Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Bull's-eye: 'You damned Yankees have killed old General Polk'

A close-up of monument at the Leonidas Polk death site at Pine Mountain.
This 20-foot monument, dedicated in 1902, marks where Polk was killed.

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On a recent visit to the site where Leonidas Polk was killed in Kennesaw, Ga., I examined the monument to the slave-holding lieutenant general, inspected the remains of a four-gun Confederate battery position nearby, and shook my fist at a modern house, gazebo, and tennis court. (Georgia developers show little mercy for Civil War battlefields; the monument ground is private property.)

Leonidas Polk was killed at Pine Mountain
on June 14, 1864. (Alabama Department
of Archives and History
Then I listened, aghast, to a period preacher named "Archibald Everhart," who lost me roughly 10 seconds into his oration in front of the obelisk marking Polk's death at Pine Mountain: "Glory to the Southern saint ...." 

Oh, Lord.

On June 14, 1864, Polk -- "The Fighting Bishop" -- was nearly sliced in two by a well-aimed (or damned lucky) U.S. Army artillery round, rocking the Confederacy. "No event of a personal description -- saving the fate of Stonewall Jackson," a Southern newspaper wrote, "compares with it for painful interest and national calamity."

"Saddest event which has ever occurred in the [Army of Tennessee] since the death of Albert Sidney Johnston," wrote another. "You damned Yankees have killed old General Polk," a Confederate soldier reportedly wrote on a piece of paper attached to a ramrod next to a stump on Pine Mountain.

Polk, a West Point graduate and an Episcopal bishop before the war, had fought in nearly every major Western Theater battle. In his pocket when he died were a blood-stained prayer book and three copies of Balm for the Weary and Wounded -- each intended as a gift for generals John Bell Hood, Joseph Johnston, and William Hardee.  

Unsurprisingly, Union newspapers weren't shy about speaking ill of the dead. Polk "has given no proofs of military prowess to especially endear him to the rebels," wrote the New York Observer. "In fact, he was a better bishop than a soldier. "

"... slavery was the poison that vitiated this man's life," wrote the Nashville Daily Union, throwing more gasoline on the Polk funeral pyre, "and led him to turn his back on the church ..."

I didn’t have time to find the position from which U.S. artillery fired the deadly shot, which you can read about here in a 2006 Civil War Times magazine feature. This was a full-circle visit for me: Polk’s Ashwood Hall mansion near Columbia, Tenn., was subject of my recently published CWT column. I'll post it when The Gods of Historynet make it available.

   GOOGLE STREET VIEW: Neighborhood where the Polk monument stands in clearing.

The Polk death site monument stands in a clearing on private property.
A gazebo peeks from behind the remains of a four-gun Confederate battery position near
site of Leonidas Polk's death.

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-- New York Observer, June 1864.

Wednesday, June 09, 2021

Window (ledges) into past: Soldiers left mark at Nashville hotel

James Ward of the 14th Ohio carved his name into this Maxwell House Hotel ledge.
Several Union soldiers with the last name "Crider" and first initial 'J" served in the Western Theater.

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Present-day Church Street in Nashville wasn't exactly a bastion of tidiness during the Union Army's occupation. Next to the First Presbyterian Church (now Downtown Presbyterian Church) the Federals constructed a two-story outhouse that was, ah, pretty crappy. Twenty yards or so across the street stood the ugly shell of the unfinished Maxwell House Hotel, initially used by Confederates as a barracks and then by the U.S. Army for the same purpose beginning in early winter 1862.

The Maxwell House Hotel near the end of the war.
(Tennessee State Library and Archives)
Unsurprisingly, the hotel didn't receive 5-star treatment from its occupiers, who probably would have stolen all the towels, swiped those little bags of goodies given to honors club members, and perhaps made off with the exercise bikes in the gym if the place were officially open for business.

“In many places the tiling of the rooms was cracked and broken where fires had been built on the floor for warming purposes, and having been used for so long as a barracks, the building was alive with vermin,” former 1st Wisconsin Cavalry quartermaster sergeant James Waterman wrote decades after the war. “The whole thing was more like a prison than a barracks for civilized beings, and was a disgrace to the service.”

Soldiers left their marks in other ways: by etching their names on the limestone window ledges. Four examples recently acquired from a private collector by the Battle of Nashville Trust include the etchings of names and units of Ohio and Illinois soldiers (see photos). Names of others -- presumably soldiers -- also appear etched into the slabs of stone, which the Trust plans to donate to a local business, organization, or historic site. 

These four ledges were salvaged from the Maxwell House Hotel after a fire destroyed 
the building on Christmas Day 1961.
Polk D. Southard, a teen, served with the 41st and 53rd Illinois. He apparently struggled
with the "4" in "41." He died in 1920 and was buried in New Mexico.
The chances of identifying "W.W." are remote, but perhaps we'll ID "M. Day."

B.R. Hawk -- perhaps Benjamin Hawk of the 14th Illinois -- etched his name in this ledge.
G.B. Bates and H.C.B, left their mark, too.

The Maxwell House Hotel had a twisted history. In the fall of 1863, the grimy barracks housed hundreds of Confederate POWs, many from the Sept. 19-20, 1863, Battle at Chickamauga. On the morning of Sept. 29, disaster struck as POWs were being herded near a fifth-floor stairwell for breakfast. Barracks commander John Lakin, a captain in the 89th Ohio, may have warned the Confederates about the rickety flooring, but none apparently listened if he did.

