Selma, Ala., is well-known as the starting point of Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent march to the capital at Montgomery in 1965 to gain voting rights for African-Americans. A century earlier, in a precursor of this struggle for freedom, Selma was the scene of a violent clash between Union and Confederate forces.
The birth of the Confederacy took place in Montgomery, Ala., in 1861, and four years, later one of the final nails in its coffin was hammered home in nearby Selma. It was there that Union cavalry commander Maj. Gen. James H. Wilson routed the forces of Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest and destroyed the most important ordnance-manufacturing center still functioning in the South.
Wilson, born in Illinois, graduated from West Point in 1860, and later married Ella, sister of his classmate John Andrews of Delaware, and daughter of Col. John Andrews, commander of the 1st Delaware Infantry Regiment. When the Civil War commenced in 1861, Wilson rose in the ranks rapidly and, by 1864, commanded a cavalry corps.
As explained in a Washington Times newspaper article dated Feb. 7, 2004, by early 1865, Wilson conducted a raid against Forrest’s units in Alabama that was designed to destroy the enemy’s forces, lines of communications and military resources. Forrest’s troops were principally concentrated in Selma, protecting a joint Army-Navy ordnance production complex. At its peak, it included a naval foundry, shipyard, army arsenal and gunpowder works employing some 9,000 workers in 160 buildings.
Throughout the war, the mercurial and combative Forrest — a former Tennessee planter and slave trader — had been the bête noire of the Union command in the West. Although a regular cavalry officer, he often operated like a partisan ranger, attacking vulnerable targets behind Union lines.
Forrest had a difficult task ahead, considering Wilson’s powerful cavalry force numbering more than 13,000 men armed with seven shot Spencer carbines. Forrest’s cavalrymen had suffered heavy casualties in recent battles; therefore, he could only muster about 7,000 — yet, Wilson was aware that the wily Forrest had overcome similar odds in the past.
Prior to start of operations, Wilson and Forrest had scouts reconnoitering their opponents’ strength and disposition. While Forrest was stymied by lack of information, Wilson’s intelligence motivated him to march rapidly and occupy key locations.
Wilson sent his columns by three routes, to confuse the enemy. They converged in the vicinity of Jasper on March 26. Leaving their supply trains behind in order to accelerate movement, the Union cavalry arrived in Elyton (Birmingham) by the 28th. From there, Wilson dispatched a brigade to Tuscaloosa to destroy the University of Alabama — at that time a military school that had produced many officers for the Confederacy.
Learning belatedly that Wilson was racing toward the southeast, Forrest deployed troops to delay the Union forces. While Wilson pressed on toward Selma, Rebel deserters informed him of Forrest’s whereabouts, and a captured dispatch revealed Forrest’s plans to attack Wilson’s front, flank and rear near Plantersville.
Wilson knew where every division and brigade of Forrest’s corps was located. On April 1, the Union cavalry broke through Forrest’s blocking position at Ebenezer Church and forced the Rebels to fall back into the entrenchments protecting Selma.
Early the next morning, when Wilson began his march on Selma, he was armed with a map of the area supplied by an Englishman who had helped build the town’s defenses. The outnumbered and inexperienced Rebel forces behind the earthworks crumbled under the Union cavalry’s multi-pronged attack late that afternoon.
Forrest managed to escape, but more than 3,000 defenders — mostly conscripted civilians — were killed, wounded or captured. The dramatic victory at Selma was overshadowed, however, when Richmond fell to Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s forces on April 3, followed by Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, Va., on April 9.
Wilson directed the destruction of the extensive ordnance facilities in Selma, and the South no longer had a weapons and ammunition production capability to support continued operations.
Wilson went on to accept the surrender of the former Confederate capital at Montgomery and overwhelmed the Rebel forces in western Georgia — demolishing every war-related facility along the way. It was arguably the most successful cavalry expedition on either side during the long and destructive conflict.
After the war, Wilson and his wife, Ella, made their home in Wilmington, Del. In an address to the Wilmington Rotary Club in 1929 that enumerated his accomplishments during the Civil War, Judge John P. Nields labeled James Harrison Wilson as “Delaware’s Greatest Soldier.”
Tom Ryan is the author of the multiple award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign.” Signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books and Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach, or contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.