Friday, January 28, 2022

'Hidden' in plain site: Fort location on Franklin (Tenn.) Pike

The view looking northwest of Franklin Pike (State Route 31) from the location
 of a wartime fort. (CLICK ON ALL IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)
A view from below the fort location.
Another view from below fort location. Could these be wartime trenches? Must investigate.

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I recently explored the "hidden" location of a small Civil War fort along Franklin Pike (present-day State Route 31), a mile or so north of the square in Franklin, Tenn. The fort appears on two maps below—the first one is a cropped version of this map from the 9th Indiana Cavalry regimental history. The fort, designated by the "11," was unoccupied when the regiment fought north of Franklin on Dec. 17, 1864. On the second map, drawn by a Civil War veteran, the fort appears along the crease at the top middle. 

Thousands of U.S Army troops camped in the fields near this small fort during the war, as the second map below shows. It also shows the locations of headquarters, military and “contraband” camps and other nearby earthworks. Today those fields are occupied by houses, apartments, a park, retail, commercial … and a taco place Mrs. B is dying to visit. 

Fort Granger, a massive, earthen Union fort on the bluff above the Harpeth River, appears as that blob at the lower right of both maps. My Civil War pal Jack and I have explored the fort several times—I was even hypnotized there. It's worth your time to visit. If you really want to dig in, check out this doctoral dissertation,

Many “hidden” places like this small Franklin Pike fort remain throughout the Nashville area. So keep your eyes peeled. 😐

        GOOGLE STREET VIEW: Wartime fort location at left. Proceed south into Franklin.
Cropped enlargement of a map from 9th Indiana Cavalry regimental history shows outskirts
 of Franklin and death sites of three officers in the regiment in a battle on Dec. 17, 1864.
Map from parking lot historical marker at Fort Granger in Franklin, Tenn.
(Boyd Family Papers | Bancroft Library | University of California-Berkeley)

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Sunday, January 23, 2022

Big Johnny's burgers, the KKK and a battle at Anthony's Hill

John Nelson stands near a wartime roadbed on core Anthony's Hill battlefield,
property his family has owned since 1869. (CLICK ON ALL IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)
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A CIVIL WAR TRAVELOGUE: As I drive Mrs. B's SUV south on Columbia Pike in Franklin, co-pilot Jack—my hypnotist pal—raises a cup of joe as a salute to a "lost" wartime battlefield wall. Then, as we cruise through nearby Spring Hill, The Hypnotist wonders if the Hardee's hamburger joint was named for Confederate Lt. General William Hardee, something only Civil War nerds (or crazy people) wonder about. 

Our destination: Pulaski, Tenn., about an hour's drive on State Route 31. 

We enjoyed a visit to Lynnville's Soda Pop Junction,
home of Big Johnny's burgers.
In Lynnville, torched by Yankees during the war, I order two massive Big Johnny's burgers at the oh-so-cool Soda Pop Junction and fried pies (apple and cherry) steps away at the Lynnville Fried Pie Factory. Evidently still hungry, The Hypnotist buys another treat, a "cupcake bomb" or something, which seems ominous. 

Then we're off to Richland Creek for a visit to the little-known battlefield where General John Bell Hood's Army of Tennessee fought in the aftermath of its catastrophic, mid-December 1864 defeat at Nashville. The gallant JBH—known by some misguided historians as "Old Woodenhead," which doesn't seem flattering at all—sure mastered retreatin' back in the day.

While cars whiz past us as we stand on a bridge over Richland Creek, Jack gets nervous but somehow finds the courage to read an account of the Christmas Eve 1864 cavalry battle—a fight that involved 6,000 Yankees, 3,000 Rebels and 20 cannon.  

No historical sign marks the Richland Creek battleground, and I'm almost positive the occupants of every vehicle that passes us wonder why two old dudes are outside in the cold—it's 27 degrees!—examining a book about Old Woodenhead's retreat. (Watch video.)

Richland Creek, where the armies fought on Christmas Eve 1864.
At Richland Creek, Union cavalry advanced on this ground toward the camera position.
At the Battle of Richland Creek, Confederate placed artillery somewhere in the left distance.

As we zoom to Pulaski, birthplace of the Klan, I consume the Big Johnny's burger, worrying if the delicious 1/3-pounder with tomato and the huge onion could cause my demiseand if it does, will Jack return the vehicle to Mrs. B? (Warning to The Hypnotist: If she finds a single, solitary gum wrapper left in the car, you will experience a wrath from hell.)

The tiny Sam Davis Memorial Museum.
Naturally, before we arrive in Pulaski, we pull off to the side of the busy road to read a weathered, state historical marker about some maneuverings by John Schofield—the U.S. Army general who flummoxed Hood at Spring Hill in November 1864. This shows we are:

A.) Nuts
B.) Devoid of common sense
C.) Must get out more
D.) All of the above

Few stop at this dangerous spot since the installation of the sign in, like, 1947. (For the historical record, Mrs. B votes for "B.")

