Baptists and the American Civil War: August 3, 1862

James W. Stovall

James W. Stovall

Today is the Sabbath, and James W. Stovall, an Alabama slave born in 1837–the son of a white slaveowner and his house mistress–secures permission to attend a Baptist church that is now located behind federal lines in Union-occupied Decatur (at the time known as Cater), Alabama.

Stovall, years later and living in Winona, Illinois, describes to a newspaper reporter what happened this day and the years following.

Mr. James W. Stovall who gave a fine new flag to the G. A. R. of this city some time ago, recently gave a reporter for the Republican an interesting account of his life. The reporter called upon Mr. Stovall at his place of business and was invited to the elegantly furnished suite of rooms on the second floor where he resides. Mr. Stovall remarked that when he was a slave on the plantation living in a dirt floor log cabin, he never dreamed that some day he would be free and live in fine apartments with Brussels carpets.

Mr. Stovall was born in Cater [Decatur], Alabama, and his master was Major Peter Stovall. Born in slavery he was brought up to believe that slavery was proper and that the South was in the right.

When the Civil War broke out he was a small boy [he was twenty-four] and accompanied his master in the army as a servant. He never knew that the South was wrong until after the battle of Corinth [rather, Siege of Corinth, May 1862; Battle of Corinth took place October 3-4, 1862], when Mitchell’s United States cavalry took Cater [Decatur] and held it. One Sunday he was given permission to attend the Baptist church inside the Union lines, and he never returned to the rebel lines. That was on Aug. 3, 1862, and he found out for the first time in his life that he had been on the wrong side.

He joined Company F, Fifty-first Illinois, as a servant to the officers and stayed with that regiment a year and a half. In 1864 he went with the regiment to Chicago, where it went for reenlistment.

“When we landed on the lake front we met a great ovation,” said Mr. Stovall.

“Many a time I have seen the boys of our regiment when they didn’t have so much as a cracker in their haversacks and were hungry and foot-sore, but when they heard the bugle blow or the band start up ‘The Star Spangled Banner,’ they would rally around the old flag they loved so and go into action with the courage that only an American soldier knows. That’s why I love the flag and all its associations.

“Many had been killed and the remainder were crippled. As we unfurled our battle worn flag, riddled with bullets and hanging in rags, the people cheered, and we said to them, ‘We have brought back the flag.’ I never realized until then what a flag was. Right then I saw what the flag meant; what it meant to see men shot down and others pick it up and carry it on; to see men rally around that torn flag and bring it home.

“There in Chicago I felt free and the ‘boys’ advised me to stay there. I got work in the restaurant business and stayed several years. In 1873 [1877] I came to Winona and opened a restaurant and have continued in it ever since.

“Later my brother, J. B. Stovall, came here and went into the same business, but he disappeared ten years ago and I never have had any trace of him.

“I have been on very friendly terms with my former owners and their families and go to Cater occasionally to visit them as though I had never been a slave on their plantations.

“I have worked very hard all these years since the war and accumulated some property and am going to retire from business some of these days and take a needed rest.

“When I saw that someone had stolen the flag belonging to the G. A. R. of this city, I thought I would give them one to replace it. I feel very loyal towards the flag that did so much for me and so just before Decoration Day I presented a new flag to the John Ball Post of this city.”

Source: “An Interesting Story: James W. Stovall Tells of the Slave Days”, Winona Daily Republican, July 22, 1899 (link)