American Historic Towns
Historic Towns of The Southern States

Edited by Lyman P. Powell
G. P. Putnam' Sons
New York and London
The Knickerbocker Press


MONTGOMERY is best known to the general reader as the "Cradle of the Confederacy." He turns to its history, if he cares to read it at all, to get a clearer local background for the stirring scenes enacted there in '61. And it would have been hard to select for them a more appropriate setting. For in many ways Montgomery was then a typical Southern town. Situated in the heart of the cotton region, surrounded and supported by large plantations, it was the centre of much wealth and refinement. As the home of Yancey and other men of unusual ability and divergent politics, it had been the battleground where all phases of secession were keenly discussed. Moreover, although founded by a New Englander and originally named New Philadelphia, it had from the first taken a vigorous part in the economic and political struggles which gradually separated North and South.

To reach the origin of Montgomery, one must go back nearly to the beginningof the century. From the misty traditions that early gathered like an Indian summer haze about the red bluffs on which the city now stands, the first tangible object to emerge is old Moore's log cabin, perched insecurely on the high river bank. Here Captain Woodward visited him, and long afterwards wrote: "Arthur Moore, the first white man that built a house and lived in it at Montgomery, built it in the latter part of 1815, or early in 1815. The cabin stood upon the bluff above what was once called the ravine. . . . The spot where the cabin stood had long gone into the river before I left the country." Here it stood high and solitary on the crumbling cliff, a picturesque connecting link between the legendary days of the Indian Town, Ecunchatty, and the bustling Western scenes so soon to follow.

Barely two years later the territorial government of Alabama was established, and the prospect of protection under it proved an inducement to the tide of population then setting strongly toward the Southwest. Fabulous reports of the fertility of the soil got abroad, and a steady stream of settlers poured across from the land office at Milledgeville, Georgia, through the Creek lands into Alabama territory.

Among these pioneers were many men of excellent family from all parts of the South, and even from far off New England. One of the earliest was Andrew Dexter, of Rhode Island, nephew of the well known Samuel Dexter, of Massachusetts. In 1817 he bought the land on which the eastern half of Montgomery now stands, and paid for it later with the assistance of John Falconer, a fellow pioneer from South Carolina. Dexter was a man of large ideas and remarkable foresight, and at once recognized the importance of his purchase as a site for a town. By the very modern plan of offering free lots, he persuaded several traders to join his venture, and proceeded to lay off his town. With touching faith, he reserved a fine site on the crest of the most commanding hill for the future state capitol. It was a prophetic dream that had to wait thirty years for its fulfilment. Goat sheds meanwhile adorned its brow, and gave it the unpoetic name, "Goat Hill."

Among the original settlers who came with Dexter was John G. Klinck, a South Carolinian of sanguine and enthusiastic temperament, who, writing years afterwards of the town in these early days, says:

"As soon after this as I could have the centre pointed out to me, I selected my lot, which was a privilege of first choice, and to name the place, which I called New Philadelphia and the name was never changed until 1819. I employed a Mr. Bell to build me a cabin, and in showing him where, we found on the corner a post oak in the way of laying the ground sill, when I immediately seized the axe and felled it, remarking to Bell,

This is the first tree future ages will tell the tale.'"

Immigration was brisk, and the high and healthy bluffs were tempting sites for homes. So the next year, 1819, two more towns sprang up in sight of New Philadelphia. One was a mile or two down stream, and bore the name "Alabama Town." The other, immediately adjoining, was called "East Alabama Town." Its site is now included in the part of Montgomery west of Court Street. The jealous rivalry that followed was seasoned with many pranks played by one town on the other. The redoubtable Mr. Klinck, on one chilly night, fired his musket with such continued energy that the neighboring town supposed the Indians were upon them, fled over the river, and men, women and children spent the night among the canes and bushes.

The inconvenience of this rivalry soon became apparent, and on December 3, 1819, New Philadelphia and East Alabama Town were united in one town called Montgomery, a name whose origin Mr. Klinck explains thus:

"All was agreed, and the union took place. Now for the name ? What shall be done ? It will never do to call it 'New Philadelphia,' nor 'Yankee Town ': either scent too strong for George.' I have it: we will call it Montgomery, after the county. It was settled upon without a dissenting voice, and to the great satisfaction of all concerned, the name being equally dear to every American throughout the land."