On a ridge overlooking Pulaski, within site of the fabulous Giles County Courthouse in the square, we inspect the exterior of the Sam Davis Memorial Museum on the site where the U.S. Army hanged the 21-year-old Confederate spy in 1863. It may be the smallest musuem you'll ever see. 

Now I'm not naming names, but someone in our party—perhaps miffed the little place is closed on a Saturday—calls it a "munchkin museum," a description that I don't think appears in any Giles County visitors brochures. Meanwhile, I tap into my inner Mathew Brady for a photo of a large icicle hanging from the side of the architectural wonder.

The Giles County Courthouse serves as backdrop for the Sam Davis monument in
the square in Pulaski, Tenn. (CLICK ON IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)
A statue of Sam Davis, the "Boy Hero of the Confederacy," in Pulaski's square.

A close-up of plaque on the Sam Davis monument.

The blank historical marker
on the building where
the KKK was founded
on Christmas Eve 1865.
After we park at the county courthouse, The Hypnotist marches off to check out some historical plaque, leaving me to wander about the square, where I examine the statue of spy Sam Davis—the "Boy Hero of the Confederacy.". 

Down the street, around the corner from a psychiatrist's office, stands the building where a small group of Confederate veterans founded the Klan on Christmas Eve 1865. In 1989, the bronze historical marker on its brick exterior was removed, flipped around with the words denoting its KKK association facing the building, and welded back into place. The owners of the building—an office for attorneys todaydidn't want it to become some weird place of worship for disgraceful Klan supporters.

With time to kill, we head on down the road to check out where Union scouts disguised as Confederates captured Davis while he dozed under a plum tree. You can't make this stuff up. Then we reverse course for the real reason I stole borrowed Mrs' B's vehicle. In journalism school at West Virginia University long ago, I learned this is called "burying the lede."

The view from where Forrest's artillery shelled the U.S. Army at the Battle of Anthony's Hill.
The bed of a wartime road on the Anthony's Hill battlefield.

On this deep-blue sky afternoon a few miles south of Pulaski, we meet John Nelson, the no-B.S. owner of a core section of the Anthony's Hill battlefield. After confirming our Civil War bonafides, the 83-year-old descendant of slaves shows us about his wooded, hilly property. Every time he walks the ground, owned by his family since 1869, Nelson thinks about the sacrifices his ancestors made to maintain it. Many of his kin rest in a cemetery across the road.

Using an Anthony's Hill map from Mud, Blood & Cold Steel
by Mark Zimmerman, Jack Richards and I explored 
the little-known battlefield near Pulaski, Tenn.
At Anthony's Hill on Christmas Day 1864, Nathan Bedford Forrestthe notorious slave trader and cavalry geniusambushed Union soldiers under Major General James Wilson. The weather was bleak, with rain mixed with snow, and freezing temperatures. 

Nearly continous fighting for more than a week had left both sides exhausted. Many of the Rebels went shoeless. Casualties numbered roughly 200 on both sides combined. A mortal wound took Christian Brenner, a private in the 5th Iowa Cavalry, from his wife Sarah Jane and their only child, 5-year-old Mary Charity. 

"So broken is the ground at this point, and so densely wooded, that there was no difficulty in effectually concealing troops," Confederate General Edward Wathall wrote of Anthony's Hill—one of the final fights for Hood's rearguard as his battered army lumbered toward Alabama.

Behind his house, near a coop of clucking chickens, Nelson points out ground where Forrest deployed artillery to shell the U.S. Army. To take in the magnificent view of the valley below, I crawl underneath barbed wire with the aid of another tramper. With a battlefield map in hand, Jack joins me.

Later, Nelson points out other landmarks—the wartime roadbed that slices through the heart of this hallowed ground, the site of the church used by Forrest as a hospital, the cemetery where Confederate dead from the battle rest. Instincts tell me there is a great story to tell about Nelson, Forrest and this long-forgotten battlefield.

Until then, we'll see you down the road. As always, let's keep history alive.👊👊 

Grave of a Confederate soldier who fell at Anthony's Hill.

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  • Christian Brenner pension file, National Archives and Records Service, Washington D.C. via (WC71703)
  • Zimmerman, Mark, Mud, Blood & Cold Steel: The Retreat from Nashville December 1864, Nashville: Zimco Publications LLC, 2020.

