Touring Alabama’s Battle of Ebenezer Church

15 Jan

On a beautiful early fall afternoon last year, I found myself driving through central Alabama during a long commute back home from a speaking engagement in Birmingham. With a little time on my hands and an hour or so of sunlight left in the day, I pulled off of I-65 in Clanton to take a short drive south, down Hwy. 22 towards Selma, to visit one of the state’s few Civil War sites of significance which I had somehow managed to never see. Just as the rolling hills of the northern section of the state were transitioning into the fields and farmlands of Alabama’s famed Black Belt, I came upon the crossroads community of Stanton and a lone, weather-worn, historic marker standing in front of a rural house of worship known as Ebenezer Baptist Church.

ebenezer church

Ebenezer Church

Dramatic events occurred in its vicinity back in 1865, though it is hard to appreciate the sleepy intersection of State Highway 22 and County Road 45 as a battlefield of any note today. The Battle of Ebenezer Church, fought here on April 1, 1865, is one of those smaller, forgotten engagements of the war overlooked to the point of barely being remembered even among those with an interest in war in the Heart of Dixie. It did not feature extraordinarily large armies, nor did it last all that long or produce stunning casualty figures. The battle was in truth a prelude to the larger fighting at the river city to the south the next day, and when it is discussed in historical literature at all it is usually referenced matter-of-factly as the failed first attempt of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest to slow down the cavalry column of Gen. James H. Wilson—the largest assembled during the Civil War—in its inexorable advance on that industrial center. Yet what occurred at this quiet, out-of-the-way spot, like every Civil War battle worthy of the title, has a fascinating story waiting to be discovered by those who have an appreciation of the past.

In the days before the fighting at Ebenezer Church, Forrest, the legendary “Wizard of the Saddle” and arguably one of the Confederacy’s most brilliant military minds, for once was at a loss as to exactly how to deal with an invading Union force. Though Wilson had been tearing through Alabama for several weeks prior to the encounter at Ebenezer, laying waste to vital iron production centers and even sending a detachment to destroy the military training school that was the University of Alabama, the first reasonable chance for slowing the bluecoats presented itself a mere twenty miles from their primary objective of Selma. By many measures the Confederacy’s second-largest industrial center and by the spring of 1865 one of the only ones of any size still in operation, the facilities at Selma were vital to whatever continued resistance the Confederacy hoped to offer. So it was that Forrest, finally able to cobble together enough men to hope to oppose Wilson, deployed his force of approximately 2,000 men along the crest of a ridge overlooking the little church near the railroad leading to Selma. It was his hope that from behind hastily-assembled breastworks of rail fencing, his men, with the support of a few pieces of strategically-placed artillery, could funnel the Union cavalry into a devastating ambush that would at least stall their progress. As the afternoon of Saturday, April 1, wore on, the Southerners watched and waited for their guests’ arrival.

 

At about 4:00 PM they appeared, but in superior numbers to the defenders and better armed and equipped. They immediately pressed forward, and a pitched battle opened. The Confederates poured deadly fire into the attacking column, but on they came. When Yankee reinforcements arrived and the vigor of the attack redoubled, the thin Southern line finally broke. It had taken about an hour, but Wilson’s men held the field, along with three cannons and some 300 rebel prisoners. The Southerners had been, in the words of one exultant Union attacker, driven “helter skelter five miles past Maplesville Station.” The soldier noted that the road was littered with all manner of equipment, from guns and cartridge boxes to coats and hats, boasting they were “too fast for their goods!” The Federals lost a dozen men killed and about three times that wounded.

In the chaos of the last moments of the fight, Forrest temporarily found himself hemmed in by Yankees and Capt. James D. Taylor of the 17th Indiana approached him with intent to kill this most legendary of rebels in the west. He engaged Forrest in a running fight of about 200 yards, furiously slashing at him with his saber and severely wounding the general before the Confederate cavalry commander finally managed to pull out his revolver and fell his young assailant. It would be the last of 33 men he killed in personal combat in the war. It was also perhaps the closest of Forrest’s many close calls. “If that boy had known enough to give me the point of his saber instead of its edge,” Forrest remembered upon meeting Wilson after the fall of Selma, “I should not have been here to tell you about it.”

union graves

Memorial to Union soldiers killed in the battle

The next day, the Union troops would capture Selma after brief but pitched fight, and spend the next week methodically destroying the city’s arsenal, naval yard, and assorted other industries in a frenzy of dismantling and arson matched in intensity if not scale only in places like Atlanta, Richmond, and Columbia. The Battle of Ebenezer Church does not readily come to mind for most when recounting Alabama’s Civil War experience. It was, however, by the standards of a state which saw numerous small but vicious fights, a relatively large engagement in which thousands of men fought and dozens died. It may never merit books or documentaries, but a visit to the site where it all happened is certainly worth ten minutes of your time if you find yourself on the backroads of central Alabama between Birmingham and Selma.

Many thanks to my friend and gifted writer John Sledge for bringing its story and location to my attention. For a riveting account of the battle and the campaign for Selma, consult his book on Alabama during the war, These Rugged Days.

JMB

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