A Civil Rights Icon?: Edmund Pettus, From 1861 to 1965

By Logan Tapscott ’14

During my immersion trip to Alabama over the winter break, a group of students and I visited Selma, a city which was the center of the Civil Rights Movement in March 1965, and decided to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. On March 7, 1965, about 700 demonstrators, including Rev. Hosea Williams and John Lewis, attempted to march to Montgomery, the first capital of the Confederacy, to protest the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson and the lack of voting rights for African-Americans. Upon entering the bridge, Selma sheriff Jim Clark and state troopers stopped and then, a minute later, attacked the marchers. The attack known as ‘Bloody Sunday’ resulted in the death of a white minister. Seventy others were injured, including seventeen of whom were hospitalized. Two weeks later, on March 21, with protection from the federal government, about 8,000 demonstrators, including those from ‘Bloody Sunday,’ trekked from Selma to the former Confederate capital, arriving there four days later. While the bridge’s name evokes memories of the Civil Rights Era, the name Edmund Winston Pettus has a specific place in Civil War memory. Local residents decided to dedicate the bridge to him because of both his Civil War and post-Civil War career.

Edmund Pettus Bridge

Edmund Pettus was born in 1821 in Limestone County, Alabama, into a slaveholding family. He later had a law career, first serving as solicitor and later becoming a circuit judge. He served as secession commissioner in Mississippi and helped to recruit soldiers for the 20th Alabama. He was subsequently named its lieutenant colonel in October 1861. Scholars have described Pettus as a fearless fighter in the western theater of the Civil War. During the summer and fall of 1862, Pettus and the 20th Alabama took part in E. Kirby Smith’s push into Kentucky. After being transferred to Carter Stevenson’s division in Vicksburg in 1862, he was captured at Port Gibson in that same year but escaped to rejoin his regiment. During the siege of Vicksburg in 1863, Pettus was promoted to regimental commander but surrendered when the city fell. Paroled and exchanged for Union soldiers in September, Pettus became brigadier general, continuing to demonstrate his bravery on the field. As brigadier general, he commanded five Alabama regiments for the rest of the war while fighting throughout the Chattanooga and Atlanta Campaigns. During the Carolina Campaigns, he received a flesh wound on one of his legs. After recovering, he served under General Joseph Johnston who surrendered to General William Sherman in North Carolina in April 1865. After the war, Edmund Pettus moved to Selma and resumed his law practice. Even though he was involved in the Democratic Party, Pettus was not elected to public office until 1896 when he became a U.S. Senator. Pettus died in 1907 during his second term.

Edmund Pettus was a man who proudly fought for the Confederacy which advocated for slavery via states’ rights. One hundred years later, during the same period of “white superiority” and extreme prejudice toward African-Americans, the bridge dedication occurred. At the same time, the Selma marches gave impetus to the signing of the 1965 Voting Act. The Edmund Pettus Bridge mixes both Civil War and Civil Rights memories not only in Selma but also throughout Alabama.


Sources:

Berkhalter, Denise L. “Bridge over Troubled Waters.” Crisis, March/April 2005.

Rathbone, Mark. “Selma and the Civil Rights.” History Review no. 60 (March 2008): 14-19.

Severance, Ben H. Portraits of Conflict: a Photographic History of Alabama in the Civil   War. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas, 2012.

Sifakis, Stewart. Who was Who in the Civil War. New York: Facts on File Publications, 1998.

Warner, Ezra J. Generals in Gray: Lives of the Confederate Commanders. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1959.

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