Auburn University’s Ken Noe has brought together fourteen new and established scholars in this collection of essays covering the Civil War and Reconstruction in Alabama. His introduction explains the title, which comes from Nathan Bedford Forrest’s ragged troopers’ taunting of Alabamians who sported fresh yellow-trimmed cavalry uniforms. Alabamians adopted the sobriquet “Yellowhammer,” to the extent that it became the official state nickname in 1927. It also situates the essays in the historiography of Alabama during the era.
The first essay is Lonnie Burnett’s intricate examination of the battle between the moderate wing of Alabama’s Democrats and fire breathers who insisted that secession was the only response to Republican “tyranny.” This is standard political history informed by social history.
Social and cultural history also inform most of the other essays. Jennifer Ann Newman Trevino and Jennifer Lynn Gross discuss how elite women’s religious and ideological fervor led them to support secession and sustained them as the war continued. Patricia Hoskins tells how Alabama’s Jewish families negotiated the Civil War, “fighting two wars: one on the battlefield and one against anti-Semitism” (160).
Examining non-elite whites, Kristopher Teters concludes that duty and protection of home motivated common soldiers more than did the pro-slavery, anti-Federal ideology of elite soldiers. Victoria Ott expands this inquiry by examining how cultural and gendered concepts of family influenced soldiers and buttressed the home front as the war ground on.
Ben Severance and Brian Willis consider warfare itself. Severance analyzes the crucial fight for Salem Church during the Battle of Chancellorsville, where Gen. Cadmus Wilcox’s Alabamians halted Union general John Sedgwick’s forces. [End Page 319] Willis retells in the form of a dual biography the familiar story of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s unsuccessful defense of Selma against James H. Wilson’s raiders.
Transitioning from the Civil War to Reconstruction, Harriet E. Amos Doss examines the differences between Alabama Confederates’ and recently freed slaves’ responses to Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and Sara Woolfolk Wiggins opines about Alabama historians’ changing views on Reconstruction. Doss and Wiggins share a theme, that the most powerful postbellum views did not stand the test of time. The Reconstruction essays each revise longstanding interpretation of events.
Terry L. Seip addresses the reputation of carpetbagger George E. Spencer as an exemplar of the horrors of Reconstruction by examining the three decades of his life prior to his 1868 election to the Senate. Seip concludes that Spencer was devious and manipulative but that he had “become genuinely invested in Alabama” and was part of a larger vision, in which former Federal soldiers, unionists, and ex-slaves should have replaced ex-rebels in positions of power in a new South (212).
Michael W. Fitzgerald uses the Southern Claims Commission’s voluminous records to unearth voices of white southern Republicans, “scalawags,” whose poverty and low status exposed them to “the more searing forms of wartime trauma” (220–21). Expecting that their suffering and steadfastness might bring protection, if not compensation, from the victorious federal government, unionists found that President Andrew Johnson’s policies left them almost as exposed as had their wartime dissent.
Gen. Wager T. Swayne, chief of the Freedmen’s Bureau in Alabama, receives a revisionist assessment from Jason J. Battles. Battles posits that the common view that Swayne indulged the planters while patronizing poor whites and former slaves is insufficiently nuanced. The problems Swayne faced with poor resources, tremendous need, widespread crime, disruption of the labor market, and white intransigence led him to seek partners among the elite and demand that ex-slaves honor labor contracts. However, in those contracts he also imposed significant conditions and reporting requirements on planters.
Bertis English establishes a novel connection between segregated church formation in Perry County and the growth of postbellum African American educational and business infrastructure. His essay provides an epilogue to the book by morphing into a short history of Alabama State University.
Getting The Yellowhammer War published in time...