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Road trip: A long-attention-span experience September 14, 2011

Posted by Jenny in Civil War, memoir, travel.
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Sidelong Hill road cut, I-68, western Maryland

In 2008, I wrote about road trips I’d taken out west in a blog entitled A long-attention-span-kind-of thing. This is a sequel of sorts, and it is also an introduction to a series of posts about U.S. highway travel.

In describing the trips out west that I took with my companion Bob, I wrote:

We look for where the Queen Anne’s Lace stops and the sunflowers start, for our first prairie dog of the trip and our first antelope.  We go out to the Ponderosa pines, up to the Douglas firs, and down to the red rock canyons.  We admire vast forests of black spruce by Lake Superior, and perpetual-motion black oil rigs in Wyoming.  The transitions happen very gradually, as is enormously appropriate for the gigantic spaces of our huge United States.  We tune into Kansas public radio and hear a feature about deep-fried Snickers bars.  We drive through hailstorms in Pennsylvania and snow squalls in Utah.  We see the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota, and use the 11,312′elevation rest rooms at Monarch Pass, Colorado.

This trip was different in circumstance but similar in spirit. It was undertaken solo, and its 3,200 road miles were located only in the East. My highest road elevation was nowhere near 11,300′; it was 4,800′, on Spruce Knob, the high point of West Virginia. One important thing, however, remained the same…:

Filomena, the mighty 2002 Toyota Echo

My travel began with a drive up to Massachusetts to be with my sister during her surgery for breast cancer. I do not count this as part of the road trip despite its 900 miles of driving. This was a goal-oriented journey in which the miles were largely unenjoyable, simply counted off; progress was measured by reaching the next gas station or rest area. Much of the journey involved overcrowded, stress-ridden northeastern highways such as I-84 and the Mass Pike. And for some years now, I-81 along the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, formerly an enjoyable drive over rolling green hills, has been much too crowded, an endless procession of tractor-trailers that lumber up the long grades and rampage down them.

But even this segment contained a couple of pleasant episodes. I woke up at 3:00 in the morning in my motel at Martinsburg, WV, and decided I might as well head on out in the light traffic. The sun finally rose as I was driving the eerie high-elevation anthracite country around Hazleton and Wilkes-Barre, PA. I am always struck here by the vast expanses of wind-twisted, stunted birch that grow across the old mines, which have now  been reabsorbed into the land nearly to the point of invisibility. A  few old anthracite breakers still stand in this lonely landscape, but not much remains from the heyday of anthracite production 100 years ago. Anthracite, with its low sulfur and ash content, was considered the clean coal of the day. As the Lackawanna Railroad advised lady passengers concerned about soot coming in through the open windows:  Your gown stays bright/ From noon till night/ On the road that burns/ The anthracite.

As I drove along this plateau, staying above 2,000′ for many miles, a vast fleecy undercast of cloud slowly turned a glowing pink that progressively saturated the atmosphere. I admired this seamless transition for a long time until the rising sun finally replaced the colors with a dazzling white light.

From Scranton, I-84 East became more and more clogged. But I had an escape plan: the Taconic Parkway. As soon as I turned north on it, the traffic simply disappeared. I drove through its familiar green tunnel, watching for deer, catching glimpses of the blue-tinted Catskills across the Hudson. That was my second pleasant episode, and it ended the moment I exited the parkway at its north end.

Five days later, the road trip proper began. Here’s a simple definition: a road trip consists of travel for the enjoyment of it rather than simply to get from Point A to Point B. And this particular road trip fell into a special category: it was an improvisational road trip. The only thing I knew for sure was that Gettysburg would be my first destination. My two guiding themes were “state high points” and “Civil War battlefields.” But which high points, exactly, and which battlefields? For instance, I wanted to go to Shiloh, but I wasn’t sure I would get all the way out to West Tennessee.

