Thursday, July 30, 2009

Forts of Mobile Bay, Alabama - Spanish Fort

The city of Spanish Fort, located on the high bluffs opposite Mobile, occupies one of the most historic sites in Alabama and the South.

The Spanish built a fort here after taking Fort Charlotte in Mobile during the American Revolution, giving the community its enduring name. An important battle was fought here when British troops from Pensacola launched an unsuccessful attack on the fort. It was one of two key fights of the American Revolution that took place in Alabama.

Because the commanding bluff overlooked one of the key water routes to Mobile, the Confederates built massive fortifications here during the Civil War. Placing heavy guns in multiple batteries along the bluffs and digging rifle pits and breastworks to protect the emplacements from land attack, they converted Spanish Fort into a major obstacle for Union troops attempting to capture Mobile.

A major battle was fought here in March and April of 1865 when Union General E.R.S. Canby encircled the Confederate defenses with an army of 32,000 men and 90 pieces of artillery. Although the Confederate commander, General Randall Gibson had only a few thousand men and 46 cannon, he defended Spanish Fort for 12 days against overwhelming odds of more than 15 to 1.

The 8th Iowa Infantry finally broke through the Southern lines late in the day on April 8, 1865. On the next day, as Robert E. Lee surrendered to U.S. Grant in Virginia, the Union troops at Spanish Fort awakened to find their opponents gone. Knowing that with his lines breached he would be unable to withstand another attack, Gibson and evacuated his troops over previously prepared foot bridges, leaving behind an empty fort.

Virtually the entire site of the Confederate fortifications is now covered with modern housing developments. In some places, breastworks and trenches can even be seen running through the yards of homes. The earthworks of Battery McDermett are visible on Spanish Main Street and displays at the nearby Mobile Bay Overlook on U.S. 98 tell the story of the battle. To learn more, please visit

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Forts of Mobile bay, Alabama - Fort Gaines

Built on the eastern tip of Dauphin Island, Fort Gaines (along with Fort Morgan) was one of two forts built by the U.S. Government to protect Alabama's Mobile Bay from foreign attack.

Begun in 1819, the fort was never really completed. A flaw in the original construction location caused the foundations of the brick citadel to overflow at high tide, sending designers back to the drawing board. It took 34 years for engineers to resolve the difficulties and come up with a better design for the fort.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Fort Gaines was considered a state of the art fortification and was quickly seized by Southern troops. Its heavy cannon cooperated with those of Fort Morgan across the channel to keep Mobile Bay open for Confederate blockade runners until August of 1864. That was when Admiral David G. Farragut's Union fleet stormed into the bay, running a gauntlet of artillery fire between the two forts.

The gunners in Fort Gaines watched helplessly as the courageous crew of the ironclad C.S.S. Tennessee was finally battered into submission about 1 mile north of their defenses. The fort itself then came under immediate attack and for three days was battered with artillery fire from both land and sea before its commander, Colonel Charles Anderson, finally raised the white flag. The 800 Confederates in Fort Gaines had desperately tried to defend their fort, but the Union ironclads could move to within point blank range to blast holes in the masonry fort, while their own shot bounced harmlessly off the iron of the Federal ships.

Modern batteries were added to the fort's defenses during the Spanish American War and it remained an important U.S. Army post through World War II.

Now a beautifully preserved historic site, Fort Gaines is open to the public daily. To learn more, please visit

Monday, July 27, 2009

145th Anniversary of the Battle of Massard Prairie, Arkansas

Today marks the 145th anniversary of the Confederate victory at the Battle of Massard Prairie, Arkansas.

Fought on July 27, 1864, the battle took place in what is now the southeastern quadrant of the important city of Fort Smith, Arkansas. Confederate forces led by Brigadier General Richard Gano and composed of both white and Native American soldiers swept down from nearby ridges and destroyed a full battalion of the 6th Kansas Cavalry in one of the great open field charges of the Civil War.

