Sunday, June 23, 2019

From Nutbush to state penitentiary, my Fort Pillow adventure

Nutbush, Tenn., population about 250, and birthplace of Anna Mae Bullock, aka Tina Turner!

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The scouting report on Fort Pillow from friends, acquaintances and hangers-on was not encouraging:

"Hot and humid. Go in the fall."

"Snakes, bugs and mosquitoes."

"Be wary of creepy crawlies."


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

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

In Tina Turner's birthplace, no one can take just one photo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A fall here and my girls will lose their papa!

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

View absolutely no attacker wants.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Enjoy the journey.


Until next time ...

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  1. Loved this journey of yours, and the pictures!

  2. So glad you made it safely out of the woods! Thank you for sharing another of your most interesting stories. Good job!

  3. Thanks John - always enjoy your hidden stories you are able to find and pass along.

  4. Great stories John. So much to see out there and you do a great job connecting us with the past. Sometimes these events don’t seem so long ago.

  5. Thank you for posting your adventures in the Civil War battlefields. I'm glad to see them through your eyes/camera. Thank you for bringing history to life.

  6. As a native Tennessean, I'm enjoying your journey to through these sad reminders of our past. We should all understand the history, not just the details of he battles, but how we got there and where we've been since.

  7. On my Bucket List....well done!

  8. Wonderful work presenting this very important history of our country and the African American challenge in the building of America.