It is a story that is largely unknown. Certainly it is not taught in the schools. It is a story of courage, conviction, patriotism, persecution, retribution, and even atrocity. Above all, it is a great American history story worth telling and preserving .
When the gathering dark clouds of war were all encompassing in the South and in Northwest Alabama in particular in the spring of 1861, the voices of dissent were loud and clear. While some were eager to fight for a newly created secessionist government, many others considered an impeding war as a wicked, treasonous undertaking and wanted no part of it.
Indeed, a majority in the hills of Northwest Alabama, mostly poor yeomen dirt farmers, saw little value or reason in taking arms against the federal government. They recognized quite early that this was not their fight, but that it was the landed gentry. It was obvious to the hill folk that the plantation owners and their political spokesmen were fanning the war flames and talked the loudest about separation.
With their money and property and political power, it was the planters who felt most threatened by the election of Abraham Lincoln as president.
That “Black Republican” Lincoln, the planters said, would mongrelize the races. He would destroy everything they built as a finer civilization. Southern women would not be safe from roving gangs of black thieves. They only thing to do, the planters contended, was to fight protect their very way of life, to secede and create a government that would protect their interests, protect their property rights, and protect that “peculiar institution.”
Of course, the peculiar institution was slavery.
But in the rugged landscape of northern Alabama, slaves were few and far between. The same was true in the mountains of East Tennessee and North Georgia and western North Carolina, and western Virginia, which would later become a state because of its overwhelming anti-confederate sentiment.
Few slaves were owned in the upland South, simply because the land would not support a plantation economy. Those who did work the land in the mountain South were a fiercely independent breed, poor but proud, and of no mind to lend support to plantation owners who looked down upon them as uneducated and inferior.
Winston County resident James B. Bell, a farmer who owned no slaves, was typical of an Alabama unionist. He blamed secession on large "Negroholders." In a letter to his pro-confederate son in Mississippi on April 21, 1861, he wrote. "All they [slave holders] want is to git you pupt up and go fight for there infurnal negroes and after you do there fighting you may kiss there hine parts for o [all] they care."
Southern unionists were not threatened by Lincoln’s election but saw him more as a blank slate. They were willing to give him a chance as president and did not see the federal government as any threat to their property rights.
The Loyalty to Old Hickory
If the inhabitants of the upland South were willing to give a new president the benefit of the doubt, they revered a former president. This was a man who lead their fathers and grandfathers against wild Indians and who tamed the land. He made their very existence here possible. President Andrew Jackson, “Old Hickory” was seen as a man of the people. He was also a staunch unionist who warned the Southern aristocracy years before that any talk of busting up the union was madness and any actions to do so would be punished severely.
At a time when the country was about to go war, many Alabama unionists spoke about how President Jackson would have dealt with secession by hanging the ringleaders and crushing the rebellion before it got started.
Indeed, Jackson warned South Carolina on Dec. 10, 1832 that he was prepared to do just that.
“Are you really ready to incur its guilt? If you are, on the heads of the instigators of the act be the dreadful consequences; on their heads be the dishonor, but on yours may fall the punishment. On your unhappy State will inevitably fall the evils of the conflict you force upon the Government of your country. It can not accede to the mad project of disunion, of which you would be the first victims.”
And many Alabama unionists would remember the parting words of their fathers and grandfathers who served with Jackson, and who sensed years before that a war over secession could erupt. The old veterans would warn on their deathbeds to be loyal to the “Old Flag.” And their words were remembered and taken to heart.
Murder or political assassination was a constant threat for Alabama unionists who chose to remain at home. Three sons of Solomon Curtis were all killed in Winston County. Joel Jackson Curtis was killed in 1862 for refusing to join the confederate army. George Washington Curtis, home on leave from the union army, was killed by the home guard in his yard while his wife and three children watched. Thomas Pink Curtis, the probate judge of Winston County, was arrested near Houston by confederate authorities in 1864 and taken to a bluff on Clear Creek where he was summarily executed with two shots to his right eye.
Henry Tucker, a private in Company B, of the 1st Alabama Cavalry, US, was arrested by the Home Guard at his home in Marion County and tortured to death. He was tied to a tree, castrated, his eyes removed and his tongue cut out before he was literally skinned alive. He is buried at Hopewell Cemetery, south of Glen Allen, Ala.
But Tucker’s vicious death was avenged. Home Guard leader Stoke Roberts who personally directed the torture of Tucker, was eventually caught by a group of unionists near Winfield. They took a long iron spike and drove it through his mouth and out the back of his head and nailed him to the root of a big oak tree.