Thursday, July 18, 2019

Tall tale: Uncovering secrets of massive Nashville 'witness tree'

As tree trimmers Hunt Adams and Levi Norwine (right) watch, Jim Kay runs the coil of his metal detector 
over fallen Battle of Nashville "witness tree" limbs. (CLICK ON IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)
Jim Kay believes the crown of the "witness tree" was shot out by artillery fire on Dec. 16, 1864, 
the second day of the Battle of Nashville.
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If Nashville lawyer Jim Kay could depose the witness to violence in his neighborhood, perhaps he’d pose these questions:

Who fired the shot that caused your grievous wound?

Did you suffer when you were hit by gunfire?

An antebellum wall snakes through the 
Oak Hill neighborhood.

Where were the men with the heavy weapons positioned who were assigned to hold the ground near you?

Did the stone wall nearby provide you any protection?

How the heck have you survived for more than 250 years?

Of course, this witness won't ever be talking. But the Battle of Nashville "witness tree" -- one of perhaps five or six of its kind -- could soon reveal some of its secrets. More on that in a bit. But first a little background:

Occasionally I drive through a residential neighborhood called Oak Hill, near downtown Nashville, to admire the massive, ancient oak. The crown is missing from this wonder of nature, probably a victim of Civil War artillery fire, according to Kay, a Battle of Nashville expert. The 60-year-old lawyer has lived for decades in the upscale neighborhood, which was largely farmland behind Confederate lines on Dec. 16, 1864, Day 2 of the battle.

In Oak Hill, an antebellum stone wall -- once part of the John Lea estate -- snakes behind modern homes and older, less ostentatious houses. Evidence of the Battle of Nashville still remains buried in the neighborhood. In his own back yard, Kay has discovered with a metal detector hundreds of battle relics, from bullets to artillery fragments. In 1981, he found his first artillery shell nearby. He has even eye-balled a relic or two in Oak Hill. According to Kay, country music star Hank Williams Jr., a Civil War collector,  hauled off scores of artillery shells in the neighborhood in the 1960s.

A close-up of the missing crown of the tree, believed shot off by artillery fire.
Levi Norwine of Adams Arbor Care saws limbs that could contain Civil War lead.
A close-up of the massive tree trunk.
The girth of the Battle of Nashville "witness tree" is an impressive 209 inches.

Jim Kay recently found this fired bullet in his
Nashville neighborhood.
Victims of a storm, fallen limbs near the "witness tree" recently piqued my curiosity. I wanted to examine the marvel myself and perhaps grab a piece of history, too. And so I called Kay -- he knows the property owner, who graciously allowed us on a muggy Thursday morning to examine his witness to history.

While an arborist trimmed limbs from the oak, which remains quite healthy despite its age, Kay swept his White's MXT metal detector over the fallen limbs. A distinctive whine of the detector indicated the presence of metal in five of the large tree chunks. Could the wood hold bullets or artillery fragments? Or perhaps this long-ago war witness merely contains rusty nails. A relic hunter since 1968, Kay has never found a piece of lead in a Battle of Nashville witness tree. War lead from the tree would be a "priceless" find for the lawyer with the tremendous, near-shoulder-length hair.

With permission of the property owner, Kay will have the five large pieces hauled off to be X-rayed, the most prudent way to examine the wood. He also knows a wood worker who can create fabulous dishes from the oak.

Somehow two large pieces of the tree ended up in the trunk of my car. My knee-jerk reaction: I'll turn them into a beautiful kitchen cabinet! Then I remembered one must have the skills to make that happen. Instead, let's figure a way for this long-ago war witness to benefit Civil War battlefield preservation.

Details to come.

My haul contains no Civil War metal-- at least none that we know of.

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Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Facebook Live: Bullet-riddled outbuildings on Carter farm

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If you dare, you can now follow me live on my Civil War travels. Ah, the beauty of technology. "Like" my Civil War Facebook page and you'll receive alerts when I go live for videos. All the videos will later be archived on the page for your viewing pleasure. (Or grief. Warning: Some IQs have been lowered.)  In the past few weeks, I've ventured to Lookout Mountain, Shy's Hill at Nashville and Franklin, Tenn., where we walked the grounds of the old Fountain Carter farm and examined the pockmarked outbuildings. Where will I be next? Let's just say it will be far, far out West.