The lone reminder in downtown Nashville 
of the old Maxwell House Hotel.
A temporary wood floor suddenly gave way, sending prisoners plummeting to the second floor. There were conflicting accounts of the number of dead – one indicated as many as 45 were killed; another said 25, while others said less. “Some were between the floors and were mashed almost to jelly,” a 10th Texas Cavalry veteran recalled. Dozens were injured. (Read more about that tragedy in my Rambling column for Civil War Times magazine.)

From its official opening in 1869 to the early 1900s, the Maxwell House Hotel was the go-to site for the most important people in society. Presidents Rutherford Hayes and William McKinley, both Civil War veterans, were guests, as was former slave trader and Confederate cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest, who took the oath to the Ku Klux Klan in a ceremony in Room No. 10.

Once one of the grandest hotels in the South, the Maxwell House was destroyed by fire on Christmas Day 1961. The lone reminder of the hotel is a historical marker mounted on the outside of a modern office building that occupies the site. 

As far as the fate of that huge outhouse, well, thankfully it was closed in January 1864.

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


-- American Civil War Research Database
-- Confederate Veteran, 1902, Vol. 10.
-- The National Tribune, May 3, 1900.

Sunday, June 06, 2021

Bad guys to battlefields: In Valley, ex-cop relishes his new gig

Man at work: Former police officer Aaron Siever, clutching a weed eater, prepares to battle
his enemy near a monument that marks where two Confederate veterans were executed.

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On a sliver of land adjacent to historic Valley Pike in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, 36-year-old Aaron Siever deploys weaponry against a tireless enemy. His Exmark Radius commercial mower makes quick work of tall grass near a monument that marks where two Confederate veterans were executed by the U.S. Army in June 1865. Then he uses a Stihl weed eater to cut down a determined patch of thistle, the Iron Brigade of weeds.

"I hate the weeding," Siever tells me, "but I do it."

Humdrum work? Hardly. For this history-loving former police officer, his new gig as Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation resource management associate is almost heavenly. "My job," says Siever [pronounced S-EVE-er], "is to hang out at battlefields all day." Oh my, how some of us would give up our day jobs to join him.
Aaron Siever swapped a police officer's uniform
for one from the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation. 
For nearly 15 years, Siever was a police officer in three Virginia law enforcement agencies, including the Rockingham County Sheriff's Office. He saw some of the worst of society, working child sex cases, drug cases, and other ugliness. (Meth is a major issue in the Valley, he says.) It was gratifying but mentally taxing for Siever, who has a degree in law enforcement and history from Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va.

When he patrolled with law enforcement colleagues or trainees, Siever frequently steered conversations to what happened at such-and-such a place a century or more ago, earning him an eyeroll or three. "It got to the point where they’d say, 'OK, no more talking about the history,' ” he says with a smile.

Months ago, Siever decided he needed a change. The resource management position opened with the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation, which preserves and interprets the region’s significant Civil War battlefields and related historic sites. The organization thought so highly of the history-minded Siever -- who maintains an excellent Facebook page about his Civil War travels -- that it offered him the job and made it a full-time position. One major stipulation: He must take a substantial pay cut. Siever consulted with his "amazingly supportive" wife, who enthusiastically agreed the job was worth making the leap.

Hello, battlefields, green grass, and often-splendid views of the Massanutten Mountains. Goodbye, office cubicle, desktop computer, and patrol car. Former colleagues were supportive: “That’s your passion," one of them told him about his new position. "Can’t fault you for that.”

Ex-police officer Aaron Siever stands on the war-time road trace
 at the River Road site on the New Market battlefield. 
(Courtesy: Jack Owens)
Siever's new office stretches through the Civil War-rich Shenandoah Valley, from Winchester to Port Republic, where the SVBF has preserved more than 5,000 acres of hallowed ground. (Here's where it wants to save more.) He usually works four 10-hour days a week, starting at roughly 7 each morning. Siever mostly cuts grass and battles weeds, but he aims to make other contributions (perhaps writing for the SVBF newsletter).

In the Valley in 1862, the audacious Stonewall Jackson ran circles around the incompetent Nathaniel Banks -- ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY NO RELATION TO THIS BLOGGER! -- and other Union commanders, at Winchester, Port Republic, Kernstown, and elsewhere. On Sept. 21-22, 1864, Union commander Phil Sheridan whipped Jubal Early at Fisher's Hill, where I have eluded scores of -- ahem -- "landmines" and once lost a staredown contest with a herd of angry cows, apparently despondent over the recent demise of one of their own. Fisher's Hill is one of the organization's major saves.

The SVBF's nerve center is the historic (and beautifully restored) Strayer House in New Market, several musket shots from Interstate 81. (Quick aside: No human should ever say something nice about gawdawful I-81, which slices through New Market, Cedar Creek, Tom's Brook, and other Virginia battlefields. "I-81 did more damage to battlefields in the Shenandoah Valley," a wise man once said, "than Sheridan.")

