For the past 180 years, my family has lived in Southeast Alabama.
My ancestor General Griffin was bold enough to immigrate to Wilmington, NC from Ireland in 1790. His son Thomas Griffin caught the Alabama Fever and moved to the Piney Woods in Southeast Alabama with his 8 children in 1840. We’ve been here ever since though not in the Wiregrass.
You’ve likely read countless posts on this website where I mention the fact that I live in the Alabama Black Belt which was the heartland of plantation slavery in antebellum Alabama. We had nothing to do with any of that. My paternal ancestor moved here during Reconstruction to work on the Eufaula-to-Montgomery railroad. My great-grandfather and grandfather continued to work on the railroad down to the mid-20th century. That’s how my grandfather met my grandmother in Macon, Georgia.
Barbour County, AL is the place where the Alabama Black Belt meets the Piney Woods or Wiregrass region. The southern part of the county resembles the rest of southeast Alabama with its red clay soil. The northern part of the county is dominated by the black soils of the Black Prairie. In 1860, one third of all the slaves in southeast Alabama lived in northern Barbour County alone.
Eufaula, AL on the bluffs of the Chattahoochee River anchored the eastern Alabama Black Belt and was the metropolis of southeast Alabama at this time. Most of the cotton from the surrounding region which was grown by both slaves on the Black Belt plantations and by yeoman farmers in the Piney Woods and Wiregrass by folks like my ancestors was brought to Eufaula where it was loaded on to steamships and taken down the Chattahoochee River where it was exported from Apalachicola.
The heartland of the Confederacy was the river valleys and Eufaula, AL was the quintessential antebellum boom town that flourished at the apex of the Cotton Kingdom. In 1860, 32% of households in Barbour County were upper class, 21% were middle class and 47% were lower class which made Eufaula wealthier than the national average. It was by far the wealthiest and most prosperous city in the region. There were 1,143 slaveowners in Barbour County in 1860. 541 of them owned 4 to 19 slaves and 235 of them were planters who owned over 20 slaves. 42% of households in Barbour County where slaveowners. In 1860, there 16,150 slaves who were 52% of the population of Barbour County.
Generally speaking, the blackest, most enslaved and wealthiest parts of southeast Alabama – Eufaula, Troy and Greenville – were on the fringes of the Black Belt. In contrast, there were fewer slaves and the White population became poorer and lived on sandier soils the further one went inland into the Piney Woods and Wiregrass toward the Florida line. This is because the best soils with the best access to markets were concentrated in the Black Belt and the bottomlands of the Chattahoochee River.
Eufaula was ruled by a group called the Eufaula Regency who worked with William Lowndes Yancey to spearhead the secession of Southeast Alabama. The Eufaula Spirit of the South became one of the most ferocious, fire eating secessionist organs in the entire South. This excerpt comes from “The Eufaula Regency: Alabama’s Most Celebrated Secessionist Faction”:
“Eufaula, Alabama occupies an important but little understood role in the events leading to the secession of Alabama in 1861. During the decade prior to the outbreak of the Civil War members of a small but vocal group based in the city, the so-called “Eufaula Regency,” worked as outspoken advocates for the rights of slaveholders and urged consideration of secession as a viable remedy for Southern grievances over the issue of slavery. The group has been recognized widely by historians as perhaps the most consistent secessionists in the state of Alabama in the 1850s. It was involved in the publication of one of the most stridently secessionist newspapers in the South, and some of its members were responsible for an outrageous pro-slavery scheme during the 1850s which briefly placed it in the middle of a national controversy….
Especially in the early 1850s, some even backed independent, “Southern Rights Party” or “State-Rights Party” candidates for office. William L. Yancey, who was quickly becoming widely recognized as a leading spokesman for Southern interests on a national level, took the lead in urging the formation of Associations throughout Alabama. Revealing the level of political agitation in the state, by February of 1851 there were an estimated 25 Southern Rights Associations operating in 14 Alabama counties. Five centers of this “fire-eating” sentiment soon emerged as the loci of Alabama’s nascent secessionist movement: Cahaba, Montgomery, Mobile, Jacksonville/Talladega, and Eufaula.
