- Judge Holly Bell: The Autobiography of Alabama’s Last Confederate Officer
During the spring of 1943, stories about world war ii dominated Alabama newspapers. Perhaps for this reason, the death at age 103 of Holland Middleton Bell, Alabama’s last surviving Confederate officer, was little noted except in his home town of Fayette, Alabama, and nearby Tuscaloosa.1 His funeral was a major event in Fayette. The courthouse, all of the businesses, and all of the schools closed. The First Baptist Church was crowded and three Baptist ministers presented his funeral service. In reporting the event, the local newspaper remembered him fondly as “the genial judge.”2 The next day’s Tuscaloosa News editorialized to the young men of the World War II generation that Bell’s life serving his county in several capacities was an example to them that war need not blight their lives.3 Bell, known as “Holly” to his family and in his community, was not just another aged Confederate veteran. His long career in public service and his stalwart support of his religious denomination, coupled with personal modesty and a famous sense of humor, made him an icon in Fayette County and the surrounding areas. After his death, popular remembrances of him skewed toward the legendary. [End Page 247]
Holly Bell served as an officer in the Confederate army, in public positions in his county, and prominently in his religious denomination. He was a significant man in his community, and his life exemplifies those largely unnoted local personages who helped to build their communities and the state. All too often, such figures leave little behind in terms of records and historical artifacts. Fortunately, in early 1930, Holly Bell penned a five-page account of his life and career which has been preserved by his family.4 This account, referred to by members of his family as his “autobiography,” represents one of the few examples of Civil War reminiscences penned by veterans of advanced age. Bell’s “autobiography” is notable for several reasons. In it, he explains how his division met a shortage of footwear and he includes an interesting account of how the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln affected Confederate prisoners being held in Washington, D.C., at the time. His description of the journey home to Fayette County refutes a common historical misconception that ex-Confederates had to find their own way home after the war. Moreover, the autobiography also reflects Bell’s personality, including his deep spirituality and conscientious sense of personal responsibility. The text, which is reprinted in full below a short biography, provides a fascinating window into experience of Confederate veterans as they sought to return to public life in the wake of defeat.
Holly Bell was born June 25, 1839, about twelve miles west of Tuscaloosa, the son of Anthony Fortad and Elizabeth (Middleton) Bell. He was the fifth child of ten with three brothers and six sisters.5 While still a child, his family moved to Fayette County where his father had a farm and a tannery which he operated with several slaves and where Bell’s father eventually held a variety of county offices. Young [End Page 248] Holly performed chores on the family farm and in the tannery and attended such local public and private schools as were available.6
Holly’s education was good enough for him to be one of two selected by the county commissioners under a February 1860 act to attend La Grange Military Academy in Franklin County as a State Cadet.7 Appointees had to sign a pledge to return to their home county upon leaving the school and “there teach school and drill the militia” for a period equal to the time they spent at the academy. Bell entered into his studies on July 4, 1860, as a member of the Fifth Class. An excellent student, Bell was a member of Company B at the institution, uniformed in gray and white, and received light infantry training with a short barrel Mississippi Rifle without bayonet. He was noted as standing at the head of the company “for keeping his gun and accoutrements in their best condition.” Threatened...