Tuesday, August 22, 2023

At this Tennessee museum, there's a whole lotta shakin' goin' on

Your blogger at  the Museum of Salt & Pepper Shakers in Gatlinburg, Tenn. 

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Civil War adventurer confession: On Sunday, I failed in my third and final attempt to find the grave of Dolly Parton’s great great grandfather, who served as a private in the 9th Tennessee Cavalry (U.S.). During family vacations, I often snooker/hoodwink/cajole/browbeat Mrs. B into squeezing in Civil War-related side trips such as my lame cemetery sojourn. Now this irritates her to no end, but I’m a firm believer it builds a strong marriage.

On Monday, while Mrs. B paid for our pancake breakfast here in “The Pancake Capital of The Known Universe,” I wandered up the hill for an oh-so-brief visit to the Museum Of Salt & Pepper Shakers. I knew of no Civil War connection, but the endorsements taped to the museum windows sucked me in for a three-minute stay: “This place was spicy!”

“You really cheered us up after a lousy vacation.”

“We’re young people and we actually enjoyed this visit.”

Shakers of all shapes and sizes fill the shelves
 of this odd museum.
“Explore the unique, amazing and unusual world of shakers. From Kennedy sitting in his rocking chair to shakers made of volcanic ash! You never will look at salt and pepper shakers the same.”

Admission is three bucks, which is a heckuva lot cheaper than a visit to attractions in nearby Pigeon Forge, including the upside down houseHappy Hippie and the Try My Nuts store.

Clearly, I wasn’t prepared for the awesomeness of the S&P museum. My gawd, the things are everywhere!

So I asked the bearded dude behind the counter, “How many salt and pepper shakers do you have in here?”

“More than 20,000 pairs,” he said gleefully.

Of course, the journalist in me wondered who counted them.

Anywho, the owner of the museum was on vacation, so I didn’t have a chance to, ah, pepper her with questions. (I secretly hope she was scoring a George McClellan-Abraham Lincoln salt-and-pepper shaker pairing somewhere.)

By the way, “Bearded Dude” said the owner has another, similar museum in Spain.

Let’s keep history — and salt and pepper shakers — alive. 👊

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Meet the man who designed the boots cover for 'Road Trip'

Jeff Griffith (left) designed the boots cover for my latest book. 

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At a bar yards from calm waters of  Lake Minnetonka in Minnesota over the weekend, I finally met in-person Jeff Griffith, the designer who crafted the cover for my latest book, A Civil War Road Trip Of A Lifetime. In this post, Jeff explains his creative process. (In January, we shared cover concepts with readers of my Civil War Facebook page. Those concepts are shown below.)

I met John online years ago via his historical Facebook posts and blog. Because I’m a huge history buff and creative director of Hallowed Ground magazine for the American Battlefield Trust, I was constantly reading his posts and discovering historic sites I knew little about. I became a John Banks groupie. 

E-mail me at jbankstx@comcast.net
for details on how to purchase
an autographed copy of my book.
Awhile ago, he posted his plans to publish a book soon about his travels. Spontaneously (with a WTH approach), I DM-ed him: “Let me know if you need help designing the cover.” Go figure! He actually took me up on the offer.

I’m very collaborative. I like to know everything I can about the authors and their vision of the book as well as their concept for the book cover. I’m not asking those things to perfectly execute their idea, but to know in advance their expectations.

I also only design for authors whose work I appreciate and respect. Nothing good will come out of a design if I hate their writing or photography or topic overall.

Analysis of the topic category and genre is key. What do other books look like? What fonts are they using? What's expected and not expected? I’m a typography freak. So I try really hard to use fonts that aren’t on every book cover in that genre.

But if I really work with the author or photographer or illustrator, the design will be a success for all involved. It becomes a melding of the minds, not a conflict of ideas.

I'm also going to present cover/book designs that aren't predictable. Sure, it's easy to show an author exactly what they’ve asked for, but how interesting is that?

In this situation, John thought he knew what he wanted on the cover. I showed him a fancy version of that. Then I showed him the boots concept. He asked for tweaks on the cover he envisioned. So I made those changes and then showed him the boots again. After several back-and-forths and numerous phone conversations, texts and emails, we — along with publisher Kevin Drake of Gettysburg Publishing — decided that the boots cover was a great direction for the book.

