Two Martyrs –
Robin Lightfoot and W. H. Mitchell
The Civil War was a time when men and women of all races and creeds stood up courageously for their beliefs and rights against all odds. And no two men, in Florence, are remembered more for their personal fortitude than Dr. William Henry Mitchell and the Reverend Robin Lightfoot whose fates became intertwined.
The Reverend Lightfoot was a slave of mixed blood who organized the first African American church in 1837, in Florence. These slaves had attended the First Methodist Church, whose congregation, at that time, was made up of sixty whites and twenty-eight African Americans. Some of these men were freemen and they were assisted in forming their own church by their fellow white Methodists.
One of these free men was John Rapier, a wealthy man who was the town barber. He sold a brick cow shed, which was located on Spring Street, to the white trustees from First Methodist, for $15.00, who donated it to the African American congregation.
They renovated the shed and turned it into a church building and named it Church Spring which was a forerunner of the Greater Saint Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church which is now located on Cherokee Street near the W. C. Handy Museum.
After the Civil War, the church sponsored the American Missionary School and a married couple named Myers became some of the first to educate the children of former slaves in Florence.
Not much is known about Reverend Lightfoot. A Methodist junior pastor of the Shoals Circuit, by the name of Henry Lightfoot, preached in this area and records indicate he married a Florence woman named Elizabeth Simmons in the 1820s. According to William L. McDonald’s book, Civil War Tales, the Reverend Lightfoot was purchased by James W. Weakley of Florence, about the same time Henry Lightfoot decided to become a minister so it is assumed Robin must have been a slave owned by Henry Lightfoot.
The Weakley family lived near the corner of Wood Avenue and Tuscaloosa Street and attended Trinity Episcopal Church in Florence, however, Robin Lightfoot was allowed to attend services at the Methodist Church.
Lightfoot was known to have been a very impressive preacher and leader among his people who proclaimed his hopes for the eventual emancipation of the slaves. Unfortunately, his political and spiritual platform incited a band of local Bushwhackers to murder him.
During the occupation of Federal General Don Carlos Buell in 1862, the Bushwhackers captured Reverend Lightfoot at the site where the Wood Avenue Church of Christ stands today. He was then hauled to Stewart Spring, which is now part of the campus of UNA, and, without trial, was hanged from the limb of a tall oak tree.
It was thought that the subsequent of arrest of a more well known martyr to his cause was precipitated by Lightfoot’s murder.
On Sunday, July 27, Sallie Independence Foster, who was a 13 year old student at the Florence Synodical Female College, wrote the first entry in her journal: “It has been a really distressing day. The Yanks went into the Presbyterian Church and took Dr. Mitchell prisoner while he was praying and took him over the river, sent word to his wife that she must come to see him or she would not see him again.”
Miss Foster was referring to the arrest of Dr. W. H. Mitchell, who pastored the First Presbyterian Church from 1851, to 1871.
Mitchell was born in County Monaghan, Ireland in 1812. He was educated in Belfast and practiced law before immigrating to America in the 1840s. He attended Princeton University where he earned a doctorate in divinity. In 1843, he entered the ministry and pastored churches at Prattville, Wetumpka, and Montgomery, before coming to Florence to be minister of the First Presbyterian Church of Florence in 1847.
R. T. Simpson, in his writings, recounted Dr. Mitchell’s appearance, stating that he was “most impressed by his large blue eyes, his splendidly shaped head, and his earnest face.”
First Presbyterian, the church Mitchell pastored at the time of his arrest, is, perhaps, the second oldest church in the state of Alabama, being built in 1818. The Presbyterians were the first church group to organize in the town of Florence and were also the first to build a place of worship. The church is located on its original site.
The Presbyterians shared their meeting house with other denominations, and during the frontier days, Baptists and other Christians organized their own churches within its sanctuary.
