The First, and Second, Battles of Selma

By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2014-2015, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the May 2015 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.

On May 13, 1865 the last battle of the Civil War came to an end, or so most people say. The Civil War’s battles are considered by most people to have taken place between April 12, 1861 and May 13, 1865, because this time period encompasses what are generally accepted to be the Civil War’s first battle and its last battle. But not every ‘Civil War battle’ took place between April 12, 1861, the date of the Battle of Fort Sumter, and May 12-13, 1865, the date of the Battle of Palmito Ranch, which is considered to be the last battle of the Civil War.

In other history briefs of the 2014-2015 Cleveland Civil War Roundtable session, I wrote about two ‘Civil War battles’ that occurred outside of the generally accepted Civil War time frame. One of these battles was the firing on the Star of the West in Charleston harbor on January 9, 1861, which some consider the Civil War’s first battle. The other was the Battle of Buena Vista on February 22-23, 1847 in the Mexican-American War, which, in a nod toward attention-grabbing unconventionality, I called the decisive battle of the Civil War. (These history briefs are titled, respectively, Repositioning History’s Demarcations and The Decisive Battle of the Civil War: An Unlikely Nomination.)

Another ‘Civil War battle’ that occurred outside of the generally accepted Civil War time frame had its 50th anniversary near the end of the Civil War’s sesquicentennial. This battle happened in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965, when civil rights protesters attempted to march to Montgomery, but were stopped by Alabama state troopers and local police, who beat the protesters. In the context of the Civil War, this battle can be designated the second Battle of Selma. The first Battle of Selma took place during the time period that is generally associated with the Civil War, namely April 2, 1865, or almost 100 years before the second Battle of Selma. One noteworthy aspect of the first Battle of Selma is the commanders of the two armies that fought there. The leader of the Union forces was James H. Wilson, and the commander of the Confederate forces was none other than Nathan Bedford Forrest. Forrest needs no introduction, but Wilson is not so well known, although he holds a very notable Civil War distinction that he earned shortly after the first Battle of Selma.

James Wilson

Early in the Civil War, James Wilson was an aide to George McClellan and then an officer on the staff of Ulysses Grant. In 1864, Wilson changed assignments to cavalry and served first as an administrator in Washington and then as a field commander under Phil Sheridan. In October 1864 Wilson was transferred to the West under George Thomas, where he fought at the Battles of Franklin and Nashville. Wilson’s greatest achievement was as the commander of a massive cavalry raid into Alabama, which began in the northwest corner of the state on March 22, 1865. Wilson’s force consisted of over 13,000, which made it the largest cavalry force of the Civil War. The primary target was Selma, which was a major producer of iron and was second in the Confederacy to only Richmond, Virginia in the production of war materiel. As Wilson’s force traversed Alabama on its way to Selma, it destroyed a number of ironworks.

Nathan Bedford Forrest

Opposing Wilson were Confederate troops under the command of Nathan Bedford Forrest. Not only was Forrest badly outnumbered, but his forces were badly scattered across Alabama, because Forrest was uncertain about Wilson’s ultimate objective. Throughout Wilson’s advance into Alabama, Forrest had his troops skirmish with the much larger Union force and fall back. On April 1, 1865 Forrest’s Confederates made a stand in a fortified position near a chapel known as Ebenezer Church, which is about 24 miles north of Selma. Although the Confederates were outnumbered about two to one, the battle was fierce, and during the battle Forrest killed the last of the 30 Union soldiers that he claimed to have killed during the Civil War, the unfortunate distinction going to Captain James Taylor of the 17th Indiana Cavalry. In spite of anything that Forrest did at Ebenezer Church, eventually the weight of numbers led to Wilson’s force driving Forrest’s Confederates into Selma. Selma was encircled by formidable fortifications that had been constructed years earlier, and Forrest’s troops took position in these fortifications. But the fortifications were so long and Forrest’s force so small that about ten feet separated each of Forrest’s men from his neighbor.

On April 2, 1865, the day after the battle at Ebenezer Church, Wilson launched an attack on Selma. Again the fighting was fierce, and again the weight of numbers prevailed and the Union troops overwhelmed the outnumbered Confederates. Forrest’s men fought as they fell back, but eventually Wilson’s troops drove most of them out of Selma, including Forrest, and those that could not escape were taken prisoner. By the end of the day on April 2, 1865, Selma was in Union hands. This date is notable, because on that same day approximately 650 miles to the northeast the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia was being evacuated. This means that the Confederacy effectively lost its two largest producers of war materiel on the same day.

