Thursday, July 22, 2021

What lies beneath? A Vanderbilt team explores Shy's Hill

From left, Vanderbilt research analyst Natalie Robbins, students Jordan Rhym and Alyssa Bolster,
geospatial librarian Stacy Curry-Johnson, and professor Brandon Hulette pose with
a ground-penetrating radar machine at Shy's Hill. (CLICK ON IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)

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On a hazy Thursday morning at Shy's Hill in Nashville -- ugh, Oregon wildfires -- I did what comes naturally for me: Watch other people work. Military science professor Brandon Hulette, research analyst Natalie Robbins, geospatial data and systems librarian Stacy Curry-Johnson, and students Jordan Rhym and Alyssa Bolster -- all from Vanderbilt University -- manuevered a $13,000 ground-penetrating radar machine over four sites on the hallowed ground south of downtown. Robbins calls her team "spatial specialists," which sort of makes my head spin.

The ground-penetrating radar provides an "image" of 
the subsurface like this one, held by Vanderbilt
research analyst Natalie Robbins.

The specialists' mission: Use the GPR to determine what, if anything, might lie beneath the ground near the crest of Shy's Hill, unsuccessfully defended by the Army of Tennessee on Dec. 16, 1864 -- Day 2 of the Battle of Nashville. Data from the GPR will be downloaded to create "images" of the subsurface. (They remind me of sonograms.) Could the GPR reveal remains of Confederate trenches? Human remains? Perhaps a stash of 500 beer can tabs from a long-ago bash? I'll report back in this space about findings.

Much of Shy's Hill was carved up more than 60 years ago by residential developers -- the very top of the hill was sliced off in the 1950s for a water tank, making it nine or 10 feet shorter than in 1864. This opening sentence from a feature story in a 1959 edition of the Nashville Tennessean makes my heart hurt: "Today Shy's Hill has been stormed, captured and occupied by building contractors and home owners. A phalanx of bulldozers led the way, and handsome brick houses now line the streets which circle the knob, halfway to the crest."


A small section of the hill -- the extreme left of the Confederates' line on Day 2 of the battle -- is preserved and maintained by the Battle of Nashville Trust. (Full disclosure: I am a board member.) The next time you're in Nashville, put it on your must-see list, because it's worth the hike up the steep, rugged trail to the top. 

In the video below, Hulette explains the team's Shy's Hill mission: 

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

  • Nashville Tennesseean, Dec. 13, 1959.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Rebels' 'vandalism': Defacement of Andrew Jackson monument

A cropped version of a Harper's Weekly illustration from July 5, 1862, of a park monument
to Andrew Jackson in Memphis, Tenn. It was defaced by Confederate sympathizers.

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Monuments to Andrew Jackson -- a racist, ethnic cleanser, and tyrant to some; a hero to others -- literally and figuratively have taken a beating recently. In June 2020, protesters in Washington climbed atop the sculpture of the seventh U.S. president in Lafayette Square opposite the White House, tying ropes around Jackson and his horse before attempting to pull the statue from its base, which was defaced with spray paint. In July 2020, the Jackson (Miss.) city council voted to remove a bronze statue of "Old Hickory" from City Hall grounds.

This Andrew Jackson monument in Lafayette Square,
opposite the White House, was defaced in 2020.
(Wikipedia | AgnosticPreachersKid)
Jackson, who died in 1845, was a flashpoint during the Civil War, too.

In the center of Union-occupied Memphis, Tenn., in June 1862 was a beautiful park filled with trees, flowers, shrubbery, and "benches for the accommodation of loungers of both sexes." Surrounded by an iron railing, the public square -- lighted by gas at night -- was a premier gathering spot. Authorities aimed to keep it that way -- dogs were discouraged, and anyone who meddled with the shrubbery risked a $10 fine, a significant sum. (You can still visit Court Square, where scenes from The Firm, the 1993 movie starring Tom Cruise and Gene Hackman, were filmed.)

In the park's northwestern section, surrounded by a circular iron fence and "ornamented by carefully trained shrubbery," rested a large, marble bust of Jackson atop a tall pedestal. (The former president was a co-founder of Memphis.) "Honor and gratitude to those who have filled the measure of their country’s glory," read an inscription in the pedestal's south side. On the north side appeared these words:


That was a take on Jackson's famous utterance, made at an 1830 Thomas Jefferson birthday dinner, about federal law superseding authority of individual states. (Read more about the Nullification Crisis and its Civil War ramifications here.) 

A circa-1844 daguerreotype of 78-year-old
former president Andrew Jackson.
Before the Rebels high-tailed it out of Memphis in early June 1862, someone was determined to erase the words of the "Hero of New Orleans." Wrote a Chicago newspaper correspondent:

During the occupancy of Memphis by Gen. [Sterling] Price’s rebel army, a Col. Brunt rendered himself forever notorious and forever infamous by defacing and partly erasing the word federal in the above inscription. The monument still stands, however, a lasting rebuke to the rebels and a reminder of the reckless and venom minded policy of some of the men who have led its armies. The word federal has not been entirely effaced. It is yet readable, and is fast coming out of the dust of anarchy and confusion which for a twelve-month [period] have obscured it.

In addition to the word "Federal," the first two letters of "Union" were chipped by "some rampant rebel," another newspaper correspondent reported, "presenting an appearance as if a small hammer had been several times struck across the obnoxious words." 

Continued the correspondent: "It was a very feeble attempt at defacement of the words that grated harshly on treason's ear." The bust reportedly suffered the wrath of Rebel rabblerousers, too. (Damn kids!)

A Union soldier recalled a visit to the Court Square in late fall 1862. " of our company marched in, and it done me good to see them in a ring around the marble bust of General Jackson to which they showed their respects with presenting arms," wrote 30th Iowa quartermaster sergeant John Caleb Lockwood. "Upon the marble pillars upon which the bust of the general stands are cut the words, 'The Federal Union—it must be preserved.' The words 'Federal' I noticed were defaced as though it was intended to be obliterated. I thought I could see from the countenances of the citizens that we were not very welcome visitors."

An uncropped version of an illustration of the Jackson monument park in Memphis
from Harper's Weekly on July 5, 1862. (CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE.)

