Union Soldiers honored at Cahawba

Published 9:38 pm Saturday, April 22, 2017

Walking around Old Cahawba Archaeological Park Saturday, one might think they had been sent back in time around 1865 when thousands of Union soldiers were held captive at Castle Morgan Prison on the grounds.

Reenactors dressed in period attire welcomed guests to a memorial service for the soldiers that was held only feet from where the prison once stood.

Frank Brower, a member of the Jeff Davis Mounted Artillery group that participated in the memorial, said he has been reenacting since 1980 and each year participates in the Battle of Selma. This year, the battle didn’t happen, so he and the rest of the group participated in the third annual memorial.

Email newsletter signup

“With the Battle of Selma not occurring this year, we wanted to observe a remembrance of the Federal prisoners that were held here and released at the end of the Civil War,” Brower said. “So many people don’t ever know of the Federal prisoners that were held here. We can’t let people forget that.”

The prison, built for only 600 occupants, was believed to have held nearly 3,000 soldiers at one time and around 9,000 throughout the war. Through a flooding and a lack of space, the prison still has the fewest deaths of all the prisons with around a 2 percent death rate –– less than 200 men.

During their time at the prison, many soldiers wrote back home to loved ones.

Those letters and journals were passed down through generations and some have made their way back to Cahawba where they were once written.

During the service, reenactors read aloud excerpts of the letters, giving people a sense of what the men had endured.

Edwin Ford, Co. D., 18th Michigan Regiment, wrote on Dec. 8, 1864, “Dear Parents, Have gave up the idea of being exchanged right away, but not all are discouraged on that account… We have plenty to do getting our wood, cooking, washing and [etcetera] so that we have but little time left in which to get the ‘blues.’ A large quantity of clothing and blankets is expected here soon from Memphis, to be distributed among the prisoners, who probably fare better than the inmates of another prison inside the Confederate lines.”

At the conclusion of the war, the prisoners were marched to Vicksburg, Mississippi where they awaited their release back to the north.

They were joined with other Union prisoners and boarded the Sultana steamboat where most of them would soon perish when the boat exploded in the worst maritime disaster in United States history.

James Hammonds, president of the April 1865 Society, said remembering the soldiers was the right thing to do.

“This is a very historical part of Dallas County’s Civil War history and we just wanted to accent it and we were invited to participate and we feel happy to do that,” Hammonds said.

“If you don’t have services like this, remembering people that have died in these major conflicts, people will simply forget.”

After the letters were read, a wreath was placed by the tomb of an unknown soldier by the prison. A period hymn was then performed followed by the firing of a cannon by the artillery group and then the playing of Taps to close out the service.

Hammonds said they are now looking forward to next year and have plans to meet with the city of Selma to discuss options for the 2018 Battle of Selma.