The Civil War was a time when many families parted with sons and father’s who felt honor bound to fight for their country. The O’Neal family of Florence Alabama saw, not only a father, volunteer to serve, but two sons as well. For their gallantry and bravery, they have since been known as “The Fighting O’Neals.”
Future Alabama governor, Edward Asbury O’Neal, moved to Florence, a growing town in the northwest corner of Alabama, from Huntsville, in the 1840s. After establishing a law practice, he rapidly became one of Florence’s most beloved citizens and one of her most revered Civil War veterans.
Born in Madison County, Alabama, September 20, 1818, he was the child of Edward O’Neal and Rebecca Wheat O’Neal.
Edward graduated with honors from La Grange College, at the age of eighteen. After studying law with James W. McClung of Huntsville, he was admitted to the bar in 1840.
On April 12, 1838, he married Olivia Moore, the daughter of Dr. Alfred and Eliza Jones Moore. She was born in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, in 1819.
Edward was known to consult Olivia in all matters of importance and the two were very happy together. Throughout their lives, he referred to her as the “Queen of Love and Beauty.” She called him her “Knight in Armor.”
While driving through Florence in their buggy, Olivia saw a house on the main street of the city, which was still under construction, and she immediately fell in love with it. Edward bought the, cottage style, house, at 468 North Court Street, for her in 1857, and the O’Neals were the only residents in the home for over 140 years.
Although the O’Neal home was not a mansion, it was the typical architectural style of the houses of many well to do people of the mid-1850s. Neighbors would come and sit on their porch on summer nights and visit with the O’Neals. At the time the house was built, there were two one room cottages on the property where the children slept in the summertime. The back yard consisted of an acre of gardens and a carriage lot, at the back, where Mrs. O’Neal kept her carriage and pair of horses. The kitchen, like most Antebellum kitchens, was unattached and a good deal behind the house to prevent fires. It was run by a slave woman known as Aunt Retta.
Before the war, Edward O’Neal was a leading advocate of secession and when the first volunteers from Florence marched away on June 4, 1861, to the battlefields of Northern Virginia, Edward, holding the rank of captain, was among them.
Upon arriving in Virginia, he was immediately promoted to the rank of Major, 9th Alabama Infantry Regiment. In 1862, he was commissioned as a full colonel and placed in command of the 26th Alabama Infantry Regiment. He fought in most of General Robert E. Lee’s major military campaigns: Yorktown, Williamsburg, Seven Pines, the Seven Days Battles around Richmond, (where he suffered a wound), Boonesborough, South Mountain, Chancellorsville, and the series of fights from the Rapidan to Petersburg.
At Boonesborough, General Rodes sent a staff officer, in great haste, to inform Colonel O’Neal that he might have reinforcements if he thought them necessary to hold his position. O’Neal calmly read over the missive and then looked the officer straight in the eye. “Tell General Rodes that I’ll hold my position till hell freezes over.”
O’Neal did as promised, holding his position despite being surrounded on three sides by Federal troops. Brigadier General Rodes report of the battle stated, “The Twenty-sixth was isolated with no friendly troops on either flank within sight of each other.” “The Twenty-sixth was fighting portions of the 12th, 13th, and 7th Pennsylvania Reserve Regiments. The 12th head-on, the 13th on the left flank while also engaging the 5th Alabama’s right flank, and the 7th came in a little later and hit their unprotected right flank. According to Lt. James Silas Odom of Company K, there were only 3 left in his company at the end of the battle.”
Major General D. H. Hill wrote in his report of the battle, “This small force successfully resisted, without support, for eight hours, the whole Yankee army, and when its supports were beaten, still held the roads, so that our retreat was effected without the loss of a gun, wagon, or an ambulance. Rodes’ brigade immortalized itself.”
At the battle of Seven Pines, O’Neal was severely wounded by a shell fragment which killed his adjutant, and was taken to Aberdeen Mississippi where Olivia O’Neal met him and nursed him back to health.
At Chancellorsville, O’Neal was given command of a brigade. Here he was acknowledged with capturing over two thousand Yankee prisoners. In his report, O’Neal wrote, “We captured a considerable number of prisoners.”
Markers bearing the name of the O’Neal Company still stand on Cemetery Ridge where O’Neal’s regiment fought at Gettysburg. It was here he earned his nickname, “Old Tige,” (short for Tiger) a title that stuck to him through the rest of his life.
He was commissioned brigadier general, June 6, 1863, but failed to receive his commission because of the unreliability of the mail lines.
After the 26th was decimated at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, its remaining soldiers were detailed to transport one of the first groups of prisoners to the new prison camp, Andersonville, near Sumter, Georgia, on February 15, 1864.
O’Neal’s men were to escort prisoners from the railroad station and patrol the outlying picket stations. Although they did receive more firewood, they ate the same rations as the prisoners. The Alabamians foraged for fresh vegetables and when there was surplus, it was often offered for trade with the prisoners – a practice which was strictly forbidden. One of O’Neal’s men was publicly punished by the camp commander, Henry Wirtz, for trading with the prisoners.
The Alabamians retaliated by going after the man Wirtz assigned to do business with the Federal prisoners, a clerk named James Selman. He was relieved of his watch and wallet, tied to a rail and humiliated by being paraded around the camp.
The next day, Selman confronted O’Neal and called him, a “damned old thief.” O’Neal ordered Selman’s arrest and he spent several days in confinement.
