Sunday, August 30, 2009
In February of 1864, the Confederate government began shipping Union prisoners of war to a new prison stockade deep in the farm country of South Georgia.
Designed to house 10,000 prisoners, the stockade at Camp Sumter - better known as Andersonville - was soon overflowing. Despite a 10 acre expansion, the situation continued to get worse until more than 100 men a day were dying in the prison due to malnutrition, exposure and disease. In just fourteen months, roughly 13,000 Union soldiers died at the camp, more than on any battlefield of the Civil War.
Although it was the best known prison of the war, Andersonville was not alone. Elmira prison in New York was just as bad and other camps - both North and South - were not far behind. Tens of thousands of men died not in battle, but in confinement as prisoners of war in both large and small prison pens that dotted the territory of both the Union and the Confederacy.
The site of Camp Sumter is now part of Andersonville National Historic Site. Located not far from President Jimmy Carter's hometown of Plains, the park is also home to the National Prisoner of War Museum, a facility that examines the sacrifices made by America's p.o.w.'s from the American Revolution through today. Also adjoining the grounds is the Andersonville National Cemetery, where visitors can walk among the graves of the thousands of men who died in the prison stockade.
To learn more about Andersonville National Historic Site, please visit the new Andersonville pages at www.exploresouthernhistory.com/andersonvillenhs.
Thursday, August 27, 2009
At the end of Fort Toulouse Road off U.S. 231 in Wetumpa, Fort Toulouse-Fort Jackson State Historic Site preserves some of the most significant ground in the South.
Occupied by Native Americans for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans, the park preserves a Mississippian mound that was occupied during the centuries leading up to the arrival of Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto in 1540.
By 1717, when the French military arrived at the site, the area around the confluence of the Coosa and Tallapoosa Rivers had become the heart of the Creek Nation. Fort Toulouse was established at the site that year. A log stockade that functioned both as a bulwark against English expansion into the region and as a trading center, the fort was the center of an important French community that grew deep in the heart of Alabama. The French evacuated the site at the end of the French and Indian War as the region encompassing what is now Alabama was handed over to the English.
Military forces returned to the site in 1814 when General Andrew Jackson arrived with his army after the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. The troops built Fort Jackson at the site, a demonstration of American power in the center of the Creek Nation. It was here that the famed Red Stick Creek leader William Weatherford surrendered to Jackson and it was also here that the general exacted the Treaty of Fort Jackson on the Creeks. The treaty opened to settlement much of Alabama and Georgia and took land from both the Red Stick or war faction of the Creeks as well as the part of the nation that had sided with the United States.
The site of both forts is now preserved at Fort Toulouse-Fort Jackson State Historic Site. Fort Toulouse has been reconstructed and officers visitors the rare chance to explore an 18th century French colonial fort. Fort Jackson has been partially reconstructed to help visitors visualize its original appearance. The park also features a picnic area, camping, nature trails, an arboretum, visitor center and more.
To learn more, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/forttoulouse.
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
Arlington National Cemetery in Alexandria, Virginia, has become one of the most sacred sites in America, but long before the U.S. Army began burying its dead on this ground, Arlington was the home of Robert E. Lee. His beautiful columned home still crowns the height overlooking the rows of graves.
Arlington House, now preserved by the National Park Service as a memorial to General Lee, was originally built between 1802 and 1818 by George Washington Parke Custis to honor the memory of another famous American general, George Washington. Custis had been raised by George and Martha Washington after his natural father died the same year he was born.
Custis's daughter attracted the attention of a number of well-known suitors, among them future Texas President Sam Houston. The one who won her affections, however, was a young U.S. Army officer named Robert E. Lee. The two were married in the family parlor of Arlington House on June 30, 1831.
Arlington House then became the home of the Lee family and it was here that six of his seven children were born. It was also here that Lee came to consider his fate as the nation reached the verge of civil war. Lee penned his resignation from the army in a second floor bedroom.