Enjoy the journey.


Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Rambling: A year of listening, observing on the Civil War trail

Trapper Haskins founded a vintage baseball league -- it plays by 1864 rules -- in Middle Tennessee.
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In Civil War rambling from Picacho Pass, Ariz., to Resaca, Ga., over the past year, I've focused on becoming a better listener. A better observer, too. Ah, what stories can be mined -- and what lasting connections can be made -- if you follow those two tracks.

"If you make listening and observation your occupation," a smart person once said, "you will gain much more than you can by talk."

On the 157th anniversary of the Battle of Shiloh, I met Trapper Haskins at Duncan Field, scene of savage fighting in April 1862. The National Park Service granted permission for his Tennessee Association of Vintage Base Ball to play a doubleheader on the hallowed ground. What a day it was.

In 2007, Haskins, a custom wood worker, was in Port Huron, Mich., working on a Gloucester schooner. At the local library, he saw a flyer for a vintage baseball team seeking players. He joined and was hooked. “Just playing with those guys, celebrating the history of the game, it was special,” said Haskins, 42, who plays for the Franklin Farriers in his Tennessee league. “It’s the game reduced to its barest form.”

Here are other memorable encounters:

Along a wall at the H Clark Distillery in Thompson's Station, Tenn., site of the 1863 battle, sat a massive tub of brown liquid. Spent grain, it's called. A local farmer takes this waste product from the alcohol-making process and feeds it to his cows, a pleasing feast for the animals. “The cows love our bourbon mash,” Kim Peterson, the distillery's tour experience manager told me. "They come running for it. Then they just lay in the field, chilling.” She wants to shoot video of the cows enjoying the mostly alcohol-free slop someday. What a scene that must be. Read more.

At Point Park atop Lookout Mountain, Tenn., I briefly spoke with a group of Union reenactors portraying a Kentucky unit. The distinctive smell of burning firewood filled the air. Small talk led to a discussion of Civil War flags, which led to this image of Todd Watts of Nashville. The flag was a tremendous backdrop for a photo that was an exclamation point for a great day walking an awe-inspiring battlefield.

“Ladies and gentlemen, on our right is the oldest living fossil,” a fellow reenactor said in jest about 83-year-old Jere McConnell at the reenactment at Resaca, Ga., in May. Jere sat by a tent eating a hamburger, giving visitors pointers in between bites. Wearing Federal blue pants and Confederate homespun, he told me he has reenacted for 30 or so years. What a distinctive face! (Read my column about  Resaca in an upcoming issue of Civil War Times.)

And then there's 76-year-old Charles Garvin, a reenactor since 1962. He was chewing on the stubby remains of an unlit cigar at Resaca as we talked about his hobby. He made me laugh when he mentioned a reenactor who used to put moonshine in his canteen. “He put in some water," he told me, "to make it 100 proof.”

On the 2.5-mile trail at Fort Pillow (Tenn.), I met a terrific couple from Louisiana, Carolyn and Mike Goss from Bossier City. Carolyn's great-grandfather George "Washie" Johnson, who served in a Louisiana regiment, lost a leg at the Battle of Mansfield (La.) on April 8, 1864. He was probably only a teenager. After the war, "Washie" eventually turned to drinking and gambling. (He apparently had a fondness for slot machines.) Johnson also befriended a former slave named Dick Chaney, who was treated like a member of the family. When Chaney died, he was buried next to the Johnson family cemetery in Louisiana, outside the fence. Years later, Carolyn discovered the fence was extended around Chaney's grave. How cool. Read more.

No one on the planet knows more about the rich Civil War history of Culpeper County, Va., than Clark "Bud" Hall. No one is as passionate about saving hallowed ground there than the ex-FBI agent and former Marine. “Young Americans fought, bled, and died on our Civil War battlefields,” he told me, “and I profoundly believe we share a collective responsibility to secure and save these sacred fields.” Above, Hall leans against a pillar at Powhatan Robinson’s war-time home, “Struan.” It was used by Union Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren as a headquarters and by the Army of the Potomac as a hospital in the aftermath of the Battle of Morton Ford’s in early February 1864. Hall knows the 1840 house and its owner well; its expansive porch is a perfect place for a man with a full flask and an active imagination. Read more.