Another Northern visitor was infuriated by the damage. "Vain attempt to obliterate the noblest utterance of Tennessee's favorite son!" he wrote. "There it stands, marred but still legible, a monument of vandalism of the perpetrators, and of the still greater vandalism and infamy of the rebels, who would not only obliterate the mute words on the marble but who have employed their mightiest energies to destroy the Federal Union itself, with all its living interests."

Now I couldn't track down "Col. Brunt," whose descendants may be aghast by his alleged behavior. As for the bust of Jackson, well, you can visit it at the D’Army Bailey County Courthouse in Memphis. Be warned: "It bears ample evidence of the turbulent reaction to Jackson."   

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

  • Chicago Tribune, June 18, 1862.
  • Harper's Weekly, July 5, 1862.
  • John Caleb Lockwood letter to his wife, Nov. 7, 1862, William Griffing's Spared & Shared site (Letter 2), accessed July 20, 2021.
  • Nashville Daily Union, June 22, 1862.
  • The Presbyter, Cincinnati, Ohio, July 31, 1862.

Saturday, July 17, 2021

A 'remarkable accident': How New York soldier died in Virginia

An illustration, probably by Larkin Goldsmith Mead, of the grave of Corporal James Bryant and 
a tree upon which the soldier's name, unit and death date were etched. (Library of Congress)
Larkin Goldsmith Mead of Harper's Weekly created this illustration of a deadly lightning strike that killed 1st New York Light Artillery Corporal James Bryant in Virginia.

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When Elizabeth Bryant sent her only son to war, she probably feared he could be maimed or killed in battle or victimized by disease. But there's no way she imagined how 25-year-old James Bryant would die at the front in Virginia on an ungodly awful morning.

At roughly 2 a.m. on June 3, 1862 -- two days after the Battle of Seven Pines (Va.) -- a nearly spent thunderstorm approached the 1st New York Light Artillery's camp near Mechanicsville, seven miles northeast of Richmond. Humidity was as thick as a pot of bad coffee. Between the cannons and caissons weary soldiers placed tarps over sticks and rails for shelter. 

Corporal James Bryant's grave
in Cold Harbor (Va.) National Cemetery.
(Find A Grave)
"The sentries perceived a dark cloud sweeping from the west at a very low elevation, and as it passed over the park a terrific discharge of the electric fluid took place," wrote Larkin Goldsmith Mead, a Harper's Weekly illustrator embedded with the Army of the Potomac. "The whole battery seemed enveloped in a sheet of flame."


"The flame seemed to strike one of the guns, leaped from thence to the supports of the tent, passing downward, and stunning and burning or partially paralyzing a whole platoon of twenty men," Mead wrote. Corporal James Bryant, "an intelligent and brave young man" from Bath, N.Y., was killed instantly -- the only soldier to die in the "very remarkable accident."

"The electric fluid passed under the rubber blanket of one man, lifting him several inches from the ground," Mead wrote. "Some [soldiers] had legs and arms partially paralyzed." 

Days earlier, another lightning strike killed a 44th New York quartermaster, knocked another soldier senseless, and ignited a box of cartridges. Luckily for the 1st New York Light artillery, none of its ammunition chests were ignited.

Comrades buried Bryant nearby under two large trees -- the corporal's name, unit, and death date were carved into one of them. Mead sketched Bryant's grave and also created an illustration of the lightning strike for Harper's Weekly, although it's unknown whether he witnessed the freak accident or relied on accounts of those who did. 

"The men are unanimous in the belief that lightning," Mead wrote, "is harder to beat than the rebels."

Bryant's remains eventually were disinterred from under the large tree and re-buried nearby, in Cold Harbor (Va.) National Cemetery. Elizabeth Bryant filed paperwork to obtain a mother's pension -- the request was approved at the standard rate of $8 a month.

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

  • Harper's Weekly, July 5, 1862.
  • James Bryant's pension file, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington D.C., transcribed by Jennifer Payne (accessed July 17, 2021).
  • Krick, Robert K, Civil War Weather in Virginia, University of Alabama Press, 2007.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

A visit with great-granddaughter of Sam Watkins of Co. Aytch

Ruth Hill McAllister at the grave of Sam Watkins, her great-grandfather.

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Confession: I have not read Company Aytch, Confederate soldier Sam Watkins’ classic memoir, which puts me in a minority among my Civil War friends, acquaintances, and hangers-on according to an informal poll. I promise to rectify that, especially now that I have a copy of the latest version, signed by Watkins' great-granddaughter.

This image of Sam Watkins hangs in Ruth Hill McAllister's
house. Watkins died in 1901.
On a steamy Tennessee afternoon, Ruth Hill McAllister and I meet in-person for the first time, at Zion Presbyterian Church Cemetery in Columbia, where the remains of her famous ancestor rest along with his wife, Jennie. Clearly, Watkins – one of the “stars” of Ken Burns’ 1990 Civil War documentary – is not forgotten. Atop the 1st Tennessee veteran’s gray-granite marker sit tokens of remembrance left by visitors: pennies, nickels, dimes – even a pen knife, which seems a bit odd. 

Behind us stands historic Zion Presbyterian Church, Watkins’ longtime place of worship built, in part, by slaves. And steps from his grave stands one of those ubiquitous (and addictive) Civil War Trails tablets. It includes this quote from Company Aytch

"America has no north, no south, no east, no west. The sun rises over the hills and sets over the mountains, the compass just points up and down, and we can laugh now at the absurd notion of there being a north and a south. We are one and undivided." 

Too bad today's America is not "one and undivided." But that’s a discussion for another day. Ruth, as sweet a lady as you’ll ever meet, invites me to her 19th-century house. There, I enjoy two slices of McAllister's freshly baked banana coffee cake with sweet tea, bond with her rambunctious but friendly dog, and chat about one of the Civil War’s more fascinating characters. 

Visitors leave tokens of remembrance on Sam Watkins' gravestone in Columbia, Tenn.
Historic Zion Presbyterian Church, which Sam Watkins attended, still holds services.

Thirty-one years ago -- yikes! -- Ruth's family was glued to the TV for Burns' mini-series, which may have shaded the truth a bit (see: "Gettysburg/Confederates shoes story") but opened the eyes of millions to America's greatest conflict. (Lord, I can't get enough of former newspaperman Charles McDowell's Watkins voiceover.)