Admirers of Nathan Bedford Forrest can rightly claim that James Wilson’s victory at Selma was tainted, because Forrest was badly outnumbered, and the troops that Forrest had for that battle included many old men and boys. Nevertheless, in his memoir Wilson threw a taunt at the Wizard of the Saddle that mockingly included some of Forrest’s own words regarding the tactical principles that Forrest used. Wilson wrote, “It (the Union cavalry) had fairly turned Forrest’s rules of war against himself, for, without disregarding tactics, it had not only ‘got the bulge on him,’ but ‘had got there first with the most men.'” Not only could James Wilson claim that he defeated Nathan Bedford Forrest, but he was about to lay claim to a larger prize. After the Battle of Selma, Wilson’s force continued eastward into Georgia, where there was a group of Confederate officials who had fled Richmond during the evacuation of the Confederate capital. On May 10, 1865, about five and a half weeks after the Battle of Selma, a detachment from Wilson’s force intercepted this group of Confederate officials at a place known as Irwinville, Georgia and captured Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

A derogatory cartoon depicting the capture of Jefferson Davis, which appeared in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper of June 3, 1865

The capture of Jefferson Davis was a highly symbolic milestone in the demise of the rebellion. But it should have been more than symbolic. Like the capture of one player’s king in a chess game, in an ideal world the capture of the president of the Confederate States of America should have signaled the complete and unequivocal end of all aspects of the rebellion, in other words, not just the end of the Confederacy, itself, but also the end of the sentiments that led to the rebellion. However, as post-war events demonstrated, those sentiments persisted, and this is exemplified by Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate commander at the first Battle of Selma, who became involved in the Ku Klux Klan after the Civil War. Anyone who thinks that the Civil War reached a complete conclusion in 1865 needs only to keep in mind that 100 years later a second Battle of Selma was necessary to advance the Union’s victory closer to completion. Moreover, on March 7, 2015, during the 50th anniversary commemoration of the second Battle of Selma, the Ku Klux Klan surreptitiously distributed recruitment literature to residences in Selma, which shows that the sentiments that led to the Confederacy still exist. Some people claim that perpetuating the spirit of the Confederacy is simply a way of preserving a part of our country’s history. Certainly preserving history is worthwhile, even history that we may prefer never happened. Honoring and commemorating our nation’s past is an important endeavor. But preserving history is different from perpetuating destructive causes and sentiments.

There are some who say that the Civil War is the defining event in our nation’s history. For example, on the membership sign-up page on the website of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable, there is a statement that membership “is open to anyone who shares the belief that the American Civil War is the defining event in U.S. history.” In the Wikipedia entry for the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable is a statement that our group’s “common bond is the belief that the Civil War was the defining event of American history.” Perhaps I risk losing my membership in the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable, but I do not agree that the Civil War is the defining event in U.S. history. The defining event in U.S. history occurred in the summer of 1776 in Philadelphia. Our nation is defined in the soaring words of Thomas Jefferson, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Abraham Lincoln acknowledged this defining moment in his Gettysburg Address when he said that the United States is “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

The words that define the United States of America
The upper image is from the original document. The lower image is from a reproduction.

At the time that Thomas Jefferson’s defining words were written, our nascent country was egregiously distant from the noble sentiment that is expressed in those words. But it is those words that define our nation, and the Civil War was one costly and tragic event that moved our country closer to attaining its definition. Even after all that our nation went through during the Civil War and during the time since the Civil War, we still have not achieved the full realization of our definition. In this sense the Civil War is still being fought, and the activities of the Ku Klux Klan during the 50th anniversary commemoration of the second Battle of Selma are one piece of evidence that this is so. Fully implementing our country’s definition is without a doubt extraordinarily complicated, if it can even be done at all. History has shown that implementing our country’s definition is much more complicated than the Founding Fathers ever imagined, and the specifics of implementation are different for different people, which contributes to the complications. Nevertheless, since the time that Thomas Jefferson penned the words that define our nation, our country has made much progress toward attaining its definition. It is important that we continue in this progress, so that the words that define our nation are not just a proposition, but a way of life.