The Vagabond – Etowah County’s role during the Civil War: Part 1


This week The Vagabond starts a series about the Civil War written by historian Betty Sue McElroy several years ago as a presentation to the Etowah Historical Society. The Vagabond talked to Betty Sue this week about her article. It was agreed that it would be worth repeating to the readers.

Our Backyard, Gadsden, Ala., 1861-1865,

By Betty Sue McElroy

“Gadsden, Alabama, was an established town of 16 years when the war broke out in 1861. The population in 1857 was 200, in 1864 it was 400 and by 1870 had grown to 2,000.

“The Confederates met the enemy on the west side of town, where a young Confederate soldier named Robert Turner lost his life and was buried by a little 16-year old named Emma Sansom and her mother in their family cemetery.

“On the east side of town, a Federal officer, Col. Hathaway, of the 73rd Indiana Infantry, was killed by a sniper on Shinbone Ridge.

“On the bluff overlooking the Coosa River buried in the Abner Keeling family cemetery were soldiers whose identities have been lost with time. Mr. Keeling ran a hotel, at which location he may have used rooms for a hospital during the war. When Gadsden City Hall was built, the remains were moved to Forrest Cemetery.

“Gadsden WAS affected by this war. It WAS in our back yard. There were diaries kept by local citizens and some letters written home by the men off at war. There were evidences of the pain and hardships that the winds of war bring.

“Gadsden was more of a crossroads, a stop-over on the way to somewhere else than a strategic location for a stand-and-fight battle. Union men were transported by steamboat from Nashville down the Cumberland River, the Ohio River, up the Tennessee River to East Port, Miss., then overland across Sand Mountain, through Gadsden, up the Coosa Valley to Rome, Ga. Their mission was to burn Rome, thus destroying rails and munition plants. This was the force that Forrest engaged thankfully before the Union colonel could burn Gadsden to the ground.

“John Wisdom, a ferryman in Gadsden, leaped on several horses and raced to Rome to warn the citizens. He traveled 67 miles in seven hours, bettering Paul Revere’s record.

While Wisdom was riding to Rome, Isaac P. Moragne rode to Jacksonville to warn of Union Col. Abel Streight’s march in case he turned that way.

“John Wisdom’s home was [located] on a high river bluff in Hokes Bluff. His home still stands. A marker honoring his heroic ride was erected. “Gabriel Hughes’ home was [located] on Little Will’s Creek in Attalla. Streight seized a fine racehorse from Gabriel Hughes’ stable. The horse belonged to Gabriel’s son Frank, who was a Confederate soldier at home on leave.

“Frank hid in the woods until the soldiers left. His fine horse had been replaced with a tired old mule. Frank mounted the mule and chased after Streight to regain his horse.

“Streight pushed ahead to gain Rome, Ga., and destroy the munitions works located there. Frank passed through Cedar Bluff and arrived at James Lawrence’s farm in time to see the Federal troops lined up as captives. Frank found his horse and rode the animal home. He still owned the horse when the war ended.

“Streight complained that all Nashville had to offer as mounts were mules. He stated in his report that mules made poor cavalry mounts.

“Gadsden’s great appreciation for Nathan Bedford Forrest act of saving Gadsden from being destroyed and for overcoming the enemy force of 2,000 troops with his 600 men is commemorated in the naming of Forrest Cemetery, the renaming of Big Road to Forrest Avenue and the naming of two schools that bear his name.

“After the capture of Streight, General Forrest came back to Gadsden. The citizens prepared a big barbecue at the Riverside Park. Forrest lifted Emma Sansom on to a table and said, ‘Gentlemen, here is the one that helped most in the capture of Colonel Streight.’ Today a statue of Emma Sansom stands on that spot.

“On May 7, 1863, Nathan Bedford Forrest spent a night at R.B. Kyle’s home. He played with the Kyle children and had a breakfast of sausage and pancakes. He let two-year old Thomas Stonewall Kyle ride on his horse with him for two or three miles. Forrest told Kyle, ‘My God, Kyle, this is worth living for.’

“Gen. S.G. French’s division was encamped at Mrs. Sansom’s home, which French used as headquarters in October of 1864. He said, ‘Our band played for the ladies.’

“Gen. John Bell Hood’s visit to Gadsden was an exciting event. In October of 1864, an advanced detachment of the Eighth Alabama Cavalry of the Confederate Army crossed the ferryboat at the foot of Broad Street and pitched camp in East Gadsden.

“The next morning, the soldiers erected pontoon bridges across the Coosa River at Gadsden and a few miles above. By nightfall, 33,000 Confederate soldiers had crossed the river and encamped on the east bank of the Coosa River. These soldiers were the remainder of the Army of Tennessee that fought under Gen. A.S. Johnston at Shiloh in 1862. The army was en route to Tennessee to reinforce the Chattanooga bastion. The army stayed three days in Gadsden.

“Joining this part of Hood’s army to pursue Gen. Sherman were Wheeler’s cavalry and Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard. Gadsden would have been in the middle of a great battle if General Sherman had not changed his battle strategy and turned towards Atlanta at Cedar Bluff. Wheeler was to remain in Gadsden to make Sherman think that Hood was still here. Joseph Wheeler, a friend of J P. Hollingsworth, made his headquarters in Hollingsworth’s home.”

Next week – Part II

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