I'm an advertising and marketing guy. I've spent several decades in the advertising and publishing world. So when I design, I think about the messaging and how it will be promoted. To me, a book cover should look amazing as a poster. It should have a look and feel that translates throughout the entire book itself and have design elements that can be used in all the promotion. Hence there are mud splatters throughout this book.

Cover concepts shared with readers of my Facebook page in January 2023.

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

In the footsteps of her ancestor in the 40-Acre Cornfield

Laurie Buckler Mack in the 40-Acre Cornfield with an image of her ancestor, an officer
 in the 16th Connecticut. The monument to the regiment  appears in the background.

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I first met Laurie Buckler Mack over breakfast at Bonnie’s At The Red Byrd in Keedysville, Md., where I once dined with a man who billed himself as an ex-CIA agent. Alas, he didn't reveal any government secrets. Minutes into our meal, however, Mack spilled hers.

“After college, I followed The Grateful Dead around for a year," she said, "but I hope my mother doesn’t find out,” she said. We hit it off right then and there.

Mack holds an image of her great great great
 grandfather, William Horton, who was
 mortally wounded in the
  40-Acre Cornfield at Antietam.
Later that day, we walked in the 40-Acre Cornfield at Antietam in the footsteps of her great great great grandfather, Lt. William Horton of the 16th Connecticut. He was mortally wounded there on Sept. 17, 1862. His story — and Mack's — is told in my recently released book, A Civil War Road Trip Of A Lifetime (Gettysburg Publishing). 

Mack recently answered these questions about her ancestor and Antietam. 

What was it like to walk in the 40-Acre Cornfield for the first time? 

Surreal. I was trying to find the monument for the 16th Connecticut, and in the usual fashion, I went the long way around. My father always told me the members of the 16th were not soldiers. They were bankers and factory workers and men with jobs and probably not in good physical shape. It is quite hilly and it was blazing hot the day I went. I couldn't imagine how uncomfortable it was for a bunch of Yankees carrying their heavy packs and wearing their heavy uniforms in the Maryland heat and humidity.

I also felt a profound sense of sadness that so many men died so far away from their homes and families in Connecticut. There were a couple of scientists doing some research at the monarch waystation below the 16th Connecticut monument and that really gave me a sense of joy and peace. I have been back to the 40-Acre Cornfield several times since and I still feel the same sense of sadness for all the men who perished on Sept. 17, 1862.

If you could ask William Horton one question, what would it be? 

Why did you re-enlist and continue fighting? He had already done a stint with the 11th Connecticut and had resigned, as I am sure many soldiers did. Was it because he was being accused of cowardice or did he feel a deeper sense of duty? His ancestors had all fought in wars, including the Revolutionary War, and his father, Simeon Horton, had fought in the War of 1812. William had a job in a mill, so I don't think it was a financial motivation. I would like to think life would have been much better for his wife Laura and children Estella, Hattie and James had he lived.

How would you like your ancestor to be remembered?

As a father and family man as well as a brave man who gave his life for a cause he believed in. So many lives were lost during the American Civil War and so many fathers, sons, husbands and brothers never returned home to their families. Many families never found out what happened to their loved one. It amazes me that we have a written account of William's death, burial at Antietam, return home and sermon from his well-attended funeral in Stafford Springs, Conn. I am so grateful for the authors who have written about the 16th Connecticut and brought the soldiers to life.

Email me at jbankstx@comcast.net for details about how to get an autographed copy of A Civil War Road Trip Of A Lifetime.

The 16th Connecticut monument in the 40-Acre Cornfield.

Monday, July 17, 2023

A brief Civil War adventure in Old Johnsonville with Mrs. B

A rare selfie with Mrs. B at a Civil War site.

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On Sunday afternoon, following a short-but-interesting visit to the Patsy Cline plane crash site, I hoodwinked Mrs. B into a trip to Johnsonsville (Tenn.) State Historic Park. On Nov. 4-5, 1864, Nathan Bedford Forrest — “The Wizard of the Saddle” — opened up with his cannons from the opposite side of the Tennessee River on the U.S. Army depot in Johnsonville, leading to the destruction of hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of supplies.

Nathan Bedford Forrest
U.S. Army soldiers, fearing the Rebs would cross the river and capture supplies, transport boats, steamboats and the like, set fire to most of the goods. What an inferno that must have been.