Saturday, January 22, 2022

A nerd's-eye view of obscure Richland Creek (Tenn.) battlefield

On Dec. 24, 1864 at Richland Creek, roughly eight miles north of Pulaski, Tenn., U.S. Army cavalry fought the rearguard of John Bell Hood's Army of Tennessee in the aftermath of the Battle of Nashville. Forces: 6,000 U.S. cavalry and 12 guns; 3,000 Confederate with eight guns. Visitors to battlefield besides my hypnotist pal Jack and I: 0. We were in good spirits because of stops earlier in the morning in nearby Lynnville at Soda Pop Junction for Big Johnny's burgers and then apple and cherry pies at the Lynnville Fried Pie Company. 😆

Saturday, January 15, 2022

A nerd's-eye view of obscure West Harpeth (Tenn.) battlefield

Historical sign at West Harpeth battlefield. (CLICK ON IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)

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You know you’re a Civil War nerd and perhaps in need of professional help when you ...

Defy death by walking across a bridge on super-busy State Route 31 (Columbia Pike) to stand at a creek where U.S. Army cavalry clashed with John Bell Hood’s rearguard in the obscure 
Battle of the West Harpeth on Dec. 17, 1864, in the aftermath of the Battle of Nashville. Curses to you, semi driver!

Get goosebumps when near the creek you pair a map with the site of the Rebels’ hollow square defense—a rarely used Civil War tactic.

Tennessee Virtual Archive

Pore over details of a post-war map of the battlefield made by Confederate veteran John Johnston, who served in Nathan Bedford Forrest's cavalry. The vet showed the scene of "our rally" near the creek and "my route" to the Gin House, which must have been interesting. 😛

Get giddy when you spot the possible trace of a wartime road and probable foundation of a wartime bridge across the creek—remains you had no idea existed.

Take this photo, looking north toward Franklin (roughly five miles distant), to show the advance of U.S Army cavalry (toward camera).

Stare at freshly turned earth at a construction site near the creek, hoping to spot a Minie ball or three. Then you tell a surveyor (breathlessly), “Hey, do you know a Civil War battle took place here?”

Drive through a neighborhood to get to the hill overlooking the obscure battlefield for just the right photo. Did the U.S. Army cavalry make it up here? What a view.

Let's keep history alive. 👊👊

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Tuesday, January 11, 2022

In baby steps of Abraham Lincoln in Hodgenville, Kentucky

Fifty-six steps to the top -- one for every year of Lincoln's life.
I made it to the top, slightly winded.

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On Monday morning, I visited the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln at Sinking Spring Farm in Hodgenville, Ky. No, he didn’t live in this impressive structure. (Loved the lion door handle flourishes there, by the way. 😁) But inside there’s a replica of the one-room cabin he was born in on Feb. 12, 1809. Archaeologists found nothing at this site, a National Park Service employee told me. Lincoln mentioned living on a hill above a spring, so hence the memorial was built here. I checked out the spring, too. In 1811, the Lincolns moved to nearby Knob Creek Farm—much different topography there. Enjoyed walking in the baby steps of a great American on a frosty, deep-blue sky day.

The deep-blue sky made for an excellent backdrop.
The view from the Lincoln memorial.
A replica of the cabin on the site where Lincoln was born on Feb. 12, 1809.
Don't get handsy at the replica cabin.
Lion's door handles would be nice addition to Banks Manor.
A historical marker explains Sinking Spring.
Another view of the spring.
The spring (right) is below the memorial.

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Tuesday, December 28, 2021

A storyteller returns to site of his remarkable Antietam find

Richard Clem at the O.J. Smith farm, site of a U.S. Army hospital.
Cropped enlargement of Alexander Gardner image of the O.J. Smith farm hospital in fall 1862.
(Library of Congress

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On a beautiful fall day in 1991, my friend Richard Clem—the "Babe Ruth of Storytellers"—unearthed a brass identification disc on the O.J. Smith farm, a U.S. Army hospital site in the aftermath of the Battle of Antietam. The rare find turned into an obsession for Clem, a longtime Washington County (Md.) resident who has unearthed three other soldier ID discs
Corporal William Secor,
2nd Vermont

The Smith farm disc belonged to 2nd Vermont Corporal William Secor, a color bearer and the only soldier in his regiment to die at Antietam. Dog tags weren't carried by Civil War soldiers; instead, some soldiers bought discs from sutlers on which they had their names and units stamped. No soldier wanted to be forgotten if he fell in battle or from disease. Letters, diaries, photographs and "tags" often aided burial crews in the identification of soldier remains. 

For his 2006 Washington Times story on Secor, Clem—a retired woodworker—dived into National Archives records and tracked down descendants. He discovered this condolence note sent from a 2nd Vermont officer to Secor's stepfather:

Camp near Hagerstown, Md
Sept. 28th 1862

Mr. Ketcham 
Dear Sir:

It becomes my painful duty to inform you of the death of Corporal William Secor, Co. A. Vt. Vols. He was wounded in the battle of Antietam on the 17th and died on the 18th day of September. He was buried on the Smith farm near Sharpsburg. At the time he was wounded he was carrying the Colors of his Regt. Which position he had occupied for some time.

