Huntsville’s Civil War history shown through diaries and letters
Monday, April 11, 2011
The Huntsville Times
HUNTSVILLE, Alabama — Six months worth of research through Civil War diaries, letters and regimental histories show a small glimpse of what Huntsville looked like through the war years.
"This is the sesquicentennial of the start of the Civil War," said Ranee Pruitt, archivist at the Huntsville-Madison County Public Library. "We want to present this history to audiences like this."
On Sunday afternoon, Pruitt and assistant archivist Susanna Leberman shared "Huntsville – The Occupied City" to a group of historians and Huntsvillians at the library’s main branch on Monroe Street.
The hour presentation centered around journal entries from Mary Jane Chadick, the wife of Presbyterian minister William D. Chadick. Chadick chronicled what happened to Huntsville as Union forces occupied the city from April 1862 through 1865.
"There was no decade more turbulent for Huntsville than the Civil War years or the years that followed," Leberman said.
It was Leroy Pope Walker, a Huntsville native and the first Confederate States of America secretary of war, who issued the orders for the firing on Fort Sumter, S.C., which started the war.
For a brief time, cannons were made in Huntsville, giving the city a mission in the war. Some local churches even gave up tower bells for the effort, Leberman said.
What Union forces wanted most from Huntsville was the depot, which served the Memphis and Charleston Railroad – a main artery for the Confederate army. One historian in the room said the railroad was the backbone of the Confederacy, which is why Union forces laid claim to North Alabama and Huntsville.
According to Leberman, the "Blue Coats" took Huntsville by surprise and faced no opposition. The depot was quickly claimed, as was the post office and several homes used as command posts.
In archived letters soldiers wrote to their families, they talked of the beauty of Huntsville, describing the springs, the vegetation, and the hills and mountains that surrounded the valley where Huntsville was built. As Leberman read letters and diary entries, she pointed out the modern-day locations of the places mentioned.
While free of Union forces in August 1862, Huntsville’s peace lasted only temporarily as more soldiers arrived in 1863. By July, there were 5,000 Federal soldiers in Huntsville. In 1864, many died due to a severe winter, a smallpox outbreak, and an explosion at the depot – which killed six Union soldiers.
"Although they are our enemies, the sight touches our sympathies," Chadick wrote in her journal. Many Union soldiers are buried in Maple Hill Cemetery, Leberman said.
In April 1865 after Lincoln’s death and Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender, the war ended. As "dear loved ones returned," Chadick quit writing.
The third floor of the library’s main branch houses the archives. The library archivists offer their Civil War presentation to businesses, schools and civic organizations. For more information, visit hmcpl.org.
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