An ancient family Bible includes a list of Watkins births.
“My parents just hoped to live long enough to see the special,” Ruth tells me. (They did.) "...we felt honored [Sam] was a part of it."

Watkins, who died in 1901, never dominated family discussions while McAllister was growing up. But her father had a habit of writing down notes from conversations with his mother -- Watkins' daughter, Ruth's grandmother -- about him on the backs of envelopes. Some of those scribblings are stuffed in the nooks and crannies of McAllister's beautiful house. (Ruth also has the ancient, Sam Watkins-signed family Bible, a neat relic to examine.)

Samuel Rush Watkins, who was promoted from private to corporal in 1864, seemed to be everywhere in the Western Theater --  battles at Shiloh, Perryville, Murfreesboro/Stones River, Nashville, and elsewhere. But it’s his folksy, often-eloquent writing (and razor-sharp sense of humor) that leaves me slightly in awe. A few Watkins-isms: 

  • "A soldier's life is not a pleasant one. It is always, at best, one of privations and hardships. The emotions of patriotism and pleasure hardly counterbalance the toil and suffering that he has to undergo in order to enjoy his patriotism and pleasure. Dying on the field of battle and glory is about the easiest duty a soldier has to undergo."
  • A close-up of Sam Watkins' gravestone -- and metal CSA
    marker next to it -- in Zion Presbyterian Church Cemetery
    in Columbia, Tenn.
    "I always shoot at privates. It was they who did the shooting and killing, and if I could kill or wound a private, why, my chances were so much the better. I always looked upon officers as harmless personages."
  • "General [Braxton] Bragg was a disciplinarian shooter of men, and a whipper of deserters. But he was not any part of a General. As a General he was a perfect failure."
  • "The lice and the camp itch were the greatest luxuries enjoyed by the private soldier. Ah, reader, they were luxuries that were appreciated. A good scratching was ecstasy. It was bliss."
  • "The majority of Southern soldiers are today the most loyal to the Union. Many disown the Southern cause and have buried in forgetfulness all memory of the war.
Initially published in 1882, Company Aytch sold for $1.25 in hardback, 75 cents in paperback. Watkins even gave away some of the 1,500-book printing run as wedding gifts. He intended to republish the book, marking up a first edition with changes, corrections, and additions in a "sometimes indecipherable scrawl," according to McAllister. But her great-grandfather never did publish another edition.

Ruth Hill McAllister gave me a copy
of Company Aytch. Signed it, too.
That marked-up treasure remained with Ruth's Uncle Paul for decades. Immediately after his death in 1997, however, no one could find it. Her cousin Jenny eventually discovered the pencil-smudged, brittle copy in a box. Later, when Jenny asked Ruth if she were interested in buying it from her, McAllister was "delighted" and paid a "handsome price." It's now in a bank vault.

The latest edition, the only authorized one that includes Watkins' changes, corrections, and additions, was published in 2011, with Ruth's impetus. "It is my sincere hope," McAllister writes in the introduction to that edition, "that historians and other readers will find it of some interest and benefit." Before my departure, Ruth gives me a copy as a gift.

Now if you will please excuse me, I have some reading to do.

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

Friday, July 09, 2021

Interview: Laura DeMarco, 'Lost Civil War' author. Plus, a list!

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In a Zoom chat, author Laura DeMarco and I talked about her new book, Lost Civil War: The Disappearing Legacy of America's Greatest Conflict. The recently published book (Pavilion Books, 176 pages) is lavishly illustrated with period photos of battlefields and historic places. In our nearly 28-minute visit, we discussed a Gettysburg site few know about, Antietam's Dunker Church, and a fort in Louisiana that had ties to (gasp!) a cult. Heck, we even discussed the Cleveland Browns, who (sadly) may dominate the AFC North this season. That's a tough sentence for this longtime Steelers fan to write.

Here's more on DeMarco at her author page. Here's where you can purchase the book on 

Below, Laura offers a list of sites she wishes had been preserved and/or properly memorialized. Plus, an outside-the-box bonus.

The 8th Vermont monument on the Cedar Creek battlefield.

Some of the most important battlefields of the Civil War in Virginia are buried under asphalt and concrete. A drive down Interstate Highway 81 provides a tour of Shenandoah Valley Civil War battlefield sites — planned or not. The interstate travels through the valley for 150 miles, cutting through seven battlefields as it winds through the picturesque countryside, including: Second and Third Winchester, First and Second Kernstown, Cedar Creek, Fisher’s Hill, Tom’s Brook. and the New Market battlefields.

An August 1863 image of Camp Letterman. 
(Library of Congress)
Camp Letterman opened July 22, 1863. It was the first major war hospital located on a battlefield, not at a faraway city or barracks. Hundreds of tents were set up as the wards, and men from both sides filled the beds, another first. The hospital became home to more than 4,000 convalescing soldiers. Hundreds of convalescing men stayed behind in the hospital after the armies had moved on, until the last ones could be moved by train, or on their own, in January 1864. The hospital was closed that month, and for nearly a century its great significance was under-appreciated as development paved over Wolf’s farm. The site has been gradually taken over by sprawl, and even a mobile home park. In 2018, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives finally voted to honor the role Camp Letterman played in the Civil War and military medical history. A historical marker sits near Sheetz gas station No. 326.

Hard-to-get-to Fort St. Phillip in Louisiana. This is an 1898 addition to the fort. (NPS photo)

Founded by the Spanish in 1792, Fort St. Philip has the most fascinating history of any American fort. It was ruled by the Spanish, French, and United States, and was the location of a Civil War siege, a Civil Rights threat, and a cult. The remaining structures were severely damaged by hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. Today, portions of the original masonry fort and rusty artillery remain abandoned and covered in overgrowth. The land is shrunk more and more by erosion each year. Fort St. Philip, which played such a vital role protecting New Orleans, is only accessible by boat or helicopter.

A stereoview of Marshall House in Alexandria, Va. (Library of Congress)

One of the most significant deaths in the early days of the Civil War took place not on the battlefield, but in an inn. The Marshall House at 480 King Street in Alexandria, Va., was the site of the May 24, 1861, assassination of Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth, founder of the 11th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment and close friend of President Abraham Lincoln.