On Father's Day weekend, Ken Rutherford and I toured the Cross Keys, Port Republic and Piedmont battlefields in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. We talked about the Civil War, football, life and his life-altering experience: In 1993, Dr. Rutherford, now a political science professor at James Madison University, was critically injured in a landmine explosion in Somalia. His legs were amputated. At Cross Keys, Nancy Hess showed us the painstaking restoration she and her husband completed at the old Widow Pence house on the battlefield. Later, Ken and I rode in her truck with Stonewall, her 5-year-old Doberman, for a short drive to a seldom-visited part of the battlefield. On June 8, 1862, in view of the magnificent Massanutten Mountain, 8th New York soldiers were slaughtered in a sloping field. "They were used as cannon fodder," Hess said. "Bless their hearts." (Read my column about  Rutherford in an upcoming issue of Civil War Times.)

As a steady rain sent many fans scattering for shelter in the bars at the NFL draft in Nashville in late April, David McCormick watched from behind the counter at Ernest Tubbs Record Shop. The 69-year-old Tennessee native has worked at the store since 1968, owned it since 1972. Outside the Lower Broadway landmark, a large sign proclaims “Real Country Music Lives Here. Our 72nd Year.” Inside, the aisles are filled with country music albums and memorabilia. "It’s a joy for me every day to meet people from all over the world who may find something here they want," McCormick said. Oh, man, I wish I asked him one more question: "Did you know your building was used as a Civil War hospital during the Union occupation?" Read more.

Retired chimney sweep John Mack – you can call him “The Mad Hatter” -- aimed to persuade visitors at the Resaca reenactment to purchase replica coonskin caps. The 6th Alabama, the “Raccoon Roughs, used to wear them, he insisted. Years ago, Mack was passionate about the Revolutionary and French and Indian wars, leading an inquisitor to believe the caps with real raccoon tails may simply be, ah, re-purposed.

Melea Medders Tennant has lived on the Resaca (Ga.) battlefield most of her life. "I can’t tell you how many times I've been working, pulling weeds and [visitors] come by telling me about a great-great uncle or great-great granddaddy who fought here." Occasionally, Tennant gives them a bullet she found on the battlefield. Melea regrets not keeping a diary to document meetings with battlefield tourists. On a Saturday afternoon, Tennant took me to see the remains of embrasures for Captain Maximillian Van Den Corput's "Cherokee Battery" of four Napoleons (above). It used to be her family's property. Read more.

On a Sunday morning, Gary Burke and I stood on a graffiti-marred, modern overpass in South Nashville to view a seldom-seen railroad cut. It was there on Dec. 15, 1864, that Burke's ancestor and his comrades in the U.S. Colored Troops were caught “like pickles in a barrel” during the Battle of Nashville and routed by Confederates. Burke once sneaked into the cut — it’s about 10 feet deeper than it was during the war — because he wanted “to feel the fear that went through them.” Read more.

At the Resaca reenactment, Robert Miller sat at table with a pile of his books on the 129th Illinois, his great-great grandfather's regiment. He ancestor was killed at the northwestern Georgia battlefield, less than a quarter-mile from where we talked on a blazing-hot Saturday. The 78-year-old retired computer programmer from Oklahoma enjoyed telling me about Private Joseph Peters of Company F. Miller eagerly agreed to be photographed holding a copy of an image of his ancestor. We shook hands as we parted. It was one of the firmest handshakes I can remember.

In the pre-dawn darkness in Plains Ga., Mayor Lynton Earl Godwin III – almost everyone calls him “Boze” -- talked about his friend, Jimmy Carter.  He has known the former president most of his life. “He has not forgot where he comes from,” the 75-year-old told me. “He hasn’t changed one bit.” How I got to Plains in the wee hours on Super Bowl Sunday was, well, a little odd. The day before in nearby Andersonville -- site of the notorious Civil War prison camp -- I stopped in a small antiques store. "Does President Carter still teach Sunday school in Plains?" I asked the lovely woman behind the counter. "He sure does," she told me. "You should go." I had nothing to wear but a sloppy sweatshirt and black sweat pants. It's OK, she said. And so I booked a room in Americus, got up super-early the next morning and ...

... attended a Sunday school lesson  with these nice folks.


Enjoy the journey.