A cottonwood tree at the River Road site
at the New Market battlefield. Did it 
witness the battle on May 15, 1864?
At New Market on May 15, 1864, John Breckinridge's outmanned forces, including Virginia Military Institute cadets, defeated Franz Sigel's Federals. The famous "Field of Lost Shoes," where the youthful cadets suffered mightily, and other core New Market battlefield are owned by VMI

But the SVBF has saved important sections of the battlefield, too. The organization's River Road site -- where the 30th and 62nd Virginia Infantry fought against the 123rd Ohio -- is Siever's favorite. (The cadets later moved through this area.) There, on his first day on his new job, the former cop picked up trash at the uninterpreted site on the opposite side of I-81 from VMI-owned battlefield. Working at River Road on 157th anniversary of the Battle of New Market, Siever and a colleague distinctly heard the boom of cannon and firing of muskets by living historians over the roar of highway traffic.

"One of the most awesome things," Siever says of the experience.

On my River Road sojourn with Siever, I do what my wife says I do best: Watch another person work. Wearing goggles, a ballcap and a longsleeve shirt with SVBF logos, Siever rolls the mower from a trailer on a Dodge 4x4 and cuts grass for roughly an hour -- he circles around stumps and boulders, weaves near a huge cottonwood (presumably "witness tree") and war-time road trace, and briefly disappears behind a post-war house. I occasionally stare at the ground -- you know, just to see if something turns up.

The River Road site, nearly surrounded by trees, is hardly Siever's most challenging. At the SVBF's Third Battle of Winchester site, he maintains 640 acres, which makes me sweat just by typing that. Siever sometimes wonders what lies beneath the ground -- bullets, artillery shells, perhaps even bodies? No battle artifacts have turned up yet during his two months on the job, but he has found a Confederate round ball while digging for a rose bush in his yard in New Market.

Occasionally, Siever uses well-honed interpretation skills to educate visitors. Clearly, this job is a labor of love. (Oh, Lord, my junior high English teacher may hurt me.)

“I loved police work," Siever says, "but the stress level of this job is so small that it’s a whole different world."

At the River Road New Market battlefield site, Siever completes his task in roughly an hour. 
The war-time road trace is at left; the cottonwood (center) may be a witness tree.

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Saturday, June 05, 2021

Two men and a zinc coffin, a Great Dane and a 'pile of goo'

History nerd Jack Richards and some dude in a Yellow Donkey beer T-shirt.

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On the Civil War history trail recently, I asked a docent in Kingston, Ga., about the “snake church,” swore at wayward cows and a bull on the Widow Pence farm at the Cross Keys (Va.) battlefield, gently explained to a waitress in a bar in South Philadelphia that a munitions explosion occurred on the site in 1862, spent a few moments in North Philly looking for Old Baldy’s decapitated head, deftly avoided bears, coyotes, and ticks on the bluffs above the Potomac River at Shepherdstown, W.Va., and watched a history-loving former cop mow grass at the New Market (Va.) battlefield. (Read more in this space and elsewhere soon!)

William "Bill" Shy, killed
at Battle of Nashville.
Then things really got weird. 

At the Williamson County Archives and Museum in Franklin, Tenn., my friend and fellow western Pennsylvanian Jack Richards and I perused the zinc coffin of 20th Tennessee Col. William Shy, who was killed at the Battle of Nashville and whose remains were unearthed by an apparent grave robber in 1977. How Shy was tucked into this tiny coffin is one of history’s mysteries. You can dig into this story — damn, sorry — by reading my “Rambling” column in Civil War Times magazine. (It includes a reference to a 150-pound Great Dane named “River” and the words “pile of goo.”) 

Please note: My T-shirt is not necessarily an endorsement of Yellow Donkey pale ale. 

A close-up of Colonel Shy's zinc coffin. How did he fit into that thing?

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Friday, June 04, 2021

Communing with George Meade's spirit in ritzy Philly 'hood

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No visit to Philadelphia is complete for me without a visit to the former home of George Gordon Meade. The general -- who booted the Army of Northern Virginia from The Great State of Pennsylvania in 1863 --  lived at 1836 Delancey Place from 1866 until his death in 1872. Some of the city's leading citizens lived in the tony neighborhood near Rittenhouse Square. Meade's former home has been divided into apartments -- here are units 2 and 4.  Probably at least 2 grand a month. For those who can afford that, oh my, what a cool place to live. 

Historical marker outside the general's former residence (right) at 1836 Delancey Place.

                        GOOGLE STREET VIEW: Explore Meade's former neighborhood.

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Friday, May 28, 2021

‘Sweet baby:’ The short life and times of John Willie Woods Jr.

The gravestone of John Willie Woods Jr. in Toussaint L'Ouverture Cemetery in Franklin, Tenn.

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A version of this story also appeared in the Williamson Herald print and online editions.

ON A SPECTACULAR SPRING MORNING, a large American flag, a much smaller one, and faux flowers adorn John Willie Woods Junior’s gravestone at Toussaint L'Ouverture Cemetery in Franklin, Tenn. More than a half-century after his death in Vietnam, Mattie Lee Kinnard surely would be touched that her son is so well remembered. 

Close-up of John Willie Woods Junior's
Purple Heart.
Woods was only 19 when the helicopter he was aboard plunged into the jungle in a fiery explosion, killing him and three of his crewmates on Oct. 30, 1966. He was one of 342 American military deaths that month during the Vietnam War; one of 6,350 that year; one of 58,220 for the United States in the lengthy conflict.