It was a day that would live in infamy in the Civil War, energizing both Union and Rebel troops. The Marshall House was badly damaged in an 1873 arson, though it was rebuilt. The infamous location was demolished in 1950. But the controversy didn’t end with its removal. The Sons and Daughters of the Confederate Veterans hung a historic plaque on a new hotel on the site, The Monaco, that only mentioned Jackson, “the first martyr to the cause of Southern Independence” — not Ellsworth. The controversial sign was finally taken down in 2017 when Marriott purchased the property and renamed it The Alexandrian.

Brady, post-war
Perhaps the most famous lost photographs were from the early days of the war. Mathew Brady, new to his field operation, photographed the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861. One of the rare times he attempted shoot a battle in action, Brady arrived at Bull Run with a group of newspaper reporters and Union troops led by General Irvin McDowell a few days before the fighting. On July 21, he ventured onto the battlefield with a wagon and assistants. They got too close to the action, however, and when the Union soldiers retreated to Centreville, they abandoned their wagon and joined the exodus. No images of this seminal battle survive.

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Thursday, July 08, 2021

Strange daze: A 'hypnohistory' session at a Tennessee fort

Before the hypnosis session at Fort Granger, I was a bundle of raw nerves.

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Before leaving home to be hypnotized at a Civil War fort in Franklin, Tenn., a clause I never in the history of ever thought I’d write, my amusing wife offers me a piece of her mind.

“Don’t come back clucking like a chicken.”

Also: “Wear pants.”

I’m not quite sure what she means by that, because I wear pants 50 percent of the time at home and ALMOST 95 PERCENT OF THE TIME OUTSIDE, which I think is admirable for a man my age.

Humorist/retired lawyer Jack Richards offered 
hypnotic suggestions while I was blindfolded.
Anyhow, hypnosis at Fort Granger seems like just the kind of thing to complete a whirlwind of recent weirdness. In the span of 17 days, I examined up close the "World's Largest Moon Pie" in Bell Buckle, Tenn.; shot a selfie at Little Hope Cemetery (like, no kidding) near Mammoth Cave in Kentucky; stomped my feet at the Smithville (Tenn.) Fiddlers’ Jamboree; and ate blazing-hot chicken tenders at the Music City Hot Chicken Festival in Nashville. (In early June in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, my car and I lost a stare-down with a bull and a herd of cows at the Widow Pence farm on the Cross Keys battlefield, so there’s a pattern developing here.)

Whew! I’m nearly out of breath just typing that last paragraph.

Naturally, the hypnosis trip started with a text from my friend Jack Richards, a full-time humorist/retired lawyer who loves history.

Funny guy:We get to Fort Granger early in the day, before any crowds. I bring folding chairs. We find a quiet place. We take 20-30 minutes and do a hypnotic session with an emphasis on what happened there in 1864. … Want to meet there around 6:30 a.m. tomorrow. P.S. I was a Psych major at Penn State with an interest in hypnosis.

Early morning reporting essentials at Fort Granger:
toilet paper (don't ask), a notebook, and a pen
Me:“Hell yes. Let’s do it.”

A millisecond after sending the reply, extreme doubts creep in. Firstly, “Psych major” and “Penn State”? Seems sketchy. Secondly, what if under deep hypnosis I babble about some long-ago transgressions? At West Virginia University, pals and I dangled a small person by his belt from an upper floor of the freshmen dorm. Will Mrs. B seek an annulment if she reads this?

Throwing caution (and potentially 29 years of a solid-gold marriage) into the wind, I head to Franklin at 5:55 a.m. anyway. I am armed with toilet paper (don't ask), a reporter's notebook and pen, and an open mind. Arrival at Fort Granger: 6:21 a.m.

Let the hypnosis begin!

But first, a primer: Built with the aid of Black labor, the fortification on Figuers Bluff above the Harpeth River was completed in early 1863. In its heyday, more than 10,000 Federal soldiers were stationed at Fort Granger and the surrounding area.

During the Battle of Franklin on Nov. 30, 1864, U.S. Army artillery from the fort devastated brigades in William Loring’s division on the Confederates' right flank, roughly a mile away as a cannon ball flies. "After sundown, the sparks of rifle fire and the lightning, thunder and groaning of the heavy cannons was splendid and awe-inspiring for the eye and ear," wrote a German immigrant in the 15th Independent Indiana Artillery Battery who witnessed Granger's guns blazing.

Stay off the earthworks!
Decades after the war, the fort was left to nature and hobos. Today it’s a fairly well-maintained city park, with paths along massive, well-preserved earthen walls.

No hobos or any other humans are in sight when Jack and I plop our lawn chairs near the middle of Fort Granger. Then he offers his guinea pig hypnotic subject a green-and-white checkered bandana for a blindfold. “Relax,” Jack tells me. “Put this on.” I envision early rising fort walkers thinking, “Why is the man in a lawn chair holding that other man hostage at 6:35 a.m.?” 

The next 25 minutes are a blur of hypnotic suggestions and historical tidbits.

Tune out everything,” Jack says.

Concentrate on my voice.”

Focus on your feet.”

"Focus on your knees."

And then come words that make me feel really queasy: “Focus on your thighs. They are the biggest part of our bodies, and we rarely think about them.”

Oh, Lord.

Our hypnosis session was held near the middle of Fort Granger.

I nod off into some strange netherworld. You’d probably feel the same if you drank a few cheap beers, burned incense, and watched The Twilight Zone on Netflix.

Union troops hanged two Confederate spies here on June 9, 1863,” Jack says.

Fort Granger guns, commanded by Captain Giles Cockerill, tore at the Confederates with vicious enfilade fire.”

An overgrown area near the war-time entrance of the fort.
Fort Granger fired 163 rounds during the battle, or about 40 per gun.”

Think about the passage of time.”

Now I’m not saying I was transported back to Nov. 30, 1864, but I did hear while under hypnosis church bells playing “My Country, Tis Of Thee” / ”God Save The Queen” and roosters crowing. Who knows if those sounds were real? I also heard cannon fire, but that was just my hypnotist playing a YouTube clip practically inside my eardrum.

Afterward, Jack and I compare notes and listen to “La Wally,” an excellent operatic song, from his robust Spotify collection. It's an otherwordly experience, for sure. Then a dog walker finally shows up, no doubt wondering what the oddballs in the lawn chairs are up to.