Bring your imagination to Old Johnsonville: When the Tennessee Valley Authority dammed the Tennessee River in the 1940s, creating vast Kentucky Lake, the place disappeared for good.

While Mrs. B sat in the air-conditioned comfort of our car, I explored the grounds, inspected replica soldier quarters, read every historical marker in sight, wondered what the two dudes by the lake were catching and tried to envision where “The Wizard” placed his guns. (Now under water, I’m told.) 

Energized, I somehow coaxed Mrs. B from the car for a selfie by a cannon. We were about the only people in the park on this steamy day, so naturally both of us had dark thoughts. (We watch too many “Datelines.”)

The pièce de résistance of my self-guided tour was a stop at the Upper Redoubt, a fort constructed after the battle by the 12th and 13th U.S. Colored Troops.

You’re going to go up there?” Mrs. B said somewhat incredulously while staring at a steep hillside.

Just say no to relic hunting here.
OMG! We’ve been married for 31 years! Don’t you know that, of course, I’m going to go “up there”?

As excited as a puppy with a chew toy, I walked the grounds of the fort.

“I’m not going there,” Mrs. B said later. “Could be bugs and poison Ivy.”


The stay at Johnsonville State Historic Park culminated with a brief visit with a friendly docent at the visitors’ center. After I told him about Mrs. B relaxing in the air-conditioned comfort of our car a mere 15 yards away, he suggested she come inside and watch the Johnsonville movie. I didn’t think that was a good idea.

My stay ended there following a discussion about Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Let’s keep history alive.

  • For many more stories like this, consider purchasing my recently released book, A Civil War Road Trip Of Lifetime. Email me at jbankstx@comcast.net for details about how to get an autographed copy.

Above and below: Impressive earthworks at the Upper Redoubt.

Monday, July 10, 2023

About my book, 'Power Trips' and 'witness tree' hunks

Enjoying a scotch on Dirk Warner's farm — the heart of the Cumberland Church (Va.) battlefield.

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History With Waffles, who you can follow on Twitter @CwNewbie11, recently posed questions to me about my recently released book, A Civil War Road Trip Of A Lifetime, and other topics. Here are my responses.  

Email me for details
about an autographed copy.
Many people take journeys to these locations and simply enjoy the experience. What sparked you to decide to write a collective work on the experiences? 

Firstly, History With Waffles, thanks for doing this. I enjoy your work keeping history alive.

Now about my book, well, I had the idea in the deep recesses of my brain for years. I hit the road frequently for what I call my "Civil War Power Trips." I'd throw bags of red licorice, bottled iced tea, and sandwiches into the car and just go — Virginia, Mississippi, West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, you name it. Mrs. B — Carol Banks, my lovely and humorous wife — encouraged me to hit the road often. (Should that make me worry?) I also have a knack for tacking on Civil War stops to family vacations. 

On almost every trip, I'd meet these delightful characters who were eager to share their stories. I enjoy schmoozing with people about the Civil War. Once you show you are knowledgeable about the topic, people tend to open up and spill stories.

Lester "Sonny" Mason, the "poor man who lives like a king."

One of those delightful characters was the impish Lester “Sonny” Mason, a late-70ish man who told me: “I'm one of kind. When they made me, they throws away the mold." A sign on his nondescript building along State Rt. 65 in Sharpsburg, Md., read: “The Battle of Antietam in Miniature.” I’ve visited Antietam scores of times but had never stopped at the place. Well, I finally did. Sonny, a hoot, lives there. He told me how he created his battlefield diorama in the basement.

For about $2.50 apiece, he purchased thousands of tiny lead-pewter soldiers, hand-painting them in blue and gray "day and night" with the aid of friends. He built a miniature Burnside Bridge, the iconic battlefield landmark, as well houses and churches for the village of Sharpsburg and barns for the well-known farms outside town. He created terrain to mirror the rolling hills of the real battlefield. He even added painted pools of red blood by dead and wounded soldiers. Sonny invested about $50K into the project.

What passion. 

For years, I’ve written a column called “Rambling” for Civil War Times magazine. Plus, I post frequently to my Civil War Facebook page and Civil War blog. I greatly admired Tony Horwitz, who wrote the epic Confederates In The Attic. What a fabulous storyteller. And such a funny guy. I still mourn his passing in 2019. 

