The American Civil War (1861–1865) was the war that followed the secession of eleven southern states, including Alabama, from the United States of America. The southern states proclaimed their independence as the Confederate States of America, or Confederacy. Over the next four years the United States, or Union, and Confederacy fought a bloody war.
At the time of the war, Birmingham had not yet been founded, and Jones Valley was still thinly settled. The Birmingham District includes a few sites where iron was manufactured in the 1860s to supply the Confederate war effort, but the most significant war manufacturing center in Alabama was at Selma, well south. The most significant military campaign in the Birmingham District was Wilson's Raid, in which a Union cavalry corps destroyed Confederate manufacturing sites during the final month of the war.
The Union ultimately defeated the Confederacy, abolished slavery, and gradually reincorporated the southern states through a process called Reconstruction. The war claimed more than 620,000 lives, and was by far the most destructive war ever fought on American soil.
On January 11, 1861, in the wake of South Carolina's seccession from the United States, Alabama's constitutional convention voted 61-39 to approve an Ordinance of Secession. On February 4, the Confederate States of America was officially created in the Provisional Confederate Congress with William P. Chilton, Sr, for whom Chilton County was later named, presiding. Two weeks later, on February 18, Alabama was admitted to the Confederacy as the Alabama Republic. That same day, Jefferson Davis was inaugurated as the Confederate President in Montgomery, which served briefly as the Confederate capital.
The war began on April 12 with the bombardment of Union-held Fort Sumter, South Carolina by Confederate forces. Many men who would later be prominent in Birmingham's early years enlisted in the Confederate Army during 1861. The University of Alabama, which had been converted to a military school the year before, also graduated its first class of military cadets that year.
Prior to secession, manufacturing had been concentrated in the northern states, so the Confederacy scrambled to create its own facilities. An experiment conducted at the Tannehill Ironworks in 1862 proved iron ore from Red Mountain could successfully be used in blast furnaces, several of which already existed around the future Birmingham District. That same year, one of these, the Brierfield Ironworks, contracted with the Confederate government to supply iron to the Confederate Naval Ordnance Works in Selma. Meanwhile, other furnaces changed hands, including the Tannehill Ironworks, which were bought by William L. Sanders, and the Shelby Furnace, which saw owner Horace Ware sell most of his shares to other investors. Around the same time, furnace master Moses Stroup, who was already helping add two new blast furnaces at Tannehill, left to assist in construction of the new Oxmoor Furnace at the request of the Confederate government. The Oxmoor Furnace, along with many other new furnaces and expansions at existing ones, were blown in during 1863.
Not everyone saw the Confederacy as a good opportunity, however, including William Walker, Sr who closed his store and retired due to lack of faith in Confederate currency. Many Alabamians who opposed secession were formed into the 1st Alabama Cavalry by the Union Army.
One of the earliest series of skirmishes in Alabama occurred during Union Colonel Abel Streight's raid into the northern part of the state from late April to early May 1863. He was opposed by Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest. Most prominent was the Battle of Day's Gap in Cullman County on April 30. Skirmishes continued into Blount County around Blountsville and on to the east. Streight ultimately surrendered to Forrest near Cedar Bluff, Cherokee County after Forrest fooled Streight into believing he faced a much larger force than Forrest actually had.
The tide of war turned against the Confederacy by 1864. Talladega was invaded. However that same year, iron ore mines, such as Helen Bess and Eureka No. 1 began operating on Red Mountain. Many would continue to operate beyond Birmingham's founding in 1871. In 1865, Wilson's Raid marched through the future Birmingham District, destroying numerous furnaces and ironworks and burning the campus of the University of Alabama. Some sites, such as the Arlington Home, escaped destruction. Once again, it was Confederate General Forrest who opposed Union forces, but Forrest's force was too small to prevail.
Shortly after Wilson's Raid moved through the Birmingham District, head Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 9. As news of the surrender spread, the rest of the Confederate armies surrendered as well and the war ended. As this was going on, United States President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. His vice president, Andrew Johnson, oversaw the beginning of Reconstruction.
Confederate veterans played significant roles in Birmingham's early history. Memories of the war, and competing interpretations of its meaning, have shaped events in the city and state ever since, often serving to divide black and white citizens. The Daughters of the Confederacy, an organization for white southern women, took the lead in establishing monuments to the "Lost Cause" and in directing schools to teach white southern children an approved version of the history of the "War Between the States."
As African Americans campaigned for equal civil rights in the 1960s, segregationists appropriated symbols of the Confederacy, such as the so-called "Rebel flag," to symbolize their determination to preserve white supremacy in the South. As a result, the display of the flag continues to be controversial to this day. Defenders of the flag maintain that it is intended as a symbol of southern regional pride, not of racial antagonism.