Morning at O.J. Smith farm, site of U.S. Army hospital.
He had many friends in his Regt. I saw the Chaplain that was with him in his last hours, and he said that it might be of consolation to his friends to know that he lived with a hope in Christ and was resigned to his fate. As a soldier, there was none better. He was always ready and willing. He had some personal property by him at the time of his death, a Testament, money and a diary, besides the things he had in his knapsack. They are at your disposal.

Most Respt. E.O. Cole, 2nd Lieut.

In October 2021, Clem, John Davidson (JWD Relic Recovery on Facebook) and I returned to the site of this remarkable disc discovery. Steps from where we stood in the farm field, Alexander Gardner set up his bulky camera in fall 1862 for an image of the Smith farm hospital. When sunlight hit this field just right, Clem told me about relic hunts here, he spotted glass glittering in the field—the remains of medicine bottles from the long-ago hospital.

The front of the brass disc includes William Secor's name.
 The reverse of the ID disc.
                                2018 video: Richard Clem talks about O.J. Smith farm.

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Sunday, December 26, 2021

Hallowed ground to housing: A visit to Stones River battlefield

ABOVE: On Jan. 2, 1863, Confederates advanced under fire across this ground—today it's prepped
 for residential housing. Stan Hutson, my guide, holds maps from
Blue & Gray magazine that detail
 the action here. BELOW: A farm field, also hallowed ground, is adjacent 
to the
 nascent housing development. (CLICK ON IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)

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The National Park Service oversees roughly 700 acres at the Stones River (Tenn.) National Battlefield, a small fraction of the ground where 25,000 soldiers became casualties from Dec. 31, 1862-Jan. 2, 1863. With the blessing of local politicians, ravenous developers have carved up much of the rest. 

Real conversation this morning with an NPS employee behind the desk at the visitors' center:

Me: "Can you tell me where the 45th Mississippi fought?"

NPS employee, after a minute or two studying maps: "They were near the Baskin-Robbins, Sam's Club and Walmart."


To see the roughly 2,500 acres of battlefield beyond the national park, you need patience, a great guide, a good attitude and a world-class imagination. Maps, too. Really good ones.

Hallowed ground to housing: The site of fighting on Jan. 2, 1863, is gone for good.

On Sunday, friend Stan Hutson—whose knowledge and love for the battlefield are unrivaled—showed me a seldom-visited site where Confederate soldiers advanced under fire near Sinking Creek on Jan. 2, 1863. (You may remember Hutson from this column I wrote about the vanishing Stones River battlefield for Civil War Times magazine, this blog post on Fortress Rosecrans and this post on his remarkable finds on a soon-to-be-paved over section of the field.)

The Confederates' right advanced near Sinking Creek
on Jan. 2, 1863. Today it winds through residential
To get there, Hutson drives through a neighborhood of circa-1980s ranch houses to a construction site. Behind us this overcast morning, we spot mountains of topsoil, man-made craters, piles of rocks, huge pipes and the outlines of streets—all preparations for yet another residential housing development. In the near distance, we eye a 30-acre farm field—this oasis in the middle of suburbia is barren today, but the farmer has planted it with soybeans and other crops in the past. 
"That's as close as we'll probably get to seeing the battlefield as it looked on Jan. 2, 1863," Hutson tells me. He points out on a Blue & Gray magazine map the Confederate regiments who wheeled across this ground to attack the U.S. Army positioned behind us.

Click to enlarge Blue & Gray magazine map
  of fighting in this area.
41st Alabama, 14th Louisiana, 40th North Carolina, 20th Tennessee, the Orphan Brigade ... and more.

In this nascent development, relic hunters have uncovered evidence of the fighting—bullets (including a French pattern .69 caliber "Triangle Base" round like this), artillery shell fragments and more. I wonder what battle artifacts could be recovered in the mountains of topsoil.

In late 2020, the American Battlefield Trust saved 42 acres nearby—a site originally destined for industrial development. That ground where little to no fighting occurred could become a park. No organization or individuals stepped up to save the site of the housing development—ground where significant action occurred.

Is it too late to save the farm field? 

On Jan. 2, 1863, the Orphan Brigade advanced here and down a hill toward McFadden's Ford
— today the ground is in a residential neighborhood.   
Under a modern bridge, Stones River National Battlefield tourists can see the site of McFadden's Ford,
where the
Orphan Brigade was mauled by U.S. Army artillery. 
In the right distance,
 a modern neighborhood covers hallowed ground. 

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