Visiting historic Pulaski, Tennessee

Yesterday while driving around in the middle of nowhere Tennessee, I noticed I was close to the small town of Pulaski. Even though the town is only about 30 minutes from my home, I hadn’t visited it in over 30 years. The only time I remember going through Pulaski was on a family trip in the 1970s. While on that trip, I saw a sign noting that the town is the home of the Ku Klux Klan and I asked my mom what that was. She told me a group dedicated to hate.

Ever since then, whenever I thought about Pulaski, I thought about the KKK. And I really, really don’t like the KKK.

But times change, and towns change, and Pulaski had long been on my list of small towns in my area to visit, especially because of how one small business owner dealt with a very public monument to the founding of the KKK (read about how a sign noting the birthplace of the Klan was reversed to counteract its message without erasing its history).

I drove to the small downtown district and the domed Giles County courthouse dominates the view. It’s exquisite. The architectural style of the building is French Renaissance, with a three-story rotunda with a vaulted skylight.

pulaski tennessee courthouseBuilt in 1857, this building survived the Civil War, even when Union troops occupied the town. According to a brochure I picked up on my visit, the Union forces threatened to burn down not only the courthouse, but the entire town, unless local citizens gave them $3,000–a huge amount of money during the Civil War. Thomas Martin, who founded the local Methodist college, paid the money and saved the town and its many beautiful structure.

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Selma 50th Anniversary Events

I will admit that until a decade ago, I really didn’t know much about the Civil Rights movement. That probably sounds weird because I grew up in Alabama, the state that played center stage in many of the pivotal events in the movement. But I was from the North and my parents were from the North, and we didn’t feel very connected to Alabama history when we arrived in Huntsville, AL in the mid 1970s. When I was in school, it seems like every year in history class, we’d run out of time near the end of the year and only gloss over events that happened after World War II. Korea? I vaguely knew about it. Vietnam? Ditto. So events like the Civil Rights movement became no more than a footnote in history classes, meriting not even a full class period to discuss. I don’t recall ever studying any key figures in the Civil Rights movement, nor learning about the Freedom Riders, Freedom Summer, Martin Luther King Jr., the Civil Rights Act, or anything else. By the time I got to school, civil rights was a done deal so evidently it was no longer worth mentioning. Even as a history student in college I don’t remember studying this period in history, maybe because my main interest then was the 1800s and ancient history.

Fast forward to 2008. I was a volunteer for a certain presidential primary candidate and I roamed around north Alabama with other volunteers trying to talk people into registering to vote and to head to the polls on primary day. One day I rode around with a black gentleman not a whole lot older than me–he was probably in his mid 50s. We talked about his job (an engineer at a nearby military base) and his life growing up in Alabama. He told me that he grew up in Selma and that his parents were very active in the Civil Rights movement. He told me about many of his memories of that period. Even though he was young in the 1960s, he remembered his house getting fire bombed more than once. He remembered his parents rushing him out the back door to escape the flames. He remembered his parents attending meetings and marches, and he remembered seeing indescribable violence. As I looked at him, this average looking man who spent his days working for the government, I realized that I simply could not believe that a man not too much older than me dealt with fire bombs and beatings to simply be treated as an equal citizen. I was  shocked that I knew so little about the period in history that created some of our best leaders and changed the course of our country.

I started to watch some documentaries about the Civil Rights movement. I started out with Eyes on the Prize. I read a few books about Civil Rights leaders. I gained a better understanding of the struggles for equality and what the people involved in the movement really dealt with. More recently I watched the excellent PBS documentaries about the Freedom Riders and Freedom Summer and was moved almost to tears by the bravery and idealism of all of those people, many of them so very young.

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Shiloh National Military Park

“I saw an open field in our possession the second day, so covered with dead that it would have been possible to walk across the clearing in any direction, stepping on dead bodies without a foot touching the ground.” ~ Gen. U.S. Grant on the losses at Shiloh, Tennessee in April, 1862

On an overcast and chilly day in early April, Steve and I decided to drive over to the Shiloh National Military Park to check out the extensive battlefield and park. Before we left, neither of us knew much about Shiloh except that it was one of the biggest, and bloodiest, battles of the Civil War. Since the Civil War is not one of my favorite eras in history, I was woefully ignorant of the details of the battle before we arrived. By the end of the day, I knew much more.