On the other hand, the Montgomery Republican of 1821 states very positively that the county was named after Lemuel Montgomery, who fell in the fight against the Creek Indians at Horseshoe, and the town after Richard Montgomery, who was killed at Quebec. Perhaps the river bluffs may have suggested to local pride the heights of Quebec, or possibly the true explanation is suggested in Klinck's last sentence. It was a name equally satisfactory to all parties. Like a political platform, they all accepted it, and then interpreted it to suit their tastes. The origin of the city in the union of two towns may still be traced in the fact that the streets west of lower Court Street run at an angle to those east of it. Alabama Town stayed out of the consolidation, but the union town had superior resources. First the business, then the citizens, drifted over, and like the earlier Indian town it passed into the twilight of history.

With union came strength and bigger notions, and Montgomery, in the twenties, was a bustling little frontier town, full of enterprise and ambition. One writer, with fond enthusiasm, speaks of its "dense population." The editor of its first newspaper wrote: "Montgomery, from its high and airy situation . . . is considered peculiarly healthy; indeed, many resort to that section during the Summer months. . . . For an infant establishment, it may be called a pleasant, flourishing town." In another issue he adds: "Its present population is about six hundred."

There was a healthy demand for houses, as is shown by the advertisements in the newspaper. One man offers a gun and a rifle in exchange for planks and shingles, and another a saddle horse for bricks and mortar. A wholesome respect, at least, was shown for learning in the prompt establishment of schools, and in the advertised arrival of such sturdy books as Murray's Grammar, Webster's Speller, Watts's Psalms and Hymns, and (for lighter use) song and dream books. Town and country struggle amusingly in the ordinance that imposed a tax of fifty cents for every dog a family kept, more than one.

The Court House stood in the centre of what is at present Court Square, and from it the houses extended mainly in two lines, one up what is now Dexter Avenue, toward Goat Hill, the other down Commerce Street toward the river. Perhaps a trace of the New England "Meeting house" is to be found in the multifarious uses to which this building was put. Here law courts met with suggestive frequency during the week, and the congregation assembled on Sundays when notified by a special messenger that a preacher was in town, while celebrations, oratory, and even dancing, kept it lively at night.

A motley population rises before our eyes as we run through the list of their amusements. There is the speculator at the horse races, the frontiersman at the Indian ball game, the vocifferous patriot at the regular celebration of the Fourth of July and Washington's Birthday, and even the spirits of defeated Indians and English seem to gaze grimly from the background at the hearty observance of Jackson Day. Yet among all these the most significant fact is the earnestness and delight with which the drama was cultivated. A company composed of local amateurs on December 17, 1822, presented Shakespeare's play, Julius Ceasar, in the upper story of the old building still standing at the corner of Commerce and Tallapoosa Streets, and if we may believe the newspaper "it went down to the satisfaction of a numerous and splendid audience." Of the actors, one afterwards became Governor of Alabama, another United States Senator, another a State Supreme Court Judge, and a fourth, Governor of Georgia.

It was a memorable day in the history of this little town when, on April 3, 1825, the great Frenchman Lafayette, then on his last visit to America, stopped here. The reception given him, though not without its amusing incidents, portrays vividly the eager and openhearted temper of the citizens. Escorted by three hundred Alabamians and a number of Indians, he reached Montgomery on a beautiful spring morning, and was met by the entire population on what is now Capitol Hill. Captain Woodward, who was one of his escort, thus quaintly describes the scene