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Thursday, July 04, 2019

A short story about bagels and the Fourth of July

A blogger named John and a Nashville Rescue Mission official named David.
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So I’m sitting in Panera here in Nashville this morning, eating my usual (egg sandwich on brioche) and washing it down with gallons of coffee. A man walks in and tells the manager, “I have thousands of bagels — my baker made way too many for the 5K. Can you take them?”

Hmmm. Well, hell, I’ll take them, I told the man.

Bagel man — Patrick — told me where to pick them up. As it turns out, he was manager for another  Panera nearby. And so I load the bagel bags into my car — seven or eight — weighing about 5,000 pounds apiece (great workout) and take them over to the Nashville Rescue Mission in downtown 'Ville. (Wow, my car smells awesome.)

Enough bagels to serve hundreds there, mission director David tells me. (Nashville-area peeps: Note info in background of photo.) Remember the needy in your ‘hood!

Hey, Patrick, where’s my cream cheese? 😁

Have a blessed 4th...

We are our brothers' (and sisters') keeper.

Hated to see these bagels go. They smelled soooooo good.

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Wednesday, July 03, 2019

Letter from Sharpsburg: 'Buried him with my own hands'

The off-the-beaten path 11th Connecticut monument near Burnside Bridge.
       The 11th Connecticut attacked from right to left across this field on Sept. 17, 1862.
                                      (Click at upper right for full-screen experience.)

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During visits to Antietam, I always stop at Burnside Bridge early in the morning, perhaps the best time and place to contemplate the slaughter that took place in western Maryland long ago. I’ll touch the witness tree feet from the bridge, stare at the long-ago site of Yankee graves along the stone wall and marvel at mist hovering over Antietam Creek. Occasionally, I’ll walk about 150 yards or so, usually through tall grass, to visit the out-of-the-way 11th Connecticut monument.

No one’s ever around, so I’ll linger and read the names on the gray-granite monument, often running my fingers over the inscriptions of those who sacrificed their lives for the Union. Their stories I know so well.
Daniel Tarbox, 11th Connecticut
private, was mortally wounded
at Antietam. He was 18.
(Image courtesy Scott Hann)
  • Captain John Griswold, from Old Lyme and the grandson of a Connecticut governor, was mortally wounded as he splashed across the creek in a hail of gunfire on the morning of Sept. 17, 1862. "I die as I have ever wished to die, for my country," he told IX Corps commander Ambrose Burnside shortly before his death.
  • Private Daniel Tarbox, an 18-year-old private from Brooklyn, Conn., was shot through the bowels during the attack on the bridge. He died the next day in nearby Middletown, Md. In anticipation of fighting, he had written his father two weeks earlier, "If we go in, we can’t think of coming out."
  • Private Fennimore Weeks, from Norwalk, lived a few moments after he was shot through the head. "His effects I will send to you as soon as I have an opportunity and will write you more of the particulars," his captain wrote the soldier's mother.
  • And Private William Hall, from Mansfield, also killed in fighting at the bridge. More than 150 years later, the 17-year-old soldier's descendant cleaned his begrimed marker in a rural cemetery in Connecticut.  
And now a poignant letter -- auctioned on eBay -- has surfaced revealing how another soldier in the regiment died at what the 11th Connecticut hospital steward called "the creek of death." In the three-page letter to his brother Charles, written four days after the battle, a shaken George L. Dayton, an 11th Connecticut private, quickly got to the point.

"He is dead," he wrote about their brother Lewis, who was shot through the heart in the charge on the stone-arch bridge. The next day, George wrapped Lewis' body in "4 or 5 blankets" and buried the 11th Connecticut private where he fell.

Uninjured physically, George Dayton certainly suffered mental scars from the battle, perhaps lasting a lifetime. "I am unwell and about crazy," he concluded his letter, "so I will not write any more now."

Lewis, from Winchester, Conn., is buried in an unknown grave, but some believe his spirit may linger near the 11th Connecticut monument.

(Letter posted with permission of eBay seller.)
Sept. 21, 1862
Sharpsburg, Md.

Dear Brother Charles

I received your letter directed to Lewis whitch came to late for him ever to read, he is dead.

It is terrible news, but it is true. He was shot while we were making a charge on the rebels at Sharpsburg in the northwestern part of Maryland on the 17th of Sept. He was shot though the heart and fell saying I am killed ,,,

(Letter posted with permission of  eBay seller)
We were obliged to leave the ground where he fell and when we found him the next day the rebels had taken everything from his pockets.

