- The Federal Invasion of Pickens County, April 5-7, 1865The Burning of the Courthouse and Skirmish at King's Store
April 6, 1865, proved to be a tumultuous day in the waning life of the Confederacy. What remained of the Confederate government, President Jefferson Davis and his Cabinet, had moved by rail from Richmond to Danville, Virginia. In the Trans-Mississippi Department, Major General John A. Wharton discussed military affairs in his district with Colonel George W. Baylor, commanding the Second Texas Cavalry, in Wharton's hotel room in Houston, Texas; a sharp disagreement arose, and in the ensuing argument, Colonel Baylor shot and mortally wounded the general. Engagements between Confederate and Union forces erupted at Natural Bridge, Florida, and at Flat Creek and High Bridge, Virginia. In the latter fight, Confederate Brigadier General James Dearing and Union Brigadier General Theodore Read engaged in a rare pistol duel between opposing mounted general officers; Read was killed and Dearing mortally wounded.1 [End Page 3] Elsewhere in the Virginia theater, at Saylor's Creek, southwest of Petersburg, Lieutenant General Richard S. Ewell's Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia clashed with the Sixth Corps of the Army of the Potomac under major generals Phillip Sheridan and Horatio Wright. Wright's corps took some eight thousand Confederates as prisoners of war, including Ewell, in this calamitous Confederate defeat, the last meeting between elements of these two armies.2
In Pickens County, Alabama, nearly two thousand combatants fought for hours in driving rain, lightning and thunder, and deepening mud on the southern boundary of the county at Sipsey Bridge, Sipsey Swamp, and King's Bridge. The Union cavalry brigade of Brigadier General John T. Croxton and the Confederate command of Brigadier General Wirt Adams clashed in this series of encounters, with dozens of casualties on both sides. Miles away to the west, in the heart of the county, a Federal cavalry detachment burned the county courthouse in Carrollton and took many citizens prisoner in skirmishes south of the town. Though the destruction of the Pickens County seat of government by the Union mounted detachment is well-known, the details of this episode have not been elaborated, nor has the confusion of the dates of these incidents found correction.3
Two weeks earlier, Major General James H. Wilson and his command had embarked from Union-occupied northwest Alabama on a mounted invasion into the heart of the Confederacy. Wilson marched southward with three divisions of cavalry, 13,500 sabers [End Page 4] armed to a man with Spencer repeating carbines. The largest mounted raiding force of the war, which set out in conjunction with the Union campaign for Mobile, drove into central Alabama to lay waste to the military-industrial sites in the Deep South, the foundries and arsenals of Selma on the Alabama River with the iron works, depots, and mines which supplied arms, ordnance, quartermaster equipment, and ammunition for the armies and navy of the Confederate States. When the Federal horsemen reached Elyton (now Birmingham) on March 30, 1865, Wilson ordered Brigadier General John T. Croxton, commanding First Brigade of the First Division, Cavalry Corps, Department of the Mississippi, to detach his brigade from the invading Union cavalry corps.4
Major General Wilson directed Croxton to march his brigade, composed of the Second Michigan Cavalry, Eighth Iowa Cavalry, Sixth Kentucky Cavalry, and Fourth Kentucky Mounted Infantry, to Tuscaloosa. There the First Brigade would destroy the University of Alabama, which was now a military college training officers for the Confederate army, as well as the warehouses, factories, foundry, and other facilities of war at that place. After marching southwest from Elyton, Croxton found his direct approach to Tuscaloosa blocked by a division of Confederate cavalry nearly double his numbers. The rear guard of the Federal brigade fought a delaying action against this overwhelming Rebel force under Brigadier General William "Red" Jackson on April 1. Croxton then retreated northeastward and crossed the Warrior River forty miles above the Druid City. By [End Page 5] the night of April 3, the Federal cavalry had entered Northport, the village across the Warrior River opposite Tuscaloosa, assaulted the bridge guards...