Friday, February 6, 2004

The crowd standing below the Capitol’s portico in Montgomery, Ala., on Feb. 18, 1861, listened intently as Jefferson Davis spoke these words: “I enter upon the duties of the office to which I have been chosen with the hope that the beginning of our career as a confederacy may not be obstructed by hostile opposition ….”

When he expressed this sentiment at his inauguration as president of the Confederate States of America, however, Davis and many of his eager listeners were aware that war with the North was inevitable.

A capital is chosen

Confederate leaders had stipulated in Article VI of the provisional constitution that Montgomery would be the interim capital of the breakaway nation. Among other things, it was centrally located, it had excellent rail and water transportation facilities, and its residents strongly supported secession. Montgomery, situated on a bend of the Alabama River, was a city of almost 9,000 persons, equally divided between whites and blacks, with most of the blacks slaves.

Montgomery also was the state capital and the dominant community within the central Alabama “Black Belt” of rich, dark soil and a heavy concentration of black slaves. Prosperity stemmed from cotton production and trade. Blacks worked in physically demanding jobs, and whites mainly plied the trades and professions.

Growing tensions

Today, Montgomery publicizes itself as the “birthplace of Civil War and civil rights.” In March 1965, Martin Luther King led a protest march from Selma to the Alabama Capitol where Davis had been sworn in as president more than a century before. King’s march induced the U.S. Congress to pass legislation to protect the rights of all citizens, including blacks, to vote.

At the time of the Civil War, Montgomery had dirt streets and surrounding fields of cotton and corn. Few opportunities existed for blacks, free or slave, and application of the lash as punishment for misdeeds led to racial tensions.

Those tensions grew with the pending presidential election. The residents of Montgomery joined with those throughout the South who feared the election of a black Republican or abolitionist. A local lawyer by the name of William Lowndes Yancey had become the best-known advocate of secession in the South.

At a meeting in January 1860 to elect delegates to the Democratic National Convention, a Yancey-sponsored proposal prevailed. It called for a platform guaranteeing slavery in the territories — “a principle established in the 1857 Dred Scott decision of the Supreme Court.”

Enter Mr. Lincoln

When the Democratic Party split into factions over the slavery issue, a little-known lawyer from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln, who had run on a platform of prohibiting slavery in the territories, won the presidency on the Republican ticket. Lincoln’s election led to rumors that an abolitionist army would invade the South to free the slaves and set them loose on the local population.

Confederacy formed

In this atmosphere of hysteria, Southern governors sent out commissioners to the other slave states to proselytize on behalf of separation. The result was that seven “lower South” states decided to secede in order to form a Confederacy.

Representatives from those states met in Montgomery in February 1861 and chose Davis as their president. At the time, Davis was a private citizen at his Mississippi plantation, called Brierfield, having resigned his seat in the U S. Senate in January.

When notification reached him, the absence of a direct rail line from Vicksburg, Miss., to Montgomery afforded the new chief executive an opportunity to take a roundabout route through four states, making speeches to enthusiastic crowds.

‘As may be necessary’

When Davis arrived in Montgomery, an official entourage received the new leader with pomp and circumstance. The president-elect told the assembled group that the Southern people had been prepared to defend the U.S. Constitution “with such alterations as may be necessary … for the protection of our own peculiar interests.” Now, he allowed, the time for compromise had passed.

Davis took the oath of office at the Capitol before a crowd that included as many women as men. Southern women were avid secessionists who played important roles on the home front during the war.

Though most Montgomery residents approved of Davis, there were a few dissenters, including a local merchant who doubted Davis’ capacity “to lead us through the struggle that ensues.”

When Davis’ temporary living quarters in the Exchange Hotel were deemed unsuitable, the government rented a residence for the president; his wife, Varina Howell Davis; and their two small children. This structure, since labeled the First White House of the Confederacy, still stands.

President and Mrs. Davis resided in this home for just a brief period. After Davis ordered Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor fired upon on April 12, Lincoln called for troops to stop the rebellion. This led other states to consider leaving the Union.

The move to Richmond

As an enticement for Virginia to secede, Confederate authorities offered to move the capital from Montgomery to Richmond.

The local populace met the proposal to abandon Montgomery with considerable disappointment. The people took pride in having the newly recruited Southern troops assemble in town before deployment to threatened areas and in being the center of government and social activity. One observer later recalled, “How exciting it all was there … clever men and women congregated from every part of the South.”

The transfer of the capital to Virginia, however, was a foregone conclusion because Davis felt the need to be closer to the impending war zone. In addition, the business of government had severely tested Montgomery’s ability to provide services, and Richmond was much larger than the first capital. A soldier stationed in Montgomery a year later found “such a state of calm and stillness here that one would hardly take this place to be the once gay and fashionable city of Alabama.”

Montgomery reborn

Montgomery’s time in the international spotlight was restricted to those frenzied days of early 1861 when the Confederacy was born. A century later, freedom marchers refocused the world’s attention on the Alabama capital as another chapter in a historical saga that encompassed secession, war and the struggle for civil rights. Community leaders now are contending with the task of reconciling these conflicting events and integrating them as part of Montgomery’s heritage.

• Thomas J. Ryan is a writer from Bethany Beach, Del., and a member of the Central Delaware Civil War Round Table. Research assistance was provided by the Montgomery Convention & Visitors Bureau, Cameron Freeman Napier at the First White House of the Confederacy, and Norwood A. Kerr and Robert B. Bradley of the Alabama Department of Archives and History.

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