I dug his grave and buried him with my own hands in the field where he fell after wrapping him in 4  or 5 blankets.

We have been in 4 of 5 skirmishes and battles lately and our regt. is terribly cut to pieces. Also the 8th Conn. and 16th [Conn.]. Our regt. lost about 50 killed and 200 wounded on the 17th of Sept. I escaped without a wound. We have driven Stonewall Jackson across the ...

(Letter posted with permission of eBay seller.)
... Potomac and I suppose we are to follow him. Their is no telling when or how this war will end.

I am unwell and about crazy so I will not write any more now.


George L. Dayton.

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Saturday, June 29, 2019

Last days of Richard Ewell, who sparked Gettysburg furor

A December 2009 image of the farmhouse in Spring Hill, Tenn., where Richard Ewell lived after 
the Civil War with his wife, Lizinka. The couple died here within days of each other in winter 1872.
 (Hal Jespersen | Wikimedia Commons)
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In the final days of his life, Richard Stoddert Ewell sensed something was terribly wrong. A "pall had fallen upon" his farmhouse in Spring Hill, Tenn., and "a feeling of depression ... was visible on every countenance." For nearly two weeks, his wife of nearly eight years took care of the former Confederate lieutenant general as he battled typhoid fever. But now she was nowhere to be found.

A historical marker in Spring Hill, Tenn., for the Ewell Farm,
where Richard Ewell died on Jan. 25, 1872. He was 54.
Soon, the man who was criticized for not taking Cemetery Hill on the first day at Gettysburg learned the awful truth: Days earlier, Lizinka Ewell had died of the same disease killing "Old Bald Head." "His senses had become so keenly susceptible to everything transpiring around him," a Nashville newspaper reported, "that even the thoughts of his attendants seemed laid bare to his perception." Because of Ewell's precarious health, the family delayed revealing the news.
Mrs. Ewell, who, according to her obituary, "constantly cultivated ... and stored valuable information," was the general's first cousin and the Russian-born daughter of the former U.S. minister to the Court of Tsar Alexander. She was 51.

And so a grieving Ewell ordered preparations for his own death. A will was made; so were arrangements for disposition of his property. After the war, the Virginia-reared Ewell settled on a farm in Spring Hill, 35 miles south of Nashville, with Lizinka, a wealthy heiress. (Her first husband, James Percy Brown, a notorious philanderer, died in 1844.) The Ewells raised Jersey cattle and sheep and bred harness-racing horses, and turned the farm into one of the area's most prosperous.

Headlines in the Nashville Tennessean on
Jan. 26, 1872, the day after
Richard Ewell's death.
"I understand from some of his neighbors that he has been remarkably successful in managing his freed men employees," a Spring Hill man wrote about Ewell in 1867. "He is very liberal and kind to them; at the same time he is firm in support of his rights, and this is the secret of his success. ... By the way, he has the best crop of wheat that I have seen."

In spring 1870, the Ewell's farm supplied the Maxwell House hotel in Nashville with 100 pounds of butter a week. The general even became president of the Maury County Agricultural Society. "No man in Tennessee," an account noted, "ever exhibited more interest in improving the breeds of cattle and sheep."

Ewell wanted a simple funeral -- no ostentation, no parade. Friends and comrades were to show their respect without fanfare. A plain headstone and footstone would do, he said, "like those over the graves of my father and my mother in Virginia."

"My rank while in the Confederate service might be inscribed upon one of the stones," the 54-year-old Confederate veteran reportedly told attendants at the farmhouse, "but I wish nothing in the inscription which will cast any reflection upon the Government of the United States."

The Ewells, who died of typhoid fever in the winter 1872, are buried in Nashville City Cemetery,
Barely able to speak, Ewell even mulled a possible cause of his death: exposure to cold because he wore a thin pair of Federal blue military pants purchased before the Civil War. "After all my fighting against the United States so long," said Ewell, who lost his right leg at Brawner's Farm in August 1862, "it is strange that an old pair of infantry pantaloons should kill me at last."

Shortly before Ewell's death, Lizinka's coffin was taken to his room. Too weak to show much emotion, he was raised up from his pillow so he could view her shrouded remains. Ewell whispered he wanted to be buried next to his wife, whose picture was hung around his neck.

