top of page

History of the Shoals by Harry E. Wallace

(as published in the TimesDaily February 25, 1999)

Presented here by permission of the TimesDaily and the author



Historians, as usual, differ in their interpretations of the Reconstruction period. They include William Dunning's turn-of-the- century view that Reconstruction was a national disgrace perpetuated by a vindictive North upon a helpless, defeated South.


Howard Beale's 1920s view questioned the motives of the Radical Republicans in Congress. His conclusion was that the radicals were using Negro suffrage as a vehicle to keep the Republican Part in power and that by doing so, they threatened constitutional government.


After World War II, Kenneth Stampp turned those views upside down when he said Reconstruction was just a continuation of ex- tending the American principles of equality and justice.


Today, the general view is that Reconstruction was not all that bad: three new amendments to the constitution were enacted, but equality for Negroes was not fully achieved, only begun.


Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between these views. History has taught us many important, painful and expensive lessons, one of which is that only in a very few instances has direct government intervention into the daily lives of its citizens been successful.


One success story was the Great Depression and President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. But equal examples of failure are Reconstruction and President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society and War on Poverty programs.


Questions for the South


Immediately after the war, there were some very interesting questions that needed answering:
     How would the South be reconstructed?
     What would happen to nearly 4 million freed men?
     How would the Southern states be readmitted into the Union?
     Who would direct Reconstruction - the president or Congress?


After the death of President Lincoln on April 15, 1865, the nation began a political power struggle between President Andrew Johnson, former Democrat and military governor of Tennessee, and a Radical Republican Congress, dominated by Rep. Thaddeus Stevens and Sen. Charles Sumner.


The south was in near total devastation: an entire civilization had collapsed economically and politically. An Atlantian, upon returning to his hometown after the war said, "Hell has laid her egg, and right here it hatched."

The authors of "Alabama: The History of a Deep South State" said "Alabama stood on the brink of a new frontier; starting over. Only this time, change would be the product of a defeat instead of hope and expectation, and the initial plans for the future would be drawn by the victors."

On June 19, 1865, Johnson named Lewis E. Parsons of Talladega as provisional governor of Alabama. Historians William Rogers and Roger Ward said, "No more moderate figure than Parsons existed among the state's hostile factions."

Military control of Alabama fell to Gen. Charles A. Woods. Under a proclamation of President Johnson, all laws except slavery were to remain and all eligible voters had to take the Oath of Allegiance. A total of 50,000 Alabamians did so.

On Aug. 31, 1865, 56,000 voters elected 99 delegates to a constitutional convention: 63 delegates were regarded as conservatives and 36 were "anti-Confederates."

The new constitution revoked the Ordinance of Secession, declared void the war debts, declared slavery illegal and pledged loyalty to the Union.

The Huntsville Advocate assessed the situation by saying, "This is a white man's government and a white man's state." White citizens divided before the war were more divided now. Many Alabamians moved west, to Mexico, and some to Brazil.


Negro vote a dilemma


One question that unified all opposing forces was that of social and political equality for Negroes. Consider the following political dilemma: If Negroes did not vote, the northern and southeast counties of Alabama, strong holds for Unionism, would dominate the state. However, if blacks were allowed to vote, they could join with the poor whites and control the state. But if they were controlled by their former owners they would help return the former secessionists to power.

On Dec. 13, 1865, in the midst of turmoil and upheaval, Robert Miller Patton of Florence was inaugurated as Alabama's 20th governor.

Patton was born in Russell County, Va., in 1809. His family moved to Huntsville in 1818 where his father, William Patton, was one of the founders of the Bell Factory Cotton Mill.

After his schooling at Greene Academy, Robert moved to Florence in 1829 and became a well-respected businessman.

He married Jane Locke Weakley Brahan the daughter of War of 1812 veteran Gen. John Brahan, who was a personal friend of both generals Andrew Jackson and John Coffee. Brahan's plantation, Sweetwater, became Patton's property at the general's death. The plantation consisted of some 4,000 acres and was tended by 300 slaves.

Patton eventually would serve in both houses of the Alabama Legislature and was Whig president of the state Senate when Alabama seceded from the Union. He personally opposed secession but gave his full support to the confederacy during the war, serving as a commissioner to raise needed money. Patton personally raised $1 million.