As the days went by and I had many adventures and saw many wonderful things, I began to experience the most lovely feeling of freedom. Each evening in my motel, I would study my atlas, decide what I was in the mood for, plot out a route, and write it down in big letters on a piece of paper that I could put on the passenger seat and glance at while I was driving. No, don’t want no stinkin’ GPS.

From Gettysburg to Frostburg, MD, was a beautiful drive. It took me on historic US Hwy. 30—known as the Lincoln Highway—over the dramatic twists and turns of the Tuscarora Summit. I then turned south through a sunny valley of thriving farms, drove through McConnellsburg, PA, and reached I-68. I was awestruck when I saw the road cut pictured at top. A rest area at the road cut offers a walkway along one of its precipitous sides, with plenty of interpretive signs. The signs explained how in the old days of US Hwy. 40, another historic highway (the “National Road”), drivers had to negotiate five treacherous hills on the way to Cumberland, MD. Frequently, cars plunged over the dropoffs—one of the signs showed an old-time advertisement for a “Pull-U-Out”  winch that could be used to hoist your car back up to the road.

With the building of I-68, a monumental road cut project was launched for the 350-million-year-old sandstone and claystone of Sidelong Hill. The cut is 4.5 miles long, 380′ deep, and 200′ wide. The two-year job cost $20m in blasting and opened in 1985, the deepest road cut in Maryland history. Exciting, huh? Whether or not you are interested in historical details like that might be a good indicator of whether you are a likely candidate for a long road trip. Personally, I find these things fascinating.

As I went along, from Gettysburg to the three state high points (PA, MD, WV), to Dolly Sods to Fort Donelson to Shiloh to Brasstown Bald, I started thinking about the contrast between this vacation and the one I had last year, when I went to South  Africa. For me, that was a trip of a lifetime: visiting the Boer War battlefields with a group that knew the subject deeply, staying at a vacation place on the border of Kruger National Park. Yet this year’s road trip offered something missing from the other—complete independence. And a continual unfolding of the unexpected. Who could have guessed that I would end up staying at Yokum’s Vacationland in Seneca Rocks, WV? That I would get the room for $30? That it would feature real pine panelling and a prehistoric television (which didn’t matter to me)?

You can do just about anything at Yokum's

Motels loomed large in my travel experience. Much to my surprise, I had my most unhappy experience in Frostburg, MD. I thought for sure I’d find a nice, inexpensive motel out there in the western end of the state. Turned out there was a convention of firemen in town that weekend. The first two motels I tried were full. I caved in, tired and unwilling to drive on to the next town, and ended up at Hampton Inn for a whopping $110.

It was one of two Hampton Inns that I got stuck with (the other in Martinsburg on the way up). They are a perfect example of corporate packaging, all glossy and polished, the beds loaded with superfluous, foofy-looking pillows, the TV concealed in a coffin-like cabinet, the bathtub hidden behind a shower curtain on a rod that arched out rather than going in a straight line (is that the latest home-decorating trend?). The only saving grace in Frostburg was that a beautiful rainbow shone outside my window when I first entered my room. That must have been worth $10 or $15 at least.

These motels cater to people who are afraid of the dark unknown represented by the small independent motel, who partake of the current trend in American culture for everything to be… I don’t know how to describe it exactly… fancier than it used to be. That is the word my mother would have used. “This is too fancy for me,” she would say, putting an ironic twist on the word as she shook her head disapprovingly. She didn’t need the extra features, the more complex technology, the infinite consumer options.

Far better were my experiences at the “Swiss Villa Inn” in Paris, TN, and the “Winchester Inn” in Winchester, TN—both run by Indians.  Their large and comfortable rooms featured an idiosyncratic mix of furnishings. The Winchester room had a sort of sitting room in the front, with a couch whose fake leather cushions squeaked when I sat on it, and a bedroom in the back with curtains of Indian fabric. The bathroom had come in a time machine out of the 1950s, but it was clean. The Swiss Villa room boasted a king-size bed with extremely comfortable pillows and had a surprisingly good abstract art reproduction on the wall.