“Hypnohistory,” Jack calls our session.

“Is that a thing?” I ask.

“It is now.”

We chuckle as only two Civil War nerds can.

Hypnotist Jack Richards walks on a trail near an imposing, earthen wall at Fort Granger.

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

  • Fout, Frederick, The Darkest Days of the Civil War, 1864 and 1865, Translation of Fout’s 1902 Die Schwersten Tage des B├╝rgerkriegs, 1864-1865.

Tuesday, July 06, 2021

So a man walks into a Philadelphia bar to talk Civil War ...

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So I walked into a bar in south Philadelphia and asked a waitress if she knew anything about the deadly explosion at a munitions factory on the site in 1862. No, she told me, but the place had a "weird, vacant bar" vibe before it became Triangle Tavern. Then I explored the 'hood and shot a video (above) before ordering a heartburn-inducing cheese steak (with sweet peppers!) at Pat's. What a day!

On March 29, 1862, Professor Samuel Jackson’s fireworks-turned-cartridge factory exploded, killing and injuring dozens of workers. It was the Civil War’s first munitions factory accident involving a major loss of life. No historical tablet marks the site of this deadly tragedy, an omission someone must rectify. 

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

How Longstreet survived post-Gettysburg reunion train wreck

En route to his home on Georgia, James Longstreet was aboard "The Piedmont Airline"
 when it wrecked at the "Fat Nancy" trestle in Orange County, Va., on July 12, 1888.
 (Train wreck photo: Images of Orange County | Longstreet photo: William Tipton)

A version of this feature appeared in the January 2021 America's Civil War magazine.

Nearly a quarter-century after he was severely wounded at the Battle of the Wilderness, Confederate General James Longstreet had another brush with death in Virginia. Early on the morning of July 12, 1888, the 67-year-old passenger survived a deadly train accident at a rickety railroad trestle called “Fat Nancy,” 20 miles southwest of the infamous battleground. 

Die in a mere train wreck? Fat chance for Robert E. Lee’s “Old War Horse.”

Sporting astonishingly long, white whiskers, Longstreet was en route to his home in Gainesville, Ga.,  from the Grand Reunion of Civil War veterans in Gettysburg. The former lieutenant general was the star attraction on that hallowed ground where George Meade out-generaled Lee 25 years earlier. “No man in Gettysburg,” a New York newspaper noted, was “more honored nor more sought than he.”

At roughly 11 p.m., Longstreet boarded the southbound Virginia Midland Railroad’s No. 52 train, “The Piedmont Airline,” in Washington. At least two other Confederate veterans were also aboard – including New Orleans-bound Louis G. Cortes, a “whole-souled, open-hearted, compassionate man” who, as a 19-year-private in the 7th Louisiana, lost his left leg at Gettysburg. Fighting for Brigadier General Harry Hays’ famed “Louisiana Tigers,” Cortez was taken prisoner in Pennsylvania and not exchanged until early 1864. He also attended the Gettysburg reunion.

The train, scheduled to make stops in Augusta, Georgia; Atlanta and New Orleans, typically carried between 150 and 200 passengers. No. 52 consisted of mail, baggage, smoking and ladies’ cars, three sleepers, the locomotive (Engine 694) and a tender.

James Longstreet, sporting long, white whiskers, was returning from the Grand Reunion 
at Gettysburg when the train he was aboard wrecked at the "Fat Nancy" trestle.
(William Tipton photo)

Longstreet was in a sleeper car as the train snaked its way through countryside ravaged by civil war decades earlier. At roughly 2 a.m., “The Piedmont Airline” arrived with sleeping and groggy passengers in Orange Court House. A short time later, conductor C.P. Taylor eased it out of the station on the Virginia Midland Railroad line. Two miles south of Orange Court House, the train slowed to about 4 m.p.h. as it approached the 44-foot-high, wooden Browning Trestle spanning rain-swollen Two Runs Creek below.

To locals, the 470-foot bridge was known as the “Fat Nancy Trestle,” after a plus-sized African American named Emily Jackson, who lived near its western approach. As she stood near the doorway of her house, Jackson would wave her green-checkered, gingham apron at railroad workers, who would toss her apples and oranges from their lunch baskets.

The train wreck site today.
 (Special to the blog)
At 2:20 a.m., the train crept toward the middle of the trestle, which had been undergoing repairs.

Then disaster struck.

After the locomotive and tender apparently made it across the bridge, the smoking car in the center of the trestle plunged through wooden beams and into the creek. It dragged the four cars, followed by the tender and locomotive, into the vortex. Two sleepers remained on the track above; the other sleeper, which also fell, rested precariously atop the crumpled wreckage below it.

Frightened passengers, adults and children alike, moaned and cried. Steam hissed from the crippled locomotive. All lights on the train were extinguished after it plunged. In the inky blackness, passengers frantically worked to free themselves from the wreckage or aid the injured. Thankfully, the wreck didn’t burst into flames or this disaster could have been worse. According to a report, “no pen or tongue” could adequately describe the horror. A survivor from North Carolina said the “cries and groans of the wounded and distressed baffled description.”

Longstreet, a large man, somehow squeezed to safety through a bottom of the sleeper car on the tracks. (Another account said a window.) “He afterwards looked at the hole through which he had emerged,” a newspaper reported, “and wondered how he had ever got through it.” The general, apparently unscathed physically, assisted survivors until daylight and then lay down to rest. Dozens were injured – or worse.

A historical marker at the site briefly
mentions Longstreet.
(Special to the blog)
“The train was piled in such an inextricable mass of debris,” the Baltimore Sun reported, “that it was difficult to discover the outlines of human forms. Through the interstices of the wreck arms and legs protruded in every direction.”

A woman in her 20s in one of the first-class cars traveled with two or three bantam chickens. When someone raised objections to the noisy birds, she moved forward into a smoking car. The young lady was discovered with “her head mashed beyond recognition” – one of nine passengers who died at the scene.

Cortes, the one-legged veteran bound for home in New Orleans, was among them. He was initially discovered with only $4 on his person. But as he was being prepared for burial in the Confederate Cemetery a mile or so away in Orange, Va., a policeman examined the man’s cast-off shoe. In it, he discovered $82 in bank notes.

