Old Times are not Forgotten

On the eastern side of Mt Cheaha in north central Alabama sits the town of Delta.  Not so much a town, but a simple crossroads like many communities that sprinkle this part of Alabama.  Just outside of Delta, rolling farmland stretches out on both sides of the road.  This was never really cotton country.  Unlike other areas of the south, rich plantations didn’t once dot the area.  No, 150 years ago this area looked much the same as it does today – small farms with people just trying to survive.

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Highway 88 near Delta, Alabama (photo courtesy of Google Maps)

Just outside of Delta, down Highway 88 towards the Tallapoosa River, is a small fenced in cemetery just off the roadside. It is enclosed with chain link fence and there are only five graves visible.  If you blink, you’ll miss it.  It is a sad sight really – lonely.  Forgotten.  Just driving by you wouldn’t have any idea of the drama that unfolded here a little over 150 years ago.

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Stephens Family Cemetery (photo courtesy of Don Summers)

This is the Stephens Family Cemetery.  At rest are Harris Stephens, his wife Mary Ann, his mother-in-law Sarah Daniell, and two of his sons – Harris, Jr. and Isaac.  These days, sitting just across the highway from the cemetery is a white house.  The house itself is twentieth century, but it marks the approximate spot where the Stephens’ home place once stood.

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Harris Stephens, his wife, and unknown woman in front of their house in Delta (photo courtesy of Ancestry.com)

Harris Stephens had come to Alabama from Clarke County, Georgia in the mid-1840’s.  He and his wife brought with them their seven children.  They would continue to add to the family after arrival, but the actual number of their children is disputed (9 or 10). They made their home, in what was at that time, Randolph County.

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Harris Stephens’ son, Rev. Henry Harris Stephens with his wife (photo courtesy of Ancestry.com)

Like most others, they probably came for the promise of land, although it isn’t known for sure.  By the time of the 1860 census, Harris’s land and personal property were valued at $2,700 – above average among his neighbors where most farms were in the $500-$1K range, but still poor by the standards of other places in the south.  In fact, Randolph County ranked fifth from the bottom of slave-owning counties in Alabama prior to the outbreak of the Civil War.  Harris nor most of his neighbors owned slaves. They worked their fields themselves, just trying to survive and raise their families.  By 1860, Harris had just enough property to give him some standing in the community – his voice probably mattered when it was time to weigh in on important discussions.

With the approaching war, there was much discussion taking place in 1860.

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Flag of the 30th Alabama Infantry, captured at the fall of Vicksburg (courtesy of Alabama Department of Archives and History)

In early 1861, when the vote for succession was tallied in Alabama, Randolph County’s voters actually voted against it.  Regardless, when the decision was made to succeed, the largely Scots-Irish residents rallied to the cause.  It became more about defending hearth and home once the question of war was resolved.  Harris Stephens was known at the time as very strongly pro-Confederate.  In the spring of 1862 he decided to host a barbecue, complete with brass band and lots and lots of whiskey.  By the next morning, an unknown number of young men, full of whiskey and fight, awoke to find they had signed up to fight.  Among them were at least two of Harris’s sons (Isaac and David), a son-in-law, his brother and nephew, three of son Isaac’s brother-in-laws…and my third great grandfather.

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David Stephens with second wife (photo courtesy of Ancestry.com)
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James Medders, brother-in-law to Isaac Stephens (photo courtesy of Ancestry.com)

The young men, none of whom came from slave owning families, all marched off together, over the mountain to Camp Curry, just outside of Talladega.  After boot camp, or a “camp of instruction” as it was called then, they were sent off to kill Yankees.  These men from Randolph County would help form what would become the 30th Alabama Infantry.  As the length of the war went beyond anyone’s imagination, these boys would be forged into men by years of fighting against man, disease and the elements.  And sadly, not all of them would return.

Isaac would make his way back from the siege at Vicksburg, but he died from injuries or sickness, either during the trip or just after he returned home.  He has a marker in the small cemetery, but it is unknown whether his remains are under it.  Other boys from the area would see a similar fate.  Isaac’s wife Mary lost two brothers – one from pulmonary tuberculosis he contracted during the siege at Vicksburg and the other while fighting with Nathan Bedford Forrest in north Florida.  A third brother, James Medders, survived the war.

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Isaac Stephens’ Grave (photo courtesy of Find a Grave.com)

Another of Harris Stephens’ sons, David,  survived the war, but he was captured in 1863 and spent the remainder of the war being moved between Union prison camps. Son-in-law, Cullen Smith (married to daughter Frankie Stephens) was captured at the Battle of Nashville and spent the remainder of the war, with my third great grandfather, at Camp Douglas in Illinois.

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Henry Gann, brother-in-law to Isaac Stephens (photo courtesy of Ancestry.com)

As the war dragged on, loss and poverty became everyday realities to the people of Randolph County. The jubilation for the cause that existed at the start of the war, faded away.  Those who had been vocally supportive of the Confederate cause soon found themselves being targeted.  Harris Stephens included.

As the story goes, sometime in the spring of 1864, a group of Union raiders came through the area.  They dragged Stephens from his home and hung him by the neck.  Whether it was indeed Yankee raiders or locals seeking retribution might never be known.  One thing is for certain, like so many of the young men who came to his barbecue two years prior, Harris Stephens didn’t survive the war.

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Grave of Harris Stephens (courtesy of Find a Grave.com)
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Stephens Family Cemetery (photo courtesy of Find a Grave.com)

cover photo courtesy of Google.

 

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