I learned from reading an excellent article in the New York Times that more than 50% of all U.S. motels are owned by people of Indian origin. They own many of the “mom and pop” operations, but they are also frequently found running Holiday Inns, Ramadas, Comfort Inns, and the like. To compound the curiosity of this “nonlinear ethnic niche,” as the NYT article calls it, about 70% of Indian motel owners in the U.S. have the last name of Patel. The “nonlinear” refers to the lack of an inherent connection between the occupation and the ethnic group: it is a specialty that originated largely by chance. Once the first Patels came over in the 1940s from Gujarat state in western India, their friends and relatives followed suit, recognizing the benefits of an occupation where hard work mattered more than fluent English.

Sitting in my room at the Swiss Villa Inn, I realized that I had arrived at a mysterious and wonderful confluence: I was in an Indian-run motel in West Tennessee, about to go out for a dinner of fried catfish and hush puppies, served on a paper plate, in a town named after a sophisticated European city. From there I would follow the path of thousands of Union and Confederate troops who had passed nearby 149 years earlier on their way to Shiloh, called after the small log church named in turn for the ancient town in Israel that was a center of worship for 300 years before Jerusalem.

I would walk the haunted fields of Shiloh, then decide to head to the mountains of north Georgia, my little red car swooping around the bends of the fast two-lane highways.

To see all of the posts about my August 2011 road trip, type road trip: (with the colon after “trip”) in the search box at right and scroll down.

I will next conclude my long-interrupted series on Germania, then begin my series on U.S. highways.

Visiting a Civil War site at an earlier age

Road trip: Shiloh September 1, 2011

Posted by Jenny in Civil War, history, memoir, travel.
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Shiloh Meeting House

Two years ago, I wrote about the battle of Shiloh. You can read the post here. The battle has gripped my imagination for a long time. In fact, it even plays a role in my soon-to-be-published murder mystery, Murder at the Jumpoff. But I’d never visited the battlefield until my road trip last month.

So it was with a great deal of anticipation that I left my motel in Paris, Tennessee, and drove south toward Shiloh, located close to the Mississippi border and near the town of Savannah, Tennessee. The novelty of my surroundings added to my enjoyment. I had never been in West Tennessee before except on a long-ago family trip that zipped us across the region on I-40, the goal only to get past Memphis. I did not touch an interstate on this day of travel. Instead, I cruised along on fast two-lane roads, slowing for small towns like Parsons and Milledgeville and Crump. Little brick houses fronted by red and purple crape myrtle lined these towns’ quiet streets. Comfortable puffs of smoke rose promisingly from black barrels, for I was in the heart of barbecue country.

I arrived at the Shiloh visitor center just in time to hear an announcement that a ranger would soon be giving a walking tour on the subject of “Grant’s Last Line of Defense.” I met the group in the welcome shade of a towering live oak: Ranger Charles Spearman and a family from Louisiana. “So you’re from Louisiana too?” the ranger asked, assuming I had some connection with the others. “No, North Carolina.” I didn’t blame him for the assumption. How many women are interested enough in battlefields to visit them on their own?

Ranger Charles Spearman

We were fortunate in having Ranger Spearman as our guide. He was knowledgeable, and passionate, about the subject. Much to the surprise of the others, I immediately started peppering him with questions. I just couldn’t help it. Here I was in the place I’d been reading about for a long time, in the presence of someone devoted to its history. I was asking him about the relationship of Grant and Sherman, who both fought here…about the death of Albert Sidney Johnston…about the arrival of Buell’s reinforcements.

His subject concerned the end of the day on April 6, 1862. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee (37,000 troops present) had been surprised at dawn that morning by Johnston’s Army of the Mississippi (40,000). Men in blue fought desperately to hold their ground at the Hornet’s Nest and all the way back to the banks of the Tennessee River (where thousands of Union stragglers cowered, not so willing as their comrades to face death). As dusk fell and a chilly rain began to fall, the Confederates still held the river landing. But that night, General Buell brought in another 35,000 men of the Army of the Ohio, and on the second day, the tide turned in favor of the Union. By the time the Confederates retreated at the end of April 7, 24,000 men had been killed or wounded. As Grant described it in his memoir, it was “a terrible battle fought between great armies.”