A month after the death of Cortes – one of scores of Hispanics to serve the Confederacy – the Louisiana Division of the Army of Northern Virginia passed a resolution in the veteran’s honor.  “He sleeps … in the sacred soil of Virginia made precious by the best blood of the south,” it read. “Flowers will bloom upon his grave, the birds make melody above him, and at night the stars will watch as sentinels over the sleep of L. G. Cortes.” 

Another New Orleans-bound passenger, an “unknown Italian” who was killed, was found with a railroad ticket, a poker chip and three cents. A civil engineer named Cornelius Cox, who had been directing repairs on the trestle, also died in the wreck. A severely injured mail agent died in a Charlottesville hospital five minutes before his wife and brother arrived from Prosper, Virginia. Miraculously, the train’s crew survived.

Cornelius Cox, a civil engineer who
had been directing repairs on the trestle,
died in the train accident. He was buried in 
Congressional Cemetery in Washington
(Find A Grave)
William N. Parrott, a postal clerk in Piedmont, Virginia, was aboard the mail car. The Confederate veteran lived a charmed life. When he was 6, he survived a blow from a large, fallen tree limb sawed from an oak by workmen. As a private in the 7th Virginia, he was wounded at Second Manassas, Gettysburg and Dinwiddie Courthouse. In an account published decades after the accident, he recalled:

“The [postal] car was broken into kindling wood and I sustained injuries as follows: Left leg broken in three places, right hip badly injured, two ribs broken, both elbows badly injured, paralyzed in stomach and bowels for 10 days and Dr. W.C.N. Randolph said my back from head to hips was bruised so it was as black as a black hat.”

A passenger from Baltimore said it was a miracle how anyone survived the plunge from the trestle. To free the baggage master, who was found under an iron safe and several trunks, rescuers had to cut away the top of a car.

A couple living nearby in the rural area apparently were first to assist. The train’s slightly injured engineer escaped from the wreckage, walked two miles to Orange, and telegraphed for help. At about 7 a.m., physicians from nearby Charlottesville arrived on the scene. A local woman did such a fabulous job aiding and comforting the wounded that the railroad company later awarded her $250. The supremely efficient U.S. Post Office Department sent special agents to collect mail that littered the accident scene.

Unsurprisingly, a reporter spotted Emily Jackson, “Fat Nancy,” sitting on a wooden beam near the broken timbers of the trestle watching the rescue.

After the disaster, the railroad built an embankment with a stone culvert to replace the trestle. 
(Special to the blog)

In nearby Charlottesville, anxiety was high. “As the hours went by the excitement grew very intense,” according to a report, “so much so that when a special train from Orange arrived bearing the wounded the depot and platforms were literally packed, and it was as much as the police could do to keep a passageway clear.”

A reporter quizzed one of the survivors from the sleeper car about the cause of the accident. “Why, sir,” he said excitedly, “there were rotten timbers in the trestle and the rotten wood bulged out where the timbers broke. I made careful examination of the structure and am willing to make oath as to its condition.”

A marker in Graham Cemetery in Orange County, Va.,
for five of the nine killed in the "Fat Nancy" train wreck.
(Find A Grave)
A coroner’s investigation quickly confirmed the obvious: Rotten timbers were indeed the culprit for one of the worst train accidents in the state’s history. In the aftermath of the investigation, the chief engineer for the Virginia Midland Railroad line was fired.

In newspaper accounts afterward, Longstreet – the most prominent passenger on the train – was barely mentioned, if at all. Days later, the general was spotted in Washington, reportedly seeking a pension for his service in the U.S. Army during the Mexican-American War.

Years after the accident, Longstreet served in another role for the American government: U.S. Commissioner of Railroads under presidents William McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt from 1897-1904.

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  • Alexandria (Va.) Gazette, July 18, July 20, 1888.
  • Baltimore Sun, June 13, 1888.
  • Charlottesville (Va.) Daily Progress, Oct. 29, 1908.
  • Greensboro (N.C.) Patriot, July 20, 1888.
  • St. Louis Globe-Democrat, July 24, 1888.
  • Shenandoah Herald, Woodstock, Va., July 20, 1888.
  • The Western Sentinel, Winston-Salem, N.C., July 19, 1888.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

On trail of serial killer, a Civil War explosion and grub in Philly

Dr. H.H. Holmes, a serial killer whose real name was Herman Webster Mudgett, was executed
 in 1896 at Moyamensing Prison in Philadelphia, across the street from the site of a deadly
 explosion in a munitions factory in 1862.

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Sometimes the pursuit of history takes you to strange places, such as the South Philly neighborhood where a corner pub stands on the site of one of the Civil War's deadliest munitions factory explosions, a serial killer was executed in a prison, chickens get the ax, and a famous fast-food joint provides around-the-clock service. 


There's a lot to unpack there, so let's start with those birds and forget most of the rest of that opening sentence, which probably horrifies my high school English teacher anyway. Mrs. B and Philadelphia Daughter B, who accompanied me on this history excursion, were aghast when they heard the last clucks of chickens at a live poultry market on 9th Street. Perhaps they'll be comforted that they are not alone in their disgust: Online reviews of Shun Da Market range from horrible ("I can't stand to walk by that place") to the really, really horrible ("smells like shit.") 

While my wife and daughter absorbed City of Brotherly Love ambience, I explored the 'hood, a working-class area of Italians, recent immigrants from Central America, hardcore liberals and Republicans, row houses, and narrow side streets with lots of potholes. "Rugged elegance," a resident who provided a scouting report told me. 

This ballfield, dedicated in memory of a prominent South Philadelphia physician, was built
on the grounds of a former cemetery. Are bodies still there?

On 10th Street, a ballfield dedicated in memory of a local physician occupies ground that once was a section of a massive cemetery where thousands were buried. Most of the bodies -- including those of Civil War vets -- were disinterred and re-buried elsewhere in the 1940s. But the contractor who did the grisly work wasn't exactly diligent, so there's no telling what might be under third base or the pitcher's mound.

But what really caught my eye was a historical marker at the corner of Passyunk and Reed streets denoting the site of Moyamensing Prison"H.H. Holmes, considered America's first serial killer, was executed here," a line reads on the tablet. The castle-like prison, opened in 1835, was razed in 1968, eventually replaced with an Acme and a large parking lot. 