He earned a Purple Heart for sacrificing his life, as thousands of others did. His death was covered in four paragraphs in his hometown newspaper, not unusual for the era. His name was etched among thousands of others on the Vietnam War Memorial Wall in Washington, the same size as every other. 

John Willie Woods Jr., buried on ground the Union Army defended during the Civil War in the Battle of Franklin on Nov. 30, 1864, was unexceptional ... and yet extraordinary -- to his family, who agonize over what might have been; to friends and classmates, who remember a “super kid,” a football star “as fast as a jackrabbit” and a "hero"; and to many Vietnam veterans, who yearn to forget but can’t quite shake the demons and ghosts of the past.

LEFT: Woods (35) was a star running back at all-Black Natchez High School in Franklin, Tenn.
His coach, Bill Reynolds, appears at far right. RIGHT: The building that housed the school
 now houses a senior living center. (Left photo courtesy of Curtis "Sneaky Pete" Allen.

BORN ON FEB. 20, 1947, John Willie Woods Jr. grew up in “Hard Bargain,” a predominantly African American section of Franklin, the son of Mattie Lee and John Willie Sr., a World War II veteran. The couple reared two children, but the marriage didn’t last. After Senior and Mattie Lee divorced, she married J.T. Kinnard, with whom she had six more children. Mrs. Kinnard and Woods’ part-native American maternal great-grandmother were protective of Junior – grandma even gave him an Indian nickname: “Sorghum.” Family and friends called Mattie Lee “Bunny.”

John Willie Woods Jr. grew up in "Hard Bargain,"
a predominantly African American section of Franklin.

In the late 1950s, Woods – “intelligent and rambunctious,” according to a childhood friend -- played for the Rucker Park baseball team at the ballfield off Downs Boulevard, one of the few places Blacks could in Franklin at the time. His teammates were nicknamed “Stick,” “Turnipgreen,” “Eyebrow,” “Tadpole,” and, “Rabbit.” In a team photo of them from the era, Woods appears to be having a good time -- few of his friends today would be surprised if he were gabbing while the photographer took the image.

“He loved to talk,” says lifelong Franklin resident Thelma Battle, who attended all-Black Natchez High School with Woods.

Blacks weren’t allowed in the massive Willow Plunge pool off Lewisburg Pike in Franklin in those days, so in the summer, John Willie Jr. and his buddies splashed in the “Dinky Track,” a swimming hole behind his neighbor Jocelyn Jordan’s house on Green Street. Wiry and muscular, Woods was among the few of his friends who could swim -- sometimes the boys would even skinny dip in the hole, raising a few eyebrows. When he wasn’t out rabbit hunting or fishing, John Willie might be found shooting marbles with four of Jordan’s brothers.

Woods (far left) with teammates on a Rucker Park
baseball team in the late 1950s.
“He loved all sports,” she says of Woods. “He was always there as a leader of his friends.”

“A very likable person,” says Battle.

“Popular and outgoing,” Natchez High schoolmate Carolyn Wall says.

Never gave me any trouble, his momma said.

In his senior season at Natchez High School in 1964, Woods – about 5-7 and 165 pounds-- starred at running back and was a team captain. John Willie’s White peers in Franklin attended Franklin High School or the private Battleground Academy; Woods’ Panthers never played them in the era of segregation. And unlike well-funded White schools in Franklin, Black schools, Woods’ classmates remember, were sub-standard and supplied with “hand-me-down books.”

Woods in his high school graduation
photo. (Courtesy Woods family)
In the sports section of the local newspaper from his senior season, Woods’ name frequently appeared in boldfaced type: “[He] was [the] wheel horse ball toter,” the Franklin Review-Appeal wrote after he rushed for 147 yards on only 14 carries in a 13-7 victory over Springfield. 

“Helluva athlete,” says Curtis “Sneaky Pete” Allen, who attended Natchez High with Woods.

“Best player on the team,” says Woods’ football coach, Bill Reynolds, who recalls a father-son relationship with him. “I wish a lot of people had his personality, character, and integrity,” says Reynolds, now 84.

In 1965, shortly before he graduated from high school, Woods told friends and family he would join the Army. “He felt like he needed to go there,” says his uncle, Fulton Patton. “He felt like he was doing something for his country and his people.” 

Later, Woods posed for a photograph sporting his new military uniform and an “I’ve just won the lottery” smile. But the day he left Franklin for eventual deployment overseas, Mattie Lee’s son sat on the back steps of the family’s house and wept for an hour. Perhaps then was when Woods had a premonition of death -- in a letter to his mother from Vietnam months later, he wrote that he did not expect to return home.

In a circa-1960 photo of a youth basketball team, John Willie Woods Jr. appears in first row, bottom left. (Courtesy John Willie Woods Jr. family)

THE NEWS WAS OMINOUS from Southeast Asia when Woods began his tour of duty there on May 2, 1966. In late April and early May, American and Communist troops exchanged machine gun fire over the Cambodian border as the conflict threatened to spiral further out of control. North Vietnamese soldiers reportedly were infiltrating the South at a rate of 7,000 a month; and in the air, an American RF101 Voodoo reconnaissance plane was shot down by groundfire near Hanoi.