The 26th left Andersonville on May 12, 1864, much to the disappointment of the Federal prisoners. Letters of surviving Union prisoners always speak favorably of O’Neal’s men and their treatment of them.
After the Alabamians departure, Andersonville became synonymous with lack of water, starvation, epidemic disease, poor leadership, severe overcrowding, and death.
Late in 1864, O’Neal’s 26th Alabama Infantry Regiment was sent home to recruit. O’Neal was assigned the task of arresting deserters in North Alabama. Some believe this was due to a disagreement he had with General Lee.
The battle flag carried by O’Neal’s men was an Army of Northern Virginia, 3rd wool bunting issue flag, made at the Richmond Depot. Following the 26th’s surrender at Greensboro, North Carolina, in April 1865, a servant of the brigade surgeon, Dr. Hayes, wrapped the flag around his body and crept through Federal lines, thus saving the flag. Dr. Hayes returned the flag to General O’Neal and after the war, it was carried in every local patriotic parade by Colonel Ives, a Killen man, who rode with James Jackson, Jr., in the raid on the White Horse Company. In August, 1943, Mrs. Sydenham O’Neal Dudley, O’Neal’s daughter, donated the flag to the Alabama Department of Archives and History. It is currently on display in the history archives in Montgomery.
The 26th Alabama Infantry Flag
Two of Edward’s sons also served in the Confederate Army. Their names were Alfred Moore O’Neal and Edward Asbury O’Neal, Jr., and, together with their father, they were known as “The Fighting O’Neals.”
Alfred M. O’Neal was the second child of Edward and Olivia. He was born in September, 1840, in Florence, and attended school locally before attending West Point Military Academy. At the outbreak of the war, he was ordered to Fort Morgan near Mobile, Alabama, where he assembled and trained a company of sharpshooters. He served as first lieutenant of artillery but was reassigned to the command of General Hardee where he remained until he was selected as ordnance officer for Mobile Bay and chief of artillery under General Harry Maney.
In 1864, he led a company of sharpshooters from General Davis’ Mississippi Brigade, fighting with them from the Wilderness battles until April, 1865.
In Virginia, he was made a major. Although only in his early twenties, he was slated to become a colonel until he was captured.
At the battle of Petersburg, he fired the last shot, being the only sharpshooter left. It was there he was captured and shipped North to prison on Johnson’s Island, a small island on Lake Erie which served as a military prison for Confederate officers, enlisted men and civilians who were considered disloyal to the union. In all, 9000 men were imprisoned on Johnson’s Island. Life was hard there and conditions in winter were icy, however, the death rate was low compared to other Civil War prisons and encampments.
After his release, Alfred O’Neal made his way from Michigan back to Florence, despite many difficulties. When he arrived in Decatur, Alabama, he found it filled with Union soldiers. In an attempt to avoid them, he spent the night in the Decatur cemetery.
At the age of 39, in 1879, he married Tuscumbia native, Annie Warren. They couple had two children. He died in Florence, December 4, 1909.
Young Edward A. O’Neal, Jr. was only 17 when he signed up to fight with the 4th Alabama under Colonel Phillip Dale Roddey. The 4th Alabama was organized in Tuscumbia, October 21, 1862, and mustered into service November 8, 1862. The first months of the war were spent wintering in Tennessee, but in the early spring, the 4th returned to North Alabama. They repelled raids into North Alabama and made daring attacks against the Union Brigadier General, Grenville. M. Dodge.
The 4th Alabama Cavalry was transferred in 1864, to Mississippi and East Louisiana where they fought, suffering severe loss at Tishomingo, in June of that same year. A large portion of the 4th was captured at Selma.
He died, at age 31, in 1876, leaving behind a widow, Mary Coffee O’Neal, and their infant son, Edward A. O’Neal III.
While her sons and husband were away fighting the war, Olivia O’Neal remained in Florence where she ministered to the sick and wounded Confederate soldiers at Pope’s Tavern which had been converted for use as a Civil War hospital, and nursed injured relatives in her own home.
The O’Neals recovered quickly in the Reconstruction era. Edward was elected governor of Alabama and served two terms in the 1880s. His son, Emmet, would later follow in his footsteps, making Edward and Emmet the first father and son governors in the history of Alabama.
Edward and Olivia O’Neal’s last days were peaceful and happy. His home was always open to his children and grandchildren. He was known to say, “O’Neal hotel opens in June and closes in September.”
Among the guests at the O’Neal home were, General Joseph Wheeler, Robert Barnwell Rhett, the wartime editor of the renowned Charleston Courier, whose face was scarred from numerous duels, General John B. Gordon of Georgia, General Wilcox, and Mrs. Clement C. Clay, a noted senator’s wife and Washington beauty who penned, Belle of the Fifties
Governor O’Neal died of a stroke on November 7, 1890. At the funeral, the tattered battle flag of the 26th Alabama Infantry was carried, one last time, before its leader. Confederate veterans accompanied the coffin and a lone bugle sounded taps for the gallant soldier, Edward Asbury O’Neal.
Olivia passed away November 2, 1909, after suffering a heart attack.
Edward O’Neal was the highest ranking Confederate soldier buried in the Florence cemetery and, after his death, the local Confederate Veterans organization was named in his honor.
A monument was erected to the patriarch of the Fighting O’Neals in the Florence Cemetery. It states: “Eminent as a lawyer, a soldier, and a statesman. Distinguished for his services to the Confederacy throughout the Civil War, and as governor of Alabama during two eventful terms. He rests from his labors. November 7, 1890. There was a daily beauty in his life.”