"On Goat Hill, and near where Captain John Carr fell in the well, stood Governor Pickens and the largest crowd I ever saw in Montgomery. Some hundred yards east of the Hill was a sand flat, where General Lafayette and his attendants quit carriages and horses, formed a line and marched to the top of the hill. As we started, the band struck up the old Scottish air, Hail to the Chief. As we approached the Governor, Mr. Hill introduced the General to him. The Governor tried to welcome him; but, like the best man the books give account of, when it was announced that he was commander of the whole American forces, he was scarcely able to utter a word. So it was with Governor Pickens. As I have remarked before, Governor Pickens had no superior in the State, but on that occasion he could not even make a speech. But that did not prevent General Lafayette from discovering that he was a great man. . . . The people of Montgomery did their duty. Col. Arthur Hayne, who was a distinguished officer in the army in the war of 1813, and who was the politest gentleman I ever saw, was the principal manager. If the Earl of Chesterfield had happened there, he would have felt, as I did the first time I saw a carpet on a floor, and was asked to walk in. I declined, saying, I reckon I have got in the wrong place.'"

He was hospitably entertained at Colonel Edmonson's, on Commerce Street, where he received with kindly grace the crowds that pressed around him. At night a grand ball was given him in the building now standing on the corner of Commerce and Tallapoosa Streets; and in the small hours "a large concourse of citizens escorted him through the darkness down to the landing, and bid him a hearty but mournful adieu amid torrents of tears."

Frontier life conduces to early maturity in cities as well as in men, and Montgomery was no exception to the rule. The hard knocks that produce self reliance were not slow in coming. In spite of disastrous freshets and destructive epidemics, the population increased, and with its growth came a new and rougher element. An old newspaper suggests drily: "It requires no stretch of art to put rubbish before a shop door; to take down a gingerbread maker's sign; to take the wheels from a lady's carriage and put them on a silversmith's shop; and make noise enough to disturb the slumbers of the sick by beating stirrups for triangles, and blowing conchshells for French horns." Drunkenness and gambling increased, and the same paper soon had occasion to add: "This is the third, if not the fourth, attempt at homicide in this place within a few months." Such things were the first test of the city's capacity for self government, and were met by primitive but rigorous measures. Indecency of language or conduct was punished by a ducking in some neighboring pond, followed by a ride on a rail. There is a record of an outrageous scoundrel who attempted to steal and sell an Indian family, and was promptly whipped through the streets by the squaws while the citizens lined up and saw it well done. But the lawlessness increased until finally it destroyed the peace and threatened the existence of the town. Then it was that the law abiding class rose in mass, and under the leadership of Colonel John H. Thorington put down the gang and cleaned out their haunts.

If they had at times been too lenient toward lawlessness, and at others too impatient to wait for legal formalities, a ready explanation may be found in their absorption in business cares and enterprises. A new country of unknown resources had to be developed. Other things must wait. Governor Gilmer, of Georgia, who visited Montgomery in 1833, was deeply perhaps too deeply impressed with this side of their life. He says:

"I found the fertile lands of Montgomery settled up with active, intelligent, wealthy citizens, who had been drawn to it from the old States by the great advantages which it afforded to those who desired to increase their riches. The rapid accumulation of wealth whetted the appetite for getting money, until the people could not be satisfied with any quantity acquired. It was a subject of wondering cogitation to me, who had for many years been constantly taken up with the affairs of the government, and the strife of party politics, to listen to my Montgomery friends talking without ceasing of cotton, negroes, land and money."

The hardest problem that the business man of those early times had to face was the question of transportation. Dry goods, groceries and manufactured articles had at first been brought from Savannah and Charleston by wagon or horseback. But the way was long, the roads wretched, especially through the Creek territory, and the Indians demanded exorbitant tolls at the bridges; so the method was anything but satisfactory, and other plans were soon tried. Barges and flatboats were laboriously poled up from Mobile. They bore the promising names, Alabama Swan, Lady of the Lake, Cotton Patch and Ready Money, but consumed from fifty to seventy days on the trip. The local paper records the arrival of an "amphibious animal in the shape of a boat from East Tennessee." It came down the Tennessee, was transported across thirty miles of land to the Coosa, and by that river reached its destination. After a journey of a thousand miles, it finally arrived with an amusing assortment of flour, whiskey, apple brandy, cider, dried fruit, feathers and a five wheel carriage, some of which must have been taken on board near the end of the trip.