So, the book seemed like a natural extension of all I had done.

How did you get to where you are today and how has history, specifically the Civil War, been a part of your life’s journey? 

Long, long ago, I majored in journalism at West Virginia University and minored in history, beer and fun. My first newspaper gig was at the Martinsburg (W.Va.) Evening Journal, a short drive to the Antietam battlefield. I got to know Paul Culler, who had farmed for decades the Miller Cornfield —epicenter of the battle. Of course, it’s part of the national military park today. The stories Paul told – oh my, he hooked me.

From Martinsburg, my professional career took me to the Baltimore News American, Dallas Morning News, ESPN and elsewhere. But I always had Civil War on the brain.

In our garage, hunks of battlefield “witness tree” wood rest next to the car only because Mrs. B won’t let me display them in our house. In my mind, family birthdays and my own wedding anniversary get equal play with battle anniversaries. Mrs. B’s birthday is Oct. 19—the day of the Battle of Cedar Creek.

I’m weird. 

The 40-Acre Cornfield at Antietam.

If you could stand on a field in a moment in time during the Civil War and observe that moment in real life, when and where would you be? Why? 

40-Acre Cornfield at Antietam on the afternoon of Sept. 17, 1862, as A.P. Hill’s veterans slammed into the 16th Connecticut – a rookie regiment in its first battle of the war. They didn’t know much about military maneuvers or anything else about fighting. In the cornfield, a desperate 16th Connecticut officer shouted to his colonel: “Tell us what you want us to do, and we’ll try to obey you!” Dozens of them fell in that hilly cornfield that afternoon.

When we lived in Connecticut, I got to know them. I visited their markers in cemeteries throughout the state. Some for those who fell in battle are empty. Who knows where they are buried? They’re my guys. What a tragic story.

Attorney Jerry Potter, one of the country's foremost experts on the Sultana tragedy.

During your journeys you traveled many miles to many different locations. What stood out to you the most about the people you met along the way?

For the people who are really into the Civil War, it’s their single-minded focus. Most have what I call the "1,000-yard Civil War stare." These folks are just so homed in on the Civil War that it’s, well, endearing almost. They can rattle off facts and figures from the Official Records like some do baseball stats.

Some are so joyful to find a like-minded person that they really open up to you. In my book, I write about Jerry Potter, who knows more about the Sultana disaster than almost anyone. After my two-day visit with him, we hugged in a hotel parking lot in Marion, Ark. I got a kick out of that.

If you weren’t a writer what would your profession be?

Well, I have mostly been an editor during my journalism career. I didn’t find my voice as a writer until the past five or six years. If I weren’t a journalist, I’d like to be a train-riding hobo — just traveling about the country, meeting people, telling their stories, throwing down craft beers in dive bars and eating where the locals eat. I think it could be great fun, but I'd have to run it past Mrs. B first, though.

Finally, for the generations that read this book in the future, what do you hope they take away from this?

History is not boring. It’s not just a set of facts and dates. And it’s OK to laugh about history, too. I try to find humor in it, when appropriate, of course. 

Authoring this book was my passion. Find yours. If you’re passionate about jumping out of an airplane, do it.

With a parachute, of course.

Thursday, June 01, 2023

Finding treasure in the Shiloh battlefield parking lot

Barbie and Ken Varner pose with their treasure.

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After stuffing ourselves at Hagy’s Catfish Hotel Restaurant, frog leg connoisseur Jack Richards and I made our way back to the Shiloh National Military Park. Moments after parking, I happened upon an incredible scene: a Civil War-themed motorcycle and trailer emblazoned with illustrations of battle scenes and other important events. I hadn’t seen anything this ridiculously cool since I met a dude years ago who re-created the Battle of Antietam in miniature in his basement in Sharpsburg, Md.

Helmets for Ken and Barbie Varner.
Naturally, I vowed to hunt down the motorcycle owner. Then I mentally prepared myself for asking Mrs. B if we could add one of these things to our 2023-24 fiscal year budget.

After watching the excellent Battle of Shiloh movie in the visitors center, I cornered the owners of the motorcycle in the parking lot and peppered them with questions while others ogled their treasure. 

And the owners are…

Ken and Barbie Varner of McKenzie, Tenn. Seriously! I’ve never met ANYONE named Varner in my whole, entire life! 😁

“This is incredible,” I told Ken, a 65-year-old trucker. “How much did you pay for this?”

