The Battle of Selma, which took place on April 2, 1865, was fought during the American Civil War (1861-1865). Selma, Dallas County, had become a major industrial and manufacturing center during the war and provided critical support to Confederate States of America infantry and naval forces. Situated on the banks of the Alabama River in a region far removed from the war's major theaters, the Selma Ordnance and Naval Foundry produced war materiel until the final weeks of the conflict. In March 1865, Union forces launched a large-scale cavalry incursion known as Wilson's Raid to destroy the Confederacy's remaining industrial centers in Alabama. The Battle of Selma decimated the city and was one of many Confederate setbacks in the spring of 1865 that ultimately resulted in the Confederacy's surrender.
The Selma Ordnance and Naval Foundry was a massive production facility that consisted of more than 100 buildings and employed as many as 10,000 workers at its peak. The facility manufactured cannons and other military items, including four iron-clad warships. It was second in size in the Confederacy only to the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, Virginia. Supply problems had hampered production throughout the war, and by 1865 Selma was one of the last remaining industrial centers left in Confederate control.
On March 22, 1865, Brig. Gen. James H. Wilson led approximately 13,480 Union cavalry in the Cavalry Corps, Military Division of the Mississippi, on a raid into northern Alabama to destroy the state's ability to support the Confederate war effort, aiming chiefly for Selma. The raiding party included the Fourth U.S. Cavalry Regiment and Chicago Board of Trade Battery, among others. Wilson's Raid was one of the most successful operations conducted during the war, as the remaining Confederate forces in the state, consisting of about 5,000 soldiers under the command of Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, were too scattered across central Alabama and too ill-equipped to slow Wilson's advance. Forrest's forces primarily consisted of Brig. Gen. Phillip Dale Roddey's Alabama Brigade, Col. Robert McCullough's Missouri Regiment, Brig. Gen. Frank Armstrong's Mississippi Brigade, Col. Edward Crossland's Kentucky Brigade, and Brig. Gen. Daniel W. Adams' state reserves.
After a week spent destroying other industrial sites throughout central Alabama, Wilson's forces arrived on the outskirts of Selma on April 1. When Forrest's attempt to halt Wilson's cavalrymen at Ebenezer Church failed and he was wounded, the remaining Confederates were forced to retreat to Selma's well-prepared defenses. These defenses consisted of one three-mile line of entrenchments and defensive and artillery positions encircling the city and anchored on the Alabama River on each side of the city. These initial defenses had been prepared months in advance, but an inner line of defenses remained unfinished. Union forces, however, had captured a Confederate courier with dispatches detailing the deployment of Forrest's widely scattered forces and had welcomed into camp a civil engineer from England who had helped design the defenses and had recently defected to the Union, thus providing Wilson with sketches of Selma's earthworks.
On the morning of April 2, Forrest could muster no more than 4,000 soldiers (accounts vary), many of whom were old men and boys who lacked military experience, to garrison Selma's defenses. Soldiers stationed along the front positions were separated from their nearest comrade in arms by a distance of several yards, as Selma's defenses had been designed to be manned by 20,000 soldiers. Forrest knew that the city could not be defended and advised Lt. Gen. Richard Taylor, the ranking Confederate officer in the region, to evacuate the city; Taylor would leave on the last train out of Selma. While Taylor began the evacuation, Wilson divided his command into three columns and arrived outside of Selma's defenses that afternoon. Later, one Union column came under attack in their rear supply train by Forrest's troops and, aiming to avoid a disruption of the larger attack plan, launched a frontal assault upon the Confederate works, hastening the launch of the general attack. Union soldiers armed with seven-shot Spencer repeating carbines overpowered the Confederate resistance, which was armed mostly with muskets and had little ammunition. The poorly supplied and trained defenders then fought hand to hand against the Union lines as they breached the city's outer defenses in less than 30 minutes of fighting. Groups of retreating defenders, led by Forrest, occupied the city's inner defense lines and briefly slowed the Union advance, only to be swept aside by a series of Union cavalry charges. Wilson led one of the charges and was briefly dismounted when his own horse was wounded in the melee. After setting fire to more than 25,000 bales of cotton and protected only by darkness, hundreds of Confederates, including Forrest, fled the city, while others swam across the Alabama River to escape capture. The overwhelming majority of the Confederate's 2,700 wounded were captured by Union cavalrymen, as were perhaps 30 or so field guns among the defenses. The precise number of Confederate dead is unknown because of poor recordkeeping in the Confederate army during the final weeks of the war; the Union suffered 359 casualties.
After the battle, Wilson's troops completely destroyed all of the city's manufacturing facilities and equipment, including the arsenal, the ordnance center, the gunpowder works, the nitre works, and 11 ironworks and foundries. In the arsenal alone, 15 siege guns, 10 heavy carriages, 10 field pieces, 10 caissons, 63,000 rounds of artillery ammunition, three million feet of lumber, and 10,000 bushels of coal were destroyed. Although Wilson had issued orders against looting of personal property, instances, some perhaps exaggerated, did occur, but he soon restored order under his command. Much of the city was burned as well. Little remains today of Selma's Confederate defenses and wartime industries other than a few exhibits at the Old Depot Museum and some earthworks near the Alabama River.
In 2000, the unveiling of a bust to honor Forrest in Selma's Smitherman Building sparked intense debate about how Alabamians
should appropriately commemorate the war and its leaders. Confederate heritage advocates drew criticism from civil rights activists for erecting the memorial in a city that gained international notoriety in March 1965 for the "Bloody Sunday" assaults upon black protestors during the Selma-Montgomery Voting Rights March. In addition, protestors opposed the bust because of Forrest's role in the Fort Pillow Massacre and the founding of the Ku Klux Klan. In March 2012, the Forrest bust was stolen from its pedestal and an effort to replace it with an even larger bust on private
land in the Old Live Oak Cemetery renewed opposition and drew national and international attention.
Jones, James Pickett. Yankee Blitzkrieg: Wilson's Raid through Alabama and Georgia. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1976.
Keenan, Jerry. Wilson's Cavalry Corps: Union Campaigns in the Western Theatre, October 1864 through Spring 1865. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1998.
Keith S. Hébert
University of West Georgia
Published April 22, 2013
Last updated April 22, 2013