Thursday, May 12, 2011

Civil War: 150 years later

After the smoke cleared ... Old State Bank was still standing; now the historic site is highlighted in brochure
By Catherine Godbey

Clad in blue-and-gray uniforms, soldiers armed with muskets and bayonets surrounded the two-story brick building. The limestone columns provided little cover from the bullets.

For four days, the skirmishes between Union and Confederate troops continued. It was October 1864.

During the Battle for Decatur, an estimated 400 to 500 soldiers died, suffered injuries or became prisoners. They were sons, fathers, black, white, slave and free.

Soldiers wrote home detailing the news.

“Dear Mother, with grief and sorrow I lament to you that brother James M. Robertson sleeps in a soldier’s grave in Decatur,” Union soldier Jefferson Robertson wrote in a letter dated Oct. 31, 1864, to his mother in St. Louis.

“Downtown Decatur is so quaint, peaceful and quiet that it is hard for people to imagine it as part of a war zone,” said Melinda Dunn, director of the Old State Bank on Bank Street. “But almost 150 years ago, it was.”

To commemorate the sesquicentennial of the war that split families and divided the nation, the Alabama Tourism Department created a Civil War Trail brochure.

The guide indicates battles, re-enactment events and historic sites, including the Old State Bank as part of the Decatur Civil War walking tour, which takes visitors past the cemetery and the McEntire House, where a band played on the rooftop.

“It was like the battle of the bands, for lack of a better term. It was like the pep rally before the big game,” Dunn said.

Stationed on rooftops, the Confederate and Union bands swapped songs. From the Union sounded “Star Spangled Banner.” The Confederate band responded with “The Bonnie Blue Flag.”

“According to the story, this went on for a while, until one soldier hollered out ‘I’m going to shoot.’ Then the bands scurried off of the field and the fight began,” Dunn said. “A lot of people that come to the Old State Bank come for those stories. With the 150th anniversary we expect more people to come through.”

Guests will see the quilt a family filled with valuables and buried when Union troops occupied Lawrence County. They will see the bullet holes in the columns and walk through the rooms where Union leaders strategized.

“It is said along with serving as the Union headquarters, the Old State Bank also was a hospital where the wounded were treated during the Battle for Decatur,” Dunn said.

Although called the Battle for Decatur, whether an actual battle took place is disputed.

“There was no battle in Decatur. There were sporadic skirmishes, but (Gen. John Bell) Hood never made an effort to attack the fort,” said Robert Parham, a Civil War historian and owner of the Blue and Gray Museum of North Alabama, also listed as a must-see in the commemorative brochure.

Union troops occupied Decatur, a town of about 600 people, in March 1864 to guard and control the railroad, Parham said. Seven months later, Confederate troops led by Hood set up outside of Decatur.

“If Hood wanted Decatur, he could have taken it. The reason he was here for days was because he couldn’t move,” Parham said. “He had a supply train of 580 wagons, 12 miles long that was stuck in the mud at Somerville. He could not leave Decatur until the supply train was out of harm’s way.”

Parham’s museum on Bank Street features weapons from the Civil War, Confederate and Union uniforms, cannon balls, military drums, canteens and photographs.

Along with the walking tour and the Blue and Gray museum, other local sites featured in the brochure are Pond Spring, the estate of Confederate Gen. Joe Wheeler in Hillsboro, and the entire city of Athens.

“The war came to Athens in May 1862 under Union Col. Basil Turchin,” said Buzz Estes, a historian and member of Sons of Confederate Veterans. “They behaved themselves for about a week.”

When rumors spread that Confederate Col. John Scott with the First Louisiana Calvary was headed to Athens with thousands of men, the Union troops departed.

“They lit out for Huntsville and as they were leaving, ladies stood on the corner and said ‘get out of here,’ ” Estes said. “The Union troops mistook Southern courtesy and civility for friendship and felt betrayed.”

Scott’s journey to Athens failed and Turchin returned.

“Athens was occupied continually from then on and kept under Union control, except for one brief period in September 1864,” Estes said, recalling the story of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest.

In an effort to disrupt the Union supply train, Forrest’s troops converged on Fort Henderson, a 26-acre stockade, where Union troops outnumbered Confederate soldiers four to one.

“That didn’t stop Forrest. He was a conniving son of a gun,” Estes said.

Under Forrest’s direction, the troops, clad in butternut and gray uniforms, marched past the fort carrying artillery and riding horses. When out of sight, the troops swapped uniforms and supplies.

“He put on a parade. He showed he had 5,000 men when he didn’t have 1,000,” Estes said. “The Union did surrender. Then the Confederate troops left and a couple of weeks later the Union troops returned and occupied Athens again.”

Want more?
The Alabama Civil War Trail brochures are available at visitors centers and the Decatur-Morgan County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. To learn more about the battles and skirmishes in Decatur, Athens and Town Creek, visit Download a walking tour podcast of Decatur Civil War sites at

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