Under such circumstances, the arrival of the first steamboat, the Harriet, on October 22, 1821, marked an epoch. Nor did the town fail to appreciate its importance. The entire population turned out to bid it welcome. The next day it carried an excursion up the river at the lively rate of six miles an hour. Steam was too precious to be wasted in whistling, so a gun was fired to signal its approach.

While the Swans and the Harriets were struggling for supremacy, a third rival destined to supplant them both made its modest appearance. The Montgomery Railroad, delayed by the panic of '37, opened the first twelve miles of its line for business in 1840. It made no great display, and when the engine was out of fix horses were substituted without hesitation or serious loss of time. But it was the beginning of a system that soon put the city in close communication with the older Eastern States; and when President Davis came in 1861 over the same road, he traveled in a private car made in its own shops at Montgomery.

Business was the dominant interest during the first two decades of the city's existence, and may have seemed to visitors like Governor Gilmer to exclude all other thoughts; yet beneath the surface there smouldered the Southern devotion to politics. The town was scarcely two years old when the Missouri question gave rise to an ardent discussion of State rights, which found frequent occasion for renewal in subsequent years; and at the public dinner prepared in celebration of the Fourth of July, 1826, there were two toasts whose sentiment seems strangely significant in the light of after events. They were:

"The Union of the States - The golden chain of our liberties; dissolved into its minute links, the fabric falls into ruin."

"States Rights - The ark of our safety; every attempt to violate them should be regarded as highly obnoxious to the holy spirit of the Constitution."

Nor was their zest for politics a mere fondness for empty debate or idle personalities. It was an innate love for public affairs, a desire to discuss and to take part in whatever touched them public welfare. Now it was a question of State versus national power in the Creek region, and they with other Alabamians took such a lively hand in it that Francis S. Key, the author of The Star Spangled Banner, had to be sent down as special commissioner to smooth matters over. A year later it was Texas struggling against the absolutism of Santa Anna, and so keen was the interest felt at Montgomery that a mass meeting was held in the theatre, funds were contributed, and a company of forty men under Captain Ticknor was raised in the immediate neighborhood. In addition to the princely pay of $8 a month, there was the uncertain promise of a square mile of land out there. They got just six feet of it; for they were massacred after surrender at Goliad. In 1840, their attention was engrossed by the picturesque "Tippecanoe and Tyler too" campaign. Log cabins, coonskins, and hard cider were seen on every hand, and the "Great ball," which the Whig enthusiasts rolled through so many cities as a spectacular admonition to "keep the ball rolling," passed through the streets inscribed with denunciations of the Nullifiers.

But, after all, the event which made politics a prominent feature of life at Montgomery was the removal thither of the State capital. Tuscaloosa, its location at that time, not being accessible enough, a constitutional amendment was adopted providing for its removal, and on January 28, 1846, the Legislature, after a hot contest, selected Montgomery as the site. Two days later, the Selma stage brought the news to the city. Next day there was a grand procession, and at night there were bonfires and a jollification that would have gladdened the soul of old Andrew Dexter. His desire was to be fulfilled, and the capitol was to stand on the very lot he had reserved for it on Goat Hill nearly thirty years before. The new building, erected by the city, was ready in in the fall of '47; the archives in one hundred and thirteen boxes were laboriously brought from Tuscaloosa in thirteen wagons, at a cost of $1325 - figures as significant of poor transportation facilities as they are full of the magical number thirteens, and all was ready for the Legislature, which met in December. The effect on the city is vividly described in Garrett's Public Men

"The novelty of the occasion, together with the greater facilities to reach the seat of government, brought together an immense concourse of people. . . . The hotels were crowded to inconvenience, private boardinghouses were increased and thronged, and every avenue to the capitol presented at all hours of the day a stirring multitude. Candidates for the various offices were as thick as blackbirds in a fresh plowed field in spring."

The new building was burned two years later, but was immediately rebuilt on substantially the same plan.

Immediately on becoming the seat of government, Montgomery of course became the most important place politically in the State, and during the stirring years before the Civil War was the scene of many events which connected its history more and more closely with that of the country at large, and paved the way for the conspicuous part it was to play in '61.

