Friday, September 23, 2016

Stones River National Battlefield

Tucked away outside of Murfreesboro, TN, an hour outside of Nashville, is Stones River National Battlefield.  On New Year's Day, 1863, Union troops tenaciously refused to leave the field of battle, despite being pummeled by the Confederate army all day long.  As a result, in the Western Theater, the Confederates were forced to continue the retreat that began in Kentucky two months earlier and continued throughout the remainder of the Civil War.

As with many battlefields, visiting requires imagining.  Imagine still being groggy from just waking up.  You haven't had your coffee yet, and you're in the middle of fixing breakfast, perhaps thinking that the new year could bring an end to this war, when the enemy suddenly comes rushing out of the adjacent woods with a rebel yell loud enough to send you into a panic.  That's how the battle of Stones River started.

The surprised Union troops dug in inside a thickly overgrown thicket with large boulders and shallow gullies.  Ordinarily such a place would be perfect to fend off attackers, but the Confederates thundered into the thicket in force with a shower of lead.  The scared Union soldiers began retreating through the woods.  The boulders and gullies that would have been their defense instead turned into obstacles that severely hampered their retreat rather than helping it.  As a result, the thicket turned into a slaughter pen.

The Slaughter Pen

As the battle raged on for the next four hours, the Confederates continued to roll up the Union line, pushing them back 3 miles, capturing 3000 prisoners, and defeating them in detail.

The only part of the Union line that held that first day was in what came to be known as "Hell's Half-Acre".  Hazen's Brigade fought off attack after attack until bodies littered the field in front of them.

Site of Hazen's Stand:  Hell's Half-Acre

Despite their certain defeat, the Union army refused to leave the field.  Gen Rosecrans even ordered his left flank to move further left to reinforce the heights to the east of Stones River.  The next day, Gen Bragg ordered an assault on the Union left flank, but his troops were decimated by enfilading fire (shooting into their side) from 58 cannons.  The Union seized the initiative with a counter-attack, pushing Bragg's army back to where it started from.  Union reinforcements arrived that evening, and Bragg, realizing he was out-numbered retreated farther south toward Chattanooga.

Stones River is not one of the more famous battlefields, but the Park Service has done a good job with it (as always, viewing a simulation, such as from historyanimated, of the battle beforehand is very helpful).  The auto tour takes you around to the various parts of the battlefield in chronological order to help preserve the story, and the cell phone tour does an adequate job of describing the action at each part.  There is a short trail through the Slaughter Pen (the overgrown thicket) that gives a great appreciation for what fighting must have been like on that morning as Confederates rushed in and Union troops tried to escape.  Metal silhouettes placed around the battlefield help with visualizing the opposing lines.  The highlight of the tour was the monument to Hazen's Brigade.  Established mere months after the battle, it was the first battlefield monument constructed.  It sits right beside the railroad tracks, so troops being moved along those tracks later in the Civil War would have seen it, producing undoubtedly sober reminders of the realities of war.

Hazen's Brigade Monument

The only disappointment was traveling to the heights where the Confederates were destroyed by cannon fire.  Directions to the area aren't great, there are no storyboards to orient you, and I'm relatively certain the cannons placed up there are facing the wrong direction.  Touring the battlefield only takes a couple of hours and provides yet another sobering reminder of the sacrifice required to preserve freedom.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park

Most people with a basic knowledge of the Civil War are most familiar with the eastern theater -- famous battles like Gettysburg, Antietam, and Bull Run.  The western theater by contrast is much less well known, except for the fall of Vicksburg, along the Mississippi River.  Just as in our history books, during the war itself, the South also placed much less emphasis on the western theater than the eastern theater, in terms of the generals, units, and resources they sent there.  And, perhaps, that ultimately led to their final undoing in the months following the devastating defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July of 1863.