Patton's inaugural address


During his inaugural address, Patton said, "I assume the duties of this high position under circumstances which are peculiarly embarrassing. Our country is beset on every side with difficulties which seem almost insurmountable. But relying upon the support and assistance of the co-ordinate departments of the state government, and trusting that a generous people will look with kind forbearance upon whatever errors I may commit, and that an all-wise and good providence will direct me in all my thoughts and conclusions, I willingly enter upon the difficult task before me."

Patton faced immense social, economic and political problems and his every move would be scrutinized by factions both in Alabama and in Washington. Alabama had lost 35,000 to 40,000 men in the war and an equal number were wounded and disabled. In addition there were 20,000 widows and 60,000 orphans.

In January 1866, Patton's office reported 52,921 destitute whites on the verge of starvation. Historian Walter Fleming estimated that 20,000 people in DeKalb, Franklin, Lauderdale, Lawrence, Limestone, Marshall and Morgan counties were on the verge of starvation.

Patton, with the aid of Maj. Gen. Wagner Swayne, Alabama commissioner of the Freedman's Bureau, issued emergency rations for some 20,000 per month.

Ironically, North Alabama, the strongest region against secession was the hardest hit.

Union Gen. James Wilson said, "The entire valley of the Tennessee having been devastated by two years of warfare was quite as destitute of any supplies as the hill country south of it. In all directions, for a hundred and twenty miles, there was almost complete destitution."


Valley in devastation


Alabama historian Robert Somer described the Tennessee Valley in 1870: "It consists, for the most part, of plantations of which the ruin is for the present total and complete. The trail of war is visible throughout the valley in burnt-up gin houses, ruined bridges, mills and factories, and in large tracts of once cultivated land stripped of every vestige of fencing. The roads, long neglected, are in disorder, and having in many places become impassable, new tracks have been made through the woods and fields without much respect to boundaries."

Economically, Patton said, the loss of slave property alone "is not less than two hundred and fifty millions of dollars; and the aggregate amount of losses in the various other descriptions of property must be equally as much. Hence we find that in this state alone, we have sustained a loss, in actual and substantial wealth, of at least five hundred millions of dollars.

Cotton land values dropped from $50 per acres in 1860 to between $3 and $5 per acres in 1865. Cotton was worth $250 per bale at the end of the war but it had been raised by slave labor. It was taxed from $60 to $75 per bale. If the bale was raised without slave labor, the tax was a mere 3 cents per pound or $12 to $15 per bale.

Alabama had been the leading producer of cotton before the war and Patton stated Alabama produced "about one-fifth of the entire American crop" in 1860.

The state debt was $3,445,000: $2,109,000 to New York City banks and $1,336,000 to London banks. The interest per year was $73,680 bringing the unpaid balance to $442,080 by January 1866, Patton proposed the Legislature enact new tax laws to enable the prompt payment of the debts.


New taxes proposed


Since slave property had been the most reliable source of state taxes before the war, Patton proposed alternative tax sources. Before he left office in 1868, the state debt had been reduced to about $1 million.

This figure is even more remarkable when you consider that for his first year in office, no state property taxes were collected. The banking system was in total disarray. Banks had loaned the state money in exchange for war bonds.


These bonds were part of the war debts that were revoked by congress. Patton urged leniency on banks so they could gradually get back on their feet financially.


University rebuilt


The University of Alabama had been burned by troops of Wilson's cavalry in early 1865. Patton asked the Legislature to loan the University trustees $70,000 to rebuild the needed buildings. The state penitentiary system was on the verge of bankruptcy and bands of lawless men roamed and preyed upon the innocent and helpless.

This situation was particularly severe in North Alabama. Many of the outlaws were deserters from both armies and homespun Tories. Patton appealed to Gen. George H. Thomas to arm and supply a state militia of "one hundred and four companies, of sixty men each" to hunt down these outlaws in cooperation with Union occupation troops.

Since nearly half of the state's population was former slaves, Patton, in accordance with Swayne, issued a statement that the Freedmen "must be made to realize that freedom does not mean idleness and vagrancy."