“Thirty thousand.”

I started to get nervous. No way Mrs. B will rubber stamp $30,000 for a motorcycle.

My favorite details on the bike.
The bearded illustrator put himself in the Civil War-themed paint job.

Anywho, the Varners purchased the motorcycle — an 1800CC, 2008 Honda Gold Wing — and trailer in 2021 from a history teacher from Pittsburgh, my hometown. That man had a talented illustrator create the Civil War scenes on the magnificent machine. The motorcycle has other excellent, Civil War-related touches, including Lincoln, Lee and Grant etched into the windshield.

Lee's surrender on the motorcycle trailer
“It was after midnight and I was winding down from a day at work,” Ken told me about the blessed day he first laid eyes on the work of art. “I went online and the thing jumped off the screen.”

Moments later, he rushed to see Barbie, who was sleeping.

“You gotta see what I found!”

The next day, Ken—who had always wanted a Civil War-themed motorcycle—closed the deal.

“I never dreamed of having one like this, though,” he said.

Well, I’ve never dreamed of waking Mrs. B after midnight.

Memorial Day happened to be the first day the Varners took the motorcycle out for a spin this year.

“When I pulled into the parking lot, I had goosebumps on my arm,” Ken told me about the visit to Shiloh, the couple’s first to the Tennessee battlefield. What a great day. What an adventure.

Oh, Mrs. B … 😁

Hey, Mrs. B, it's time we get one of these rides.

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

Sunday, April 16, 2023

A lesson on paying it forward

Journalist Bob Smizik made an impression on me long ago.

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Decades ago, a naive kid from suburban Pittsburgh wrote notes in wonderful, cursive writing to three local sports personalities.

“What do I need to do to become a journalist?” he asked.

Then he waited.

And waited.

Only one of the local sports personalities replied: Bob Smizik of the Pittsburgh Press.

In a note dashed off on a real, honest-to-gawd typewriter, Smizik offered kernels of wisdom and apologized for the typos. The naive kid never forgot his kindness. His mom didn’t either.

When she spotted the bushy-haired Smizik in a grocery store more than a decade later, she thanked him and bragged about her son. Mom stuff, you know.

Nearly 50 years later, the naive teen -— a veteran journalist, full-time schmoozer and wiseacre -- relayed the story to a new friend, who told Smizik. The story touched the old sportswriter all these years later.

The new friend provided that “veteran journalist” with Smizik’s contact info. The two recently connected and laughed about the long-ago note.

“I want you to know,” the once-naive kid said, “how deeply meaningful it was to get that note from you. I’ll never forget that.”

Smizik didn’t remember the sweet, little lady who approached him in the grocery store, but his wife did. That sweet, little lady was my mom, Peggy Banks. The naive kid, well, that was me.

The lessons: Never forget the impact you have on others. A simple kindness goes a long way. And always pay it forward. ❤️

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

Saturday, March 18, 2023

Where is General John Bell Hood's amputated right leg?

Get me the re-write desk!

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Those who do Civil War ponder all sorts of nitty-gritty issues.

John Bell Hood
What kind of ammo did John Buford’s boys use at Gettysburg? When did such-and-such regiment right oblique at 2:15 p.m. at such-and-such battle? How did they make hard tack? Do they serve hamburger at General Pickett’s Buffet?

At Tunnel Hill, Ga., recently, I mulled the whereabouts of John Bell Hood’s leg.

At Gettysburg on July 2, 1863, the Confederate general lost the use of his left arm to U.S. Army artillery. On Sept. 20, 1863, at the Battle of Chickamauga (Ga.), he suffered a wound in his right leg, near the hip.

A surgeon amputated the leg, which may have made its way with Hood—a tough man—to a house in the area. The general also spent time in Rev. Clisby Austin’s house at Tunnel Hill, Ga. In spring 1864, Austin’s house served as an HQ for William Sherman.

Somewhere nearby, Hood’s leg is said to be buried, but that’s open to debate. At the edge of a stretch of woods, a marker stands for the lost limb. It makes copy editors throughout the world frown.

Historical marker at Chickamauga (Ga.) points the way.
The general area where John Bell Hood took a bullet in the right leg at Chickamauga.

