Southern patriotism and revolutionary fervor burned bright in early February 1861. Representatives from six states convened in Montgomery, Ala., to draft and adopt a provisional Confederate constitution. The mobilization of troops had already gained momentum across Alabama, where, a month earlier, state militia occupied federal forts Gaines and Morgan at Mobile Bay, and a nearby arsenal.
Local leaders rallied their communities to defend the emerging republic.
In Wilcox County, 75 miles from the activity in Montgomery, an infantry company was born. About a hundred enthusiastic volunteers enlisted. One of the young men who rose to lead them was 20-year-old David Wardlaw Ramsey, a graduate of the Kentucky Military Institute and the son of a prosperous Methodist minister who owned a plantation and more than 50 slaves.
Ramsey suspended his studies to become a physician and enlisted as first lieutenant on February 9, the same day Jefferson Davis became president of the Confederacy.
Ramsey and his comrades marched out of the county three days later with the spirited name “Wilcox True Blues.” They joined companies from other counties with similarly colorful titles such as “Talladega Rifles,” “Guards of the Sunny South,” “Rough and Ready Pioneers,” and “Red Eagles.” Together they formed a regiment, the 1st Alabama Infantry. The rank and file elected staff officers, a common practice among volunteers. They voted the captain of the True Blues as lieutenant colonel. He left to assume his new duties, and Ramsey advanced to captain and company commander.
The men mustered in for a one-year term of enlistment. The unique company names were replaced with letters. The True Blues would be officially referred to in future orders and reports as Company K, and after subsequent reorganizations as Company B.
The True Blues kept their company flag, a blue silk standard trimmed with gold fringe. Tradition has it local women cut the material from a donated dress. A county man, a painter born in England, decorated it with cotton blooms and a landscape. On one side he added gold letters that spelled out the company name followed by “Woman’s Offering to Patriotism.” A Latin phrase on the other side of the flag further warned off invaders: “Don’t touch me.”
The raw recruits prepared to defend the homeland and echoed a refrain common across the South. “When we volunteered, we thought we could whip the Yankees in three months,” stated a private, who wrote a history of the regiment.
“Most of these young men were from homes of wealth and culture, of the best Southern families, and, inflamed with resentment against the North for long-continued aggressions upon the rights of the South, as well as by the recent John Brown raid in Virginia.” He further noted that less privileged soldiers, “who, with no property interests involved, equaled the zeal and loyalty of their wealthy comrades in devotion, courage, sacrifice and duty.”
A number were students armed with textbooks. “We had several scholarly teachers in the regiment,” observed the historian. “We expected to fight Yankees and pursue our studies at the same time.” There would be little room for book learning, as tough times lay ahead.
Stationed in Florida along Pensacola Bay, their first enemy was disease. Measles, malaria and typhoid fever swept the regiment in epidemic proportions. As the death toll mounted, men became indifferent to the sight of the corpses of their comrades on their way to a makeshift cemetery for burial, or for shipment to grieving families back home. The regiment’s historian recalled that one nervous soldier observed, “A man can die and be buried here with the least ceremony and concern I ever saw.”
Despite raging sickness the troops became so proficient at working the big guns in area forts and batteries that they converted to artillerists. They reverted to foot soldiers on the night of Oct. 8-9, 1861, and participated in a 1,200-man amphibious raid on Santa Rosa Island, where the Confederates overran and burned the camp of the 6th New York Infantry, before Union reinforcements drove them back. The True Blues suffered one casualty, a drummer boy accidentally shot in the leg during the withdrawal.
The regiment’s enlistment expired in early 1862. Ramsey and many of the True Blues reenlisted. Fresh recruits, including Ramsey’s little brother, 18-year-old Rob, replaced those who had died of disease or decided that they had enough of war.
The Alabamians departed the warm climate of Florida for the cold, inhospitable conditions of a nondescript sandbar in the Mississippi River labeled on maps as Island No. 10. The last in a chain of numbered islands, it sat at the base of a horseshoe-shaped bend near New Madrid, Mo.