After Ranger Spearman concluded his talk and we walked back to the visitor center, I chatted with him and learned that he had previously been at the Chattanooga battlefields. We talked about Missionary Ridge, and he mentioned that the Confederates had placed their defense line “on the geographic rather than the military high point of the ridge.” I told him that this reminded me of the British position at the battle of Spionkop in the Boer War. He impressed me by being familiar with the general circumstances of the war—not many Americans are.

Back at the visitor center, I watched a 32-minute film about the battle. Ranger Spearman had warned us about it: “The movie’s a bit old, and they’re going to replace it.” He wasn’t kidding. The film was made in 1956, and it was narrated in a certain distinct voice—stern, a bit pompous—common to documentaries of the period. Watching events of 1862 through the filter of 1956 turned out to be comical, especially seeing the actors with 50s-style haircuts and outrageously fake beards and moustaches pasted to their faces.

I drove around the points of the auto tour, picking and choosing according to my whim, as I had at Gettysburg. I soon passed a statue with an interesting figure on the side of it.

Figure inscribing words on the monument

These were the words she was writing.

Brave of the brave... (click for zoom)

I passed the Confederate memorial.

A somber memorial, with downcast faces

The Shiloh Meeting House was a log Methodist church, whose surroundings were the scene of desperate fighting on April 6. The church was destroyed soon after the war, and this is a replica.

Imagine the sounds of fierce fighting all around this spot

The Methodist congregation now occupies the structure shown below, located right next to the log building. Construction of the present church began in 1929, but it stopped due to lack of funds, and the building was only completed in 1952. You can see the dividing line between the starting construction with local fieldstone and the later brick construction.

Stone in the lower section, brick in the upper

The Shiloh battlefield is very well organized in its method of presenting information. This sign near the church explained the system.

I like the use of the word "tablet" for the informational signs

The Hornet’s Nest seemed such an anonymous spot. It is a good exercise of the imagination to visualize the Federal divisions that fought so desperately to hold their ground here. It was the Confederates who gave the spot its name.

The contrast of past and present is great

This statue helps in the effort to visualize the participants

The Sunken Road was similarly nondescript. In the photo below, it appears as a line of relatively bare dirt.

Over time, the road has largely filled in

Each of the leading officers who was killed in the battle is memorialized by the same construction of four piles of cannonballs placed equidistant from a central column. This one is for General Albert Sidney Johnston, the widely revered Confederate general who died at 2:30 in the afternoon on April 6.

The memorial to Albert Sidney Johnston

The nearby tablet explained the details of locating the exact site of his death. Isn’t it interesting how significant it seems to us to identify the spot rather than to say “He died somewhere in this vicinity”?

A red, square tablet in accordance with the battlefield's symbology

I found a single morning glory growing on the spot. I saw no others anywhere else on the battlefield.

This was growing on the spot where Johnston died

I visited another place that saw brutal fighting in the battle, now very peaceful. New peach trees have been planted on the site.

Peach Orchard

Here are a few lines from my earlier post about Shiloh: Throughout the long hours Grant had been moving incessantly among the cardinal points of the battlefield to talk with his division commanders. Those points had names that have taken on an allegorical flavor. The Peach Orchard, the Hornet’s Nest, the Sunken Road, Owl Creek. (Peach blossoms drenched in poison…the youth treads on the nest…the road sinks down and down…the owl flees the dark woods.)

A cabin stands near the orchard, fronted by ancient, contorted cedars.

Cabin at the Peach Orchard

Next stop was Bloody Pond, whose name hardly needs to be explained. It is an unattractive pond, but of course it would have been exponentially uglier during the battle.

Thirsty men drank here despite the bodies that lay in it

Because of the sequence I’d followed on my drive, I hadn’t seen the Tennessee River up to this point, even though the visitor center is close to it. General Don Carlos Buell’s men arrived at the river on the night of April 6.