In September of 1863, always afraid his army was out-manned and out-gunned, Confederate General Braxton Bragg began retreating through Tennessee.  After stopping briefly in Chattanooga, only to be out-flanked by the larger Union army, Bragg begins retreating again into northern Georgia.  Union General William Rosecrans believes that Bragg would continue to retreat and spreads his army to maneuver Bragg's army by force.  Instead, for the first time in 6 months, Bragg finally decides to make a stand around Chickamauga Creek.

This time Rosecrans gets spooked and makes plans to pull his army back north to the safety of Chattanooga by conducting a series of leapfrog maneuvers with different parts alternately defending against the Confederates and then maneuvering north.  In the confusion of the battle, Rosecrans believes his left flank needs reinforcement against Confederate strikes and mistakenly moves part of his army from the middle to reinforce his flank.  That opens up a hole in the middle of his line right at the time the Confederates charge that part of the line.  Seeing their good fortune, the Confederates charge through the gaping hole near the Brotherton farm cabin, abandoned the day before when the Union troops arrived.

The Brotherton Cabin.  Confederate troops exploited the inadvertent gap in the Union line flanking Union troops from left to right in this picture.
Despite repeated Confederate assaults along the Union line, the Union army tenaciously holds on, refusing to cede control of the field.  As darkness falls, however, the Union troops withdraw back to Chattanooga.  There, just a few miles up the road, the story continues...

The Union army dug in at Chattanooga.  This time, the Confederates have the advantage, setting up a siege line around the city, anchored at the Tennessee River on both sides of the city with strong positions on Lookout Mountain and east onto Missionary Ridge.  Angry at the embarrassing loss at Chickamauga and the choking siege in Chattanooga, Lincoln fires Rosecrans and brings Grant east to take control.

Grant made quick work.  He broke the Confederate line at the Tennessee River on the west side by silently crossing the Tennessee at night, right under the noses of the sleepy Confederate pickets guarding it, and opening a supply line to the west.  Right on the heels of that, he orders Gen Sherman to attack the Confederate right flank with Gen Thomas and Gen Hooker making a noisy demonstration on the Confederate center and left.  Gen Hooker finds that Lookout Mountain has been abandoned and continues charging up the ridge as the Confederates retreat up and over Missionary Ridge just to the east, reinforcing to counter Sherman's attack on their right.  Sherman attacks piecemeal, squandering his advantage, and the Confederates hold off the assault at Missionary Ridge, but Gen Bragg once again gets cold feet and once again retreats back down through Georgia, leaving the high ground and the vital Tennessee River and railways to the Union army.

The battlefield on Lookout Mountain bears little resemblance today to how it must have looked in late 1863.  Rather it affords a spectacular view of the Confederate position as they besieged the Union army down in the city. 

Chattanooga and the Tennessee River from the Edge of Lookout Mountain
While taking in the view, imagine being a Confederate on the line here with the commanding view over the Union army holed up down below.  Imagine cannon behind you, ready to fire at the first massed movement, slowly choking out the Union army.  Then turn east and south, imagining giving up this perfect position because the General feared being overrun and began retreating back to where you had just whupped some Union bootie, leaving your army nothing to show for it.  Thus, Chattanooga was really another defining moment.  By this point in the war, the Confederates were truly whipped in the west and on their heels fighting a defensive war in the east.  It was only a matter of time...

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Kingsley Plantation at Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve

Within the National Park system, there are many intriguing sites preserved.  One such site is embedded within Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve in Jacksonville, FL:  A cotton plantation called Kingsley Plantation.  Now, you might think that there are any number of southern plantations preserved for touring or that they're simply monuments heralding a time in our history we would like to forget ever happened.  But, as you would expect from the National Park Service, there are several things that make this site unique.

The House in the Background with the Kitchen Building in Front

The View from the Plantation House

First, the owner, Zephaniah Kingsley purchased a slave from Senegal, named Anna, whom he later freed and married.  In 1814, when they moved to Fort George Island, where they built their plantation, she, in turn, became Zephaniah's business partner, taking an active role in managing the plantation slaves despite being a slave herself only a few years before.