A 1901 image of Moyamensing Prison, razed in 1968.
 (Philadelphia Prison Society)
Now I didn't have the heart to tell shoppers in the supermarket's cereal aisle that a serial killer was executed near stacks of Frosty Flakes, Cheerios, and Lucky Charms. But I was determined to find out more about Mr. Holmes, better known as Dr. Henry Howard Holmes and sometimes by his real name, Herman Webster Mudgett.

Let's just say you wouldn't want this resume on LinkedIn:

In the 1890s, Holmes left a trail of dead, mainly young women, from Chicago and Toronto to Philadelphia and who-knows-where-else. Besides being a murderer, he was a con artist, liar, horse thief, employee of the State Lunatic Asylum at Norristown (Pa.), graduate of the University of Michigan's Department of Medicine and Surgery (Go Blue!), subject of dozens of lawsuits, and a trigamist, which I had to look up in the dictionary. (Holmes was fond of marriage, often to many women at the same time, which is illegal unless you are the star of Sister Wives.)

Dr. H.H. Holmes' "Murder Castle" in Chicago.
(The Holmes-Pitezel Case:  A History of the Greatest Crime
 of the Century and of the Search for
 the Missing Pitezel Children,
In Chicago, where he apparently commited most of his murders, Holmes owned an apartment building, later dubbed the "Murder Castle." The place reportedly had soundproofed rooms, mazes of hallways, and chutes in which Holmes dropped victims into a basement, where he had acid vats, quicklime, and a crematorium. Fake news? Perhaps. There's no doubt, though, that the bad doctor's murder spree ended in Boston in November 1894, when he was captured by Pinkertons.

After a trial and conviction for the murder of his business partner in Philly, Holmes was hanged at Moyamensing Prison on May 7, 1896, nine days before his 35th birthday. "Take your time,"  he told the hangman, "you know I'm in no hurry." The hangman was not expert at his craft -- it took 15 minutes to strangle Holmes, who calmly met his fate. "Cool to the End," the New York Times proclaimed. (Obligatory last meal note: Probably because the cheese steak had yet to be created, Holmes dined on boiled eggs, dry toast, and coffee. Bleh. What a way to go, especially if the cup of Joe wasn't the hazelnut from Panera.) 

"That Holmes was a criminal, such as the world has ever seen, cannot be questioned," the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote the day after the Michigan grad's demise. "It is known of him that he was many times a murderer, a villain, that he lived by plunder and was the most accomplished liar that ever walked the face of the earth."

Naturally, this story gets even weirder. Apparently fearful his body might be stolen and dissected, Holmes requested -- and somehow was granted -- burial 10 feet in the ground in a pine coffin encased in concrete. In 2017, amid allegations Holmes had escaped execution, his body was exhumed for testing -- which reminds me of those weird Lee Harvey Oswald conspiracy theories. Holmes, whose mustache was discovered well preserved but body was goo, was positively identified by his teeth. (Imagine being the dentist of a serial killer.)

An artist's impression in Frank Leslie's Illustrated of ruins of a Philadelphia munitions factory after explosions on March 29, 1862. (House Divided: The Civil War Research Engine at Dickinson College)

A cropped enlargement of an 1862 lithograph shows the grim aftermath of the munitions factory explosion in Philadelphia. (Artist John L. Magee | Library Company of Philadelphia)

An approximate view of the scene in the lithograph above.

Dazed by the serial killer historical marker -- and a mesmerizing Flyers mascot painted on the wall of the Triangle Tavern -- I wandered through the narrow side streets. Holmes' execution was far from the only macabre event in this neighborhood. 

I was mesmerized by the Flyers' mascot.
On March 29, 1862, gunpowder and cartridges ignited in Professor Samuel Jackson's fireworks-turned-munitions factory on 10th Street. Many of the 78 factory workers, mostly women and girls, never had a chance to escape the explosion and conflagration. Eighteen employees died -- including Jackson's 23-year-old son. Dozens of survivors suffered from burns or other injuries in the war's first munitions factory accident that involved a major loss of life. 

"Heads, legs and arms were hurled through the air, and in some instances were picked up hundreds of feet from the scene." the Inquirer reported. "Portions of flesh, brains, limbs, entrails, etc. were found in the yards of houses, on roofs and in the adjacent streets." A "whole human head, afterwards recognized as that of John Mehaffey, was found in an open lot" against the wall of Moyamensing Prison, a New York Herald reporter observed.

A policeman filled a barrel with human remains, and a man told an Inquirer reporter that he saw a boy going home with a human head in his basket. The lad said it was his father's. Blown across the street into a prison wall by the blast, Mary Jane Curtin -- the superintendent of children at the factory -- somehow escaped physical injury.

The Philadelphia Inquirer provided
extensive coverage of the deadly
munitions factory explosion.
While Mrs. B and Daughter B dined on wings in the Triangle Tavern -- built on the site of Jackson's doomed factory -- I asked a waitress there if she knew anything about the catastrophe. No, she told me, but the place had a "weird, vacant bar" vibe before it became Triangle Tavern. No historical tablet marks the site of this deadly tragedy, an omission someone must rectify.

Someone also must rectify the long lines at Pat's King of Steaks, a fixture in the South Philly neighborhood since 1930. The joint at 9th and Wharton, near where those chickens are decapitated, sure has the tourist schtick down pat (sorry), with T-shirts ($25), hats ($30), and sweatshirts ($35) available for the masses. I stuck with food, ordering a cheese steak with sweet peppers ($14) that was out of my comfort zone. 

Yes, sometimes chasing history can be bizarre. Sometimes it can give you heartburn, too.

Pat's King of Steaks, where I got a great cheese steak sandwich with sweet peppers.

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  • New York Herald, March 31, April 1, 1862.
  • New York Times, May 7, 1896.
  • Philadelphia Inquirer, March 31, April 1, April 5, April 7, April 12, May 2, 1862, May 8, 1896.
  • Philadelphia Times, May 8, 1896.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

What battlefields? I'm in Bell Buckle for that massive Moon Pie

A selfie at the "World's Largest Moon Pie." Is this a great country or what?

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When Mrs. B. broke the news we would attend the annual RC Cola MoonPie Festival in Bell Buckle, Tenn., I got kind of excited, because I figured there would be an opportunity to con persuade her to visit the nearby Hoover Gap and Liberty Gap battlefields with me. Oh my, so much Civil War history out there in the wilds 45 miles east of Nashville.