The war with Mexico, like the struggle of Texas, aroused here more than a passing interest. In spite of the sad fate of Captain Ticknor's men, its citizens enlisted again and went to the front under Captain Rush Elmore and Colonel J. J. Seibels; and during the first few weeks of its session in the new capitol the Legislature suspended routine work more than once to join in the enthusiastic receptions accorded such returning heroes as Generals Quitman and Shields.

From that time until the Confederacy was born in its midst, the little city, like a mountain lake, bore on its ruffled surface traces of every storm that passed over the land. No other city reflected more vividly the heated debates in Congress over the fatal territorial problems thrust on us by the Mexican War. Nowhere else was the attitude of the South on these burning questions stated so promptly and so emphatically as in the once famous Alabama Platform, first presented by Mr. Yancey, February 14, 848, to a great political convention assembled in the capitol. The scene was historic, and is thus described by his biographer, Mr. DuBose:

"At this stage in the proceedings Mr. Yancey rose. The galleries were crowded with ladies and their escorts; the floor, lobbies, and rotunda were packed with men. He drew from his pocket his own resolutions and read them. . . . He spoke at length. . . . A vote was taken, and Yancey's resolutions were adopted, without even one opposing voice, amidst the most enthusiastic cheering on the floor and in the lobbies, the ladies in the galleries waving their handkerchiefs in the contagion of joy."

It was a characteristic example of his keen political foresight and also of the wonderfully persuasive eloquence that set his hearers on fire. No orator ever combined more perfectly closeness of reasoning with the fire of earnestness and an irresistible personal magnetism. The capitol, old Estelle Hall, every public place in the city, rang with the mellow tones of his voice; his debates with Hilliard were attended by throngs never equaled in the State before or since; and the mention of his name at this day arouses in the memory of old residents a sense of ecstasy produced by no other. No better idea of his manner can be given than by quoting once more from his biography, this time from a letter of General H. D. Clayton, describing a subsequent impromptu debate with his great friend and opponent, Hilliard:

"Mr. Hilliard, being loudly called, took his stand, and made the graceful speech, he always does. . . . Then broke forth the deafening, enthusiastic cry, Yancey, Yancey.' He came like a man conscious of right should always come. . . . As with modesty becoming a maiden of sixteen, he requested to be permitted to occupy the stand, To the stand,' shouted an hundred voices. . . . Bowing low he began. Here I must pause. I should despise my own presumption should I undertake further description of what followed. First went the Confederation newspaper, once in existence, now a dream, a shadow of things that were, gone glimmering like a schoolboy's tale. At every blow some foe fell, broken in every bone. For just two hours this work of destruction proceeded amidst deafening shouts from the throats of what is admitted on all sides to have been at least two thirds of the crowded house, called to put Yancey down."

In the debates and speeches of those days the men and the measures of the last decade before the war are preserved with a vividness that seems almost magical. Estelle Hall echoes with fierce discussions of the great Compromise of 1850. What a vista of history opens before the mind as the streets resound to the tramp of Colonel Buford's men on their vain errand to Kansas! And what a sobering sense of reality it brings to read his card in the papers! "I wish to raise three hundred industrious, sober, discreet, reliable men, capable of bearing arms; not prone to use them wickedly or unnecessarily, but willing to protect their section in every real emergency."

But interesting as these incidents are to the student, they were historically only preliminary to the dramatic events connected with the secession of the State and the organization of the Confederate Government. The course of South Carolina and the propositions for compromise had been watched with the greatest eagerness, and when the Alabama Convention assembled in the capitol on January 7, 1861, the excitement was intense. Hotels were crowded, lobbies thronged, the factions were busy caucusing, and so close did the estimate of votes run that a delegate who was opposed to secession exclaimed: "Mr. Yancey can save the Union by the wave of his hand." When the convention finally, on January i ith, came to a vote, the scene was a solemn and impressive one. Mr. Yancey, as chairman of the committee to draw up the ordinance of secession, rose to close the debate. The majority of the committee, he said, preferred that the ordinance should state simply that the State resumed its original sovereignty by its own act, without adding anything that might seem an apology; but for harmony they had yielded to the desire of the minority and agreed to a preamble and certain resolutions. The question was put and the vote stood 61 to 39. Alabama had declared her independence.