Front-page headlines in The Nashville Tennessean
on May 2, 1966, the day Woods began his tour
in South Vietnam.
At home, where Blacks faced rampant discrimination, Dr. Martin Luther King returned to Alabama in the closing days of the gubernatorial campaign to get out the African American vote. Lurleen Wallace was running as proxy to succeed her segregationist husband, George. It was just a ploy by the incumbent, who by law could not run for another term, to maintain his grip on the state. To ensure all Blacks could safely vote, U.S. attorney general Nicholas Katzenbach sent Federal agents to Alabama. 

Meanwhile, desegregation of public schools remained a white-hot topic. “Now, today,” a University of Tennessee vice president said on the jump of a Page 1 story in the Nashville Tennessean, “Americans are awakening to the fact that the American Negro has been shut off from access to public life.”

In the public square of Franklin – a booming city of 65,000 people now, roughly 7,500 in 1966 – loomed the nearly 40-foot-high Confederate monument, dedicated in 1899. Locals call the 6-foot-6 statue of a Confederate soldier atop its base “Chip.” An inscription on the monument reads, in part: “In honor and memory of our heroes both private and chief of the Southern Confederacy. No Country ever had truer sons, no cause nobler champions.”

Blacks didn’t pay “Chip” much attention. 

Photo from summer 1969 of Ban Me Thuot City Field showing the "Corral," where
helicopters parked. (Courtesy: Larry Pluhar)

IN VIETNAM, Natchez High School’s star running back morphed into Specialist 4 John Willie Woods Jr. It was a junior rank -- “Spec 4,” they called it in the Army. Woods, who initially served in an infantry regiment, became a door gunner on a UH-1 “Huey” helicopter flown by the 155th Assault Helicopter Company, based at Ban Me Thuot City Field in South Vietnam.
John Willie Woods Jr. in a wartime image.
(Courtesy John Willie Woods Jr. family)
The Huey was a U.S. military workhorse, used to transport troops and cargo, provide gunship support, and evacuate wounded from a battlefield. “The machine left the ground,” a pilot wrote years later about the helicopter, “like it was falling up.” The Huey could take a beating, too. “Some of them came back with so many holes,” another pilot recalled, “you just wouldn’t believe they’d ever fly again.”

In mid-October 1966, two reconnaissance patrols clashed with North Vietnamese forces near Plei Djereng – a camp established in December 1964 by U.S. Special Forces to monitor enemy infiltration along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Days later, Americans launched Operation Paul Revere IV, sending two brigades into the jungle of the Central Highlands. In the first 12 days’ fighting, 22 U.S. servicemen were killed. Nearly 400 U.S. military personnel would be dead by the conclusion of the operation on Dec. 30.

The area near Plei Djereng, where the 155th often operated, was a hot zone. Cambodia – a sanctuary for North Vietnamese troops – was a short helicopter ride west. In late October, two 155th helicopter pilots, escorted by two gunships, rescued an Air Force pilot shot down over the hostile territory. The unit also supported long-range reconnaissance patrols, a classified operation. “This … turned out to be one of the most interesting and challenging missions for the unit pilots and crew members alike,” a 155th pilot recalled.

On Oct. 30, 1966, Woods boarded a Huey, tail number 64-13587, with three crewmates for a mission to re-supply elements of the U.S. 25th Infantry Division involved in Operation Paul Revere IV. A “slick,” GIs called the lightly armed (two M60 machine guns) troop/cargo carrier.

FROM LEFT: Pilot Wilmer Jay Willingham, commander Michael Noble Coryell, and crew chief
James Lloyd Walker, a private first class. They were Woods' crewmates on the ill-fated
helipcopter flight on Oct. 30, 1966. (Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund Wall of Faces)

Like Woods, his crewmates were so damn young. The helicopter was commanded by Michael Noble Coryell, a 21-year-old from Santa Barbara, Calif. He had been flying in Vietnam for 11 months and was nearing the end of his tour of duty. “Combat hardened and the best Fort Rucker ever qualified,” recalled a veteran who flew with Coryell in Vietnam, referencing the U.S. Army’s Alabama flight training installation. The pilot was 24-year-old Wilmer Jay Willingham of Monroe, La., the only married man aboard. He had been flying in Vietnam less than a month.

A 1966 image from Vietnam of Hueys like the one
John Willie Woods Jr. was aboard when he was killed.
(National Archives and Records Administration)
Crew chief James Lloyd Walker, a private first class, was a “fun-loving” soldier from Blackfoot, Idaho, who enjoyed the outdoors. Like Woods, he was only 19. After Walker was caught vandalizing houses with friends, the high school dropout was encouraged to join the military by the juvenile court detention judge who attended his family’s church. Walker manned the other machine gun in the rear of the chopper, near Woods. The group was a melting pot of sorts – John Willie and Willingham were Baptist; Walker, a Mormon; Coryell, a Presbyterian. Woods was the only Black soldier aboard.

At about 10:30 a.m., after the Huey flew below 1,000 feet about 4.5 miles north of Plei Djereng, a burst of small-arms fire knifed through the sturdy helicopter’s engine. The Huey exploded and crashed, killing all aboard. A reconnaissance platoon, backed up by tanks from the 69th Armor Regiment, recovered the bodies in the jungle in Pleiku Province, South Vietnam.