With the demand for labor and real money scarce for wages, both Patton and Swayne called for a contract system that later became known as sharecropping. Swayne said blacks should "hope for nothing, but go to work and behave yourselves."


Black Codes are born


Because the new state constitution did not grant equality for Freedmen, the Black codes were issued.

They largely applied to blacks and white equally but their application and enforcement would become racist. The education of these Freedmen was in the hands of whites. The authors of "Alabama: The History of a Deep South State" - William Rogers, Robert Waid, Leah R. Atkins and Wayne Flint - wrote: "If education could emancipate and free, it could also enslave and control. It was always the question of what people were taught - and by whom?"

On the national scene, the Radical Republicans had refused to seat all southern delegations in Congress on the grounds that Freedmen and Unionists were discriminated against and many of the newly elected representatives were former Confederates.


President Johnson blamed


Congress further blamed President Johnson for Southern resistance to social and political change and the failure to control groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.

The Klan had been created in Pulaski, Tenn., in January 1866 and quickly spread over the south. The first grand wizard was former Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, who disbanded the Klan in 1867 and disassociated himself from it.

Congress was further infuriated with Johnson because he vetoed nearly all legislation passed and gave speeches in which he labeled the Radicals as traitors. The nation was on the verge of a power struggle for control of Reconstruction and the governments of the South.

The general consensus is that the Radicals were motivated by their desire to promote the Republican Party and would seek to run the nation through the legislative branch, contrary to the constitution.

Historian A. B. Moore said, "Never was propaganda more successful. Southerners made little effort to counteract it and there was enough friction between the races, enough hostility to resident Northerners, though many of them were unworthy of recognition by respectable people, and enough legislation against the Negroes to invest it with a semblance of authenticity."


14th Amendment


One of the first Radical Republican moves was to require the ratification of the 14th Amendment to guarantee citizenship and equality for Freedmen. Patton was caught in a political dilemma. If he encouraged approval, conservatives would label him a "scalawag" and work to undermine his influence. On the other hand, if he did not work for approval, Unionists and Radicals would label him a "Confederate" and work for his removal.

Patton personally opposed the amendment, but saw that Alabama, like other southern states, was not in a favorable bargaining position. Patton believed that only through cooperation would Alabama achieve its former status as a state.

Historian A. B. Moore said, "The Fourteenth Amendment, a bitter pill though it was, would in all probability have been ratified by the Legislature if it had been known that this would be the last condition imposed on the people. The prevailing thought was that its adoption would not satisfy Congress, that the more the people surrendered the more would be expected of them."

The "Bourbon" opposition and many moderates who felt threatened prevailed and the Legislature voted down the amendment.

The stage was now set for a power struggle to determine who would control Alabama. Unionists promoted the Loyal League, which was organized in North Alabama counties during the war as a secret society for unionism and to encourage Confederate desertions. There were active organizations in Huntsville, Athens, Decatur, Florence and Tuscumbia.

In 1867, Unionists numbered only one-fifth of the state population and held majorities only in Winston, Fayette, Marion and Walker counties.

Historians Rogers and Ward said, "If Congress ordained black suffrage and if Republicans could control black votes, the Unionists could become the majority party in Alabama."

The Unionists "...wanted the black votes that could put them in power, but they did not want the social equality that might go with it," the historians wrote.

In September 1868 eight black members of the Tuscumbia loyal League plotted to burn the town. After much discussion, they burned the Female Institute. Almost immediately three were arrested and after one confessed and implicated others, the three were hanged from the Tuscumbia railroad bridge. The remaining five escaped to Kentucky.


A new constitution


In May 1867, Alabama was divided into 42 voter registration districts and delegates were elected to attend a new constitutional convention to replace the provisional, or white, constitution of 1865.

The new Republican constitution was ready for ratification in February 1868. The law required 85,000 votes to ratify. The Democrats realized they could not defeat the constitution outright so they urged all voters to stay home.

Only 70,812 voted to ratify with 1,005 opposed. Ratification failed by 13,550 votes. In Lauderdale and Madison counties, only 150 of 1,500 qualified voters actually voted.

Total embarrassment for the Radical Republicans was averted when, on March 11, they passed the fourth Reconstruction Act to allow approval of the 1868 Constitution by a simple majority. At the same time, Alabama was formally re-admitted to the Union on condition that the 14th Amendment be approved.