Tennessee River

My final stop was at the National Cemetery, whose entrance was marked by an elegant sign.

A staircase leads to the cemetery

I saw that a group was at work in the cemetery, digging up headstones. A ranger was supervising a group of young interns or volunteers. I asked them about their project, and the ranger explained that some of the headstones were starting to tilt, and they were lifting them out with a block and tackle to replace them in an upright position. I was pleased to hear that so much care was taken for these graves. The soil, nearly pure clay, retained its sharp corners after the headstones were removed—but the ranger said the roots of the giant old ash tree behind them had been a big problem. I said, “That ash must be really old.” he said, “None of the trees in the cemetery date to before 1909. A tornado that year destroyed every tree in the cemetery.” They timed their work to be under the shade of a tree in the afternoon, he said—the previous week, the heat index had been in the 120s.  I marveled at how the portion of each headstone above ground consisted of only about half of the length of the stone. As I turned to go, one of the young women started singing a made-up song about how hard the work was.

They will make sure the headstones stand exactly upright

And so my visit concluded.

To see all of the posts about my August 2011 road trip, type road trip: (with the colon after “trip”) in the search box at right and scroll down.

Road trip: Fort Donelson August 29, 2011

Posted by Jenny in Civil War, history, travel.
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Dover Hotel, where Buckner surrendered to Grant

For an account of the battle overall, go to a post I authored a couple of years ago titled “The battles of water, ice, and steam.” There you will find a brief  introduction to the incredible follies of two Confederate generals: John B. Floyd and Gideon J. Pillow. The first was a “political general” and the second had a somewhat dubious record of service in the Mexican-American War. The exploits of these two gentlemen are described in more detail below.

After visiting Dolly Sods Wilderness, I spent the night in Charleston, WV, and drove across Kentucky to the Land Between the Lakes. This is the narrow strip of land that lies between the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers shortly upstream of where they merge into the Ohio. The pattern of water flow has changed with the building of the Kentucky Dam, and the rivers are now called Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley. They are not really lakes, though—they are flooded rivers.

I thought it would be interesting to drive the length of the Land Between the Lakes. I turned out to be wrong. I spent 45 minutes or so passing through a rather humdrum oak forest—as I should have realized, the whole point of going there is to make a turnoff to one of the lakes for boating or swimming. As I drove, I never saw the great bodies of water that lay just a short distance to either side. I discovered just one interesting feature: a couple of herds of bison. I don’t know how they came to be there, and since I have seen great herds of bison out West (and I wanted to get to the battlefield), I didn’t stop to investigate.

The battles of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, fought in February 1862, were Grant’s first important victories. Fort Henry is now submerged in Kentucky Lake. As it happened, it had been constructed on low-lying land in the first place and was partially flooded when Grant’s gunboats arrived, which is part of the reason he achieved an easy victory there. The gunboats had already pummeled the fort into submission by the time the Federals marched in. Most of the Confederates escaped overland to Fort Donelson, where they had a much better defensive position.

River battery at Fort Donelson

I described in my earlier post how on February 14 the Confederate river batteries pounded the gunboats, this time inflicting much damage. However, with Union reinforcements coming in, the Southerners were in imminent danger of being surrounded. On February 15, the Confederates battled furiously in a breakout attempt. But just as they succeeded in cutting through the Union encirclement, General Floyd and General Pillow inexplicably ordered them back to their entrenchments. No one has ever been able to fully explain this decision. My personal theory is that Pillow, a man who invariably favored appearance over reality, felt that a victory had been achieved and that everyone would now take a polite pause while he and Floyd telegraphed the news of their glorious triumph to General Albert Sidney Johnston. Grant did not in fact pause; he promptly retook the lost ground and even gained new positions.

