Monday, April 30, 2012

Cumberland Gap National Historical Park - Middlesboro, Kentucky

Civil War cannon and earthworks at Cumberland Gap
One of America's truly great national parks, the Cumberland Gap is a beautiful mountain pass that was the original gateway to the West for American pioneers.

The gap takes its name because it cuts through Cumberland Mountain. It is 26 miles long and 1-4 miles wide. Prior to Daniel Boone's blazing of the famed Wilderness Road in 1775, it was the route of the Warrior's Path used by Shawnee and Cherokee Indians. These tribes hunted in Kentucky and considered the "dark and bloody ground" to be their exclusive hunting grounds. They often warred with each other over use of the pass and hunting rights.

Cumberland Gap NHP
Daniel Boone opened the Wilderness Road in 1775 and despite bloody violence in Kentucky during the American Revolution, it did not take long for thousands of American frontier families to follow in his footsteps. The National Park Service, in fact, estimates that as many as 47 million Americans can trace their ancestors to settlers who passed through the Cumberland Gap.

Rock Formations at Cumberland Gap
The natural pass through the mountains was a strategic point during the Civil War and both Union and Confederate armies each held it twice. The remains of Fort Lyon and Fort McCook are popular historic sites in the park today. Visitors can explore Civil War fortifications and look out at the Gap from the view of the soldiers that once held the forts.

Cumberland Gap today is a national historical park. Over 20,000 acres of beautiful mountain scenery is protected by the National Park Service, which also provides campsites, picnic areas, hiking trails, a visitor center, historic sites and even guided tours of the Gap Cave, one of a number of natural caves and caverns in the park.

To learn more, please visit

Friday, April 20, 2012

Siloam Springs, Arkansas, named one of Smithsonian's 20 Best Small Towns in America

Siloam Springs, Arkansas
Siloam Springs, a charming and historic city on the western border of Arkansas, has been named one of the 20 Best Small Towns in America by Smithsonian Magazine.

Although the area had been settled as early as 1835 and had seen troops of both armies pass through during the months leading up to the Battle of Prairie Grove in 1862, Siloam Springs really came to life in 1880 when an analysis determined that the 28 springs in the vicinity held minerals then thought to hold curative powers for a number of illnesses. It was not long before a steady stream of people began coming to "take the waters."

Siloam Springs
The town of Siloam Springs, named for the healing pool mentioned in the Bible, was surveyed and by the time it could be incorporated in 1881, more than 3,000 people were living there. Thousands of others came to visit, hoping the water from the natural springs would cure them of their ailments.

The resort thrived for only around 12 years until a major flood destroyed much of the downtown area. Siloam Springs rebounded, but as more of a trading center than as a resort. The springs, however survived, an today have been resorted into a series of beautiful spring-fed lakes, water features and natural spring basins that winds its way through the center of town.

Natural Falls State Park
In addition, the stunning Natural Falls State Park, filming location for the popular movie Where the Red Fern Grows, is just across the state line. The park is home to one of the tallest waterfalls in Oklahoma.

Located near the booming Northwest Arkansas corridor of Fayetteville, Springdale, Bentonville and Rogers (home of Wal-Mart's corporate offices), Siloam Springs is experiencing a significant revival. To learn more, please visit

Other Southern communities on the Smithsonian list include Key West and Naples, Florida; Staunton, Virginia and Marfa, Texas.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

First Presbyterian Church of Augusta, Georgia

First Presbyterian Church of Augusta
First Presbyterian Church of Augusta celebrates a remarkable anniversary this year: its 200th year in the same sanctuary!

Designed by Robert Mills, architect of the Washington Monument, the magnificent church was completed in 1812, 200 years ago. The congregation itself is even older, having celebrated its bicentennial in 2004.

Much of Mills' original design can still be seen at First Presbyterian, although the Augusta church was "modernized" in 1847 with the addition of crenellations and Romanesque windows. The shape and scale of the historic building, however, is classic Mills.

Woodrow Wilson, ca. 1870
The church appears almost identical today as it did in 1858 when the Rev. Dr. Joseph Ruggles Wilson became its minister. His family included a young boy who would become the 28th President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson.

The future President, then called "Tommy," likely was present for at least parts of the session when the church hosted the first meeting of the General Assembly of the Church of the Confederate States of America in 1861. He definitely witnessed the conversion of the sanctuary to a hospital following the Battle of Chickamauga. Pews were removed from inside the building to create the floorspace needed to treat badly wounded men from both sides.

First Presbyterian Church of Augusta
The boy who would become President attended First Presbyterian Church of Augusta until 1870 when he moved with his family to Columbia, South Carolina. His boyhood home, now a museum, stands just across Telfair Street from the sanctuary. Later in life, Wilson would remember his boyhood in the South with the significant quote, "The only place in the country, the only place in the world, where nothing has to be explained to me, is the South."

First Presbyterian was a gathering place for soldiers who came to Augusta to train during World War I, then sometime's called "Mr. Wilson's War." The former boy from Augusta was President of the United States when the country joined the allies to battle Germany in Europe.

