Cahaba Prison was located in Cahaba, Alabama, approximately ten miles south of Selma at the junction of the Cahaba and Alabama Rivers. It was established in the summer of 1863. it was closed six to nine months later and the prisoners were sent to Andersonville. It was reestablished the last six months of the war. The prison was originally a cotton warehouse measuring roughly 193 feet by 116 feet; the entire enclosure measured about sixteen thousand square feet. Cahaba’s tall brick walls were 8 to 10 feet high and only partially roofed over. The entire center area was left open. Into this small stockade the Confederates crowded over 3,000 men. Cahaba held about 5,000 Union soldiers from late 1863 until the end of the war in April of 1865.
Cahaba Prison held about 5,000 men altogether and was probably the best run of all Southern prisons. It is hard to say how many prisoners died at Cahaba. Confederate records list 142, while Federal records show 147. The dead were buried at a nearby cemetery and after the war the graves were dug up and the bodies reburied at Marietta, Georgia.
It became so crowded that each man had barely enough room to lie down. Estimates suggest that each man in the prison had only six square feet of living space (U.S. Army regulations at the time required that military posts allow at least 42 square feet of living space per soldier.) The cooking was done by the prisoners themselves in the open area in the center of the prison yard. The sleeping arrangements consisted of rough bunks, without straw or bedding of any kind, under a leaky roof, which extended out from the brick wall. These bunks could accommodate only four hundred and thirty two men. There was a single fireplace in the building and fires were sometimes built upon the earthen floor of the barracks. The firewood, when furnished at all, was either green sap pine or decayed oak from old fields.
The supply of water for drinking, cooking, washing and bathing was conveyed from an artesian well, along an open street gutter for two hundred yards into the prison. In its course the stream gathered the washing of Confederate soldiers and citizens, the slops of tubs, and the spittoons of groceries, offices, and hospitals. It was an open sewer in the midst of a small town and the receptacle of the filth, solid and liquid, which the careless, indifferent, or vicious might cast into it.
Unlike other controversial camps such as Andersonville, Cahaba’s death rate was unusually low. Its commander, Captain H.A.M. Henderson was humane and fair officer. He was a Methodist minister who later presided at the funeral of President Grant’s mother.
In 1819, the state of Alabama was carved out of the wilderness. From 1820 to 1826, Cahaba was its state capital. Cahaba’s low elevation next to the river gave it a reputation for flooding and an unhealthy atmosphere. Those people who were opposed to Cahaba being the capital used these arguments to persuade the legislature to move the capital to Tuscaloosa in 1826. Within weeks Cahaba was nearly abandoned.
The claim of flooding had been greatly exaggerated by the opponents of the town. The area recovered and reestablished itself as a social and commercial center. Cahaba became the major distribution point for cotton shipped down the Alabama River from the fertile black belt to the port of Mobile.
The addition of a railroad line in 1859 triggered a building boom in the town. One the eve of the Civil War, more than 3,000 people called Cahaba home. Cahaba’s glory days were again short-lived. During the Civil War, the Confederate government seized Cahaba’s railroad, tore up the iron rails and used them to extend a nearby railroad.
In 1865, a flood inundated the town, and in 1866 the Dallas County seat was removed to nearby Selma. Businesses and families followed. Within 10 years, even the houses were being dismantled and moved away.
During the Reconstruction period, the abandoned courthouse became a meeting place for freemen seeking new political power. Cahaba became the mecca of the radical Republican Party. A new rural community of 70 former slave families replaced the old urban center. These families turned the vacant town blocks into two-acre fields. Soon, even this community disappeared. By 1900 most of the Cahaba’s buildings had burned, collapsed, or been dismantled. Very few structures survived past 1930, but still the town was not unincorporated until 1989. By that time, only fishermen and hunters walked the town’s abandoned streets.
Today, nature has reclaimed most of Old Cahaba, but historians and archaeologists from the Alabama Historical Commission are working hard to uncover Cahaba’s historic past and create a full-time interpretive park.