The scenes that followed are best described in the next day's newspaper:


"Yesterday will form a memorable epoch in the history of Alabama. On that day our gallant little State resumed her sovereignty, and became free and independent. So soon as it was announced that the ordinance of secession had passed, the rejoicing commenced and the people seemed wild with excitement. At the moment the beautiful flag presented by the ladies to the convention was run up on the capitol, . . . the cannon reverberated through the city, the various church bells commenced ringing, and shout after shout might have been heard along the principal streets."

At night the capitol and other buildings were "most beautifully illumined," and fireworks and speeches gave vent to feelings long pent up.

But in the excited crowd were sad hearts as well as gay. Many who heartily believed in the right of secession deemed it inexpedient at the time. A few caught some vision of the dreadful days to come; and one house at least amidst the general rejoicing was draped in mourning.

All hesitation was, however, soon swept away by the contagious excitement of the speedy assembling of the Confederate Congress. South Carolina had suggested Montgomery as the place of meeting, partly because of its central location, partly because of the conspicuous part it had already played. The idea met with favor, and the Alabama convention gave the proper formal invitation.

The little city, so soon to become the storm centre of the South, was at that time a town of some twelve thousand inhabitants, but made the proud boast of being the richest for its size in the country. A newspaper writer of the day thus describes it:

"The principal streets are wide and well improved, the stores and other houses for the transaction of business are large, commodious and handsome. . . . In regard to the private residences of the well to do portion of the population, too much cannot be said in their praise. A large number of them present much architectural skill and beauty, surrounded by capacious grounds, handsomely ornamented with the rarest shrubbery known to the South."

Another visitor was impressed with the numerous

"residences of gentlemen who own plantations in the hotter and less healthful parts of the State. Many of these have been educated in the older States, and with minds enlarged and liberalized by travel, they form, with their families, a cultivated and attractive society."

Here assembled, on February 4, 1861, the delegates from the Southern States that had seceded, and, amidst scenes still familiar to all Americans, they proceeded to organize the Confederate Government. The excitement culminated with the arrival and inauguration of Mr. Davis. An enormous crowd escorted him from the depot to the Exchange Hotel, where he was welcomed by Mr. Yancey in an apt little speech containing the famous words "The man and the hour have met." The ceremony of inauguration took place February 18th in front of the capitol. The enthusiasm was unbounded. One who was present declared years afterwards: "I never before or since that hour so experienced the ecstasy of patriotism." At 10 o'clock in the morning Mr. Davis left the Exchange in a carriage drawn by six white horses. A vast throng escorted him up Dexter Avenue to the capitol.

"After he took his seat on the platform in front of the capitol," wrote an eye witness, "and a short prayer had been offered, he read a very neat little speech, not making many promises, but hoping by God's help to be able to fulfill all expectations. He took the oath amidst the deepest silence; and when he raised his hand and his eyes to heaven, and said so help me God,' I think I never saw any scene so solemn and impressive."

Years have gone by since those brave days. The scenes that so stirred not only Montgomery but the entire land have passed into the pages of history. The eager throng that crowded Capitol Hill, and hung breathlessly on every word of the brief inaugural address; the ringing cheers and the roar of cannon that welcomed the news of Virginia's secession; the groups of leaders planning earnestly laws and constitutions and deep schemes of public policy; the soldiers in gray marching by with high hopes and light step; the sad day when the Confederate Government packed its archives and took its departure for Richmond, these memories and a thousand others that cluster about them will always be kept alive by the tender sentiment that clings to the Lost Cause.

But Montgomery, true to the spirit of its history, does not look backward. Business enterprise has adapted itself to new surroundings. It is today a city of the New South. On the site of the old Indian town, Ecunchatty, stands a great modern factory. The change is typical. Far over the wide stretches of field and river float the long streamers of smoke, the banners of the modern army of industry, in striking but friendly contrast to the white dome on Capitol Hill, the centre of Montgomery's past and present political life.

Historic towns of the Southern States

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