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.

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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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Thursday, January 12, 2023

My visit to a 'hole'-ly house at Sailor's Creek (Va.) battlefield

Jimmy Garnett at his historic house at the Sailor's Creek (Va.) battlefield.

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Meet 72-year-old Jimmy Garnett: cattle/chicken farmer; proud owner of a flip phone; storyteller; and man with his feet firmly planted in Virginia. He has only flown twice in a plane and rarely leaves the state. Says last movie he saw was “Smokey and The Bandit,” which came out in 1977. By my West Virginia University math that’s … ahh … a whole lotta years ago. Owns 4,000 acres, which includes a huge swath of the Sailor’s Creek battlefield, site of a massive Army of Northern Virginia defeat on April 6, 1865.

Battle evidence
What I find most interesting about Jimmy — well, besides his wry sense of humor — is that he lives in a house with 52 bullet holes from the battle. Now I didn’t count them all, but judging from a cursory inspection, that figure seems accurate. Garnett has owned the Lockett house since 1973, lived in it since 2009. Been in the family forever.

Inside the house, where wounded soldiers from both armies received treatment, Garnett shows me where blood once stained the floor in the front entryway. Sanding removed those stains, said to be mixed Yankee and Rebel blood. In another first-floor room, Garnett says, the original floor beneath a newer floor remains bloodstained.

In a limber chest from the battle in the living room, Garnett’s great uncle stored Civil War swords. Gave ‘em out to family members.

”So, how does it feel to own such a historic house?” I ask Garnett.

”Well, it’s paid for.”

I know the man for only five minutes and already like him.

Garnett at the strangely worded monument in his
front yard. Thanks, UDC. Click on image to enlarge.

Outside I inspect some of the bullet holes. “Someone asked me if that was the original siding on the house,” he tells me. “I said, ‘No, I drilled those bullet holes in there myself.’ “

Love the man.

Before park ranger Joshua Lindamood and I depart, we examine the strange wording on the United Daughters of the Confederacy monument in Garnett’s front yard. It was dedicated in 1928. “Here Lee fought his last battle. April 6, 1865,” it reads. “Ewell almost won a great victory but was overwhelmed by Sheridan.”


Until next time, Jimmy.

For more stories like this, read my book, “A Civil War Road Trip Of A Lifetime,” coming in late spring. 🙏

A spectacular view of the battlefield.

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Sunday, January 01, 2023

'I think we're on the wrong knob': A Tennessee adventure

From left: Civil War adventurers Taylor Agan, Jack Richards and John Banks.
A cropped enlargement of a wartime map shows Roper's Knob, the "fake" knob, the location
of U.S. Army troops and more. (Boyd Family Papers | Bancroft Library
| University of California-Berkeley)

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It’s only Day 1 of a new year, but my psyche has already suffered severe—and perhaps irreparable—damage.

Days ago, my Civil War adventurer pal Jack—who once hypnotized me at Fort Granger early one morning—suggested we climb Roper’s Knob, site of a U.S. Army signal station and blockhouse north of Franklin, Tenn.

Beer can, probably post-war.
“Heck, yes,” I said. “Let’s do it.”

I had hoped to bring Mrs. B, but she nixed that idea during a conversation remarkable for its brevity.

“Do you want to go to Roper’s Knob on New Year’s morning?”

“No.” So Jack invited our young friend Taylor, who has, like, 250 direct Civil War ancestors.

After a great breakfast—Taylor paid, so it tasted much better than a regular breakfast—we assaulted “Roper’s Knob,” passing old lawn chairs, climbing over an ancient farm wall, eluding barbed wire and plowing through nasty Osage branches.

After our arrival at the summit of “Roper’s Knob,” two members of our party came to a sad realization: “I think we're on the wrong knob.”

The real Roper’s Knob—much higher and steeper than the “fake” one—appeared in the near distance.

So we climbed the real Roper’s Knob—my ACLs shall weep for days—and discovered remains of a parapet, the possible remains of a cistern, one Budweiser beer can and a steel cable for who-knows-what.

In 1863, 50-some U.S. Army soldiers manned the blockhouse at the summit. In all, roughly 325 Union soldiers served up on the knob. What an adventure.