Second, the 1000-acre plantation grew a variety of crops, including sugar cane, corn, beans, and potatoes, but the primary cash crop was Sea Island cotton.  Cotton plantations certainly weren't unique for the time period, but Sea Island cotton was considered the cashmere of cotton because its fibers were long and silky.  Importantly, though, the seeds could not be removed from the bolls using a cotton gin because the fibers were too long and fragile and would thus mutilate the cotton.  As a result, slaves were required to remove the seeds by hand.  The more seeds remaining in the cotton, or the more mutilated the cotton, or the less cotton processed at the end of the day, the more the slaves were punished.  Let me restate that a more direct way:  A slave's reward for turning out enough perfectly seeded cotton by hand was no punishment.

Slaves were given a specific task requirement for each day.  For example, the field hands might be given one or more quarter-acre plots of cotton to pick or to produce five pounds of seed-free cotton.  Obviously, the tasks were designed to take the vast majority of each day.  Once complete, only then could the slaves complete their own personal tasks, like tending to their personal garden, hunting/fishing, cooking their own meals, or doing their own laundry.  Slave quarters were generally two-room houses:  One room with a fireplace for cooking, and a room for the entire family to sleep in.  Most were tiny with dirt floors.  A few were bigger, but they were reserved for the Driver (head slave) and his family or skilled slave craftsmen as a show of status.

Slave Cabin Ruins

Inside the Driver's House (i.e., the Largest One)

As I walked through the slave quarters and stood inside them, I pondered what that life must have felt like:  To produce perfect results and not get an attaboy but just to be thankful for a day without punishment; to work from early morning to late evening only then to realize I still had to take care of my personal chores; to realize that no matter what I did, I could never really be trusted.  It was in that moment that I realized how horrible of an institution slavery was.  We can't undo that today.  We can't go back in time and remove that part of our history.  As much as we might like to, we can't wish it away either -- and perhaps that's not even a smart move; that's called denial.  Conversely, neither should we be overly harsh on the slaveholders, for they were born into an economic system and a values system that seemed impossible to see past even to those that might have wanted to (just as we tend to approach the world similarly to our parents without even realizing it and wonder why the rest of the world can't see the obvious truths that we see).  Instead, what we can do is to put ourselves in the shoes of those slaves and imagine how we would feel to live a life of thankless servitude and then let that shape our interactions with our fellow man.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Historic Coastal Florida Forts

Along the coast of northeast Florida lie three forts that make up part of America's rich history, yet a part that is little told or understood.

The History
Following Ponce de Leon's discovery of Florida in 1513, Spain claimed it as its own and it became a crucial link for ferrying gold and other treasure plundered from the Caribbean islands, along with trade goods, back to Spain from the New World.

At the same time, Britain and France were also vying for control of the New World because of the promise of vast riches and resources.  In 1564, then, France established Fort Caroline just north of what is now Jacksonville.  Viewing this as a clear and present danger to their territory, Spain attempted attack on the French but failed, retreating a few miles south to what is now St. Augustine.  The French, in turn, attempted a counter-attack, but severe weather at sea blew them several miles south and shipwrecked them.  Spain, seizing the opportunity, attacked the nearly defenseless Fort Caroline, wiping the remaining soldiers out.

Following their decisive victory over the French, Spain began establishing forts over the next two centuries all along the eastern coast of Florida from Jacksonville down to the Keys to protect its transit route.

Two of those forts protect the approaches to St. Augustine, the oldest enduring city in America.  Castillo de San Marcos sits right on the bay at the north edge of the city's historic district.  Constructed in the shape of a four-pointed star, it was made out of an innovative and easily-fabricated material called coquina -- a kind of cement comprised of sand and seashells.  Coquina was revolutionary in that it absorbed cannon blasts rather than crumbling, making it difficult to penetrate by attacking ships.

