This day in Alabama History: The Battle of Selma

Historical battle marker located in Selma. (Source: WSFA 12 News)
Historical battle marker located in Selma. (Source: WSFA 12 News)
Published: Apr. 2, 2023 at 12:17 PM CDT
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SELMA, Ala. (WSFA) - On this day in 1865, the “Battle of Selma” occurred during the American Civil War.

The Battle of Selma decimated the city and was one of many Confederate setbacks in the spring of 1865, ultimately resulting in the Confederacy’s surrender.

During the Civil War, Selma had become a major industrial and manufacturing center and provided critical war support to the Confederate Infantry and Navy.

Selma was in a region somewhat removed from the war’s significant theater, but in March of 1865, the U.S. Army launched a large-scale cavalry assault known as Wilson’s Raid. The mission aimed to destroy the Confederacy’s remaining industrial centers in Alabama.

The Selma Ordnance and Naval Foundry was a massive production facility that 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, VA. Due to supply problems hampering production throughout the war, in 1865, Selma became one of the last industrial centers left in Confederate control.

On March 22, 1865, Brig. Gen. James H. Wilson led approximately 13,480 federal 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 primarily for Selma.

Wilson’s raid was one of the most successful operations conducted during the war. The remaining Confederate forces in the state, consisting of about 5,000 soldiers under the command of Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, were scattered across central Alabama and too ill-equipped to slow Wilson’s advance.

Forrest’s attempt to stop Wilson and his cavalry failed, and he was wounded. As a result, he and the remaining Confederate forces were forced to retreat to the well-prepared defenses in Selma, consisting 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.

The defenses in Selma had been prepared months in advance, but the inner line of defenses still needed to be finished.

However, U.S. forces had captured a Confederate courier with information on the deployment of Forrest’s scattered forces. In addition, they welcomed a civil engineer from England who had helped design the Selma defenses into camp. The civil engineer would provide Wilson with sketches of these defenses.

This photograph from the Library of Congress provided by Abrams Books shows Union Brevet Major...
This photograph from the Library of Congress provided by Abrams Books shows Union Brevet Major General James H. Wilson in an image taken between 1860 and 1865. After the battle of Nashville, Tenn., Wilson began assembling the largest Union mounted force of the Civil War for a strike on the Confederate munitions and manufacturing center in Selma, Ala. The image is one of nearly 500 photographs, lithographs, paintings, drawings and cartoons from the library's collection published in a new volume, "The American Civil War - 365 Days". (AP Photo/Library of Congress)(ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Wilson’s forces arrived on the outskirts of Selma after a week of destroying industrial cities throughout central Alabama on April 1.

On April 2, Forrest gathered thousands of soldiers for Selma’s defense, but many were older men or young boys who lacked military experience. The Confederate forces knew they would be heavily outmanned as they stationed themselves along the front, separated by an arm’s distance in the defensive setup 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. Taylor took the advice and began evacuations.

Meanwhile, Wilson divided his command into three columns and arrived outside Selma’s defenses that afternoon.

One U.S. column came under attack in their rear supply train by Forrest’s troops in an attempt to disrupt Wilson’s larger assault plan. However, U.S. soldiers armed with seven-shot Spencer repeating carbines overpowered the Confederate resistance, mostly armed with muskets and little ammunition. The poorly supplied and trained defenders then fought hand to hand against the federal lines as they breached the city’s outer defenses in less than 30 minutes of fighting.

Defenders led by Forrest occupied the city’s inner defense lines and attempted to slow the federal advance, only to be swept aside by a series of cavalry charges. Wilson led one of the charges and was briefly dismounted when his horse was wounded in the battle.

As nightfall came, Confederate forces set fire to bales of cotton and were protected only by the darkness. Hundreds of Confederates, including Forrest, fled the city, while others swam across the Alabama River to escape capture.

2,700 wounded Confederate soldiers were captured by U.S. cavalrymen as well as dozens of field guns among the defenses.

After the battle, Wilson’s troops destroyed the city’s manufacturing facilities and equipment, including the arsenal, ordnance center, gunpowder works, and 11 ironworks and foundries. In the arsenal alone, they destroyed 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. Ultimately, most of the city was burned, leaving almost no remains behind.

The exact number of Confederate forces that died during the Battle of Selma is unknown due to poor record keeping by the Confederate army in the final weeks of the war. The U.S. Army had 359 casualties during the battle.

What little remains of the Selma Confederate defenses and wartime industry can still be seen to this day at the Old Depot Museum located in Selma.

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