According to Rogers and Ward, now "Reconstruction in Alabama was a revolution that increasingly lost its cause and became an exercise in holding power."

On July 13, 1868, Patton and his entire administration were removed from office and the newly appointed Radical Republican administration of Gov. William Hugh Smith took office.

Historians have labeled Smith a conservative, anti-black and despite the fact he was appointed, he mistrusted the Radical Republicans.


Radicals take over


Alabama's experiences under Radical Reconstruction have been considered harsh and unmerited by many but short-lived.

During the administration of Smith, the Radical Congress demanded the passage of the 15th Amendment, providing voting rights to former slaves and free blacks. This action convinced many moderates that Republicans and blacks had to be defeated.

Under the surface, the Bourbon conservatives, now joined by many former moderates who felt threatened, were maneuvering for the election of 1870.

When the election arrived, the Republicans were divided over white and black control. To take full advantage of the situation, the Bourbons ran a moderate, Robert Burns Lindsay of Colbert County. The old rivalry between North and South Alabama was temporarily soothed.

The Republicans re-nominated Smith and selected a black man to run for secretary of state. James Rapier of Florence became the first Negro to run for any state office. Many believed this action would only benefit the Bourbon Democrats.

Lindsay won by 1,429 votes. Many instances of violence, ballot stuffing and outright fraud were reported on both sides.

Would the Congress allow the election to stand? Former Gov. Smith barricaded himself in his office and refused to surrender the office until Congress verified the election.

In 1870, because of the deaths of Radical leaders Stevens and Sumner and the waning Northern interests, the election was approved.

Lindsay's administration fell between two Republican governors, Smith and David Lewis, and was further hampered by a divided Legislature.

Lindsay is Alabama's only foreign-born governor. He came to America from Scotland in 1844 and moved to Tuscumbia in 1849. After admission to the Alabama Bar in 1852, he eventually served in both houses of the state Legislature. Favoring secession, Lindsay served in Roddy's 4th Alabama Cavalry.

Rapier's historic election


In 1872, the Democrats split between the moderate Lindsay and Bourbon conservative Herndon of Mobile. This division ensured a Republican victory. In 1872 U. S. Grant was re-elected, David Lewis was governor of Alabama and James Rapier of Florence was elected to the U. S. House of Representatives.

Rapier was born to John Rapier, a free black barber, and Susan Rapier, a free woman. According to Loren Schwenniger, of "James Rapier and Reconstruction," James Rapier received his early education in Nashville while living with his grandmother. From 1856 to '64 he attended school in Buxton, Canada, a haven for runaway slaves.

After returning to the south in 1865, Rapier briefly worked as a correspondent for a Northern newspaper and attended the Tennessee Negro Suffrage convention in Nashville, delivering the keynote address.

In 1866 he returned to Florence, rented acreage from A. D. Coffee and became a successful cotton farmer, only employing freemen. Because of his political activities for the Republican Party, Rapier was threatened by the KKK and left Lauderdale County.

In 1869, he attended the first National Negro Labor Convention in Washington, D. C. Upon his return to Montgomery, he became the first Negro in Alabama history to run for state office, secretary of state. In 1872-73, he presided over the first meeting of the Alabama Negro Labor Union, published and edited the first Negro newspaper in Alabama, the Republican Sentinel, and defeated William C. Oates for a seat in the 43rd Congress.

During his short tenure in the House of Representatives, Rapier advocated a national civil rights bill, introduced legislation to improve America's commercial water lanes and voted to regulate railroad rates.

He was defeated for re-election bids in 1874 and '76. In 1878 President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed Rapier collector of Internal Revenue for the Second District of Alabama.

Gradually, Rapier became an ardent supporter of Negro emigration to the West. He died in May 1883 from pulmonary tuberculosis and is buried in an unmarked grave in St. Louis, Mo.


A bloody campaign


From 1872-74 the Bourbons, whose ranks were now swelled by the addition of numerous moderates, prepared for the state elections of 1874.

The campaign was particularly dirty and violent. The Bourbons ran George Smith Houston of Limestone County. The Republican press assailed Houston as a "front man for the secessionists, the KKK and White League Bourbons."

