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. ❤️

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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.”

To be continued.

Let’s keep history alive.

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.

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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,” coming late spring. Pre-order here.

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.

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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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