Alabama Militia

by Fred Ray on May 14, 2008 · 2 comments

The Mobile Cadets at target practice in the 1850s

I came across a lengthy article on the Alabama militia and self-defense forces, with lots of good information about the prewar militia companies who formed the core of the Confederate army. We often hear that the armies of 1861 were composed only of amateurs but this wasn’t completely true. There were quite a number of old militia organizations like the Mobile Cadets, Greensboro Guards, and many others. who signed up, and who did have training both in both drill and marksmanship, as you can see from the above photo taken sometime in the 1850s. Both the Cadets and the Guards, for example, had histories that ran back forty years prior to the war.

The Indian threat on the frontier provided the initial impetus for a militia. In 1807 the Mississippi territory (which included what would later be the state of Alabama) required universal military service of all white males between 16 and 50, who were required to furnish their own equipment. Alabama militia units served in Texas, against the Creeks both at home and in Florida, and later in Mexico. The law differentiated between the enrolled militia, which was in theory all able-bodied males, and the volunteer companies who organized on their own.

The latter proliferated, preening in their military finery, vying with each other militarily and socially: the Wetumpka Borderers, Selma Guards, Tuscaloosa’s Warrior Guards, Catawba Rifles, Catoma Light Horse Mobile Rifles and Mobile Cadets, to name a few. By 1845 there were enough volunteer companies in the Mobile area to organize the First Volunteer Regiment of Alabama Militia, and later in Montgomery the Independent Battalion, which in 1860 became the Second Volunteer Regiment. Meanwhile, in 1846 Alabama furnished three regiments of volunteers for service in the Mexican War from local units.

There were militia units all over the country. My own ancestor belonged to a militia unit in Maine during this time (the Waldoboro Light Infantry) and won a rifle shooting cup there. The gentleman pictured below is William Ripley of Rutland, Vermont, shown here in his prewar militia uniform. Ripley ended up as the lieutenant colonel of the 1st U.S. Sharpshooters, so apparently knew how to shoot as well. Unlike his boss Hiram Berdan, Ripley was well respected for both his military acumen and personal courage. Unfortunately he was severely wounded at Malvern Hill in 1862 and never took the field again. Ripley eventually rose to major general in the Vermont militia after the war, and was eventually awarded a Medal of Honor for his actions at Malvern Hill.

By the mid-1850s, with the waning of the frontier threat, the heyday of the militia system had passed. This was true both north & south of the Mason-Dixon line. As the decade passed even Southern governors complained about the lack of martial spirit. Volunteer companies tended to be more social than military organizations, and the enrolled militia was little more than a joke. In the South, however, the militia system got a kick start in 1859 after John Brown’s raid stoked fears of a slave insurrection. Once again, volunteer companies began springing up all over the South, and as secession became more and more likely the trend accelerated. Many were quite active at the beginning of the conflict. Eugene Blackford, who was later to be a Confederate sharpshooter commander, got his start and much of this training in the prewar militia. So did men like Tennant Lomax, who later became colonel of the Third Alabama.

In 1859-60 the Alabama General Assembly, as the Legislature was often called, chartered at least 60 volunteer military companies including the Auburn Guards, Coffeeville Mounted Guards, Eutaw Rangers and the Ramer Grays. In February 1860 out of the militia the Legislature created the Alabama Volunteer Corps (A.V.C.) of 74 organized companies with 8,150 men authorized. In June the Second Regiment was activated in Montgomery, Colonel Tennant Lomax, a Mexican War veteran, commanding. A distinctive A.V.C. uniform was prescribed.

In November 1860 Abraham Lincoln was elected US President, southern secession began and Alabama went out in January 1861, the third state to do so. Governor A.B. Moore ordered the First Volunteer Regiment to seize federal military posts in the Mobile area, including the Mt. Vernon Arsenal. He directed the Second Volunteer Regiment to Pensacola to help Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana troops to occupy US installations there. Alabama companies there included Selma’s Independent Blues, Barbour County’s Perote Guards and the Tuskegee Light Infantry. In March the Army of Alabama was organized for 12-month service.

We hear a lot about the legacy of military academies like West Point and VMI, and it’s true that most of the men who held high rank came from institutions like these. However, a great many of the mid-level officership of both armies got their start in the militia and it added a certain number of trained soldiers in the critical early months of the war. Guy Hubbs touched on this in his book on the Greensboro Guards, but I think a lot more could be done with it. If anyone is looking for their next book, this might be it.


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