When the war began, the Lee family was forced to flee Arlington never to return. Union soldiers occupied the house and soon began using a section of the grounds to bury their dead. The Union army's quartermaster general, Montgomery Meigs, became fixated with the idea of preventing Lee from ever again occupying the house overlooking the nation's capital. He ordered that war dead be buried in the very yards of the house. His plan worked and Arlington was never again occupied by General Lee. Instead, the grounds were turned into America's best known national cemetery.
To learn more about Arlington House, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/arlington.
Saturday, August 15, 2009
I signed onto Yahoo a bit ago to check my email and the first thing that greated my eyes was a photograph of the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas, beneath a banner headline that read, "U.S.'s Most Over-Rated Tourist Attractions."
Apparently the writer, Andew Harper, feels that the Alamo (along with seven other famous American points of interest) is not worth the time of day. He basically described it as a "few small stone buildings and some neatly trimmed lawns."
Andrew Harper, by the way, is not even his real name. Its the fake identity for a writer who describes himself as a "gentleman traveler."
I am not a Texan but I have a few words for Mr. Harper: Don't mess with Texas!
Insulting the memory of the men who fought and died at the Alamo is not the act of a real gentleman.
Tourists visit the Alamo, but it is not a "tourist attraction." The Alamo is a shrine, preserved to remind us all of the heroism that took place in and around those "few small stone buildings." It is a place where men gave their lives for what they believed. It is a place where Anglo, Tejano and African-American Texans fought side by side against what they considered a tyrannical government and where Mexican soldiers, many of them from the poorest villages in Mexico, fought bravely and died in the service of their country.
To call the Alamo an "over-rated tourist attraction" is an insult not just to the men of both sides who fought and died there, it is an insult to all people of any generation who fought for their countries. The places where men spilled their blood are sacred. It is a shame that too many Americans - Mr. Harper, for example - no longer appreciate that fact.
While it is often crowded and only a few of its blood-stained buildings remain, the Alamo is a place to pay tribute to those who came before us, those who gave their lives in the service of greater causes. We can never honor them enough. The words of critics like Andrew Harper will come and go, but the memory of the deeds performed by the men who fought at the Alamo will last forever.
You can learn more about what happened and why the Alamo is such a special place in Texas and American history by visiting www.exploresouthernhistory.com/alamo1.
Friday, August 14, 2009
One of the most remarkable sights in the South is the first view of the massive Temple Mound (or Mound A) at Kolomoki Mounds State Park near Blakely, Georgia.
The huge mound rises nearly 60 feet into the air and still retains the distinct pyramidal shape created by its builders. It was once the center of what some researchers believe was the largest Native American civilization north of the Aztec culture in Mexico.
Kolomoki Mounds was the centerpiece of a major culture that grew and thrived in Southwest Georgia from around 350 A.D. to around 600 A.D. It was a culture that achieved stunning advancements in art, architecture and astronomy, but also one that practiced human sacrifice.
The well-preserved mounds at Kolomoki form a giant prehistoric observatory and calender. On the longest day of the year, for example, the sun rises from directly behind the giant Temple Mound. Other mounds appear to be aligned with various constellations.
Archaeologists believe that the culture that was centered at this ancient capital spread out into both Alabama and North Florida. Smaller mound and village sites of the same era dot the region and it is believed that these supported the large capital city with food and other necessities of life.
The site today is the centerpiece of a beautiful state park that also features nature trails, two lakes, picnicking, camping and more. The park museum encloses part of one of the burial mounds and visitors can follow wooden walkways that lead into the heart of the mound for a chance to learn about an ancient burial ceremony. Stairs lead to the top of the main Temple Mound and the other mounds can be explored as well.
To learn more, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/kolomoki1.
Thursday, August 13, 2009
While many Southern waterfalls dry to a trickle (if that) during late summer, one spectacular place to see one that runs year round is at beautiful Petit Jean State Park near Morrilton, Arkansas.