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Monday, March 13, 2023

Exploring my 'Tunnel of Love' on a Georgia adventure

The light is thataway. 

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Nearly drained of all life after a long bike ride at Chickamauga battlefield and a short hike at the excellent Rocky Face Ridge Park, I ventured to Tunnel Hill, Ga., to explore the old railroad tunnel made famous by Andrews Raiders on April 12, 1862, and by Fess Parker in the epic 1956 movie, “The Great Locomotive Chase.”

My main aim, of course, was to answer the age-old question: "Is there light at the end of the tunnel?"

The epic tunnel was completed in 1850.
For 10 bucks, you can take a self-guided of the Western & Atlantic railroad tunnel, an engineering marvel completed in 1850. As one walks through the darkened, nearly 500-yard tunnel, beams of light shine on interpretive markers while trickles of water drip from the walls and ceiling.

It’s a little creepy, and naturally once I found out that PARANORMAL ACTIVITY is known to occur in the tunnel, my mind started to play tricks on me. The fact that I was alone and the very last, paying customer of the day probably had something to do with it.

After discovering actual light at the end of the tunnel, I retraced my steps. Along the way, I shot several shadow images in the photographer’s delight. I love this historical treasure!

Back in the light of day, I spotted the cheery museum docent in a golf cart heading my way. She was about to lock the gates and close the tunnel for the day. Overly excited, I peppered her with inane questions about PARANORMAL ACTIVITY in the tunnel and stared at her cool/distracting sunglasses with the heart-shaped lenses. The docent confirmed the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, but I suspect she was humoring me.

In the mid-1970s, long before the restoration of the tunnel, a reader on my Civil War Facebook page hunted dove in the fields next to the tracks at the tunnel. On several occasions, he explored the old tunnel, then blocked with mud several feet deep at both entrances.

"But the worst part was it was pitch black and every critter known to man lived in there," he wrote. "But we went anyway. It was a test of youthful bravado."

Too bad I wasn't around for those visits.

While pulling out of the parking lot, bound for home and the loving arms of Mrs. B in Nashville, I spotted her again.

“Hey, what’s the deal with General Hood’s amputated leg?” I shouted like a professional reporter. “Is it buried out here?”

I probably shouldn’t be released into the “Civil War wild.”

Let there be light! Andrews Raiders passes through this tunnel in 1862.
I explored the length of the tunnel and examined its brickwork.

Visitors to the tunnel trigger beams of light, which allow for interesting photography.

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

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

It took four of us to eat this epic Sultana burger in Arkansas

Four of us consumed the Sultana burger at the Shake Shack in Marion, Ark.

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So my monthslong obsession with the Sultana burger at Tacker’s Shake Shack in Marion, Ark., culminated with the actual purchase and consumption of the massive meal on Saturday afternoon.

From left: Mrs B, her sister Joan and
 husband Nels Jensen and your hamburger
 correspondent. We are not
 professional eaters.
The Sultana burger — “top heavy like the real Sultana,” according to Shake Shack proprietor Loretta Tacker — consists of four large patties, hash browns, overeasy egg, cheese, bacon, chile, bun and gawd-knows-what else. Price: 30 bucks. Consume one in 30 minutes or less and you get it gratis. (Loretta’s grandson, the chef, created it.)

It took four of us — Mrs. B, her sister and my brother-in-law and your hamburger correspondent — to polish off this monster. I also consumed a large, thick chocolate shake, which must mean my life expentancy is about a week.

But seriously ...

In the dead of night on April 27, 1865, the real Sultana — carrying 2,300 passengers, mostly former U.S. Army POWs, horses, 100 hogs and one pet alligator — exploded on the Missisissippi River, near Marion and a few miles north of Memphis. It was meant to transport roughly 400. 

More than 1,200 died in the worst disaster in U.S maritime history

For more on the Sultana, read my book, A Civil War Road Trip Of A Lifetime. E-mail me at jbankstx@comcast.net for details on how to get an autographed copy.

Tacker’s Shake Shack owner Loretta Tacker and your hamburger correspondent.
This professional eater — aka Da Garbage Disposal—consumed TWO Sultana burgers
in less than 30 minutes.

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Saturday, January 28, 2023

An ancient graveyard in Tennessee at the base of Ginger Hill

The grave of Amy Campbell near Columbia, Tenn.