On the brink of death and unable to accept many visitors, Ewell signaled what he needed with gestures. The end came at 2:30 in the morning on Jan. 25, 1872.  "His countenance wore a look of placid resignation and was more life-like in expression after than a short time before his death," the Nashville Tennessean reported the next day.

Close-up of inscription on the grave marker for Richard Ewell and
his wife Lizinka in Nashville City Cemetery.
Tennessee newspapers published extensive obituaries of Ewell, a U.S. officer during the war against Mexico, lauding him as  a "great Confederate commander." The Nashville Banner only briefly mentioned Gettysburg, where it wrote Ewell "took 5,000 prisoners and 5 or 6 guns."

At the funeral service at Christ Church in Nashville, where Ewell's wife had lived for decades, hundreds of mourners gathered. Among them were Tennessee Gov. John Brown and former Confederate generals Lucius Polk, William Bate, William Hicks Jackson, Richard Lilley and Edmund Kirby Smith. A hearse bearing Ewell's remains was escorted a short distance to the city cemetery near old Fort Negley, key defense during the Federals' occupation. As he wished, Ewell was buried next to his wife.

"Before the fresh earth had time to settle on the grave of the wife of his bosom, the clods fell on his own coffin," a Memphis newspaper wrote in a lengthy tribute to the general. "The rays of the winter's sun that shimmered on the mound that marked her last resting-place cast their light in the newer-made grave, as if to welcome him once more to her side."

Richard Ewell wanted a plain headstone and footstone. He got a more elaborate marker.
Behind iron gates, Richard and Lizinka Ewell rest for eternity. The couple died within days of each other.

-- Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.


-- Intimate Strategies of the Civil War: Military Commanders and Their Wives, edited by Carol K. Bleser and Lesley J Gordon, New York, Oxford University Press, 2001
-- Memphis Avalanche, Jan. 27, 1872.
-- Nashville Tennessean, March 6, 1870. Jan, 26, 1872.
-- Nashville Union and American, Jan. 27, 1872.
-- The Home Journal, Winchester, Tenn., April 25, 1867.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

From Nutbush to state penitentiary, my Fort Pillow adventure

Nutbush, Tenn., population about 250, and birthplace of Anna Mae Bullock, aka Tina Turner!
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The scouting report on Fort Pillow from friends, acquaintances and hangers-on was not encouraging:

"Hot and humid. Go in the fall."

"Snakes, bugs and mosquitoes."

"Be wary of creepy crawlies."


"You’ll ride through a big prison farm to get there." (Well, I always was a big fan of Shawshank Redemption.)

And so early Saturday morning, I  courageously drove from Nashville through a rainstorm for my first visit to the fort in far western Tennessee. It might as well be in the Far East. It's like another world there -- a very hot, humid, remote "another world." Distance: Approximately 200 miles. Your travel time (legally): 3 hours, 30 minutes. Mine? Let's quickly move along here.

In Tina Turner's birthplace, no one can take just one photo.
On a two-lane road outside Brownsville, I trail a barbecue smoker -- in the process of smoking -- for several miles. Smell is tremendous, but I'm wary of getting too close. Mull purchase of "I Break for Barbecue Smokers" bumper sticker. Pass through Nutbush (population about 250), a name that makes me a little tense. Claim to fame: R&B legend Tina Turner's birthplace! Who's not a fan of "Proud Mary"? A sucker for historical signs and markers, I stop to take photos, drawing wary glances from passers-by. Perhaps it's because I shot images from middle of road. Nutbush is also birthplace for blues musicians "Hambone" Willie Newbern and "Sleepy" John Estes. Must be something in the water here. Sadly, absolutely no sign of Tina in the flesh, so I head on down the road ...

... passing by aforementioned state penitentiary farm. I do not wave. I stare straight ahead, desperately trying to make myself look as small as possible. On two-lane back roads in Tennessee, I always keep firm grip on steering wheel and close eye on what's behind me in rear-view mirror. (Another movie in mind there.) Tally of dead animals spotted: one black cat — is that good luck? — one raccoon, one possum and one armadillo, per usual feet pointed to the heavens. Don’t ask me why, but that always makes me chuckle. Also see one live raccoon, a nocturnal beast strangely out for daytime sojourn.