Our first stop was the visitor’s center to figure out where to start. We found a small museum that had maps of the two day battle as well as artifacts from the battle and the Civil War in general. The nice brochure the park hands out provided more background about the reasons for the battle:

By mid-February 1862, United States forces had won decisive victories in the West at Mill Springs, Kentucky, and Forts Henry and Donelson in Tennessee. These successes opened the way for invasion up the Tennessee River to sever Confederate rail communications along the important Memphis & Charleston and Mobile & Ohio railroads. Forced to abandon Kentucky and Middle Tennessee, Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston, supreme Confederate commander in the West, moved to protect his rail communications by concentrating his scattered forces around the small town of Corinth in northeast Mississippi—strategic crossroads of the Memphis & Charleston and the Mobile & Ohio.

In March, Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, commanding U.S. forces in the West, advanced armies under Maj. Gens. Ulysses S. Grant and Don Carlos Buell southward to sever the Southern railroads. Grant ascended the Tennessee River by steamboat, disembarking his Army of the Tennessee at Pittsburg Landing, 22 miles northeast of Corinth. There he established a base of operations on a plateau west of the river, with his forward camps posted two miles inland around a log church called Shiloh Meeting House. Halleck had specifically instructed Grant not to engage the Confederates until he had been reinforced by Buell’s Army of the Ohio, then marching overland from Nashville. Once combined, the two armies would advance on Corinth and permanently break western Confederate railroad communications.

To read more about the logistics and history of the battle, check out the excellent National Park Service web page. Before you start looking at photos of what the battlefield looks like today (peaceful and beautiful), look at this 1888 Chromolithograph drawn by Thure de Thulstrup (from the United States Library of Congress). This images gives us just a glimpse into the horror of that day.


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Visiting President James K. Polk’s House

president james polkI drive to or through Nashville fairly often, and every time I drive that way I see a sign pointing to President James K. Polk’s home in Columbia, TN. I often thought about stopping, but never had the extra time (or people were with me who would whine incessantly about visiting a “boring” historic home). A few weeks ago I decided to make some time to drive up to Columbia specifically to visit the home of a president I know very little about.

The only things I really knew about President Polk before my visit to his home were 1. he started the Mexican-American War in 1843 (and those were the days when Congress actually declared war, presidents didn’t just start wars without Congressional approval) and 2. he expanded the US borders to the Pacific ocean. After visiting the Polk House museum, I realized how much I don’t know about this very interesting and very significant president.

It’s really easy to find the Polk home. First, there are lots of brown signs on interstate 65 before the exit. Head towards the middle of Columbia and signs guide you all the way there. When I pulled up, I saw the county visitor’s center across the street from the stately white old home. I decided to stop at the Visitor’s Center to pick up information about other interesting sights to see in the general vicinity. A very friendly woman was working in the office and pointed out all of the numerous brochures free for the taking. The walls were lined with photos of people with their horses. I asked if people in the county just really like horses. Turns out that the photos are all of mules. Mules grow exceptionally large in this part of Tennessee (the woman said because of the phosphates in the soil) so the mules in the photos looked suspiciously like horses. She told me about the Mule Day in Columbia in April 2014, a giant and well attended festival celebrating local mules. The festival’s been going on for decades and is quite popular in the area. Who knows, I may go to that in the spring. After picking up about a million brochures of other museums and historic sites that looked interesting, I wandered across the street the to Polk home.

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Old Stone Fort, Tennessee

It’s the middle of the summer. It’s hot, and humid, and steamy outside. I wanted to get out and visit someplace I’d never been, someplace with some interesting history, but on this particular day I wasn’t terribly inspired to drive too far, or hike too far, or do anything that would result in excessive sweating. I pulled out a map and gazed out the tiny towns within a few hours of home. I settled on a small state park near Manchester, Tennessee called Old Stone Fort. The name makes it sound like a military park, but it’s not. It’s an archaeological park with a few old mills thrown in. I’d visited the park many years ago but didn’t spend much time there, I didn’t take any pictures, and I didn’t remember much. So, I decided to drive up and spend a few hours checking it out.

The area is gorgeous. The top of the plateau is covered with a deep, dense forest and lined by two beautiful rivers that have carved deep gorges along the edges of the site. I could immediately tell it’s worth exploring.

Entrance to Old Stone Fort

I was pleased to find a small museum and bookstore close to the parking lot at the beginning of the trail. The museum is very small but has some wonderful historic maps of the site over the years. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately for my checking account), I already own all of the books (mostly about archaeology) that interested me in the bookstore! There is also a large relief map of the area showing the Duck and Little Duck Rivers, the site, surrounding communities, and nearby archaeological sites. I really found the relief map and associated information interesting. Evidently, the Cumberland Plateau was very different in the days of the Woodland Indians. Instead of heavy forest, the top of the plateau was more of a grassland. The area where the park is located was an intersection of two very different ecological niches, the upper highland region and the lower river valley and forest. It would have been a great place for native people to look for many different types of plants and animals.

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