FloydMedals A-6989 obv

Phenix City, Alabama, had always been a frontier sort of town. Just across the Chattahoochee River from Columbus, Georgia, and Fort Benning, it had been the home of bars, gambling dens and brothels until one night in 1954. That night brought out the National Guard to clear out the local gangsters and return the city to its citizens.

Albert Patterson was a wounded World War I veteran and an attorney practicing in Phenix City. Patterson took exception to the gambling that had supported the city for years and began a campaign to clean it up. In the face of massive opposition from the casino bosses, Patterson ran for attorney general of Alabama and won. However, before he could take office, he was shot and killed near his office on June 18, 1954. Nobody was too concerned about finding the killer until a group of local citizens convinced Governor Gordon Persons to use the killing as the basis for cleaning up the city. Persons knew this was not going to be an easy task, so he called on his Adjutant General, Major General Walter J. “Crack” Hanna to find a way to clean up the city. Hanna had risen to brigadier general in World War II, serving as assistant commanding general of the 31st Infantry Division in the Pacific. Hanna and his Provost Marshal quickly found the necessary path. After getting no local support in his investigations, Hanna convinced Governor Persons to give him “martial rule” in the city. Short of full martial law, this allowed the National Guard to take over the law enforcement and judicial systems in the area, but not have to deal with the daily workings of the rest of the city.

Hanna knew, either personally or by reputation, most of the men of the Alabama National Guard, so he drew up a list of those Guardsmen who had law enforcement or judicial system experience and mobilized them to serve in Phenix City. The local National Guard unit (Company D, 167th Infantry) was mobilized to provide logistical support. The Guardsmen became the police force, the jailers, the bailiffs and the court system for the city. Suddenly, there were regular raids on the casinos and brothels and over 600 grand jury indictments were handed down to combat the embedded criminals. Armed soldiers patrolled the streets in place of the corrupt local policemen.

The Alabama state police were called in to provide the investigative skills. John Patterson, Albert’s lawyer son, handled the prosecution and an honest judge from a neighboring county handled the judicial proceedings. Although “everyone knew” who had pulled the trigger, it took a little time to build the case against Russell County Chief Deputy Sheriff Albert Fuller, who was convicted and jailed, serving 10 years of a life sentence. Also indicted were Arch Ferrell, the Russell County circuit solicitor (who was tried, but acquitted) and Silas Garrett, the sitting Alabama Attorney General, who never faced trial because he checked himself into a mental institution in Texas.

The Phenix City Civil Disturbance Medal was authorized on the basis of Governor Persons’ Executive Order of June 18, 1954. The medal was awarded for military or civil service during the period June 18, 1954, through January 17, 1955. A total of about 600 Alabama National Guardsmen earned the medal during that period, with the peak strength rising to about 300 men. The medal was struck by Medallic Art Company, which delivered 1000 medals to the state. The obverse depicts the torch of enlightenment with rays radiating from the flame. Scales of justice are balanced near the top of the torch. A scroll around the obverse is inscribed “Alabama National Guard”. The reverse is inscribed For/Service in the/Phenix City/Civil/Disturbance/Gordon Persons/Commander/in/Chief”. Some medals carry the Medallic Art Company’s hallmark. The ribbon is green with a wide white center stripe and narrow white edge stripes.

With the stranglehold of the mob bosses broken, Phenix City was able to rebuild itself. The Phenix City Civil Disturbance Medal stands as a reminder of the days when the National Guard was called in to deal with problems that could not be effectively handled by the local government.

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  1. So now I know… an image of that has been sitting in the appropriate section of my website for some 12 years now, but I never knew the story behind it! Thanks, Jeff.

  2. Jeff,
    A fascinating history of a medal for ridding Phenix City of vice and corruption. In 1976, Phenix still had a reputation as “Sin City” when I was going to Advanced Individual Training for Infantry and Jump School at Fort Benning, aka the School for Wayward Boys. So, of course, we all headed to Phenix when were got a day off, but it seemed a lot tamer than we had expected. In fact, downtown Columbus was a place where Joe could lose his money a lot quicker. Thanks for sharing the story of this medal and its history.

  3. Although I was only 4 years old in 1954, I can tell you like any other town or city Phenix City Ala there are two sides to the Phenix City story.
    The military base at Ft Benning during World War II made the small river bank town a target of the era when mafia activity in the northern states saw opportunity to corrupt our way of life. Temptation lured many good folks to cross the line.
    My mother told many stories of her church hosting soldiers and providing an open door to those far from home….yes there were
    bad folks operating to take advantage of them..but thete were many times over good folks in Phenix City Alabama. If you crossed the lower bridge to Columbus Georgia yoy would find
    just as much corruption …it was really a matter of finding what you.were looking for.
    So many friendships with the military from Ft Benning cintinue still today. Phenix City and Smiths Station have been havens
    of retirement for thousands of vets ..they now call them their Hometown

    • Phenix City was not alone in the problems they faced. Many towns in close proximity to large military bases faced the corruption and crime that were generated. Many of these problem areas were in “combat zones”, fairly small areas where the bars, brothels and gambling dens concentrated. Many Phenix City residents probably never ventured into that part of town and lived their lives in small-town America.

      The opposition to the criminal element in Phenix City was long-standing, but the power of the corruption overwhelmed the better angels of the reformers until the murder of Albert Patterson crystalized things and put the power of the state behind the clean-up campaign.

  4. well written and history. I have one of the PC medals in my safe. About what would it be worth when I pass it on to my Grand kids??

    Many thanks

    Bryan Newman

    • As with most state medals, the monetary value is modest. You see the Phenix City Medals in the market for around $35.

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