The Eufaula Association, in which the Regency played an important role, soon separated itself from its peers and established itself in the vanguard of the secession movement with its radical agenda. Rejecting the Compromise of 1850 and the cautionary nature of the wait-and-see stance of its fellow associations publicly endorsed, the Eufaula group thought in bolder, and large, terms than most Alabamians. They urged Southerners to “discard all past political differences” and “turn aside from the submissionist as your worst enemy.” Striking a dramatic if provincial tone, they also suggested that Southerners “exclude all Northern newspapers from our midst” and “patronize Southern ministers and churches.” In the words of historian J. Mills Thornton III, whose illuminating study of antebellum Alabama discusses the Regency as a somewhat unique factor in state politics, the Eufaula Association “embraced long-term agitation to convert the entire electorate to resistance” and desired to “launch a crusade to convince the citizenry of the justice of the southern rights cause.” One of its primary moving forces, Regency member Jefferson Buford, clearly illuminated its position in an editorial printed in Eufaula and Montgomery newspapers in 1851 by arguing that it took: “a very long time for new ideas to enter and imbue the public mind, and then they must, as it were, sink into our very bones and marrow and become a part of our being before they develop the fruit of action … we must organize, agitate, persevere, endure; if we cannot, we are unworthy of our rights.” …
Many other prominent citizens of Eufaula and the surrounding region, including newspaper publisher John Black, and later Confederate Brigadier General Cullen A. Battle and lawyer, Confederate colonel and later governor of Alabama William C. Oates, lawyer, publisher and soldier Tennant Lomax, were also associated to varying degrees with the Regency. Politicians and editors elsewhere in the state and region were known to sympathize with the group, none more so than William L. Yancey. Yancey was not only one of the primary reasons for the group’s existence by way of his support for the formation of Southern Rights Associations, but a constant ally of the Eufaula group and a personal friend of many of its members.
Regency members formally announced their stance, and informally, the extent of the local influence, on October 15, 1850 when the weekly Eufaula Democrat officially changed its name to the Spirit of the South. Featuring a masthead boldly proclaiming “Equality in Union or Independence Out of It,” editors Alpheus Baker and proprietor John Black positioned the paper to become the foremost publication in the region to work in support of Southern interests as well as the unofficial organ for the Regency …
The paper continually and forcefully agitated in favor of secession throughout the 1850s to a degree almost unrivaled in the state of Alabama and only rarely so in other Southern states. A leading forum for secessionist thought, it continued in publication until the middle of the Civil War. It regularly featured articles and editorials from around the South and nation discussing the growing sectional tension over the issue of slavery and closely followed debate over legislation that might impact the institution. Especially in its early years, it also carried updates on the activities of other Southern Rights Associations in the region and lashed out at fellow Southern citizens who refused to join them in their crusade.
The paper’s editors claimed it would not support any political party, but rather, attempt to “unite all Southern men in firm resistance to Northern aggression.” Repeatedly, they attempted to remind readers of its bipartisan nature by claiming that “our friendship has not been for Whig or Democrat, but for him who was ready to rise up strike for his country.”
There was jubilant celebration in Barbour County upon hearing of the secession of South Carolina in December 1860. Admist the parading of militia companies, fireworks, ringing of bells and booming of cannon, Regency members Alpheus Baker and Eli Sims Shorter gave public addresses heralding the occasion. Less than a month later, the entire scene would be repeated when Alabama voted to secede on January 11, 1861. Regency member Jeremiah N. Williams was one of several to address a raucous crowd in Clayton at a party that lasted into the early hours of the morning, while Lewis L. Cato threw a party at his home in Eufaula which, according to legend, was attended by William L. Yancey.
Among the group of men that had led the state out of the Union at the Alabama secession convention in Montgomery were two of the Regency’s most recognized spokesmen, Alpheus Baker and John Cochran. John W. Izner, a delegate to the secession convention from St. Clair County, would later recall the Regency members present and leave a colorful account of the scene of their triumph. When several local woman came to present the convention a flag featuring patriotic mottoes emblazoned on it, convention president William McLin Brooks turned to Alpheus Baker and asked him to accept the banner. In “a perfect Niagara of eloquence,” Baker spoke to the assembly as if “the speaker seemed to have dipped down from the eternal world for that special purpose and on that extraordinary occasion.” Regency members must have relished the moment, as the prospect of an independent Southern nation seemed on the verge of becoming a reality.
Symbolically, though, the high point for the Eufaula Regency came in August of 1861 with the election of John Gill Shorter as governor of Alabama after a campaign begun by a few Regency members. In what must have certainly seemed like a triumphant vindication of over a decade of effort to shape public opinion, one of the most respected Regency members took office as the state’s chief executive.”
