Unionist feeling in Alabama was strongest in the northern half of the state and, while centered in Winston County, was heavy throughout the region. Winston County itself was referred to as "The Free State of Winston," and the 1st Alabama Cavalry, U.S. Volunteers was the military result of that anti-secession feeling. The regiment was formed in 1862 in Huntsville and Memphis and mustered into Federal service that December in Corinth, Mississippi. Company officers were chosen from among the men and Captain George E. Spencer was later named Colonel and given overall command. The "1st" was one of six Union regiments from Alabama, the only cavalry unit, and its ranks contained both whites and blacks. The other five were infantry and artillery units raised during the war, were composed of ex-slaves and were officially called "African Descent" regiments.
During the war over two thousand loyal Southerners served in the 1st Alabama: farmers, mechanics, traders and others, from 35 counties of Alabama and eight other Confederate states. There were men from the border states of Kentucky and Missouri, from seven northern states and eight foreign countries. The "1st" WAS diversity 130 years before it became "politically correct."
During most of its operational life, the 1st Alabama was part of the 16th Corps, Union Army of the Tennessee. In its early months, the unit filled traditional cavalry roles of the time: scouting, raiding, reconaissance, flank guard and screening the army on the march. It fought mostly in actions associated with those missions: actions no less deadly for being small. Names on the regiment's battle flag such as Nickajack Creek, Vincent's Crossroads and Cherokee Station among others, were hardly known at the time and are all but forgotten today. But there are better known places too, such as Streight's Raid through north Alabama; and battles at Dalton, Resaca and Kenesaw Mountain in the Atlanta campaign. Men of the 1st fell on many fields in their country's service.
By the time Sherman's forces entered Atlanta in late 1864, the "1st's" reputation was secure. One general called the Alabama troops "invaluable...equal in zeal to anything we discovered in Tennessee." And Major General John Logan, commanding the 15th Army Corps in Sherman's forces, praised the troopers as "the best scouts I ever saw, and (they) know the country well from here to Montgomery." General Sherman, knowing the value of his Alabama troops as soldiers and symbols of the loyal South, chose them as his escort on the march from Atlanta to the sea.
The honor of guarding the Army's commander, however, did not keep the 1st Alabama Cavalry from the line of fire. On 10 March 1865, soon after entering North Carolina, the 1st was embroiled in its hardest fight. At Monroe's Crossroads the regiment was surprised in its camp by the dawn attack of Confederate cavalry under Generals Joseph Wheeler and Wade Hampton. The official report said that "a bloody hand-to-hand conflict" followed, lasting more than three hours. Only the timely appearance of a section of field artillery enabled the hard-pressed Alabamians to drive the Confederates from their camp and hold them off until help came.
When the smoke cleared, the Third Brigade of Judson Kilpatrick's Union cavalry division, including the 1st and two other regiments, about 800 men, had routed 5,000 Confederates. The rebels lost 103 dead and many more wounded at a cost to the Federals of 18 dead, 70 wounded and 105 missing. A potential disaster had become a clear cut victory. A few weeks later, the 1st was present at the surrender of General Joseph E. Johnston's Confederate army and "Sherman's March" was at last complete.
When the 1st Alabama Cavalry (U.S.V.) mustered out for good on 20 October 1865 only 397 men remained with the colors. In three years' service the regiment lost 345 men killed in action, died in prison, of disease or other non-battle causes; 88 became POWs and 279 deserted. There is no accurate count of wounded. Bitterness between secessionists and loyalists in Alabama remained after the war. It soured state politics for over a century and traces of it can still be seen. Many old troopers suffered for their loyalty, legally, politically and socially. But they're remembered, and honored, by their descendants today.