Most of Alabama escaped the ravages of the Civil War until Union General James H. Wilson’s raid in spring of 1865. Within weeks, Wilson captured prisoners, destroyed four major industrial centers and occupied the former Confederate capital. While most scholars regard the raid as a minor episode during the Confederacy’s final days, the Battle of Selma and the burning of the University of Alabama remain notable events in Alabama history.
In March 1865 the Confederacy teetered on the brink of defeat. Union commander General Ulysses S. Grant proposed a cavalry raid into central Alabama to target valuable coal mines, ironworks, ammunition manufacturers, and other industries in Montevallo, Selma, and Montgomery. Grant selected 27-year-old General James H. Wilson, a veteran cavalry commander, to lead the raid. Wilson organized and trained approximately 13,480 cavalry troops in northwest Alabama for several months prior to launching the raid on March 22. As his forces moved through central Alabama, they were met with little resistance from Confederate forces, most of which had been sent eastward during the previous winter to oppose Union general William T. Sherman’s March to the Sea. The sole obstacle to Wilson’s movements was General Nathaniel Bedford Forrest and the 5,000-man cavalry under his command. Most of his troops, however, largely lacked even basic equipment and were scattered throughout the state at isolated posts, rendering them incapable of thwarting any concentrated Union raid.