When property was offered for sale in Florence, some Scotch-Irish settlers of the area acquired the lot, at 224 East Mobile Street, to build their meeting house. A log house was built on the site at that time, thus making the First Presbyterian Church older than the State of Alabama and as old as the town of Florence. In 1824, a permanent structure was built and although the church has undergone renovation changing its looks, the outer walls of the 1824, building are the same ones which comprise the present-day sanctuary.
The first meeting house was a plain brick building with a white steeple, topped with a dome and a weather vane. The north face of the church was graced with a stained glass Palladian window. The interior had three rows of high pews with doors on the each side. A special section was reserved for the slaves. The choir loft was in the rear, upper part of the sanctuary.
The church, as it appears today, is very similar to the original structure, although annexes have been added and where the former front doors were, there are now two stained-glass transom windows. The old white steeple was destroyed and now there are two towers framing the façade.
W. H. Mitchell must have been proud of the Presbyterian meeting house and its congregation, which included General John Coffee, Governor Robert M Patton, the Honorable John McKinley, and their families.
Mitchell was devoted to his church and to the South. He was one of the founders of the Florence Synodical College, a school for young Presbyterian ladies which was located where the Florence Post Office now stands. He served as its president until his death.
A character sketch in the records of the Tuscumbia Presbytery lists Mitchell’s most prominent trait as “undoubtedly firmness of decision. His opinions were not hastily formed, but when once formed, they were immovably adhered to; however, while he adhered with tenacity to his own views, he cheerfully accorded a like privilege to others.”
When the battle flag, made by the ladies of Florence, was unfurled at Wesleyn Hall on April 29, 1861, W. H. Mitchell gave a stirring speech entitled “Lauderdale volunteers.” Bibles were then distributed to the volunteer soldiers.
Despite heavy rain, 186 Florence citizens stepped forward and gave donations to the war effort, ranging from $1.00 to $150.00. Attending the meeting was, future Alabama governors, Robert Patton and Edward A. O’Neal, Judge William B. Wood, General Samuel D. Weakley, Judge Sidney Posey, T. L. Chisholm, and Courtview builder, George Washington Foster. Andrew Jackson Hutchings, whose father had been a ward of former president Andrew Jackson, gave $250.00, that largest contribution of that day.
After Mitchell’s first wife, Ann Jane Byrne died, in Wetumpka, he married a Florence native, Martha Jackson Andrews, on August 19, 1851. She was the daughter of Forks of Cypress builder, James Jackson. They lived in Wakefield, a beautiful Federal style home which was built in 1826, and is said to be the oldest brick residence in Florence. It is a replica of George Washington’s birthplace, in Virginia, which was called by the same name.
The lovely two story home, with crow step gables, was built by James Sample for his bride Perthenia McVay who was the daughter of Hugh McVay, governor of Alabama in 1837.
Perthenia died in childbirth and Sample immediately married her sister, Susan, who became convinced Perthenia was haunting the house and forced James to sell it. The house was then purchased by Levi Cassidy, who later sold it to W. H. Mitchell. The home remained in the hands of the Mitchell family until 1888. In 1937, it was bought by Mrs. J. Hurd Walker, a granddaughter of W. H. Mitchell.
During Mitchell’s lifetime, many important people were entertained in the home. One was the militant Southern leader of secession, William Lowndes Yancey, who was born in Georgia. He was educated in the north and became a lawyer before moving to Alabama where he married a wealthy widowed plantation owner. Yancey established a law practice and began a political career, serving in both the House of Representatives and in the Senate, where he developed a reputation as an excellent orator and supporter of Southern concerns. His philosophy exceeded the views of many of the South’s staunchest partisans.
In 1846, he left the House in disgust over Northern attitudes when the Wilmot Proviso was put before the House of Representatives. It stipulated that none of the territory acquired in the Mexican War should be open to slavery. The bill passed the House but did not pass the Senate. Still, it created extreme bitterness between the North and the South and fueled the conflict over the extension of slavery.
