Archive | December, 2019

Alabama Bicentennial Scholarship

10 Dec

Alabama became the 22nd state to join the Union on December 14, 1819. For the past few years, the state has celebrated 200 years of statehood in a variety of ways. The most significant form of commemoration has been the impressive new scholarship written on the state’s early history. Events and celebrations are great, but their effects can be fleeting. Solid scholarship can last lifetimes and these past few years has seen us blessed with new studies that detail the early history of the Yellowhammer State. We have reviewed many of these works, but the purpose of this particular blog is to celebrate these achievements as a whole.

Trying to list all of these new works is a daunting task as I know I will unfortunately leave some important books out so I tender my apologies ahead of time. Long-time Alabama Department of Archives and History Director Edwin C. Bridges gave us a new and much-needed outstanding general overview of the state’s entire history with his Alabama: The Making of an American State. Herbert James Lewis gave us Alabama Founders: Fourteen Political and Military Leaders Who Shaped the State which provided biographical sketches of individuals who shaped the state’s territorial years and early statehood. Alabama’s Frontiers and the Rise of the Old South by Daniel S. Dupre is a superb narrative tracing Alabama’s history from the time of European intrusion up to statehood. Mike Bunn has written a synopsis of Alabama’s developmental years with his Early Alabama: An Illustrated Guide to the Formative Years, 1798-1826. Finally, The Old Federal Road in Alabama: An Illustrated Guide by Kathryn Braund, Gregory Waselkov, and Raven Christopher takes a new look at this important transportation and cultural thoroughfare through Alabama.

I want to give a special shout-out to two publications. Alabama Heritage magazine has commemorated Alabama’s territorial years and the road to statehood with quarterly articles and two special bicentennial issues and they have placed much of that content in the appropriately entitled Alabama From Territory to Statehood. This beautiful, hard-bound edition MUST be on the shelves or coffee tables of anyone interested in Alabama history. Finally, the Alabama Department of Archives and History curated an exhibit called We the People: Alabama’s Defining Documents that explained and interpreted Alabama’s six state constitutions. A well-written exhibit catalog of the same name was published to go along with the exhibit that forever gathers the information on those documents that not only defined Alabama at its beginnings, but all the way up to the present.

Alabama’s bicentennial provided the perfect excuse for an examination of this crucial and yet oftentimes overlooked period in the state’s history. It is hoped that these recent publications will spark a new interest in these formative years and that it won’t take another milestone anniversary to see such an important subject enter the spotlight again.


Review of The Million-Dollar Man Who Helped Kill a President: George Washington Gayle and the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, by Christopher Lyle McIlwain, Sr.

3 Dec

Of all the names that come to mind for most people when the assassination of Abraham Lincoln is mentioned, I would venture to say that George Washington Gayle is rarely among them. Yet, contends Christopher Lyle McIlwain, Sr., in his latest book, The Million-Dollar Man Who Helped Kill a President, it should be. According to him, the little-known Alabama lawyer was not only involved in the plot to murder the president, but he actually might be responsible for the whole sordid affair.


McIlwain is an accomplished author (Civil War Alabama; Alabama 1865) who has spent decades conducting meticulous research into Alabama’s antebellum past. The biography he presents us here is the latest product of that investigation, and what a story it is. It features not only the life and times of a forgotten but influential secessionist, painting a portrait of a man who was one of the state’s most rabid rebels and, he contends, who figured prominently in perhaps America’s most famous assassination plot, but a story of intrigue, mystery, and circumstantial evidence of a conspiracy the likes of which we usually see only in works of fiction.

In the pages of the book, McIlwain essentially frames a figurative indictment of Gayle as causing Lincoln’s murder on two convincing pieces of hard evidence and no little conjecture. He points to Gayle’s placement of a December, 1864 advertisement in a Selma newspaper in which he promised to pay one million dollars for the murder of Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson, and Secretary of State William Seward as the smoking gun. The ad was distributed widely throughout the South and North and even internationally, becoming much more well-known at the time than most have been led to believe, contends McIlwain. It is no coincidence, he posits, that those very people were all targeted for assassination the night Lincoln was fatally shot. He also points out that Gayle was actually charged as a conspirator in the murder of the president, but at length obtained pardon and was never tried. Still, in what would appear to be either open gloating or an unusual desire for fame, he did actually confess his guilt to the charge afterward. Though no documents associated with Booth and the trials of his conspirators specifically mention Gayle’s name, their suggestion on more than one occasion that they were part of something that would make them both famous and rich and the fact that Booth and his men targeted specifically those officials named in Gayle’s notorious ad are pointed to as strong evidence of its influence on their actions.

At first blush this book will undoubtedly seem to some to be making a rather sensational revisionist claim, and many will no doubt be quick to second guess the supposition that the evidence against Gayle was as clear as McIlwain lays out. That the man should have been such a notorious and easily-identified Southern partisan was never brought to justice by the war’s victors seems curious. Plus, by McIlwain’s own admission, there is no record of any fundraising which may have supported the infamous reward he purported to be willing to pay for the heads of Lincoln, Johnson, and Seward. But McIlwain lays out a thought-provoking, albeit at heart hypothetical, case for an Alabama hothead triggering the murder of the sitting U.S President in the pages of the book.

Could it all be true? Clearly, it could, as murderers such as Booth do not usually operate in pragmatic paradigms which govern rational behavior and the inspiration for desperate acts of the type he perpetrated has often been less substantial than the promise of immediate wealth, whether that financial gain is real or imagined. Ferreting out how much of the newspaper editorial evidence he uses in spades to support his thesis is sober discussion of 1860s political issues and how much is purposefully outrageous hyperbole or provocative rhetoric is certain to be a stumbling block for some. It is simply sometimes difficult to know what is sincere writing and what is farce in such period publications unless the entire context is understood. That McIlwain knows that context better than the great majority writing on the era today should make readers realize that in the end this book is not a as far-flung theory as one might suspect. Whether or not they in the end are convinced that Gayle’s ad played a determining role in changing national history, all who read Million Dollar Man can agree that it definitely opens up a new conversation in the historiography of Lincoln, Alabama politics, and the Civil War era.