Located between Little Rock and Russellville, Petit Jean Mountain is home to a fascinating history and some of the most striking scenery in the Natural State. Taking its name from the story of a French girl who followed her love to America during colonial times and supposedly still haunted by her ghost, the mountain was once the property of the Fort Smith Lumber Company. In 1907, however, a group of executives from the company came on a business trip to explore the timber resources of the mountain. So stunned was the group by the natural beauty of Petit Jean Mountain that a decision was quickly reached that it should be preserved for future generations.
In fact, it was the timber company itself that launched a major lobbying effort to have the mountain and its spectacular scenery preserved as a park. They hoped it would become a national park, but the National Park Service felt at the time that the tract was too small. The director of the park service recommended, however, that the company consider donating the land to the state of Arkansas.
The wheels of government turned slowly, but in 1923 both houses of the Arkansas State Legislature voted unanimously to accept the first 80 acre tract (surrounding magnificent Cedar Falls) to become the state's first state park.
The Great Depression intervened for the good of the park and in 1933 the Civilian Conservation Corps began work at the site. Trails, overlooks, bridges, cabins, a lake, picnic areas and the magnificent stone Mather Lodge were built by the Depression era workers and Petit Jean today is recognized as an outstanding example of CCC work. In fact, the mountain preserves three National Historic Districts.
Petit Jean State Park now encompasses 2,568 acres including spectacular natural scenery, the ruins of an early resort, the alleged grave of Petit Jean, unique natural formations, ancient Native American cave paintings and a number of structures built during the Great Depression by the CCC.
Among the undeniable highlights of the park is Cedar Falls. One of the tallest waterfalls east of the Rockies, Cedar Falls can be viewed from platforms at the top of the canyon or by hiking a strenuous trail to the bottom for a view of the waterfall from the bottom up. It flows year round and is one of the most remarkable sights in the South.
To learn more, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/petitjean1.
Monday, August 10, 2009
Located about 30 miles south of Tupelo, Mississippi, the Bynum Mounds are among the oldest Indian mounds to be found on the Natchez Trace Parkway.
Built over a 200 year period between around 100 B.C. and 100 A.D., the Bynum site was in use by Native Americans of the Woodland period at the time of the Birth of Christ. They reflect a time period when the original cultures of the South demonstrated remarkable progress in the areas of agriculture, the making of pottery, ceremonial structure and more.
The Bynum Mounds were used for both burial and ceremonial purposes and were the focal points of a larger village complex that included houses and other structures.
The mounds are now part of a historic site maintained by the National Park Service. They can be seen from the parking area along the Natchez Trace Parkway and are easily accessed during daylight hours by paved walkways. The park also features interpretive signs.
To learn more, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/natchezbynum.
Sunday, August 9, 2009
Some of the most significant archaeological sites in the South as well as a stretch of the most beautiful waterfront scenery in Florida is now preserved at the massive Weedon Island Preserve in St. Petersburg.
Located in the heart of the metropolitan area, the beautiful park area and cultural center preserves over 3,000 acres of sensitive lands bordering Old Tampa Bay. It also protects the array of archaeological sites known as Weedon Island (also spelled Weeden Island), for which a Native American culture that once covered much of the Deep South was named.
While there is no evidence that the Weedon Island culture spread out from this site, it was archaeological work here decades ago that defined its pottery styles and other cultural aspects. A culture that grew during the Woodland time period, sites of the Weedon Island style have been found in Florida, Georgia and Alabama. Centered around mound complexes, the Weedon Island towns of the South were occupied from around A.D. 300 to A.D. 900 before they were replaced by the better known Mississippian culture.
In addition to its ancient archaeological sites, the Weedon Island Preserve was also the site of a Prohibition era "speakeasy," a 1929 airport and a pre-World War II movie studio. It now features walking trails, canoe and kayak launches, boardwalks, picnic areas and a Cultural and Natural History Center.
To learn more, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/weedonisland.
Tuesday, August 4, 2009
The massive temple mound at Philippi Park in Safety Harbor is one of the most significant archaeological and historic sites in Florida.
