New Exhibit: The Civil War in Morgan County, AL

Posted by | September 23, 2014

SONY DSCPlease welcome guest author John Allison. Allison has been Director of the Morgan County Archives in Decatur, AL since 2006. A native of Morgan County, Allison has heard stories of the Civil War since he was a boy. He can be contacted at


October 24, 2014 will see the grand opening of a new permanent exhibit at the Morgan County Archives, The Civil War in Morgan County, Alabama. This event is the culmination of three years of work by the Archives staff in cooperation with McComm Group (formerly McWhorter Communications). The exhibit tells the story of our county’s citizens from the antebellum period through reconstruction.

Morgan County Archives Civil War Exhibit

Morgan County’s geographic location and socioeconomic background produced a complex wartime experience unlike any other in the state. Many citizens disagreed about the necessity of going to war, and indeed the county voted against secession before hostilities began. Some farmers in the hilly south of the county even joined Union forces as the core of the Union’s First Alabama Cavalry.

This Union element was one reason Union Col. Abel Streight launched his raid through the area in 1863, where he met Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest in furious combat. Others rushed to join the Confederate forces in other states, since Alabama was initially unable to properly equip volunteer forces. Many more embittered residents joined the fight after experiencing the Federal occupation of 1862.

Morgan County’s enslaved people met the conflict with both uncertainty and excitement. At the war’s beginning, some young men went off to war with their masters, as servants. When the Union occupied Decatur, many of the enslaved rushed to Union lines to claim their freedom, with varying degrees of success. After the Emancipation Proclamation, the young men were able to join the 106th United States Colored Infantry (U.S.C.I.), the only such unit raised in Alabama.

Decatur, with its vital railroad links and its position above the impassable Muscle Shoals, was a strategic location, and as such changed hands several times during the War. The exhibit explains the crucial role Decatur played in the 1862 North Alabama campaign of Union Gen. Ormsby Mitchel and in the grand strategy of Gen. W.T. Sherman in his 1864 “March to the Sea.”

Robert Murphy, Sr., who left the Morgan County plantation where he was enslaved to fight with the United States Colored Infantry.

Robert Murphy, Sr., who left the Morgan County plantation where he was enslaved to fight with the United States Colored Infantry.

While fortifying Decatur to protect Sherman’s railroad supply line, Gen. R.S. Granger evicted most residents and leveled the town. It was this Union fortress at Decatur that Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood ineffectively assaulted with the 30,000 men of the Army of Tennessee while just a few thousand Federal troops grimly held on. Hood’s delay at Decatur may well have cost him the disastrous Battle of Franklin.

In addition to panels with narrative, photographs and graphics, the exhibit also contains three cases containing artifacts on loan from various Morgan County citizens, most of which have a local provenance. A fourth case contains a carefully researched reproduction uniform representing a soldier in the 1864 Confederate Army of Tennessee.

Designing the Exhibit

From the outset, we have tried to keep in mind our audience for this exhibit. We assume that our visitors will have some basic knowledge of the War, but will be unaware of the special circumstances that prevailed in areas like Morgan County. Here, large plantation cotton culture existed but was not the dominant antebellum lifestyle. We wanted visitors to think about the many types of relationships that existed among members of the planter, yeoman farmer, merchant and slave classes of society that could be far different from established conventions of thinking about the period.

Another very important concern was restoring African Americans to their crucial role in the narrative of the War, as active participants who shaped their own experiences on the way to freedom. The exhibit tells of the “contraband camps,” the raising of the 106th U.S.C.I. and the brave charge of the 14th U.S.C.I. on Confederate artillery positions at Decatur on October 28, 1864. Slaves’ individual decisions to leave captivity began a practical end to slavery before the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment marked the institution’s legal demise.

A 42-inch monitor plays war and local history-related video material in a loop. A new short film about Morgan County’s role in the war is currently in production. For little hands that simply must touch, the exhibit contains a large cotton picker’s basket and a huge cannonball found near Decatur.


Planned Additions

We did not have room to tell all the fascinating individual stories and photographs of civilians and soldiers that we gathered during the researching of the project. Pending funding, a future phase of the project will create a touchscreen media table with these stories, interactive maps, and rosters of known soldiers. We hope that this element will add a more personal element that will help visitors to identify with the struggles of our ancestors.

“Thunder in the Valley,” Oct. 24-28

The date of the exhibit’s opening coincides with the 150th anniversary of Hood’s assault on Decatur, and is a part of a variety of activities that weekend in remembrance of that event. On October 25th, the Old State Bank, the Archives, the Blue and Gray Museum, the Dancy-Polk House, and the grounds of the Burleson-McEntire house will be open to visitors, and guided walking tours will tell visitors more of Decatur’s fascinating Civil War History.

On Sunday, October 26, a Community Period Church Service will be held at the Daikin Amphitheater. The service will be conducted by members of First United Methodist and King’s Memorial United Methodist. These congregations were once one congregation until the black membership of First U.M.C. created their own congregation in1854. That congregation was first named St. Paul, but changed their name to King’s Memorial in 1908.

Living history re-enactors will be encamped at the Dancy-Polk house and doing demonstrations in other areas. There will be a special showing of The Red Badge of Courage at the new amphitheater at Founder’s Park. On Monday, October 27 at the Amphitheater, the Madison Community Band will give a concert of period music and afterwards will be a performance of Chuck Puckett’s two-man play Lee and Grant at Appomattox, sponsored by the Bank Street Players.

On Tuesday, October 28th, at Rhodes Ferry Park in Decatur, there will be a ceremony to honor the charge of the 14th United States Colored Infantry on a Confederate artillery emplacement near that site 150 years before. Asa Gordon, Secretary General of the Sons and Daughters of the U.S.C.T., will speak, and in the evening the Princess Theatre will have a special screening of Glory. CLICK HERE for a complete schedule of events.

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