- Clearing the Thickets: A History of Antebellum Alabama by Herbert James Lewis, and: Lost Capitals of Alabama by Herbert Jim Lewis
Though Alabama is a state with a spectacularly rich antebellum past, occupying an especially prominent role in the history and development of the pre-Civil War South, there are surprisingly few books that chronicle the broad contours of its founding era. The heart of the southwestern frontier during its territorial years, it became the battleground on which the watershed Creek War roiled and some of the most frenzied immigration and speculation of a rapidly growing young nation occurred. Alabama lay at the very center of the development of the Deep South’s “cotton belt” between its founding and the outbreak of the Civil War, as well as the economic, political, and cultural developments that accompanied its rise. When the state and its neighbors seceded from the Union in 1861, recognition of Alabama’s figurative and logistical centrality to the South and all it represented was evidenced by the placement of the first Confederate capital in Montgomery. Alabama, in other words, transitioned from a frontier borderland into the thriving heart of Dixie within a generation, and that story remains one of the most profound and important in its storied past. Herbert James Lewis’s two recent books, Clearing the Thickets: A History of Antebellum Alabama and Lost Capitals of Alabama are therefore welcome additions to the historiography of the state owing to their attempt to provide new narrative histories of the major issues in Alabama’s founding era.
While we are fortunate that in the past few decades there has been a relative outpouring of scholarship focusing on several distinct [End Page 251] chapters of Alabama’s rich antebellum story which had long been in need of attention, books with the topical and chronological range of Thickets and Lost Capitals have been scarce indeed. Researchers have until lately had little option but to still consult a few bedrock studies published as long ago as the 1920s, such as Thomas Abernathy’s The Formative Period in Alabama (Montgomery, 1922), or even earlier, such as Albert J. Pickett’s iconic but hopelessly outdated History of Alabama (Montgomery, 1900), as starting points for a general understanding of Alabama’s critical first few decades. Though there have been serious state histories published of late which address much of the antebellum story, none better than Alabama: History of a Deep South State (Tuscaloosa, 1994), a focused look at the antebellum era incorporating some of the latest scholarship on the period has been sorely missing from Alabama’s historiographical record.
Enter Clearing the Thickets and Lost Capitals, both destined to become standard reference sources in libraries public and private across the state. There are several things to recommend both as valuable to those interested in Alabama’s antebellum past. Thickets, coming in at over 300 pages and by far the more substantial of the two volumes, provides a general outline of virtually all the major issues surrounding the early development of the State of Alabama. Lewis actually begins his narrative centuries before the territorial period, chronicling in overview fashion the European colonization of the region and the world of its original inhabitants before tracing off the history of the state in nine chapters covering the period between 1798 (the formation of the Mississippi Territory) and 1861 (the outbreak of the Civil War). Included are chapters focusing on the formation of government institutions and the imposition of law in the territorial era, a swift-moving but detailed account of the pivotal Creek War, a thorough look at the political maneuvering leading up to Alabama’s establishment as an independent territory and its headlong rush towards statehood, and the growth of a spirit of southern nationalism among Alabama’s leadership which ultimately manifested itself in a departure from the Union. Along the way Lewis...