentiment was most concentrated. These residents’ fervor surprised even Confederate troops from further south. One Henry County native marveled, “the people of North Alabama . . . are the most warlike people I have ever seen. Women cheer us, and the men go along with us.” (21)
Conversely, when Yankee troops billeted in Huntsville and began spreading along the north side of the river, they were astonished by their reception. One federal colonel described the white male population of Huntsville as “settled down to a patient endurance of military rule,” but the women were another matter, “outspoken in their hostility” and “marvelously bitter.” (41) Nor were the women above a little psychological warfare. Wrote a Yankee private, “In one house while I was sitting on the porch I looked around suddenly and saw a girl . . . holding a broom under her arm in the position of a gun and [pointed] at me.” (42) Out in the countryside the men were not so passive, and Mitchel complained in one report, “Armed citizens fired into my trains on the railway, have burned bridges, have attempted to throw my engines off the track, have attacked my guards, [and] have cut the Telegraph wires.” (46)
Early in the war, official federal government policy in occupied territory was one of conciliation, in hopes that rebels would be more [End Page 192] inclined to come back into the national fold. As Danielson demonstrates, this policy was stretched to its limit by civilian belligerence and finally broke after federal soldiers under the command of Colonel John B. Turchin, a Russian émigré whose previous European experience included routine civilian abuse, sacked Athens. On May 2, 1862, someone took a few potshots at the Yankees and Turchin “ordered his men to sack the town.” (75) This was new, and southerners were outraged. Citizens described soldiers breaking up furniture, defacing paintings, and emptying trunks and drawers. One woman wrote that the Yankees’ “chief delight” was to “strew molasses and lard...