The battle, along with a second attack a few days later, was instrumental in driving Union troops into the primary fortifications at Fort Smith and eliminating their ability to effectively scout the movement of Confederate forces in the region. As a result, Southern troops were soon able to cross the Arkansas River and push north through the Cherokee Nation to achieve their dramatic victory at the Battle of Cabin Creek, which resulted in one of the greatest seizures of Union supplies by Confederate forces during the entire Civil War. The Battle of Massard Prairie opened the door for the major victory.

Although small when compared to many other battles of the war, Massard Prairie was significant for a number of reasons. In addition to creating the opportunity for the victory at Cabin Creek, it also marked one of the last great cavalry charges in American history. Confederate troops charged on horseback across miles of open prairie to achieve their victory. It was included one of the few documented instances of Union forces scalping Confederate dead after a battle. And finally, it deprived the Union troops at Fort Smith of desperately needed horses while providing Confederate forces with modern weaponry that would prove instrumental in coming actions.

The site is now marked by Massard Prairie Battlefield Park near the intersection of Red Pine and Morgan in Fort Smith. The park features a walking trail across the site of some of the key fighting, a memorial flag staff and a small monument. To learn more, please visit or consider purchasing my book, The Battle of Massard Prairie, available now at or at Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park in Northwest Arkansas.

Forts of Mobile Bay, Alabama - Fort Morgan

Built on the site of two critical battles of the War of 1812, historic Fort Morgan has guarded the entrance to Mobile Bay since even before its completion in 1833.

Mobile Point, the site of the fort, is a long narrow peninsular that stretches west from Gulf Shores, Alabama, until it ends abruptly at the channel leading into the bay. American forces built Fort Bowyer here during the War of 1812 and the fort and its plucky little garrison held back one major British attack in 1814 before falling to a second early the following year.

Recognizing that Mobile Point and Dauphin Island across the channel were the keys to defending the bay, the U.S. Government moved quickly after the end of the war to authorize the construction of massive forts on both. The smaller of these works, Fort Gaines, was built on the eastern tip of Dauphin Island, while a much larger construction project was launched on the site of Fort Bowyer in 1819.

Named for General Daniel Morgan, the hero of the Battle of Cowpens during the American Revolution, Fort Morgan took 14 years of constant labor to complete. The fort was an important stop on the Trail of Tears as U.S. authorities forced the Creek Indians from Alabama in 1836-1837. After 1842, however, it was placed in caretaker status due to budget restraints and was not again garrisoned until Southern forces seized it in 1861.

Fort Morgan played a critical role in the Battle of Mobile Bay on August 5, 1864, when Admiral David G. Farragut brought his fleet storming past the firestorm brought to bear on his ships from Forts Morgan and Gaines. The famed battle between Farragut's fleet and the Confederate ironclad C.S.S. Tennessee took place within sight of the walls of Fort Morgan.

Although Farragut's victory ended Confederate use of Mobile Bay, Fort Morgan held out through a two-week attack that saw more than 3,000 shells fired into its walls. Deciding that their situation was hopeless, the garrison surrendered on August 23, 1864.

The fort was later modified by the addition of concrete batteries and other installations due to the threat of foreign attack during the Spanish-American War. It remained an important military post well into the 20th century, but his now a fascinating historic site that is open to the public daily. To learn more, please visit

Friday, July 24, 2009

Forts of Mobile Bay, Alabama - Fort Conde

The next few posts will look closer at Mobile Bay's fascinating collection of historic forts. These range from a reconstruction of the early French post Fort Conde to concrete batteries in use as late as World War II.

Although there were earlier French forts at Dauphin Island and up the Mobile River from the site of the present-city of Mobile, it was Fort Conde that would protect the important colonial city for nearly 100 years.

Begun in 1723 to replace earlier structures of earth and wood, Fort Conde was named for a French prince and was a massive brick and stone structure with projecting bastions on all four corners. Perhaps the strongest fort of its era on the Gulf Coast, it dominated the early Mobile waterfront.