After 21-year-old commander Michael Coryell's death,
the 155th Assault Helicopter Company's base
 in South Vietnam was christened Camp Coryell.
(Camp Coryell Vietnam newsletter) 
The shootdown unleashed a furious response from the U.S. military – gunships and a U.S. Air Force strike blasted the area where enemy fire was thought to have originated. The next day, an official report noted, “Task Force McDonnell searched for the enemy automatic weapon position without positive results.”

In memory of the Huey’s commander, comrades in the 155th Assault Helicopter Company christened their base “Camp Coryell.” Willingham, who, like Woods, displayed a beaming smile in his Army photograph, left behind a widow named Linda. Shortly after Walker’s funeral in Idaho, his best friend joined the military, vowing “to take the same bastards out who killed Jimmy.” Each soldier was posthumously awarded a Purple Heart. Woods had served barely six months in Vietnam.

On Halloween 1966, a U.S. military representative knocked on Mattie Lee’s door at her home on Natchez Street to deliver awful news. John Willie’s death rocked his friends and family. “Took the life out of me,” says Doug Lane, Woods’ classmate and a Vietnam veteran. “Hurt so bad I was sick.”

And, oh my, did “Bunny” grieve.

At John Willie Woods Junior's grave, his niece, Valerie "Pluckie" Harris (left), holds his framed
Purple Heart. At right, Woods' half-sister, Tammy Brooks, holds the American flag presented
 to their mother at his funeral on Nov. 8, 1966. 

ON THE AFTERNOON OF NOV. 8, 1966, Franklin’s tiny Primitive Baptist Church was packed with mourners for the funeral service of John Willie Woods Jr. A military honor guard and military chaplain were there, too. 

Mattie Lee, Woods' mother.
Friends and family called
her "Bunny."
(Courtesy Woods family)
“Uncontrollable, crying and thrashing,” a witness described Mattie Lee Kinnard’s demeanor that day. (More than a decade later, “Bunny” would lose two more sons, Belafonte Kinnard, in a freak accident at a softball game, and Barry Kinnard, also a “Spec 4” in the Army, in an apparent fall from an overpass in Hawaii.)

At Woods’ graveside service, a member of the military honor guard presented Mattie Lee a folded American flag. The guard fired a salute, echoing in the cool Tennessee air, and mourners quickly dispersed.

Fulton Patton remembers his nephew as a hero. “They do things on the spur of the moment,” he says. “They know they have to do something now.” Many in the 155th still are reluctant to talk about their experiences in Southeast Asia: “I believe that every single one of us lives with PTSD -- varying degrees, to be sure,” a former helicopter pilot says.

Decades after her son’s death, Mattie Lee, old and frail, visited John Willie’s grave on the hill overlooking town.

“He was a sweet boy,” “Bunny,” who died in 2011, told a reporter. “He was a sweet baby.”

Williamson County Archives public service archivist Leesa Harmon assisted with this story.

A close-up of the American flag presented to Mattie Lee Kinnard at her son's funeral.

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


  • American Military Deaths in Vietnam, National Archives web site
  • Coffelt Database of Vietnam Casualties. 
  • Franklin Review-Appeal, May 29, 1987.
  • Mason, Robert, Chickenhawk: A Shattering Personal Account of the Helicopter War in Vietnam, New York: Penguin Books, 1983. (Source for ability of Huey helicopter to take off quickly.)
  • MacGarrigle, George (1998). Combat Operations: Taking the Offensive, October 1966 to October 1967. Government Printing Office. ISBN 9780160495403. 
  • Phone interviews with Cheryl Craft, James Lloyd Walker’s sister (May 10, 2021); Jocelyn Jordan, John Willie Woods Jr. neighbor, childhood playmate and schoolmate (May 10 and 17, 2021); Carolyn Wall, Woods’ schoolmate (May 11, 2021); Bill Reynolds, Woods’ high school football coach (May 12, 2021); Les Davison, 155th Assault Helicopter Company unit historian and former pilot in unit (May 13, 2021); Chuck Markham, 155th Assault Helicopter Company veteran (May 14, 2021); and Woods’ friends Bill Grimes (May 16, 2021), Doug Lane (May 16, 2021), and Curtis "Sneaky Pete" Allen (May 23, 2021); and Fulton Patton, Woods' uncle (May 25, 2021).
  • In-person interview with Franklin historian Thelma Battle, Woods’ high school schoolmate, May 10, 2021.
  • The Nashville Tennessean, May 2, 1966, Nov. 7, 2005.
  • Vietnam magazine, August 2002 issue, (Source for quote on sturdiness of Huey, from former U.S. pilot Richard Jellerson.) 
  • Williamson Leader, July 19, 1979, July 5, 1980.
  • 155th Aviation Company unit history

VIEW GOOGLE EARTH IMAGE of crash site of helicopter.

Monday, May 24, 2021

Finding Patrick Cleburne in 'Wedding Capital of the South'

The world famous Ringgold Wedding Chapel of Love.

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WARNING: This post includes bad puns.

Sometimes the pursuit of history leads to great frustration. En route from Cartersville, Ga., hometown of General Trevor Lawrence, to Nashville on Route 41, I got sucked in by Civil War historical markers in Cassville (burned by Sherman in '64!), Adairsville (home of annual Great Locomotive Chase festival!), and Resaca (site of best reenactment in Georgia!).