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After our exploration of slave cabins, farmer Campbell Ridley drives us in his pickup truck roughly a mile to a clearing and then parks. To our left are woods and remains of an old pond. To our right, at the base of a low hill, are another stretch of woods near a creek.

Campbell Ridley, a direct descendant of
 Confederate Brigadier General Gideon Pillow,
stands in a remote cemetery in the woods.

“Used to play out here when I was a kid,” says Ridley, the 80-year-old direct descendant of Confederate Brigadier General Gideon Pillow.

We walk a path a short distance into the woods. A carpet of brown leaves and twigs crunches beneath our feet. Then we find what we came for. Scattered in woods are gravestones and footstones in a remote, unmarked cemetery.

Graves of the enslaved, formerly enslaved and their kin, we believe.

“Amy Campbell. Wife of Ben Polk,” reads the inscription on a marker, tilted toward a deep-blue sky. “Died Oct. 24, 1862. An affectionate husband is left to mourn.” “B.W.L.,” reads the inscription on another stone. It lay flat in the Middle Tennessee earth.

Ragged footstones — or are they ancient headstones? — peek from a covering of leaves. The ground has subsided in places, perhaps the signs of old burials. After a short visit, we depart. Our destination is an impressive, brick plantation house nearby.

“They used to call the hill back there Ginger Hill,” Ridley tells us.

We all wonder about the forgotten place we leave behind.

Who else lies buried in the woods near the base of Ginger Hill?

To be continued.

Gravestone of Daniel Webb, aged 15.
Campbell Ridley in the graveyard near the base of Ginger Hill.
The gravestone of Willie Pillow, who died in 1887, a little more than a year old.
A gravestone inscribed with "B.D.L."
A close-up of Amy Campbell's grave.

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

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Exploring slave cabins with a descendant of a slave owner

A slave cabin — one of four — on the old plantation of Confederate General Gideon Pillow
 in Maury County, Tennessee. (CLICK ON IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)

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We focus the narrow beams of light from our flashlights on the walls of the abandoned cabin, hoping to find a date on newspapers used as insulation by its long-ago occupants.

Bathed in red light, my friend Campbell Ridley —
a direct descendant of Confederate Brigadier General
Gideon Pillow — sits in an abandoned
slave cabin on his property.
The light reveals a photo of a dour baseball player and partial headlines. “Johnstown police battle strikers,” reads one. “Pirates win fifth straight,” reads another. “Look here,” I tell my fellow explorers, “there’s a date: June 18, 1937.”

But this decrepit cabin — one of four standing near the east fork of Greenlick Creek in Maury County, Tennessee — far pre-dates the 20th century.

Before the Civil War, slaves of Gideon Pillow occupied these log structures. In nearby fields, they toiled for the wealthy politician, lawyer, and speculator. Clifton Place, Pillow’s magnificent mansion, stands unoccupied nearby on a hill astride Mount Pleasant Pike. During the war, the slave owner served, inauspiciously, as a brigadier general in the Confederate Army.

Long-ago occupants pasted newspapers on
the walls as insulation.
We’re here on this brisk Saturday morning at the invitation of direct Pillow descendant Campbell Ridley, a farmer whose family has lived in the area for seven generations. 

Months ago, 80-year-old Ridley had trees and brush cleared from around three of the cabins on his property. The interiors were cleared of trash and made more safe. 

After the war, sharecroppers occupied the structures on the ground Ridley calls “The Quarters.” Their last occupants left in the 1990s. Our focus is on those who first lived here. We have many questions.

Who were they and what lives did they lead?

How did Pillow treat them?

What became of his slaves?

And, perhaps most importantly, can these remarkable time capsules be preserved and interpreted for future generations?

Let’s keep history alive. 👊

The brick fireplace to a slave cabin
The exterior of a slave cabin near Columbia, Tenn.
We explored three of the four remaining slave cabins.
A fragment remains from The New York Times on a ceiling in the cabin. The newspaper
was used as insulation. 
Jack Richards examines the fragments of newspaper clippings on a cabin wall.
Newspaper clippings -- some ancient, others not -- on a cabin wall.
Newspaper clippings, apparently World War II era, are pastered to a wall.
A view of the interior through a broken window on a front door.
A fireplace in the interior of a slave cabin.
The remains of an outhouse behind a slave cabin. It's not wartime.

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