She's smiling in this photo, but I think I made Mrs. B
nervous with my "World's Largest Moon Pie" obsession.
That's my sweet sister-in-law in right background.
But we of course got sucked in at the festival by a bunch of cloggers, an 11-minute parade, unusual tattoos, the crowning of the MoonPie Festival Kings and Queen, strangers attempting to balance RC Cola cans on their heads, the obligatory water balloon-tossing contest, and the piece de resistance, the unveiling of the "World's Largest Moon Pie." So my Civil War battlefields con job got scrapped.


For you uninitiated, a Moon Pie consists of a graham cracker cookie, a marshmallow center, and a coating of either chocolate, vanilla, or who knows what else. The small Moon Pie I consumed had kind of a cardboardy taste, and judging by the way the things were smooshed up and tossed in the Moon Pie throwing contest, I think I'm on solid ground there.

The festival in Moon Pie Country is part country fair, part homage to the greatness of Moon Pies, and part comedy, with a large steaming, hot hunk of capitalism tossed in. As my sister-in-law pulled her SUV into the grass parking lot (10 bucks per vehicle), my brother-in-law asked where the parade would be held. "You're in it," said Parking Lot Dude, who had just started his shift 20 minutes earlier. We chuckled like any other RC Cola MoonPie Festival rookies would.

Thankfully, Bell Buckle -- or "Belt Buckle" or "Buckle Belt," as Mrs. B calls it -- is not the "Spandex Capital of Tennessee," because on the muggy afternoon we saw that material deployed in unusual ways, many of which will never in the history of ever be unseen.

Ms. Moon Pie marches in the Moon Pie Festival parade near a giant RC Cola can.

Before the parade, I scouted the ground, sort of like John Buford at Gettysburg: Would the Rocky Valley Cloggers approach from the east or west? Will a Shriner launch a Moon Pie at my noggin'? Will Ms.Moon Pie smile at me? Is Moon Pie one or two words? Is it really capitalized? Remember: People came from as far as Utah, the Caribbean, and even a foreign country (California) for this. Naturally, being a social media maven, I shot cloggers parade video. And, naturally, I shot them in slo-mo on my new iPhone. Perhaps that's why it only has 32 views on Tweeter (above). 

Anyhow, after the parade, we re-deployed with our folding chairs near hay bales and a small stage, the main theater of action, so to speak. “People just come here to be happy,” a festival spokeswoman announced to the crowd about an hour into our experience. "Sorry, ma'am," I growled under my breath, "but I'm just here to see that damn giant Moon Pie."

The WLMP was to be unveiled on stage hours later, so I tapped into my inner Jeb Stuart (minus the plumed feather hat thingie and the horse) and aimlessly wandered about to gather intel. 

Grrrr ... Thankfully, this vicious dog was unable to burst 
through the mesh to go for my jugular.
Nervous and sweaty, I shot a selfie with Ms. Moon Pie. Then I shot a pic of a white dog named Sparkle, Pooky, or Sprinkle -- I forgot which, the fog of war and all. Looking like she wanted to go for my jugular, the vicious animal growled from behind the mesh of some pink-and-black baby carriage-like contraption.

Decisions, decisions: Should I buy an official Moon Pie T-shirt ($15) or the genuine antique Coca-Cola tray ($150)? WWMBD: What would Mrs. Banks do? (I got the shirt.) Where can I get one of those Liberty Gap minie balls? Damn, was that Bell Buckle cop really drinking rum out of that watermelon? Do I really need the $25 bottle of balsamic vinaigrette with a hint of barebecue flavor?

At a stand where a guy offered to draw your portrait in 15 minutes, I examined one of the "These Colors Won't Run" illustrations. Hmmm, I seem to remember a whole lot of retreating by that side during the war. (Kudos to Ms. Smiley for teaching us Critical Retreat Theory in fourth grade at Julia Ward Howe Elementary!) 

Seconds seemed like minutes. Minutes dragged on like hours. Mercifully, the unveiling of the "World's Largest Moon Pie" was imminent. Before the festival we debated how large the WLMP would be. The size of a tractor tire? As large as a poker table top? Would it weigh -- yikes -- 1,000 pounds or more?

The "World's Largest Moon Pie" is escorted to the main stage by security.

Escorted by security -- you can't make this stuff up -- the WLMP slowly was driven to the stage atop a golf cart-like vehicle. It was a quasi-religious experience, with security holding down the sides of a giant box -- it reminded me of those wacky divine evangelical preachers laying their hands on Trump in the Oval Office. Anyhow, the sweaty crowd parted, making way for the WLMP's journey to its final destination. (Well, second-to-last destination, because people were going to eat the thing.) 

Scurrying to get an up-close look, I dodged several other excited WLMP fans, telling one woman I was the "Official Moon Pie Photographer." Feeling silly, I elbowed what probably was the real official World's Largest Moon Pie photog out of the way to get extreme close-ups. ("Did you plant your face in the pie?" Daughter B later texted. Uh, no.) Unable to locate me, my wife, sister-in-law, and brother-in-law apparently were briefly concerned. And then ... "Look, there's John photographing the giant Moon Pie." one of them said, pointing to me standing on a small step ladder mere feet from the WLMP. Mrs. B laughed, nervously. 

This year's WLMP was slathered with a lemon-flavored
coating, according to sources. 
I was shooting a video (below) of the massive Moon Pie when a woman said the crazy man must get off the stage.


Now about the WLMP, well, it was somewhat of a letdown. It didn't look all that massive -- it was more like 20 large, mushed-together pizzas topped with a ton of cheese. (By the way, the WLMP was slathered with a yellow, lemon-flavored coating, according to sources.) I wondered how much cardboard was needed to make it.  

Of course, my "exclusive" WLMP photos and video were anything but. A MoonPie Festival spokeswoman soon announced that anyone who wanted to take a picture of the WLMP should line up stage left. Hundreds did, including the WLMP "semi-official photographer." Ground rules: Each photographer had one second. It was nuts. "You must hurry," the MoonPie Festival spokeswoman said, "because we don't want the pie to melt." HEY, LADY, I'M AN ARTIST!!! 


Is this a great country or what?

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