Surrendered peacefully to the British at the end of the French and Indian War in 1763, the post was renamed Fort Charlotte and was an important British post during the American Revolution. Allied forces laid siege to the fort in 1780 and captured it in one of two critical American Revolution battles fought in Alabama.

Held by the Spanish until 1813, when it was seized by U.S. troops under General James Wilkinson.

The fort's history came to an end in 1820 when Congress approved its demolition. The current reconstruction represents about one-third of the original fort, but includes ramparts, barracks, cannon and a visitor center for the city of Mobile. To learn more, please visit

Monday, July 13, 2009

Summer Escapes #12 - Wakulla Springs, Florida

Wakulla Springs State Park near Tallahassee, Florida, preserves one of the largest and deepest freshwater springs in the world. It is a popular place for summer escapes and is rich in history and natural beauty.

Specially equipped divers have explored the caves from which the water flows for miles and to depths of over 300 feet. The spring has also produced outstanding collections of bones from prehistoric animals, including mastodons.

Early Native Americans hunted, gathered and fished in and around the spring and local legend holds that the name "Wakulla" is an ancient Indian word meaning "strange and mysterious waters."

The Creek Prophet, Josiah Francis, established a village downstream from Wakulla Springs after fleeing to Florida at the end of the Creek War of 1813-1814. It was here that his daughter, Milly Francis, saved the life of a U.S. soldier in 1818 and became known as the Creek Pocahontas.

The spring and surrounding property were purchased in 1934 by noted Florida industrialist Edward Ball. He preserved the land in its natural state and opened the historic Wakulla Springs Lodge in 1937.

Wakulla Springs is now a state park and is open to visitors daily. The park features glass-bottom boats, river cruises, swimming, hiking and picnicking as well as dining and overnight stays in the beautiful old lodge. To learn more, please visit

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Summer Escapes #11 - Orr Park, Alabama

Orr Park in Montevallo, Alabama, is a great place to escape on a hot summer day. Shoal Creek, popular for kayaking, flows through the park, which also features picnic areas, walking trails, natural areas, open spaces, playgrounds, ballfields and more.

What really makes this city park south of Birmingham unique, however, is that it features one of the largest and most unusual outdoor art displays in the South.

In 1993 a severe storm struck the area, doing heavy damage to decades old cedar trees growing in the park. Dead trees usually meet their fates quickly, but in this case Choctaw artist Tim Tingle came to the rescue with an unusual plan. He wanted to turn the dead and dying trees into works of art that would blend with the living trees of the forest.

As Tingle's work began to take shape, the people of Montevallo fell in love with the project. The result is a magnificent collection of carvings that take the shape of animals, mythical characters, human faces and even a dragon. More than 30 now dot the wooded areas along the walking trail at Oor Park.

To learn more about this fascinating (and free) Alabama escape, please visit

Summer Escapes #10 - Natchez Trace Parkway

From its starting point at Natchez, Mississippi, to its ending point near Nashville, Tennessee, the Natchez Trace Parkway is a winding drive through the history and natural wonders of the South.

A modern national park area, the drive roughly follows the route of the original Natchez Trace, an important frontier trail used by "Kaintuck" boatmen as they made their way back home after floating their crops, furs or other items down the Ohio and Mississippi River on flatboats and keelboats. The path originated in the years before the American Revolution and all but vanished with the arrival of paddlewheel steamboats on the Mississippi River during the early 1800s. Despite its brief existence as a major "highway" of its time, the Natchez Trace played a critical role in American history.

Today, the paved parkway provides a beautiful winding drive through three states and commemorates the original roadway. Stops along the way allow visitors to explore old plantations, battlefields, Indian mounds, natural wonders, cemeteries, ghost towns and more. The road is beautiful during the summer, when the vegetation is at its greenest.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Summer Escapes #9 - Florida Caverns State Park

With temperatures rising to around 100 degrees in July and August, a great way to escape the heat and humidity is by going underground.

