Selma: Explore Small Town's Major Role in Civil War History
by Marilyn Jones Stamps
The 1820s town of Selma, situated on the banks of the Alabama River in west-central Alabama, is a place where the past reaches out to you like the branches of the town's moss-draped trees. And part of that past is Selma’s role in the War Between the States (1861-1865).
During the war, Selma produced a variety of munitions and weapons for the Confederate armed forces as well as warships that included the CSS Tennessee and the CSS Tuscaloosa. The town also boasted a large workforce and was connected to other key points in the Confederacy by rail, which enhanced Selma's importance.
This road trip will take you into the heart of Alabama’s Black Belt, where you can learn more about Selma’s role in the Civil War and relive history during the Battle of Selma Reenactment each April. You can also experience a Civil War military ball, stroll through a burial ground where some notable Civil War soldiers are buried, and see the remnants of the mighty CSS Tennessee.
Background to the Battle
Selma’s location on the navigable Alabama River, far inland from the coast, and its close proximity to furnaces in central Alabama put it in a strategic position for serving the Southern effort through much of the war. This also made the town a prime target for Union raids during the latter part of the war.
On March 30, 1865, Union Gen. James H. Wilson sent Brig. Gen. John T. Croxton’s brigade to destroy all Confederate property at Tuscaloosa, approximately an hour and a half from Selma. After capturing a Confederate courier, whose messages from defender Nathan Bedford Forrest described the strength and disposition of his forces, Wilson sent another brigade to destroy the bridge across the Cahaba River at Centreville. This hindered Forrest from obtaining reinforcement, and ultimately began a running fight that did not end until after the fall of Selma on April 2, 1865. On that fateful day, the Union rounded up hundreds of prisoners, including Gen. Forrest. However, Confederate and Union soldiers continued to fight in every direction, all the way down to the Alabama River near the mouth of Valley Creek (where the present-day Battle of Selma Reenactment is held).
In the dark of night, Union soldiers looted the city while many businesses and private residences were burned. After spending the next week destroying the arsenal and naval foundry, they left Selma and headed to Montgomery and on to Columbus and Macon, Ga., and ultimately to the end of the war.
By the time Selma’s Civil War saga had ended, Wilson had captured 2,700 Confederate prisoners and the city of Selma, with only 46 of his men killed and 300 wounded. Although Forrest and a few of his comrades escaped, the most feared Southern commander and “the man that had never lost a battle” at last had been beaten.
A highlight of the Battle of Selma weekend is the Grand Military Ball at beautiful Sturdivant Hall (713 Mabry St.; 334-872-5626). During this event, the ladies turn out in their prettiest period ball gowns escorted by handsome white-gloved military men. Ceremonial guards are posted at the entrances, and flags hang from the balconies as bands play period music in the main courtyard. Everyone attending the ball must have a ticket and be dressed in period clothing.
Sturdivant Hall was built in 1852 by Col. Edward T. Watts as a town home for entertaining. It features a detached kitchen, gift shop and a formal garden. Period furnishings, art, clothing and other artifacts are on display. Tours of the house museum are available Tuesday through Saturday, from 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Group tours are by appointment.
Discover Other Sites in Historic Selma
To learn more about the history of Selma and all there is to see and do in the area, stop at the Selma Welcome Center (132 Broad St.; 334-874-4764). You can pick up brochures on each of Selma’s museums and select from five self-guided tours. The Selma Welcome Center is open Monday through Friday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m., and on Saturday, 11 a.m.–3 p.m.
Visit the Old Depot Museum (4 Martin Luther King Jr. St.; 334-874-2197). This interpretive history museum, located in the old L&N Railroad Depot at the foot of historic Water Avenue, features a fine collection of artifacts and memorabilia depicting life in Selma and Dallas County from 1820 to the present. You can see how farmers and their families used oxen to plow their fields. View shells, cannonballs and other remnants of the South’s largest industrial complex during the Civil War, and hear stories of pioneers of America’s Civil Rights Movement – another defining moment in the town’s storied past. The museum is open Monday through Friday, 10 a.m.–4 p.m. and Saturday by appointment.
The 1840s building housing the Vaughan-Smitherman Museum (109 Union St.; 334-874-2174) allows visitors to view a wonderful collection of Civil War memorabilia and antiques. Over the years, the building has served as a school, a Confederate hospital, the Freedman’s Bureau Hospital (Selma’s first African-American hospital), the Dallas County Courthouse, a military school and the Vaughan Memorial Hospital. Now as a museum, it depicts Selma’s history from its founding until the 1960s. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday, 9 a.m.–4 p.m.
“There is glory in graves” reads the inscription on the Confederate Monument that stands in the center of Selma’s National Historic Register Old Live Oak Cemetery. Strolling beneath its ancient oaks and magnolias draped in Spanish moss. Visitors will also find humor and pathos in the lives of the people whose stories are told here.
Old Live Oak Cemetery (110 W. Dallas Avenue; 334-874-2161;) serves as the resting place for more than 8,000 people, including two of the most famous Confederates of the Civil War: William J. Hardee, and Capt. Catesby Ap Roger Jones. Hardee was corp commander of the Army of Tennessee, former commandant of West Point and author of “Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics.” His funeral was reported to be the largest ever held in Selma. Jones commanded the CSS Virginia (the Merrimack) in its battle with the USS Monitor at Hampton Roads, Va., the world’s first modern naval battle. Jones also commanded the Confederate naval ordnance works that built the Brooke rifle for the CSS Tennessee.
Among other notables buried at Old Live Oak are Elodie Todd Dawson, staunch Confederate supporter and sister-in-law to Abraham Lincoln; Frances John Hobbs, well-known suffragist who sewed the most valuable treasures from her jeweler husband’s shop into her petticoats, saving them from Union Army looters; Selma’s founder, William Rufus King, who was elected vice president of the United States; and Edmund Winston Pettus, a Confederate general for whom Selma’s historic bridge is named. The grave markings and monuments are varied and provide a fascinating look into Selma’s past.
See the Remnant of Selma’s Famed Ironclad Warship
During the Battle of Mobile Bay, the CSS Tennessee waged the greatest fight against the longest odds of any Confederate warship during the Civil War.
Before departing the area, be sure to stop by the Selma City Hall (222 Broad Street). On the lawn, you’ll see one of the nation’s unique military artifacts – the stern pivot gun of the famed CSS Tennessee. Manufactured in Selma and weighing 15,300 pounds and with a range of 4.5 miles, the Tennessee gained undying fame in the South when it tackled an entire Union fleet during the Battle of Mobile Bay on August 5, 1864.
Where to Stay
Just because you are resting doesn’t mean you still can’t enjoy the city’s spectacular history. The St. James Hotel is a 183-year-old Selma landmark, which reportedly includes Jesse James as one of its former guests. Now, it’s opened in 2021 with a $5 million facelift transforming the 55-room hotel into part of Hilton’s Tapestry Collection. Across the street is one of the Civil Rights Movement’s most iconic sites, the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
The Battle of Selma Re-enactment
Held in late April, the annual Battle of Selma Reenactment weekend features living history tours for school groups, food and beverages, period clothing and souvenirs, a camp dance with a period band, sutlers (merchants who accompanied the military) period wares, a Civil War Writer’s Forum, and reenactments on both Saturday and Sunday, where you can once again hear the war guns and battle cry of that spring event.