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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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.

James Polk Home [Read more…]

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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Historic Santa Fe

A cool autumn breeze is wafting through the big sliding glass door of my cheap  hotel room. I just stuffed myself with a delicious tamale, enchilada and chicken taco at a Mexican restaurant so authentic cow lip burritos are on the menu.  Now I’m figuring out my schedule for tomorrow. All I’m going to do is visit the historic district and hit as many museums as I possibly can.There’s too much to possibly do in one day so I’m narrowing it down.

What’s on the agenda? Some of the place I already know I’m going to visit include the New Mexico History Museum, Palace of the Governors, the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, and the Museum of American Indian Arts and Culture. I also just found out that the oldest house in the US in here in Santa Fe. It’s an old adobe structure that is dated to at least 1650. I’m going to wander around the downtown historic district and see what other interesting things are there.

I can’t wait to visit this historic city. I’ll post lots of pictures of what I find.