The Confederate-held defenses on the island lay in the path of Union forces intent on splitting the Confederacy in two along the great waterway.
Another round of disease decimated the regiment. The sick were housed in hospitals established in a church and on a steamboat anchored near the island. On the ship, “the men were lying on the floor across the cabin, head to wall and feet to feet, with a space of twelve or eighteen inches between each. They all had pneumonia, and the space between each was literally covered with phlegm expectorated by the patients. The same was the case in the aisle, which was about three feet wide. The coughing, wheezing and groans were distressing,” according to the regimental historian.
The situation grew more desperate when federal forces moved in. The Confederates were compelled to surrender on April 8, 1862. Ramsey, his True Blues, and the rest of the 1st Alabama were among the 3,500 prisoners.
The Alabamians spent that day in conversation with their captors. The federals “repelled as an insult the least insinuation that the war, professedly for the Union, involved the emancipation of slaves, declaring they would lay down their arms at once if they had the remotest apprehension that such was the case. Though doubtless sincere at the time, they did not make good this declaration upon the issuance of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation nine months later,” reported the regimental historian.
The captured officers were separated from enlisted men. Ramsey headed to a prison camp on Johnson’s Island in Ohio. His brother, Rob, went to Camp Butler in Illinois, where he died of disease.
The banner of the True Blues fared somewhat better. Wisconsin troops stripped it from the company color bearer and sent it home as a war trophy. The flag later became part of a display in a museum in Madison.
Five months after his imprisonment, Ramsey gained his release in a prisoner exchange and returned to duty along the Mississippi, only to suffer surrender and capture a second time. In command of an artillery battery at Port Hudson, La., he and the True Blues successfully defended the city and the river from several major Union assaults. But after Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant captured Vicksburg, the position became untenable, and approximately 5,500 men in gray became prisoners on July 9, 1863. The Union now controlled all of the Mississippi River.
The enlisted men released on parole eventually returned to duty. But for Ramsey and other captured officers, the fighting was over.
After a prison stint in New Orleans, where Ramsey stood Napoleon-style for his photograph, he returned to Johnson’s Island for a second time, and remained in captivity for the war’s duration.
Ramsey spent almost two years in prison before military authorities released him in June 1865. He returned to Wilcox County, married in 1866, and converted to his wife’s Baptist faith. They started a family that grew to include five daughters and three sons.
He eventually completed his medical studies and opened a practice. Ordained a minister in 1883, he turned his attention to the spiritual needs of his patients.
An 1893 typhoid epidemic claimed the life of his wife and a daughter. He remarried the following year, and lived until 1916.
One year after his death, survivors of the True Blues learned that their silk banner, which they had assumed long lost, existed in Wisconsin. They negotiated for its return in 1921, almost 60 years after its capture.
Had he lived, Ramsey might not have been eager to see the flag. According to his great-grandson, Joel Wardlaw Ramsey of Dothan, Ala., Ramsey was “a healer, a man of peace trying to get beyond being a soldier.”
An anecdote in the family’s oral history illustrates Ramsey’s state of mind: His granddaughter wore a blue dress of which she was very proud. It brought her many compliments, with the exception of Ramsey. He remarked that he didn’t care much for the color blue.
But on a February day in 1861 in Wilcox County, in the heat of the moment and the passion of the times, the looming war was more abstraction than reality. And the banner of the True Blues floated over Ramsey and his comrades.
References: 1860, 1870 U.S. Federal Census, 1860 Slave Schedules, U.S. Federal Census; Wilcox Progressive Era, Feb. 10, 1921; Edward Young McMorries, History of the First Regiment Alabama Volunteer Infantry C.S.A; The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies; Joel W. Ramsey, David Wardlaw Ramsey in the War Between the States; Ouida S. Woodson, Men of Wilcox: They Wore the Gray; The Montgomery Advertiser, March 5 and May 15, 1921; Alabama Department of Archives and History, Montgomery, Alabama.
Ronald S. Coddington is Editor and Publisher of MI.