For more stories like this, read my book, A Civil War Road Trip Of A Lifetime, coming late-spring 2023. 🙏 Let’s keep history alive. 👊

Remains of a parapet at the summit.
Jack Richards and Taylor Again hold a steel cable discovered the the summit.
A close-up of the cable, perhaps used for logging.
The descent. Gulp.

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Saturday, December 10, 2022

How obsessed dude earned MOH in obscure Tennessee battle

Modern bridge at Richland Creek on John Bell Hood's December 1864 retreat route.

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Unlike hallowed ground on the Army of Tennessee's retreat route near Franklin, Tenn., little has changed since the war at battlegrounds south of Columbia. No historical plaque marks the Richland Creek battlefield, all privately owned. This wasn’t an epic battle, after all. 

On Dec. 24, 1864, roughly 6,000 Yankees fought 3,000 ragged Rebels. But it was a brutal, and often hand-to-hand, fight near the Pulaski Pike. Eager to bag Hood’s army, the U.S. cavalry pressed hard. 

Richland Creek battle map from Mark Zimmerman's excellent 
Mud, Blood & Cold Steel: The Retreat from Nashville December 1864
“Those fellas,” Rebel cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest said of the Yankees, “are wrathy today.” 

On a ridge near Richland Creek, near where I parked, Confederates placed two cannons — they called ‘em “Bull Pups” — to stem the blue tide. Behind my friend Jack and I stretches flat, open ground that meets another ridge about a half mile distant. The creek is roughly 15 yards wide.

Underneath the modern bridge, we find no evidence of its wartime cousin or any other evidence of 1864 nearby. On a walk across it, Jack reads aloud an account of the battle from a book while I look over his shoulder. Passersby speeding on modern Route 31 must wonder: Why are those old dudes reading a book on a bridge in 27-degree weather? 

At Richland Creek, an artillery shell burst cost Gen. Tyree Bell, one of Forrest’s top lieutenants, his right eye. He refused to relinquish his command until “The Wizard” ordered him to retire. 

Bell was one tough SOB. At Shiloh more than two years earlier, he had suffered three broken ribs and three horses killed under him.

Somewhere out here Harrison Collins of the 1st Tennessee Cavalry (U.S.) earned a Medal of Honor by capturing a flag, the object of his strange obsession for weeks. 

Left: Nathan Bedford Forrest called the pursuing 
U.S. cavalry "wrathy." Confederate Gen. Tyree Bell
lost his right eye at Richland Creek.
As the Union Army fell back toward Nashville in the aftermath of the Battle of Franklin, the 28-year-old corporal had spotted the enemy flag everywhere, like that helicopter in a scene with Ray Liotta’s Mafia character in Goodfellas.

“I shot at it every time I got a chance, sometimes under embarrassing circumstances,” Collins said. “It got to be so provoking that I made up my mind if we ever got a chance, I’d pay those rebels for flaunting that there flag in our faces.”

Near Richland Creek, where the Rebels made a stand, Collins spotted the flag again and saw an opportunity for glory. No matter the circumstances, capturing an enemy’s flag merited acclaim, sometimes even a Congressional Medal of Honor. 

As the Union cavalry charged, a Rebel officer ordered his men to dismount and fight on foot.

“Our party halted here, but I forgot everything but the prize, and riding through the dismounted enemy, overtook the color-bearer and demanded the flag,” Collins said. “He threw it on the ground. I dismounted and picked it up.”

Read more stories like this in my book, A Civil War Road Trip Of A Lifetime, coming late-spring 2023.
After a one- or two-hour fight, the U.S. Army forced Hood’s rearguard to flee toward Pulaski.

“The fire was the heaviest ever encountered,” recalled a Rebel soldier.

Now I’m usually skeptical of those “hail of fire,” “storm of lead,” “greatest cannonade of all time” recollections of Civil War soldiers from even the smallest fights. But if you were frozen, exhausted, frazzled, hungry, scared, and shoeless — like these retreating Rebels — you might think the same thing.

In the aftermath of the battle, soldiers found battered trees, plowed-up earth, and a few dead and wounded across a frozen landscape. 

Now we see water-sodden fields, a few cows, and speeding cars on ground where Harrison Collin became a instant hero.

Looking northeast on the battlefield. Union cavalry advanced toward camera.