Arrival at Fort Pillow, a Tennessee state park. Dang, it’s hot and humid here. Temperature 89. Humidity: 1 billion percent. Shockingly, I spot a Civil War Trails sign here. They must be all over the planet. I believe a friend saw one in Bulgaria last week, too. Super-excited, I pull a "Van Gogh," slicing off my ear in a selfie taken in front of Civil War Trails sign. OMG! No cell service. I need a drink.

In the distance, behold the Mighty Mississippi -- or as it's better known on this day, the "Muggy Mississippi." Looks like steam rising from the river, which last century moved a mile farther west, toward Arkansas. Gosh, is the river insane? My gawd, why would anything want to move toward Arkansas? The course change means the Mississippi no longer flows directly below Fort Pillow.

OK, timeout on the schtick. Full disclosure: I am out of my depth discussing what happened at Fort Pillow on April 12, 1864. I'm here to educate myself. Facts: With the defenders nearly surrounded, Confederate commander Nathan Bedford Forrest demanded the garrison's surrender. The demand was refused. Confederates stormed the fort, overwhelming nearly 600 Federals that included soldiers in the 2nd U.S. Colored Light Artillery, one battalion from the 6th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery and the Unionist 13th West Tennessee Cavalry. There were widespread reports that troops who surrendered were bayoneted or shot. Half the garrison was killed, including two-thirds of the colored troops. Was it a massacre? A congressional investigation said yes. Even today the battle remains controversial. Fort Pillow became a rallying cry for the North. My Fort Pillow museum report: Small but good. Nice exhibits, which include the image above. Friendly staff.

My motto: Refuse to schmooze and you lose. On the 2.5-mile loop that goes to Fort Pillow, I meet a terrific couple from Louisiana, Carolyn and Mike Goss from Bossier City. Everyone has a story. Carolyn has a good one: Her great-grandfather George "Washie" Johnson, who served in a Louisiana regiment -- probably only a teenager, she says -- lost a leg at the Battle of Mansfield (La.) on April 8, 1864. After the war, "Washie" eventually turned to drinking and gambling. (He apparently had a fondness for slot machines.) Johnson also befriended a former slave named Dick Chaney, who was treated like a member of the family. When Chaney died, he was buried next to the Johnson family cemetery in Louisiana, outside the fence. Years later, Carolyn discovered the fence was extended around Chaney's grave.

Carolyn and Mike thankfully agree to hike with me over rugged terrain, toward a reconstruction of the 1864 Union fort, guaranteeing I won't pass out alone in the woods. Did I mention it was hot, muggy and buggy? From this position, Confederate troops attacked a Federal redoubt.

Lord, I hope my driver's license is in my wallet so my corpse can be ID'd.

Here's a 25-second video of the torture I put my body through. State should advertise summer walk at Fort Pillow as terrific weight-loss plan.

A fall here and my girls will lose their papa!

Arrival, about 1.25 miles into my journey. The re-built interior of the 1864 Fort Pillow, defended by U.S. Colored Troops and other Federal forces. A cannon lover's delight.

View absolutely no attacker wants.

It's impossible for me to walk away from Fort Pillow without shooting a pano. Here's a view of the exterior. (Click at upper right for full-screen experience.)

Subtract the trees, and this is the attacking Confederates' view of the fort.

Confederates used the ravine in background as cover to attack the fort.

In early January 1866, the U.S. War Department authorized the purchase of land near the fort for a cemetery for "the victims of the massacre." Only 34 of the 258 were identified. The next summer, the remains were removed to a national cemetery in Memphis. Deep respect.

Minus Carolyn and Mike Goss -- don't worry, they're OK -- I head back to the museum. One more mile.  I. Can. Do. This!

In the sweaty home stretch, my heart is pumping, perhaps not this high since I met my wife in 1990. Kidding! Visit complete, I purchase in the museum a Tennessee Walking Stick, crafted from real Tennessee wood. Price: 15 bucks, plus tax. Mrs. Banks will be pleased.

Before I leave the state park, I check out these earthworks, part of original fort built by Confederates in 1862. My daughters should be here!

Suckered in by one of those historical markers en route back to Nashville, I stop in tiny Henning at the boyhood home of Alex Haley, author of Roots.

And here's where Roots was born. "Summer after summer, as I grew up, my Grandmother and my great aunts told our family's treasured story all the way back to the African who said his name was Kinte," reads a quote from Haley on a marker in front of the modest home.


Enjoy the journey.


Until next time ...

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