In response to the Wilmot Proviso, Yancey drew up the Alabama Platform, which demanded that Congress protect the rights of slave owners in the territories. Yancey even advocated the reopening of the African slave trade. He wrote the Alabama ordinance of secession and became a rival to Jefferson Davis for the presidency of the Confederacy.
Montgomery was chosen as capitol of the Confederacy, due much in part, to the fact that Yancey lived there.
Davis, in fact, sent Yancey to Europe as a Confederate commissioner to secure diplomatic recognition for the Confederacy where his efforts were unsuccessful. He returned and was elected to the Confederate senate where he served until his death in 1863.
General Stephen D. Lee, a distant relative of Robert E. Lee, was also a guest in the home. In 1864, when John Bell Hood was promoted to command the Army of Tennessee, Lee was made a lieutenant-general, the youngest in the Confederacy to hold that rank. He fought as Hood’s rearguard on the retreat from the battles of Franklin and Nashville.
Lee came through this area with his cavalry on several occasions. In October 1863, he was ordered to this area to cooperate with General Joe Wheeler in disrupting the Federal lines supplying the Yankees, who were surrounded at Chattanooga, just after their defeat at Chickamauga. Reaching the Tennessee River, Lee found that Wheeler’s cavalry was already on a raid into Middle Tennessee and he soon had to deal with Sherman’s army which was marching eastward from Mississippi to relieve Grant’s army at Chattanooga. After several heavy skirmishes near Cherokee, Sherman’s troops soon crossed the river and left the area, marching toward Chattanooga. This left Lee free to return to his department in Mississippi. He returned to Florence again from October 30 – November 19, 1864, with Generals Hood and Forrest.
After the war, he lived in Mississippi, his wife’s home state, and became a planter. He was president of Mississippi State University from 1878 – 1897, and took part in state politics. At the time of his death, he was an active member and commander in chief of the United Confederate Veterans society. He promoted women’s rights, wrote history, and made efforts to preserve the Vicksburg battlefield sties. He died there in 1908.
These two famous men seemed very different in their political views. Yancey’s convictions are much more along the lines of W. H. Mitchell’s and it is believed the two were friends. Stephen D. Lee, most likely, quartered in the home when his men were camped in Florence.
W. H. Mitchell became something of a local folk hero during the Civil War. On Sunday morning, July 27, 1862, he stepped into the pulpit and looked out across his congregation, which was interspersed with some of the occupying Yankee soldiers and, despite an edict passed by the Federals against praying for the Confederacy, said a prayer for President Jefferson Davis and for the success of the Confederate Armies.
After the Amen was sounded, Colonel John Marshall Harlan, Provost Marshal of the 10th Kentucky Regiment and future Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court, got up from his pew, strode up to the pulpit and told Dr. Mitchell that the service should cease at once and that he should consider himself a prisoner of the United States Army.
Then, to the horror of Mitchell’s congregation, he was placed under guard, marched across the Tennessee River to Tuscumbia, and put on a train to Alton, Illinois where he spent four months in Federal prison.
It is believed that some members of the church followed Mitchell to the railroad station in Tuscumbia. Sallie Foster wrote in her journal, “They would not let him joist his umbrella. They said he could stand the sun as well as they could.”
Relatives and friends intervened on Mitchell’s behalf and secured his release. Sallie’s journal entry on Sunday morning, October 12, 1862, stated that Dr. Mitchell had returned home and had resumed his position as pastor of First Presbyterian and as president of the Synodical College. His congregation dubbed him the “prison pastor.”
He resigned his pastorate in 1871, and died ten years after the end of war, on October 2, 1872. He was buried in the cemetery at the Forks of Cypress. A memorial window graces the sanctuary of the First Presbyterian Church in Mitchell’s honor.
Although their beliefs were, in many ways, in direct opposition, both Robin Lightfoot and W. H. Mitchell inspired their followers and were martyrs to their respective causes.