There are numerous caves and cave tours in the South, Mammoth Cave in Kentucky being the most famous, but only one cave has been opened for tours in Florida. It is found at Florida Caverns State Park in the charming little city of Marianna.

Jackson County, where the park is located, has a large number of caves due to the unique topography of the region. Many of these are located inside the state park, which features guided tours of a magnificent underground wonderland as well as a chance to explore a smaller cave on your own, canoeing on the Chipola River, hiking trails, campsites, equestrian trails, picnic areas and swimming in clear and cold Blue Hole Spring.

The main tour cave was discovered during the late 1930s when Civilian Conservation Corps workers were building the park. A worker happened to look beneath the roots of an overturned tree and found a hole leading down into the caves. Closer inspection revealed a massive networks of caverns with pristine formations and miles of passages.

Guided tours now leave the visitor center five days a week (Thursday through Monday) with no tours being offered on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Visitors can also explore the smaller Tunnel Cave, located down one of the nature trails, on their own.

To learn more, please visit

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Summer Escapes #8 - Eureka Springs, Arkansas

Nestled in the beautiful rolling hills and mountains of the Arkansas Ozarks, Eureka Springs is a major summer destination for visitors from around the world.

The charming little town literally drips with Victorian history and charm and is the per capita wedding capital of the nation. More people get married in Eureka Springs each year, in fact, than actually live in the town.

Founded as a resort community during the late 1800s to serve guests who came in hopes that the numerous springs flowing from the Ozarks held curative powers. Numerous bathhouses were built and the magnificent Crescent Hotel dates back to those days as well. Much of the downtown architecture is beautifully preserved and the entire downtown district thrives with specialty shops, inns, restaurants, galleries and more.

Eureka Springs is home to what may well be America's "most haunted" hotel. The historic Crescent Hotel was built in 1886 and, as it does today, originally welcomed guests. During the early 1900s, however, it was converted into a fraudulent "cancer clinic" by the notorious "Dr." Norman Baker. He bilked his patients of over $4 million for a fake cancer cure, watching many of them die in the process. It is said that many of their restless spirits still roam the halls of the hotel to this day.

Eureka Springs is also home to numerous other attractions including the Blue Spring Heritage Center, the ES&NA Railway, Thorncrown Chapel and many others. To learn more, please visit

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Summer Escapes #7 - Dauphin Island, Alabama

One of the true crown jewels of the Gulf Coast, Dauphin Island, Alabama, is one of the most beautiful spots in the Deep South for a summer escape. It also offers a fascinating history and some of the nation's most significant historic sites.

A charming barrier island bordering the Gulf of Mexico at the mouth of Mobile Bay, Dauphin Island was visited by Native Americans for hundreds if not thousands of years before Spanish and French explorers first set foot on its white sand beaches. Massive shell mounds left behind by Indians of the Mississippian era once stood as tall as 50 feet high on the island, reminders of thousands of meals of raw oysters and other shell fish. One of the few surviving mounds can be seen today at Shell Mound Park on the north shore of the island.

Dauphin Island received its name from the French, who arrived there in 1699. They found piles of human bones (probably washed from an ancient burial mound) on the island and believed that a massacre had taken place there, prompting them to call it Massacre Island. They soon renamed it after a member of French royalty. Hurricanes and other disasters drove the main French settlement from Dauphin Island in just a couple of decades, but for a brief time it was the home of the Governor General of Louisiana.

The island was also held by the British and Spanish over time, before passing into the hands of the United States when American troops took Mobile during the early 19th century. By 1819, construction was underway on Fort Gaines at the eastern tip of the island. With Fort Morgan across the channel on Mobile Point, the massive brick fortress was designed to protect Mobile Bay from enemy invasion.