Located just north of St. Petersburg and bordering Old Tampa Bay, Safety Harbor was once the site of a major Tocobaga Indian village that was thriving when the first Spanish explorers landing in the area. In fact, there are many indications that it was the capital of the primary cacique or chief of the Tocobaga.
Both Hernando de Soto and Panfilo de Narvaez encountered the Tocobaga as they stormed ashore in the Tampa Bay area, but it was Pedro Menendez de Aviles, the founder of St. Augustine, who first took more than a passing interest in them. Shortly after founding the oldest city in the U.S. on Florida's East Coast, Menendez implemented a systematic plan to conquer all of Florida and bring it under Spanish dominion.
He began by establishing forts on the east coast and by 1566 had made his way around the peninsula to Florida's Southwest Coast. He arrived at Tampa Bay that same year in an effort to make peace between the Tocobaga and their neighbors, the Calusa, who lived down the coast. The two warring nations agreed to a temporary peace and the Tocobaga even agreed to let Menendez build a fort at their primary town, believe to be the one that surrounded the Safety Harbor Temple Mound.
The first Spanish settlement on Old Tampa Bay did not last long. After about a year the Tocobaga rose up against the Europeans and slaughtered them to a man. The fort was destroyed and a priest of the time blamed the attack on cruelty committed against the Indians by the garrison.
The Tocobaga themselves did not long survive the arrival of the Spanish in Florida. Less than 100 years later, they had vanished, leaving only shell middens and mounds as reminders that they had ever walked the shores of the Gulf Coast.
The temple mound at Philippi Park is the best preserved of several mounds that once stood at the Safety Harbor site. To learn more, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/safetyharbor.
Monday, August 3, 2009
A trip to one of the best preserved artillery batteries of the Spanish-American War era can be combined with a visit to one of America's finest beaches!
Historic Fort De Soto stands on Mullet Key, easily accessible by car from nearby St. Petersburg, Florida. Now a park operated by Pinellas County, the key preserves the old fort which was begun in 1898 to defend Tampa Bay against the risk of a Spanish naval attack. Some of the artillery to be seen there is among the rarest in the world.
The 12-inch rifled mortars in the concrete and shell battery, for example, are the only examples of their type in the continental United States. Also on display are two 6-inch Armstrong rapid fire guns rescued from Fort Dade, a crumbling sister work on nearby Egmont Key. They are the last two guns of their type in the country.
The fort was a key U.S. Army base until 1923 when it was evacuated for good. Rescued from neglect in 1948 when Pinellas County purchased Mullet Key from the U.S. Government, Fort De Soto is now beautifully preserved and is the focal point of an outstanding park that also features magnificent beaches, camping, picnicking, boat launches and nature trails.
The beaches of Fort De Soto, in fact, were named the best in America in 2005 and are definitely quite spectacular.
To learn more about historic Fort De Soto, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/fortdesoto1.
Saturday, August 1, 2009
One of the key approaches to the major port city of Mobile during the Civil War was via the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, which formed a number of channels, some of which looped around the channel and then entered it above the city, allowing boats to actually come up from the bay, loop through, and then arrive at Mobile from upstream.
To defend one such channel, Confederate forces fortified the site of the faded town of Blakeley, Alabama. Heavy artillery was emplaced there and the land side of the post was enclosed with breastworks, rifle pits and strong redoubts (earthwork forts). The installation became known as Fort Blakeley, although it was often mispelled as "Fort Blakely."
When Spanish Fort fell to Union troops in April of 1865, Fort Blakeley was the last defense of Mobile itself. Already under siege, the post became the focus of heavy fighting on the afternoon of April 9, 1865. Union troops stormed Redoubt #4 at 5:25 in the afternoon and overran the Confederate defenses in one of the last major battles of the Civil War.
The fall of Fort Blakeley opened the door to Mobile, which was evacuated by Confederate forces as the Union army continued its advance. The battlefield and its well-preserved earthworks are now part of Historic Blakeley State Park, a beautiful preserve and recreation area just north of Spanish Fort, Alabama. To learn more, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/blakely1.