To learn more about historic First Presbyterian Church of Augusta, please visit

To learn about other historic sites across the South, be sure to visit our main site at

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Fort Morgan State Historic Site - Gulf Shores, Alabama

Flank Howitzers at Fort Morgan
If you've never been to Fort Morgan, you should add it to your list! It is one of the most fascinating places on the Gulf Coast.

The historic old fort was begun in 1819 and stands on the site of an earlier work named Fort Bowyer (see Fort Bowyer - Alabama's Forgotten Battle of the War of 1812). Named for General Daniel Morgan, a hero of the American Revolution, the fort withstood one of the fiercest naval attacks of the Civil War.

Land Face of Fort Morgan
In fact, Fort Morgan has touched so much history it is difficult to summarize its story in less than book form! To offer a few highlights, however, the fort served as a holding camp for unfortunate Creek Indian families making their way west on the Trail of Tears. The fort was seized by state militia forces in 1861 as Alabama seceeded from the Union and the first Alabamian to give his life in the Confederate cause died here.

Confederate forces strengthened the already powerful fort by adding earthwork batteries and other defenses. They even placed "torpedoes" (now called mines) in the ship channel leading past the fort into Mobile Bay and engineered the wires and other mechanisms needed to trigger them when enemy warships passed directly over the devices. This tactic proved deadly to the Union navy when it attacked Fort Morgan on August 5, 1864.

Main Gate of Fort Morgan
Admiral David G. Farragut lashed his ships together two by two and steamed them into the channel leading past Fort Morgan into Mobile Bay. The fort opened fire with fierce salvos of shot and shell and the Union warships responded. As the fleet surged forward, the ironclad USS Tecumseh moved into close range of Fort Morgan intending to batter it with its heavy guns. Instead it steamed directly over a "torpedo" that was triggered from the fort. The ironclad exploded up into the air, rolled over and sank, carrying dozens of U.S. sailors to the bottom with it.

Heavily Bombarded Channel Front of Fort Morgan
The stunning sight caused the other ships in Farragut's fleet to slow to a near stop, directly under the guns of Fort Morgan, as well as long-range fire from Fort Gaines across the bay. The story of what happened next is one of the most famous of the Civil War. Demanding to know what was happening, Admiral Farragut was told the lead ships had encountered torpedoes in the channel. "Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead!" he ordered, and the fleet again picked up speed and surged past Fort Morgan into Mobile Bay.

Spanish American War era battery at Fort Morgan
The Battle of Mobile Bay, however, was just beginning. The ironclad CSS Tennessee then steamed out from a sheltered spot behind Fort Morgan and in a heroic defense, engaged the entire Union fleet.

The Tennessee was finally battered into submission and Fort Gaines fell not long after. Fort Morgan, however, held out and did not submit until the end of a long land siege by the Federal army.

In later years new fortifications were added to the old as the U.S. again worried about the possibility of foreign invasion just before and during the Spanish American War. Fort Morgan remained an important coastal defense site until the end of World War II when it was declared obsolete and turned over to the State of Alabama.

Today the site is an intriguing historic site where visitors can explore the history of more than 100 years of coastal defense. Our newly updated Fort Morgan page is now online at Be sure to take a look!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Fort Bowyer - Alabama's Forgotten Battle of the War of 1812

Fort Bowyer stood on the site of today's Fort Morgan
When history buffs think of a brave stand by outnumbered American troops and a devastating defeat of the British on the Gulf Coast, they usually think of Andrew Jackson's stunning victory at the Battle of New Orleans.

Before New Orleans, however, there was Fort Bowyer. The all but forgotten little fort stood on Mobile Point in Alabama and on September 15, 1814, the men of its garrison withstood a British onslaught to secure a victory that lifted the spirits of Americans far and wide.

Plan of Fort Bowyer
Begun in the fall of 1813 after American troops seized Mobile from the Spanish, the fort was built of earth and timber on the site where the better known Fort Morgan stands today. With a semi-circular front facing the entrance to Mobile Bay, Fort Bowyer was designed to sweep the channel with artillery fire. Its land face was bastioned as an additional defense against an infantry attack.

In anticipation of their coming move on New Orleans, the British initially planned to take Mobile. Its location and bay made the city ideal for an overland move against Baton Rouge, where the Mississippi River could be controlled to break off supplies and other commerce moving downstream to New Orleans. Such a move would make the Crescent City much easier to take.

This view shows the route of the British ships.
Having landed troops and trained Creek and Seminole Indians in Pensacola with the permission of the Spanish Governor there, the British quickly focused their attention on Fort Bowyer. Built on the shifting sands of Mobile Point and still not complete, the fort offered what was expected to be an easy target. Once the fort was taken, Mobile would of necessity capitulate soon after.

Sailing west from Pensacola in early September, British commander Captain William H. Percy put ashore 60 men from the Colonial Royal Marines under Lieutenant Colonel Edward Nicolls. Supported by 120 or so Indians under Captain George Woodbine, this force moved to block land access to Fort Bowyer and Nicolls directed his Marines, almost all of whom were free blacks, to emplace a 5 1/2 inch howitzer on a high sand dune near the fort.