Many Confederate soldiers occupied these windowless log huts

Interior of hut

As night fell, it became clear that the Rebels were nearly trapped. At 1:00 a.m., Floyd called a conference of senior officers. Over the next hours, they heard dire reports from scouts (some of which turned out to be erroneous—a line of fencing at a distance had been mistaken for a line of Union infantry). The most competent man present, Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest, determined that he would take his cavalry out via Smith’s Ford, which he had learned was not more than “saddleskirt deep” despite warnings of flooded conditions. Meanwhile, the others dithered.

An informative and entertaining pamphlet by Edwin Bearss* details the story of Floyd’s and Pillow’s discussions with the third in command, Simon Bolivar Buckner. It is quite clear from the start that Floyd and Pillow had already determined to make their personal escape—regardless of whether any troops could accompany them—and were attempting to burden Buckner with the chore of actually surrendering.

Bearss recounts the conversation in the small hours of the morning.

Pillow stated, “Gentlemen, if we cannot cut our way out nor fight on there is no alternative left us but capitulation, and I am determined that I will never surrender the command nor will I ever surrender myself a prisoner. I will die first.” [He doesn’t actually mean that he will fight to the death. What he means is, he doesn’t care for the idea of being a prisoner.]

Gideon J. Pillow

Floyd chimed in, “Nor will I: I cannot and will not surrender, but I must confess personal reasons control me.” [The personal reasons are that he is afraid he will be charged with treason if captured, because he had transferred arms to southern arsenals while Secretary of War under Buchanan.]

John B. Floyd

General Buckner replied, “But such considerations should not control a general’s actions.”

Floyd acknowledged that personal considerations influenced his decision, “but nevertheless such was his determination.”

General Pillow spoke up, informing the officers that “he thought there were no two persons in the Confederacy whom the Yankees would prefer to capture than himself and General Floyd.” [In fact, Grant was later to say facetiously that Pillow need not have been so anxious to escape. “If I had captured him,” Grant said, “I would have turned him loose. I would rather have him in command of you fellows than as a prisoner.”]

Pillow then asked Floyd’s opinion as to the propriety of his accompanying him. To this inquiry, Floyd replied, “that it was a question for every man to decide for himself.” Next, Pillow addressed the same question to Buckner [who actually had a sense of responsibility]. The Kentuckian remarked he “could only reply as General Floyd had done, that it was a question for each officer to decide for himself, and that in his own case he regarded it as his duty to remain with his men and share their fate, whatever it might be.”

Simon Bolivar Buckner

[After a few more rounds of posturing, Floyd then says to Buckner] “General Buckner, I place you in command; will you permit me to draw out my brigade?” “Yes, provided you do so before the enemy act upon my communication,” Buckner remarked.

Floyd, facing Pillow, stated, “General Pillow, I turn over my command.”

Pillow exclaimed, “I pass it.”

General Buckner said, “I assume it; bring on a bugler, pen, ink, and paper.” The general then sat down at the table and began to draft a message addressed to General Grant.

Floyd made his escape by commandeering a steamboat and ordering the raw Confederate troops it carried to go ashore, quite bewildering them. He then forced his way aboard with a brigade of fellow Virginians, unsheathing his saber to clear the way. Meanwhile, Pillow obtained access to a small flatboat and escaped across the river with a small contingent of his staff. He met up with Floyd’s group, and the two journeyed to Nashville together.

Buckner’s message to Grant read, “Sir: In consideration of all the circumstances governing the present situation of affairs at this station I propose to the commanding officers of the Federal forces the appointment of commissioners to agree upon terms of capitulation of the forces and post under my command, and in that view suggest an armistice until 12 o’clock today.”

Grant’s immediate response was: “No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.”

He was known thereafter as “Unconditional Surrender Grant.”

* Edwin C. Bearss, “Unconditional Surrender: The Fall of Fort Donelson.” Reprinted from the Tennessee Historical Quarterly, vol. XXI, March, June, 1962, nos. 1 and 2. Reprinted 1995, 2000, 2004 by Eastern National.

To see all of the posts about my August 2011 road trip, type road trip: (with the colon after “trip”) in the search box at right and scroll down.

Confederate Memorial at Fort Donelson