And then I stopped in Ringgold, Ga., about 17 miles south of Chattanooga, Tenn. Oh, lawd, curses to you, soul-sucking Ringgold!

The Patrick Cleburne monument in Ringgold, Ga.,
 minus those pesky kids and their cigarette-smoking parents.
Bad news came in waves after I stopped in the county seat of Catoosa County, where food was so scarce in late 1863 that Confederate soldiers often subsisted on mule meat. First, Mrs. B. nixed my idea to purchase a brown rocking chair at Southern Traditions. (Her text was remarkable for its brevity: "No.")

Then I saw several or a hundred kids, hovering like drunken bees, about the Patrick Cleburne monument in the "pocket park," where their parents were having a picnic and smoking cigs. On Nov. 27, 1863, the "Stonewall of the West," outnumbered roughly 3 to 1 at Ringgold Gap, stuck it to Joseph Hooker, thus burnishing his already impressive resume. But I couldn't focus on the text on a grimy historical tablet because two of the brats children, stalking me like tigers, looked like they wanted to bite me on the leg.


And then I read a Nashville Street historical marker: Ringgold apparently was the Wedding Capital of the South (and still is, according to this.) Talk about tying me into knots. 

Dolly Parton
(Kristopher Harris)
In 1966, Dolly Parton was married in Ringgold in the First Baptist Church. "We picked Ringgold to get married because for some time in his youth, my husband lived on Missionary Ridge, right on the Tennessee-Georgia border just outside of Chattanooga,” Parton said. “I also liked the idea of ‘rings of gold’ -- Ringgold. I thought that sounded like a good sign.” The Parton-Carl Dean union has stood the test of time. The George Jones-Tammy Wynette marriage -- the country music stars tied the knot in Ringgold in 1969 -- did not. I can't say I am surprised -- her hit single was D-I-V-O-R-C-E.

From 1858-2016, according to a town historical marker, 228,000 couples were married in Ringgold (present-day population roughly 3,600). Why? Quick turnaround on a marriage license and super-fast blood tests (no longer required in Georgia for a license). Damn, a testing facility in town even had a wedding chapel. "We got married there because that was where you would go to get married in a day," Jones told the local newspaper in 2003. "Everyone went there if you wanted to get married fast."

The chapel offers an Ultimate Romantic Package wedding reception for $525.

I vowed to dig a little deeper, to see if the historical marker had a ring of truth. So I walked across the street, where a sign on the small, brick building proclaimed "Ringgold Wedding Chapel of Love," and read another historical tablet.

Decades ago, Ringgold was a popular wedding destination for soldiers based at Fort Oglethorpe, near the Chickamauga battlefield. The post there served as a military base until 1947, when it was decommissioned. My research indicates one military man got married in Ringgold and then moved with his bride to Buffalo. (Sheesh, talk about starting a life together at rock bottom.) 

I pressed my iPhone against the window 
of the Ringgold Chapel of Love for this
peek at the inner sanctum. The RWC was 
closed on a Sunday afternoon.
In 1959, a Catoosa County officer insisted rules and procedures were in place so all the Ringgold weddings were on the up and up. "It takes the three-day waiting period for those under the legal age, and I enforce it," he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "I issue marriage licenses five and a half days a week -- none at night, and none on the weekends. If somebody who has been drinking comes in for a license, they don't get it, and may wind up in the county jail."

In 1969 in Ringgold, former Louisiana governor/singer/song writer Jimmie Davis, who wrote "You Are My Sunshine," married Anna Carter Gordon of the "world-famous" Chuck Wagon Gang -- that's a singing group, not some weirdly named criminal enterprise. To get hitched, couples went to either the county courthouse, a church, or one of the town's wedding chapels. 

Judging from the vibe, the wedding biz isn't what it used to be in Ringgold. But if the town packaged "Weird Wedding Tales of Ringgold" for TV, it could generate some buzz.    

"I have seen men in jail come in in shackles to apply for a license,” a county official told the Journal-Constitution in 2003. “We had one woman who was only 37 years old who had been married 13 times. One woman came through who was 78 years old marrying a man 25. She had on 3-inch heels, came in a limo, and invited us to go with them to Atlanta to party.” (Mom, Why!?)  

K-9 Tub Time, the Ringgold Wedding Chapel of Love's
neighbor, is for mutts, not post-wedding romance.
Because I'm not married to the Ringgold version of the truth on the historical markers, I deployed journalism skills honed long ago -- I used Google -- and discovered the Ringgold Wedding Chapel of Love offers a Ultimate Romantic Package wedding reception for $525. Personalized for a bride, groom, and five guests, it includes:
  • Unity Sand or Unity Candle Ceremony 
  • CD of 10 photos (Photography Basic Package)
  • Ringgold Wedding Chapel Historical Certificate Bouquet & Boutonniere 
  • Mini-reception with cake cutting (personalized 8-inch cake)
  • Toasting ceremony (with sparkling juice)
  • Two bottles of sparkling juice 
  • Decorated reception room 
  • Romantic first dance (Note: Italics added by blogger.)
Hmmmm ... wonder if they'd decorate a cake with an image of Cleburne. For those aiming higher, you may select the Ringgold Wedding Chapel Ceremony Doves ($75 for release of two). No word if  K-9 Tub Time --  a "place for God's creatures" and RWC's next door neighbor -- offers romantic wedding specials. 