Southern troops seized both of the forts in 1861 at the beginning of the Civil War. Fort Gaines played a critical role in the Battle of Mobile Bay in 1864, one of the key actions of the war. It was within site of its walls that Union Admiral David G. Farragut uttered his famous orders, "Damn the torpedoes! Full Speed Ahead!" The anchor of his flagship, the U.S.S. Hartford, is on display today at Fort Gaines, which is now a beautifully preserved historic site.

Dauphin Island is also known for its outstanding beaches, slow-paced coastal life and outstanding fishing. To learn more, please visit

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Summer Escapes #6 - St. Simons Lighthouse, Georgia

On a hot summer day on the Georgia coast, few places offer the refreshing breezes and beautiful views of the St. Simons Lighthouse on historic St. Simons Island.

Built during the 1870s to replace earlier structures, the beautiful old lighthouse is now maintained by the Coastal Georgia Historical Society, which has developed a museum in the Keeper's Cottage and allows visitors to climb to the top of the lighthouse for spectacular views of St. Simons Island, Jekyll Island and the other Golden Isles of Georgia.

The tower rises 104 feet above the St. Simons Island waterfront and the spiral stairway leading to the top has 129 steps. The strenuous climb is worth it, though, because the panoramic view from the catwalk at the top is truly astounding.

For lovers of ghost stories, the lighthouse is said to be haunted by the restless ghost of a former keeper. Frederick Osborne was shot and killed by his assistant for allegedly making "improper remarks" to the assistant's wife. Many have claimed to see and hear his ghost inside the tower.

The lighthouse site also figures prominently in the Colonial and Civil War history of the area. British troops built Fort St. Simons on the site during the 1700s and Confederate troops later built a fort on the grounds during the early years of the Civil War.

To learn more and to read the fascinating story of the ghost of the lighthouse, please visit

Monday, July 6, 2009

Summer Escapes #5 - Ponce De Leon Springs State Park, Florida

One of the great experiences of growing up in the Deep South was slipping away on a hot summer afternoon to enjoy the ice cold waters of a natural spring. To this day, I look at springs as the perfect summer escapes.

One of my favorites can be found at Ponce de Leon Springs State Park. Located in the little Northwest Florida community of Ponce de Leon. Located just off Interstate 10 between Tallahassee and Pensacola, the state park surrounds one of the most beautiful springs in Florida.

From the earliest days of settlement in the region, the pioneers who came to live in this part of Florida recognized the enormous potential and importance of the spring. A log hotel opened there in around 1848 and travelers stopped to marvel at the beautiful clear water. The hotel was destroyed in 1864 during the Civil War raid on Marianna.

In the years that followed, though, Ponce de Leon Springs continued to be used as a popular gathering spot for picnics, political speakings and more. In 1970 it became a Florida state park that now features swimming in the crystal clear blue water, nature trails, picnic areas, playgrounds and more. The park is open daily. To learn more, please visit

Friday, July 3, 2009

Summer Escapes #4 - Branson, Missouri

The beautiful city of Branson, Missouri, is a lively place for the entire family to break the heat during mid-summer. The shows, amusement parks, water parks, lakes, rivers and streams are in full swing. Whether you want to get outdoors and enjoy the fresh air or stay inside for dining and entertainment, there is a reason why Branson is one of the South's top destinations.

A favorite spot on a hot day is Branson's Titanic Museum, which houses one of the world's largest exhibits on the ill-fated ocean liner. In addition to learning more about the ship and its passengers, visitors can see actual Titanic artifacts and touch a piece of an iceberg.

The Showboat Branson Belle and the Branson Scenic Railway also both offer excellent ways to escape the heat and enjoy a bit of history as well. The Belle is the largest vessel afloat on a landlocked lake in the United States and takes passengers back to the days of the great showboats of American history. The Railway features beautifully restored (and air conditioned) railroad cars and a chance to explore the Ozarks of Missouri from the windows of a historic train.

To learn more about Branson and its other historic and entertainment offerings, please visit