The Fall of Huntsville

I was excited to see that I was on the schedule to work at the Huntsville Depot Museum today.

After all, today is a major anniversary of one of the most important days in the history of the Depot, to say nothing of the city of Huntsville.

On this date, 150 years ago, at about 6 a.m., we were invaded and conquered.

April 11, 1862. The Battle of Shiloh was fought four days earlier, and, while a Confederate defeat, delayed the Union army from taking Corinth, Miss., and the strategically important Memphis & Charleston and Ohio & Mobile railroads that crossed there.

In the wake of Shiloh, one General Ormsby Mitchel, a former banker, railroad surveyor and noted astronomer before rejoining the army to claim that glory that had eluded him in his younger days, decided that he was going to break the Memphis & Charleston, and in a way far less bloody than Shiloh had been.

As his target, he picked Huntsville, appealing for at least two reasons — it was the eastern headquarters of the M&C, and it was relatively poorly defended. (Huntsville would also be of value in his plan, launched the next day, to capture Chattanooga, but we shan’t go into that.)

Of course, it doesn’t matter how poorly defended a town is if a large group of reinforcements arrive. Working in Mitchel’s favor was the fact that the Confederate army was still very much pre-occupied with the siege of Corinth, but he wanted to leave as little as possible to chance.

The worst thing for him would be for, when someone saw his army coming toward Huntsville, the impending invasion to be reported to Confederate headquarters and reinforcements to be sent. We don’t know exactly what Mitchel did to try to prevent this from happening, but we do know two things — no telegraph asking for reinforcements was sent, and, when Mitchel’s army arrived, the local telegrapher, stationed at the Depot, was given a job with the Union army.

To further take no chances, Mitchel timed things impeccably. Back during the Civil War, war was, in some ways, in fact more, well, civil. Among those ways, you didn’t fight at night. Under the rules of engagement, that would be  downright rude. But what Mitchel did do was to wake his troops during the night, have them get ready and start marching, to time their entry into Huntsville after daybreak, when it was fair game, if a bit surprising.

As he marched into town early that morning, the vastly unnumbered, unreinforced and generally unready defenders gave in without a battle, and Huntsville and its Depot were under Union control.

For those that haven’t visited the Depot, this resulted in one of Huntsville’s more interesting historical curiosities from the Civil War. When Mitchel captured the Depot, he inherited a train of injured Confederate soldiers who had been evacuated from Corinth in the wake of Shiloh. Unable to transport them immediately to a prisoner of war camp in Ohio, Mitchel detained them in the third floor of the Depot, which was used as overnight accommodations for railroad workers. Visitors today to the Depot can still see graffiti there that dates back to that period.

Looking back, there’s a bit of historical irony to Mitchel’s occupation of Huntsville. Concerned about the economic situation, Michel found a quandary — the local Confederate money was already inflating to the point of worthlessness, while the locals were too proud to use Union money. In hopes of stabilizing the local economy, Mitchel requested that the Union army send a shipment of gold that could be introduced into circulation. The gold was captured in transit, and never made its way to Huntsville, causing that part of Mitchel’s plan to fail.

Fast forward 150 years, to the modern day city of Huntsville as the nation undergoes a very challenging financial time. The main stabilizing force in Huntsville’s economy? Money sent in by the U.S. Army.

Apparently, Mitchel had the right idea.