The Large Courtyard of the Castillo
The Spanish used Castillo de San Marcos as a large base not only for protection of St. Augustine itself but also as a major supply and logistics base supporting the rest of the forts down the coast along Spain's trade and treasure route.  An imposing structure, Castillo de San Marcos guarded the entrance to Matanzas Bay and the approach to St Augustine from invaders wishing to interdict treasure ships.  Its four-pointed design allowed it to set up a brutal, overlapping crossfire from adjacent corners to destroy any ships within range. 

As Spain increased its presence and control in the region, other European powers, including Britain, continued to challenge them.  Britain discovered that while St. Augustine itself was heavily guarded, a back channel existed 14 miles south at Matanzas Inlet that led straight to the back door of the city and out of range of Castillo de San Marcos's guns.  After narrowly escaping a prolonged British siege of the city in 1740, Spain began construction on a second fort at Matanzas Inlet -- Fort Matanzas.  Like Castillo de San Marcos, it was also constructed of the resilient coquina.

With the fort under construction, Britain tried once again to navigate up Matanzas Inlet to reach St. Augustine, but the fort's guns were already in place and several cannon blasts forced the British ship to turn around.  That encounter was the last challenge to Spanish sovereignty in the area.

Seeing the Forts
Even in the height of summer, it is quite easy to see all three forts in the space of two days, and I highly recommend seeing them as a group to best grasp the interconnected story behind them.

The Fort Caroline National Memorial is located within the larger Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve on St. John's Bay northeast of Jacksonville. While much is known about what happened here, little is known of the actual fort itself.  Even so, the scarce information available was used to partially reconstruct a replica.  Consequently, there is little to see at this site, but the opportunity to visualize the beginning of this oft-untold story makes the trip worth it.  In addition, there is a boat dock on site from which you might get a glimpse of dolphins swimming by.

A sign describing many of the mysteries surrounding the fort and the French colony here.
Castillo de San Marcos National Monument has a self-guided tour that takes about an hour, give or take.  Exhibits in the many rooms tell the fort's story through both Spanish and, later, British control.  On display are the original main doors to the fort, tools used to prep the cannons for firing, sleeping quarters for British troops stationed there, and the chapel.  The view of Matanzas Bay from the top is quite impressive.  From there, it is easy to visualize sentries keeping watch for approaching attackers and readying the devastating cannon cross-fire against them.

Recreation of Sleeping Quarters During British Occupation
The Imposing View from the Top
Lookout Tower Facing the Entrance to the Bay
The Fort Matanzas National Monument Visitor Center sits in a beautiful grove of massive Live Oaks on the edge of Matanzas Inlet.  We ate a picnic lunch there and climbed along the massive low-slung branches. 

Getting to Fort Matanzas itself requires a free boat ride just to the other side of the inlet a few hundred yards away.  As you can see from the picture above (and below), the fort is small (understandably so since it was only needed to prevent enemy ships from traversing the channel).  The ranger provides a short history and orientation on the boat ride and then you're free to explore the fort and grounds for about 30 minutes before the boat returns, which is plenty of time.  Like at Castillo de San Marcos, it is easy to imagine from the top how cannons perched there would be a strong deterrent to ships trying to navigate the narrow waterway.  While on top, we also spied some marine life:  A very large manatee and a crab the size of a dinner plate!

Manatee Swimming Along the Rocks
Our family enjoyed seeing these three forts and all agreed that seeing them in quick succession helped to paint a more complete canvas of the oft-forgotten history of Spanish colonization in the New World.  Indeed this grouping of parks is a representation of what I love about the historical subset of the NPS sites -- telling a more complete history of this nation and the people and stories that shaped it into the world we know today.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Tuskegee Airmen NHS Trip Report

Tucked away in a small town in central Alabama is Tuskegee -- home of the historic Tuskegee Institute and also to Moton airfield, where the famed Tuskegee Airmen and support staff trained during World War II. Tuskegee AirmenNational Historic Site preserves the legacy of those courageous men and women.  The site is simple with museums inside the two historic hangars explaining the training and commemorating their achievements.  Unfortunately, the site is closed on Sunday (the day we visited), but several storyboards outside the site told the story more than effectively.