The Bourbons attacked the Republicans for their handling of Reconstruction and raising the states' indebtedness.

The short-lived Florence Republican accused the Democrats of promoting false democracy and of emphasizing the race issue in an attempt to restore the old slave-holding aristocracy's control over the state. It also claimed that disenfranchisement of the Negro would lead immediately to the disenfranchisement of poor whites.

Both sides used questionable tactics and promoted violence. Statewide, 36 Republicans were killed. The Democrats also used 200,000 pounds of bacon to buy votes.

On Nov. 24, 1874, Houston was elected Alabama's 24th governor. The victory was almost total. Twenty-six Negroes remained in the Legislature but the Democrats controlled both houses. The only fear was whether Congress would throw out the election.

With the election of Houston, Radical Reconstruction in Alabama was over. It had begun with the removal of Patton and ended six years later. The entire social, economic and political life of this state had changed and life as was known before the war was over.


Governor's ties to Lauderdale


Houston was born in Williamson County, Tenn., and his family moved to Lauderdale County in 1821, becoming successful and respected planters.

The plantation Wildwood was near the present Natchez Trace on Waterloo Road. In 1834, Houston moved to Limestone County and became active in politics.

He served 18 years in the U. S. House of Representatives, resigning in 1861 when Alabama Seceded.

Personally opposed to secession, Houston took no personal action during the war. When the war ended, he refused to take the Oath of Allegiance.

Under the State Constitution of 1865, he was elected to the U. S. Senate but was refused his seat with all other Southerners by the Radical Republicans. Under the Republican Constitution of 1867, Houston was re-elected to the Senate and served for two terms.

As governor, Houston oversaw the conversion of the state penitentiary to the prisoner lease system. State indebtedness was reduced from $30 million to less than $5 million, and a new state constitution was written.

The new constitution, begun in September 1875 and finished in 27 days, streamlined state government by cost reduction: biannual legislative sessions instead of annual, and the elimination of state responsibility for public education.


Reconstruction ends


Reconstruction was finally over in Alabama and generally has been regarded a total failure.

The first attempt of the U. S. government to intervene directly in the lives of its citizens had failed miserably. But was it a total loss? What was the legacy of Reconstruction?

There was the legacy of corruption. One historian has said legislatures become corrupt when there is money to be protected or made. In this arena, Alabama fared better than other Southern states.


Rocky start for public schools


Another legacy was that of public education. According to the state constitution, public schools were to receive one-fifth of state revenues but the money was misappropriated, the state Department of Education was plagued by mismanagement, and in some areas fraud existed.

The first school for black children in Florence was created by the American Missionary Society. According to historian William L. McDonald, the teachers were a couple named Meyers and the school was a single structure on the corner of Spring (Veterans) and Pine streets.

Another bright education star was the establishment of state normal schools.

The first such school south of the Ohio River was Florence Wesleyan College, which became Florence Normal College and in Huntsville, a black normal school was established under the leadership of Hooper Council.

By 1870, eight normal schools existed statewide: four white and four black.

The University of Alabama had been rebuilt and reopened in April 1869 with an enrollment of 30 scholars.

New school in Tuscumbia


In Tuscumbia, the citizens petitioned the state to incorporate a new female academy. Created Sept. 12, 1870, the Deshler Female Institute opened and was named for Brig. Gen. James Deshler, killed in action during the Battle of Chickamauga on Sept. 20, 1863.

According to local historian Richard Sheridan, Deshler's father, David Deshler, provided the first funds. Sheridan further stated the institute remained open until the spring of 1918.

The school closed because of declining enrollment, the growth of public schools and the need for repairs.

In 1918 the Tuscumbia School Board took possession of the property and received family permission to raze the old structure, and in 1924 a new co-ed school named Deshler High School was built. The school was moved to its present location on the former Winston Plantation in 1950.

The grand plan of Reconstruction had promised great social, economic and political changes but the utopian dreams were shattered by Southern and Northern backlashes launching a legacy of hate, mistrust and regional warfare that lasted more than 100 years.


History of the Shoals, Page 6: The Industrial Revolution

bottom of page