Tuesday, April 26, 2011

April 26th - Birthday of John James Audubon

Audubon in 1826
Today marks the 226th anniversary of the birth of famed naturalist John James Audubon, whose footprints can still be traced across the American South.
Born in what is now Haiti (then the French colony of Saint-Domingue) on April 26, 1785, he fled with his family to France just three years later when a slave revolt broke out on the Haitian sugar plantations. He was educated in France and remained there until he was 18, when he boarded a ship for America using a false passport to avoid conscription in the Napoleonic army.

He contracted yellow fever as he arrived in New York and was nursed back to health in a boarding house run by Quaker women, who taught him English and assisted in his relocation to a farm near Philadelphia where he developed a passion for American birds and wildlife. His business interests eventually took him west to Missouri and Kentucky, where he continued to expand his studies.

Oakley Plantation in Louisiana
Audubon, of course, went on to travel through much of the South and his ground-breaking bird paintings are among the finest ever done in North America. His travels are the focus of much attention in historical and birding circles and markers and historic sites across the region note his presence.

An excellent place to learn more about Audubon's work is at Audubon State Historic Site in St. Francisville, Louisiana. The park preserves Oakley Plantation, where he completed many of his bird paintings and which he described as "almost supernatural" in its beauty. To learn more, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/audubon.

Ruins of Elizabeth Female Academy
A little more than an hour north near Natchez, Mississippi, are the ruins of the Elizabeth Female Academy, where Audubon taught drawing in 1822. To learn more, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/natchezelizabeth.

The Audubon Society, of course, is a great place to learn about the life and contributions of John James Audubon. The Society maintians an online version of his groundbreaking book, Birds of America, at http://web4.audubon.org/bird/BoA/BOA_index.html.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

A Monument to John Wilkes Booth? Unusual Landmark in Troy, Alabama

The (Former) John Wilkes Booth Monument
Today marks the anniversary of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln by actor and conspirator John Wilkes Booth.

For most people of his time, North and South, the anniversary marked a sad day in American history. But for Joseph Pinkney Parker of Troy, Alabama, it was a day to be celebrated.  Parker was a police officer, teacher and Baptist church member, but he was perhaps best known as a hater of Abraham Lincoln.

Called "Pink" Parker by his friends, he would dress in his Sunday best each April 14th to celebrate the day when John Wilkes Booth shot President Lincoln. Residents in Troy humored or ignored his one man Booth celebration, but in 1906 Parker ignited a national controversy about their town that they could no longer ignore.  He erected a monument to John Wilkes Booth and asked for permission to put it on the courthouse lawn.

City and county leaders in Troy balked at that idea and refused, but Parker erected his monument anyway, in a prominent spot on his own property facing Madison Street in the South Alabama city.

Monument now is Parker's Headstone
The monument caught the attention of the national media and newspapers across the nation did stories on Parker's Monument to Booth.  They often got the facts wrong, claiming it had been erected by the city itself, but "Pink" Parker enjoyed all the controversy and kept his monument right where it was despite calls that he remove it.

It stayed in its spot facing Madison Street in Troy until Parker died in 1921, when his family quietly removed it and had it recarved to serve as his tombstone. It stands today in Troy's Oakwood Cemetery, but with no trace of the original inscription:  "Erected by Pink Parker in honor of John Wilks Booth for killing Old Abe Lincoln."

So far as is known, it was the only monument ever erected to John Wilkes Booth. To learn more, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/boothmonument.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The First Shot of the Civil War - A Controversy Ignited?

Fort Barrancas, Florida
If you have seen today's Associated Press article quoting me, it looks like quite a stir has been created over where the actual first shot of the Civil War took place. 

The AP story is about an incident that took place on the drawbridge at Fort Barrancas in Pensacola, Florida, on January 8, 1861. Union troops there opened fire on a party of mysterious figures who approached the fort, hours before cadets from The Citadel fired on the supply ship Star of the West and three months before Confederate forces opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. Back in January, I posted an article about the shooting on one of my other blogs, Civil War Florida (Please click here to read it.)

Fort Sumter, South Carolina
Last week I was contacted by a writer from the Associated Press and spoke with her briefly about the incident. That interview, of course, was condensed down to a couple of lines in the article. I hadn't thought much more about it until I woke up this morning to find the article had appeared in newspapers and on media websites literally around the world. (Please click here to read it.)

The reaction has been fascinating and from my browsing around the web, it seems that people from the United States to Australia and back are debating it.  Its enjoyable to me to see so many people discussing history, although it is a shame that far too many are just using it as a chance to be rude and insulting to Southerners in general.

Since the AP writer didn't have space to include much of what I actually think on the topic, I wrote up my thoughts this morning and posted them at Civil War Florida. If you are interested in reading more, I hope you'll take a few minutes to read them. Here is the link:  http://civilwarflorida.blogspot.com/.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Bombardment of Fort Sumter - 150 Years Ago Today

Fort Sumter National Monument
NPS Photo
At 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861, 150 years ago today, a mortar shell rose high in the air over Charleston Harbor in South Carolina and exploded. As the flames and fragments rained down on the island citadel of Fort Sumter, the men of both sides knew that the War Between the States had begun.

One by one, Confederate cannon ringing the harbor opened fire. Inside the brick fortress, U.S. soldiers hunkered down as shot and shell impacted with the masonry and shook the ramparts to their foundations. They would eventually return fire, even targeting a hotel where Captain Abner Doubleday claimed he had once received poor service, but remarkably no one would die on either side.

42-Pounder at Fort Sumter
The Bombardment of Fort Sumter continued for 34 straight hours. Sections of wall well away and the wooden parts of the fort, particularly the barracks, caught fire. Dense smoke settled over the fort and the men inside held wet clothes over their noses and mouths so they could breathe and continue to fight. Some of them had fought in the War with Mexico or in the Seminole Wars, but they had never experienced anything like this.

In Charleston, citizens gathered on the rooftops and watched from the Battery as the shot and shells arced over the harbor. Each explosion brought cheers. South Carolina had waited a long time for this day.

Among the Confederate commanders, there were mixed emotions. Their duty was not so much to the new country that had been formed in Montgomery, Alabama in February of 1861 as it was to their home states and to their mutual identity as Southerners. But they had served with Major Robert Anderson and many of the other men in Fort Sumter, had shared good times and danger together, and they regret mixed with exhiliration that the long-awaited battle was finally underway.

Fort Sumter
Knowing that his position was hopeless but that his duty was to defend the flag of his nation, Major Anderson held out against all odds. Even though his position was under fierce attack, he did his best to preserve the lives of his officers and men. He ordered them not to man the fort's upper level of guns where they would be more exposed to the Confederate fire, although in the midst of the bombardment a soldier defied those orders and dashed up the stairs and touched off the cannon there.

Fort Sumter would surrender on the next day, April 13, 1861. More than 600,000 men would die and more than 1,000,000 would be wounded before Anderson would again raise his flag over the walls of Fort Sumter.

To learn more about Fort Sumter National Monument, which preserves the ruins of the historic fort, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/fortsumter.