Looking east from the Modern bridge over Richland Creek

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Friday, December 02, 2022

Then & Now: A lone grave of Union soldier at Antietam

This site near the Hagerstown Pike is believed to be the location of the lone grave of 50-year-old John Marshall of the 28th Pennsylvania. Someone scrawled Marshall’s name on the wooden marker. (See cropped enlargement below.) The Irish-born Marshall, who was 49 or 50, was disinterred and reburied at Antietam National Cemetery. You may view Alexander Gardner's original image on the excellent Library of Congress web site.

Saturday, November 12, 2022

A dozen of my favorite places for grub on Civil War road trips

Loretta Tacker, owner of Tacker’s Shake Shack in Marion, Ark.

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12: Frothy Monkey, Chattanooga, Tenn.: Breakfast, swirly coffee thingie, (Battlefields: Missionary Ridge, Lookout Mountain)

11. Ruby Sunshine, Franklin, Tenn.: New Orleans roast coffee, big portions (Battlefields: Franklin, Spring Hill battlefields)

10: Tacker’s Shake Shack, Marion, Ark.: Chocolate shakes! burgers. (Home of Sultana museum and Sultana burger)

9: Jimmy Madison’s, Harrisonburg, Va.: Caramelized brussel sprouts with bacon (Battlefields: Cross Keys battlefield, more)

8: Hagy’s Catfish Hotel, Shiloh, Tenn.: Ribs, sweet potato with cinnamon (Battlefields: Shiloh)

7: Heritage Bakery & Cafe, Harrisonburg,Va.: Coffee and neat, little outdoor courtyard, (Battlefields: Cross Keys battlefield, more)

6: Carter’s Pigpen, Bar-B-Que, Mechanicsville, Va.: Brisket sandwich, tea, (Battlefields: Cold Harbor, Gaines Mills, Malvern Hill, Beaver Dam Creek, more)

5. Walker's Diner, Farmville, Va.: Fast breakfasts (Cumberland Church, Appomattox Court House)

4. Beechwood, Vicksburg, Miss.: Steaks! (Battlefields: Vicksburg, Champion Hill, more)

3: Sweet Shop Bakery, Shepherdstown, W.Va.: Coffee, cheap oatmeal raisin cookies, (Battlefields: Shepherdstown, Antietam)

2. Bonnie’s At The Red Byrd, Keedysville, Md.: Breakfast, conversation (Battlefields: Antietam, South Mountain)

1. Dan’s Restaurant & Tap Room, Boonsboro, Md.: Regional beer, salmon, professional chef (Battlefields: South Mountain, Antietam)

The sign points to the greatness of Bonnie's At The Red Byrd in Keedysville, Md.

Tuesday, November 01, 2022

A spirited soldier image and the nighttime yips

A Yankee soldier with a little extra spirit?

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This ninth-plate photograph of a handsome, bearded Yankee soldier, his jacket tinted light blue, arrived in the mail recently with a note:

“Hello, John. Best of luck with the tintype,” Danny from Virginia wrote. “I’ve had it in my possession for probably 30 years with no issues. Not sure where I acquired it. It was never a problem until we moved into our 90-year-old home and my wife placed it with other military items.”

The “problem” started when Danny’s dog continually yipped in the middle of the night at the military display in the corner of their bedroom. The display included this photo.

The dog’s yipping made Danny’s wife nervous. So he placed the image in a shed. Near the shed one day, his wife felt something grab her, but no one was there.

“She got a little freaky about it,” Danny told me in a phone call.

Then she felt something grab her inside their house. Again, no one was there.

“You can stay here, but you cannot touch me, touch my dog or hurt us,” Danny’s frightened wife told the “spirit.”

By this time, Danny was flummoxed, too. So he put the image in his car. Then he placed it in his office. His wife has had no “spirited” encounters since.

Now I’m the caretaker of the image. This weekend, it goes to Daughter 1B for a test with her dog. Mrs. B is flummoxed now—with me.

Wish me luck. 😁

He spent the night with his pards.

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Sunday, October 23, 2022

Talking Civil War with a fellow Jew on the Franklin battlefield

Chuck Byrn and I on the Lotz House porch

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On a sun-kissed morning in Middle Tennessee, I power walk along Cleburne Street in Franklin, halfway to my starting point at Fort Granger on the north side of the serpentine Harpeth River. On Nov. 30, 1864, this ground — a residential neighborhood today — became a bloody hellscape during the Battle of Franklin.