A little bit of imagination, prompted by the storyboards, made this site powerful!  The Tuskegee Airmen program was conceived as an experiment to see if black people could be taught to fly, fight, and maintain airplanes.  They studied at nearby Tuskegee Institute and then were bused to the airfield for their flight training.  That concept seems so foreign to us now, but I wonder how those first Tuskegee Airmen must have felt knowing they were part of an "experiment".  Were they excited?  Were they scared?  Were they frustrated that they were considered an "experiment"?  Were they eager to prove that they were equal to white people?  Perhaps some of all of that...  

From a preservation perspective, I also found it interesting that, while some of the buildings had been torn down, the National Park Service wanted to reconstruct what the site looked like back in the 1940s.  Unfortunately, all they had were a couple of photographs showing what the outside looked like.  When reconstructing structures, the NPS strives for accuracy.  Therefore, in absence of information, rather than guessing, they chose to construct ghost structures (metal frames showing the location of windows and doors) to provide an idea of the size of the buildings and their proximity to the other structures around them.

This site doesn't take long to see, and you can still get a lot out of it even if it's unexpectedly closed on the day you visit.  It serves as a powerful reminder of what some brave people chose to take on 75 years ago despite what others around them may have thought and gives us the opportunity to "walk a mile in their shoes".  The Tuskegee Institute NHS is less than 10 minutes away and provides a similar experience looking back at the vision, perseverance, and accomplishments of Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver as they set out to create a first-class university for still-segregated blacks.


Sunday, June 12, 2016

Oklahoma City National Memorial Trip Report

April 19, 1995.  A massive explosion rocked downtown Oklahoma City at the Murrah Federal Building, the work of two domestic terrorists.  By the end of the day, 168 people were dead and more than 680 injured.  It was the worst attack on domestic soil up until 9/11.
Taken two days after the bombing
Cristi and I were in Oklahoma City that day, in our respective college classes.  In fact, Cristi was supposed to have been downtown volunteering at the Journal Records Building right across the street (what is now the Memorial's museum), but at the last minute chose to stay on campus that day.  It was a defining moment for us.  In the aftermath, our college group at church went downtown to help organize supplies needed for the search, relief, and cleanup effort.  We weren't allowed on-site, but being even on the periphery of the blast zone was surreal.  I couldn't understand how anyone could do something so evil.  Funny (not funny, actually) how Americans see the world much differently now in our post-9/11 world.  In those days that passed, though, I could not have been prouder of my state.  The out-pouring of compassion and assistance to the families was eye-watering.  Absolutely no looting took place downtown.  My favorite radio station, Rock-100.5 The KATT, interleaved news reports into two then-popular songs -- Live's Lightning Crashes and Eric Clapton's Tears in Heaven -- and played them over and over, bringing tears to my eyes as I recalled the horror of that day.

Cristi and I left Oklahoma City a year later and could never make it back to see the memorial once constructed and dedicated.  Finally, last summer, we made it.  And it was worth it!  The Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum is extremely well done and a must-see for anyone that feels connected to those events on that fateful day, whether because you experienced it first-hand or you remember watching in horror as the scene burned into your TV screen.

As I mentioned, the Journal Records Building is now the Memorial's museum.  We started there, though only briefly.  Coming around the backside of the museum was like stepping into another world.  Unlike a busy downtown city block, it was serene.  There is a reflecting pool with "time gates" on either side.  One gate is inscribed with 9:01, symbolizing our innocence before the attack and the other with 9:03, symbolizing the time we were forever changed after the bombing.  The reflecting pool now lies in place of the street that separated the Journal Records Building from the Murrah Federal Building.

