In June of 1861 a young Alabamian was caught up in the patriotic furor, “the rage militaire,” that was sweeping Limestone County,1 and along with many of his friends and neighbors, he rushed to join the Confederate army as a volunteer. Twenty-two-year-old William Cowan McClellan (born April 28, 1839; died December 9, 1869) was working on his father’s farm along with his six brothers and sisters when Fort Sumter was attacked. Emotional ties to the old Republic quickly dissolved in Limestone County that spring, and any future plans that William had were put on hold for the duration of the war.
Many Southerners claimed to be fighting to preserve their right of selfgovernment, which they felt the North was threatening to take away. They feared that they would also lose their American liberties, which would in turn lead to their own enslavement.2 William was well versed in the political ideas and the current issues of his day, perhaps because of his father’s political background. As one recent historian has observed, the majority of the volunteer soldiers were politically sophisticated and, as a result, they “would be more responsive to the issues in the conflict and would be convinced that they had a stake in the outcome. They would be more motivated to join up and stay the course until the issues were resolved.”3
While that may have been true, William was more concerned at the beginning of the war simply to do his duty and perhaps to become a part of history. His was a naïve ideal that emphasized a soldier acting out a romantic concept of war that called for courage, godliness, manliness, and honor.4 That ideal changed with the Union invasion of the Tennessee Valley in 1862, and his thoughts turned toward the safety of his family and efforts to prevent Limestone County from being enslaved by the Black Republican government—a goal that represented his own personal view of Southern liberty.
William Cowan McClellan was the first member of his family to enlist