Here’s another account of that glorious day from Dan Carter’s book The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics:
“When word reached Eufaula in mid-December of 1860 that South Carolina had seceded and Alabama would soon follow, the town exploded in a gala celebration of passionate speeches and flag-waving parties. In the words of one reveler, the grand houses along Broad Street seemed “studded with diamonds in a glorious sunlight, so brilliant were the bonfires. From Eufaula, John Shorter rode west to Montgomery to claim his seat as governor of the Confederate state of Alabama.”
John Gill Shorter became Confederate Alabama’s first governor.
Many of Eufaula’s wealthiest planters like John Horry Dent were former South Carolinians. Dent himself came to Barbour County directly from Colleton County, SC in the South Carolina Lowcountry. He owned 96 slaves and was worth nearly $200,000.
The people of Eufaula and Barbour County, AL were so hot for secession that Jefferson Buford, a member of the Eufaula Regency, got the fighting started early by deploying to Bleeding Kansas with Buford’s Calvary to fight for slavery in the 1850s. The following excerpt comes from William W. Freehling’s book The Road to Disunion: Secessionists Triumphant, 1854-1861:
“Jefferson Buford of Eufuala, Alabama, led this rescue effort. A gentle scholar when not raising his fists, this combative ex-Whig lawyer displayed no softness when defying either insulting Yankees or compromising Democrats. Similar contempt for the Democracy drove many ex-Whigs in the so-called Eufaula Regency toward disunion. In contrast, Buford’s contempt for Democratic Party posturing drew him toward Alabama State’s Rights Whigs, to expose Democrats as proslavery phonies.
Like most ex-Deep South Whigs in the crude Southwest but unlike Virginia’s refined Thomas Flournoy, Alabama foes of the Democracy relished crass electioneering. The Bufords used coarse oratory to teach rednecks that the Democratic Party offered gaudily wrapped proslavery presents, empty inside. Democrats’ supposedly proslavery Kansas-Nebraska Act, urged these ex-Whigs, illustrated the emptiness. Southern Democrats’ alleged victory for slave labor could yield only a free labor Kansas. But ex-Southern Whigs, prayed Jefferson Buford, could push southern settlers toward Kansas and reap genuine proslavery coin.
Jefferson Buford put his money where his rhetoric directed his auditors. He sold forty slaves. He pledged three-fourths of the proceeds to take hundreds of nonslaveholders to Kansas. Before departing for the plains in April 1856, he toured the Lower South, begging more rich men to send more poor men to the territory.
Buford called Kansas our “great outpost.” He warned that “a people who will not defend their outposts have always succumbed to the invader.” Once abolitionist invaders had Missouri “surrounded on three sides, they would begin their assaults on her, and as fast as one State gave way, attack another.” So southern patriots would storm Kansas, “unless public virtue has decayed, and therefore we have become unequal to the successful defense of our rights.”
As befitted a rich white who financed poor whites, Buford claimed to defend not so much property in black men as “the supremacy of the white race.” “Rich and poor” whites, he declared, equally dreaded sinking “to the level of the Ethiopian” and clasping “him in the fond embrace of political and social equality and fraternity.” Was he “mad for periling my estate,” to “transmit conservative institutions to my children”? Or were “you mad,” for eagerly gathering “wealth” so “that free negro drones may have … it”?
On April 6, 1856, 500 citizens of Montgomery, Alabama, gave Buford’s 415 supposed madmen their sendoff. A band of Negro musicians played. Each Bufordite received a Bible. The holy soldiers elected Buford their general. Then they paraded onto the steamship Messenger, waving banners conveying Buford’s twin messages: “The Supremacy of the White Race” and “Kansas the Outpost.” These latest ruffians arrived in Kansas on May 2, 1856, in time for the bloodiest Kansas wars. Buford bought horses for his warriors. They gained renown as members of Buford’s Calvary. Buford here proved a point that the Civil War would reinforce: Southern poor men would kill Yankees to keep blacks ground under.”
Freehling has a very Yankee point of view which is understandable since he is from Chicago and doesn’t get why the abolitionists and their modern successors were so resented here.
As a history buff with deep roots in this area who grew up in Eufaula, I became fascinated by my surroundings. This area has a rich and fascinating history which we will dive further into in later articles. I attribute my interest and fascination with Southern culture and identity largely to the local scenery, not to any hatred of blacks who are just background noise to me. I’m so familiar with them that it is weird not being around them when I travel to other parts of the country.
Note: The current version of the Shorter Mansion in Eufaula was built in 1906.