Needless to say, my trip home wasn't completed without a hitch. All my time in Ringgold added at least an hour's travel time and guaranteed a very frosty reception -- pun intended -- in Nashville. And I simply didn't have the heart to tell Mrs. B about my visit to the New York State monument next to Ringgold's water treatment plant.

The New York State monument in Ringgold sits near the town's water treatment plant.

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


-- Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Aug. 20, 1959, April 9, 2003

Wednesday, May 05, 2021

Weirdness in Wilderness: A president, Marines and buried arm

An aerial view of Marines forming a profile on the Wilderness battlefield of President Harding.
Apparently not all of the Marines were pleased to be there, as these cropped enlargements
of the photo above show.  (Library of Congress)
Clad in white T-shirts, these Marines apparently formed President Harding's "collar."

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In late September and early October 1921, 57 years after the Confederate and U.S. armies slaughtered each other in the Wilderness, U.S. Marines held maneuvers on the old Virginia battleground. The event included what you would expect when the military stages a sham battle with  5,000 "Devil Dogs": machine guns and mortars, military airplane flyovers, anti-aircraft guns, massive searchlights, a camouflaged tank, an "attack" on a hill ... and grunts forming a silhouette of their commander in chief for a photograph near the final resting place of the arm of a revered Confederate general.

At the Marine manuevers at the Wilderness battlefield
in 1921, 
President Harding (left) visits with a
Confederate veteran. (Library of Congress)
Yes, sometimes history can get a little weird.

Exuding a "man of the people" demeanor, President Warren Harding attended the event, staying overnight with the First Lady on the battlefield in the same military encampment as the troops. The Hardings ate a breakfast of ham and eggs in the officers' mess, but they didn't exactly rough it in the wilderness -- their large tent, the "canvas White House," included three rooms, hardwood floors, electric lights, and a sunken tub with hot running water "electrically heated." (No word if there was a fully stocked bar for the president, who enjoyed whiskey, and cabaret singers recruited from Paris.) Two Black servants of Fredericksburg families tended to the Hardings' needs. 

The president chatted with the few Civil War vets who attended the event, sang hymns with the Marines, reviewed troops, somehow endured the Marine Corps Band playing "There'll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight," and enthusiastically watched the war games. "His neat, brown suit was dusty, he was ruddy faced, and down his cheeks trickled small streams of perspiration," a wire service reporter described the president's battlefield appearance. Florence Harding, who witnessed part of the battle, told the commanding general she thought there ought to be "a little more noise," but the Marines apparently were short on ammo.

The president, however, was hardly disappointed. Harding loved his Marines, and they loved their commander in chief back.

"I shall not exaggerate a single word when I tell you that from my boyhood to the present hour, I have always had a profound regard for the United States marines and I am leaving camp today with my regard strengthened and a geniune affection added," he told them in a speech.

The Marines -- who had marched to the battlefield from their base in Quantico, Va., roughly 40 miles -- cheered loudly. (Or was the roar because their feet were sore?) "The unaffected, human fashion in which [Harding] displayed interest in all the affairs of the camp bridged the gap of officialdom between the President of the United States and a buck private in the Marine Corps," the New York Times reported. "Each was well satisfied with the other."

President Harding and the First Lady pose with some of the few Civil War vets who attended.
(Library of Congress)
But back to that revered general's buried arm ... 

Near the end of their stay, the Hardings examined markers in the Lacy family graveyard behind Ellwood Manor, HQ for U.S. Army General Gouveneur Warren during the Battle of the Wilderness on May 5-7, 1864. Among them was a stone marking the burial site for the left arm of Stonewall Jackson, who lost the limb to amputation after his friendly fire wounding at Chancellorsville on May 2, 1863. Prior to the visit, Florence Harding admitted to "sort of a creepy feeling" knowing the arm was buried there. To put the cemetery "in a condition in honor of Jackson," Marines days earlier cleared weeds, added a white fence, and repaired and decorated the monument atop the general's buried arm. (Who knows if the limb is still there.)

Marker for Stonewall Jackson's amputated left arm
at the Lacy Family Cemetery, near Ellwood Manor.
Before the Hardings departed for their three-hour drive back to the White House, hundreds of Marines quickly formed the profile likeness of the president in a field near Jackson's buried arm. Roughly a dozen Devil Dogs clad in white T-shirts were the "collar" of the president's shirt, undoubtedly a plum assignment. A photographer in a high platform shot images of the stunt, which was supposed to be a surprise for the president, but word leaked. (Hey, who's that stray dude at upper left of the image?) Judging from their faces and body language (see cropped enlargements of photo above), some Marines preferred a good ass-chewing from their sergeant instead. 

Unsurprisingly, Harding was impressed with the "colossal living picture of himself."

"He was extremely interested in this accomplishment," the Times wrote, "and watched the making of the picture with close attention." 

In this cropped enlargement, we spot the "stray dude." 

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


-- Alexandria Gazette, Oct. 4, 1921.
-- New York Times, Oct. 3, 1921.
-- New York Tribune, Oct. 3, 1921.
-- The News Leader, Staunton, Va., Oct. 2, 1921.
-- The Pittsburgh Press, Oct. 2, 1921.