By Danny Crownover
The Etowah Rifles volunteer military unit was mustered into service on July 4, 1883, with Judge John Harold Disque as captain. Members of the Etowah Rifles sponsored many social affairs, and their annual steamboat excursions were enjoyed by many of the Gadsden’s leading men, women and children. The unit held fairs, ice cream festivals and oyster suppers in order to raise money.
At that time, however, some locals opposed any sort of military organization, as many remembered when the South was placed under bayonet rule after the Civil War, when carpetbaggers and scalawags plundered and robbed the state when there were the people who were struggling for mere existence. Such folks did not want any blue coated men around. The opposition was fairly general n the 1880s and 90s. One man ran for the state legislature on the promise of doing away with the state militia.
The members of the Eto-wah Rifles were frequently referred to as tin soldiers despite the fact that they were the symbols of law and order, and they were frequently called out to suppress mobs here and elsewhere in the state. The Etowah Rifles served in Birmingham, Anniston and Guntersville.
In the late 1880s, the governor ordered the Etowah Rifles to Round Mountain in Cherokee County, where employees of the blast furnace were rioting. The furnace management reported that rioters were completely out of hand and were threatening to destroy the furnace property.
The Etowah Rifles assembled at the depot and boarded a special train. Many people gathered to watch and march with the boys to the station. The parade was led by a band of the Teet Brothers Circus, which happened to be performing at the corner of Third and Broad streets where the Standard Oil filling station once stood.
No preparations had been made to feed the unit, and the first night on duty the Etowah Rifles ate sardines, cove oysters, crackers, cheese and potted meat. The trouble at Round Mountain ceased entirely at the arrival of the militiamen.
On numbers of occasions, the Etowah Rifles were called to protect prisoners in the old Etowah County jail located on the south side of Chestnut Street between Second and Third streets.
During one episode, the Etowah Rifles faced a mob of more than 500 blacks bent on lynching another black. The Rifles feared they could not defend the jail and brought the prisoner to the courthouse. The officers figured they could hold the prisoner by keeping him upstairs where he could be reached only by a circular stairway.
It was a moonlit night and a large crowd came to town to watch the soldier boys patrol the courthouse grounds.
On another occasion, Judge Disque stood off a mob for hours by appealing for law and order and promising the accused a speedy trial. As the mob leader, started to push through the prison door with a rope in his hand, the Etowah Rifles arrived and scattered the mob like falling autumn leaves.
Another time Disque led the Rifles to the jail to protect a black man from another mob, and by the narrowest of margins, he succeeded. The judge placed the prisoner in a hollow of soldiers and marched him into a streetcar at Third and Broad. The train then carried the man to Attalla and then Birmingham for safekeeping.
The Etowah Rifles volunteered as a unit in the Spanish American War and World War I, where the unit became one of the most decorated and famous contingents of the Alabama Regiment of the Rainbow Division.
The company eventually was federalized and gradually lost its identity.