Cannon on display in Fort Bowyer exhibit at Fort Morgan Museum
Nicolls became sick with dysentery after achieving this objective and went back aboard the flagship HMS Hermes for treatment. While he was suffering on board ship, Captain Percy moved forward to attack Fort Bowyer.

On the afternoon of September 15, 1814, the four British warships, led by the 20-gun Hermes formed in a line and closed in on Fort Bowyer. Major William Lawrence and his garrison from the 2nd U.S. Infantry stood to their guns on the walls of the fort and, when the British came into range at around 4:15 p.m., opened fire.

HMS Hermes in Action
The following battle was one of the fiercest land and sea battles of the War of 1812. The rumble of cannon fire shook the ground for miles around as fire and smoke covered both the fort and the leading ships of the squadron. The sick Colonel Nicolls, already known in Great Britain as "Fighting Nicolls" leaped into action on the Hermes, helping Captain Percy direct the fire of the guns. A cannon shot from Fort Bowyer sent a shower of lethal splinters across the deck where Nicolls was standing, wounding him in the legs and head. He went below for treatment but then came back up to continue the fight.

For hours the Battle of Fort Bowyer raged at virtually the same site of the later and better known Battle of Mobile Bay during the Civil War. To learn more about the fight, please visit

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Siege of Augusta, Georgia - A Battle of the American Revolution

Monument marking site of Fort Cornwallis
Augusta is a charming and beautiful city nestled along the Savannah River. And while the Georgia city is known for its historic and scenic riverfront, few visitors realize that it also was the scene of a major battle of the American Revolution.

The Siege of Augusta began on April 16, 1781, when Patriot militia companies from the backcountry of Georgia arrived on the outskirts of the city. Augusta was then held by a Loyalist force commanded by the notorious Lt. Col. Thomas Brown.

Gen. Andrew Pickens
The militia, led first by Lt. Col. Micajah Williamson and later by the famed Col. Elijah Clarke, hovered around the edges of Augusta, creating the impression that their force was much larger in size than it really was. Col. Brown withdrew his forces into three strong points: Fort Cornwallis at St. Paul's Church, Fort Grierson about 1/2 mile away and the fortified home of Indian trader George Galphin 12 miles outside of town.

Clarke's militia was reinforced in May by hundreds of South Carolina militiamen under Gen. Andrew Pickens and Continental regulars under Lt. Col. "Light Horse Harry" Lee, the father of Confederate general Robert E. Lee.

The combined forces struck first at Galphin's place, taking it on May 21, 1781. The battle was found in intense heat and one Patriot soldier died from heat stroke.

St. Paul's Church

The Patriot army moved on Fort Grierson next. As the American soldiers came into Augusta and began to surround the fort, its commander Col. Grierson tried to lead 80 men in a desperate retreat to larger and stronger Fort Cornwallis. They made it as far as the banks of the Savannah River before they were cut off by the Patriot militia and slaughtered to a man. The massacre was frontier-style retribution for similar tactics used by Lt. Col. Brown in previous battles.

The main siege of Fort Cornwallis now began. For days the two forces battled in smoke and fury along the riverfront of Augusta. Finally, at the suggestion of Lee, the Patriots resorted to the construction of a 30 foot tower from which they could fire their single cannon down into the fort. A desperate breakout was attempted by Brown's men, but failed.

As Pickens, Clarke and Lee were positioning their men for an attempt to storm the fort on June 4, 1781, Lt. Col. Brown agreed to surrender. His only condition was that the capitulation be delayed by one day so he would not be forced to surrender on the birthday of King George III. The Americans agreed and the next the U.S. flag was raised over Fort Cornwallis.

To learn more about this remarkable battle and see additional photos of the scene, please visit

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Muskogee Azalea Festival is officially underway!

Muskogee Azalea Festival
The 2012 edition of the annual Muskogee Azalea Festival, one of the finest events of its kind in the nation, is now underway in Muskogee, Oklahoma.

The festival runs from today, April 1st, through April 30th and will feature numerous events including a parade, chili cook-off, Rotary in the Park and more. The festival centers around Honor Heights Park in Muskogee, which is known for its tens of thousands of flowering azaleas, dogwoods, redbuds and other plants. Other events take place around the city.

Muskogee Azalea Festival
Members of the Friends of Honor Heights Park report that the early spring brought out the azaleas much earlier than normal this year and that they could be gone by the main weekend of the festival in two weeks. So, if you want to see the azaleas, you need to get to Muskogee in a hurry!  That doesn't mean, of course, that there won't be plenty of blooms to see from other trees and shrubs as the month goes along, but the azaleas themselves definitely are early.

The main day of the festival is set for April 14th. The day will begin with the Muskogee Run at 8 a.m. followed by the 2012 Azalea Festival Parade through downtown Muskogee at 11 a.m. The Chili Cook-off kicks off at noon at Okmulgee and 4th Streets and will continue until 5 p.m. Tens of thousands of people, of course, will make their way up the hill to Honor Heights Park to enjoy the activities and sights there.

Honor Heights Park is open to the public daily and the festival is free to visit.  To learn more, please visit