I hang a right into a small park, passing cannons marking a U.S. Army artillery position, foundation stones of the old Fountain Carter cotton gin, and brilliantly colored trees just showing off. Then I spot a pipe-smoking dude in a vest, checkered shirt, and blue jeans.

“Hey, Chuck.”

Chuck Byrn often communes with the spirits 
in this park in Franklin, Tenn.
It’s my Civil War pal Chuck Byrn, a docent/tour guide at the historic Lotz House on Columbia Pike. He’s a proud Jew and a 110 percent colorful character. Byrn is eager to park himself on a bench, yards from the stony path marking U.S. Army earthworks of 1864. His back aches, the result of all that weightlifting from his high school football playing days long ago.

“I love this place,” he says as we stare at hallowed ground. This is where Byrn often comes to commune with the spirits.

Besides the Civil War, Byrn and I share a common heritage.

“You know I’m 2.6 percent Ashkenazi Jew,” I tell him as we walk to the Lotz House.” At least that’s what my 23andMe DNA test says. 

At the Lotz House, 75 yards or so behind the Union line, Byrn waves me inside. He shows off a six-pound solid shot unearthed in the side yard with several others and invites me to look around. In a corner, under Plexiglas, stands a large cooking pot containing 10,000 Minies, found years ago by a relic hunter. I wonder who counted ‘em. 

Outside, on the Lotz porch, Byrn and I shoot selfies and enjoy small talk. Then he greets guests from the comfort of a wooden bench and takes several tokes on his pipe. 

“Flip that sign around to ‘Open,’” he tells a man from Colorado. Then I bid Chuck goodbye.

“I need to get back to Fort Granger.”

“I love that place,” he says.


You might read more about Byrn in my book, “A Civil War Road Trip Of A Lifetime,” coming spring 2023. 🙏

Let’s keep history alive. 👊

In a small park along the Columbia Pike in Franklin, Tenn., a cannon marks a U.S. Army artillery position.
The stony path marks the line of Union earthworks.
Foundation stones of wartime Fountain Carter cotton gin — the site of intense fighting
on Nov. 30, 1864.

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Saturday, October 15, 2022

My adventure to graveyard where a Confederate heroine rests

We suspect this is the grave of Alice Thompson in Dungan Cemetery in Thompson's Station, Tenn. (CLICK ON IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)

Using my backwoods instincts honed by decades of easy living in the suburbs, I hacked through brambles, deftly eluded stumps, and climbed over fallen tree limbs to find the ancient cemetery where Alice Thompson rests in Thompson’s Station, Tenn. (The GPS of my new friend Bob, who accompanied me, helped a little, too. 😀)

Initially flummoxed by barbed-wire fences, we found a gap and exploited it to the max, making our way to a flat patch deep in the woods. Under a canopy of black walnut and cedar trees in Dungan Cemetery, we discovered the gravestone of two of Alice’s four children, Elijah and Mary, who died in 1867. 

That's me at the grave of Alice's children.
Nearby, steps from an old screw-top beer bottle, we found the gravestone under which we suspect Alice's remains rest. She died at 23 in 1870 of an unknown cause.

On March 5, 1863, as the Battle of Thompson’s Station raged around her, Alice found refuge in the cramped basement of the Homestead Manor plantation mansion astride Columbia Pike.  Not quite 17, Thompson—daughter of a physician for whom the town was named—peered from a window while cannons boomed and the muskets of grim-faced soldiers belched volleys of lead.

When a wounded 3rd Arkansas Cavalry color-bearer collapsed a few feet away, Thompson rushed from the basement and grabbed the soldier’s flag, waving it over her head.

" “Boys,” shouted a colonel, “a woman has your flag!"

An artillery shell landed near her, spraying Thompson with dirt, but it failed to explode. Then a Rebel soldier escorted the energized teen back into the basement, where she rejoined family members of the owner, his slaves, and neighbors.

Her 15 seconds of battlefield glory were over.

Bob Ireland with the gravestone for two of Alice Thompson's children, Elijah and Mary.

Gravestone of two of of Alice’s young children, Elijah and Mary. They died in 1867.
 Alice died in 1870 at 23.

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