On the other side of the reflecting pool is a lawn of scattered chairs -- 168 of them, representing each individual that lost their life that day.  The chairs are organized in rows and columns, but the rows aren't all the same:  It's the same pattern as the massive hole in the building juxtaposed with where the individuals were killed in the building.  It's a powerful and symbolic reminder of the tragedy.
The Journal Records Building (Museum) is in the bottom of the photo.  The chairs are where the hole is, and the reflecting pool is where the street is.
We were there for only an hour or so, but the memorial drew us in. We strolled through every piece of it, reconstructing, remembering, imagining, contemplating.  It was powerful.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Paint Mines: A Bucket List Completion

We have been to the Painted Desert and thought the color in the badland formations there was incredibly beautiful.  When we moved to Colorado Springs, however, we were told of a similar park right in our own backyard:  The Paint Mines, located in Calhan, just a few miles east of the Springs.  This week, with my parents visiting, we went to check it out, and we were impressed.

The park has several sandy cliff formations, colored by the gypsum in the sediment.  Centuries ago, the Native Americans mined the colorful sand to decorate their pottery.  Much more recently, adobe houses in the area were colored from the "paint" from these formations. 

There are several miles of trails, but most of the formations are concentrated in the southwest portion of the park.  We took a nice, leisurely 3-mile hike through the park, and after being awed by the formations, were awed with the wide open spaces out on the plains and even a beautiful view of Pikes Peak, some 45 miles distant.

If you're in the area and looking for a new adventure, the Paint Mines provides a great half-day family outing exploring more beauty in the majesty of the great outdoors!

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

Imagine Tatooine or, for you newer Star Wars fans, Jakku, with massive sand dunes as far as the eye can see.  Now picture having to cross a wide, shallow stream fed by snow-melt from the high mountain range surrounding the dune field.  That's Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in south-central Colorado. 

My family traveled there a week ago and had an awesome time!  My son dubbed it "the most fun national park we've been to."  With it being late spring, we expected Medano Creek to be flowing.  What we didn't expect was that, because there's no actual stream bed, the water flows across an area that's probably a couple of hundred yards wide, with sand bars interspersed among little sections of "rapids" several inches deep.  With the stream so wide and its "bed" pure sand, it was more like a beach.  And people treated it that way, too.  It looked just like a traditional beach with people setting up chairs, kids splashing around in bathing suits with rafts.  One family even set up a pup tent.  There were a host of school groups there, too.  It was a Friday, and our initial impression was that we were in for a huge crowd.  Most stuck close to the near side of the creek, however, and the other side a few hundred yards away was much less crowded (and had much deeper water).

The water was cold when we crossed, though, and we had rented sand sleds, so we passed up the alluring creek and kept on trekking toward the dunes.  Because the prevailing winds continually shape the dunes, there are no trails, and you can hike wherever you want.  It's only about a mile-and-a-half to High Dune, which is not the tallest dune in the park (that one is an additional mile-and-a-half away), but it is over 600 feet tall.  Several people made the journey out there to summit it, and even without a trail, they seemed to create "ant trails" up the dunes.  We were ready to sled, though.

We rented both a sand sled and a sandboard (think snowboard but different).  The first dunes we came to were about 100 feet high, and we figured that would be a good place to try out our (lack of) skills.  We tried the leeward side first, but the slope was too gentle.  Even with wax on the sled and board, we really didn't get anywhere.  The windward side was much steeper.  Brennan and I steeled our courage at what looked to be a greater than 45-degree angle and headed down -- me on the sled and him on the board.  It wasn't pretty, but it was a rush!

Over the course of the day, we sledded and slid and lost our balance and fell and rolled...

...All except for Brennan.  He looked like a rock star from the beginning even though he has never even snowboarded before!  (I must say, however, that while Brennan could board circles around me, he couldn't get the hang of the sled at all because it kept trying to angle down the mountain and then topple due to the shape of the dunes.  I mastered preventing that catastrophe much faster, so I guess we were even!)

By the end of the day, we had managed a rudimentary skill level, and we declared victory!

And, of course, since this was a National Park site, Lauren also completed the Junior Ranger program.

We had so much fun sledding and boarding that we didn't really even bother playing in the water and didn't do any hiking (I know -- odd for me, right?).  After several hours, we were tired but had had an absolutely phenomenal time riding the dunes.  This place is synonymous with the National Park descriptor of "America's playgrounds"!