No Deal In Pulaski, Tennessee: “The Black Story’s Been a Back Story”
As we drove out of Tennessee, I talked George into following the Columbia Pike south, which linked my great-grandfather’s Civil War battles. The back road felt risky as the shortened afternoon fell into darkness, but I was glad we took it. I meant to talk George into stopping in Pulaski, near the Alabama border, to find the birthplace of America’s premier terror group.
We passed the notorious “sleep-escape” field near Spring Hill. Like a classical episode out of Homer’s mythological Greek tales, Union forces hemmed by Confederate battalions just snuck away northward on the pike, their way lighted by sparks of doused fires while their enemies slipped into sleep. Typical of Tennessee battles, the escape incident resulted from poor communication and rumors of officers drinking too much. I couldn’t help but speculate on my great-grandfather’s state of mind that fateful night. The field looked little changed from 1864. If Austin Patton, at 19, were a typical family member on my Irish side, he would have been slightly soused and fighting a strong urge to sleep, even on his feet.
After Spring Hill and Columbia, the thirty-mile drive south on U.S. 31 to Pulaski was an unheralded rural gem. I’m a sucker for neat pastures and soft valleys, roadsides with no commercialism, no metal outbuildings, just mile after mile of verdant countryside, a church here, a school there. While there’s no shortage of sublime scenery in Colorado, we lack these expanses of rolling, gentle broadleaf forest. In the entire Mountain West, except for small stands of aspen and cottonwood, there are no deciduous forests at all. No maples, elms, ashes, locusts, or oaks unless somebody planted them one by one and took care to water them. With some of the ugliest stretches of highway strip development in creation, we Westerners have treated our wide-open spaces as if they were waste lands, tossing thoughtless development far and wide. But here nature was a soothing cloak, achingly pure, knitted here and there by field and farm.
Though Pulaski was famous as the site where Confederate “boy hero” Sam Davis chose to be hanged rather than reveal rebel movements to the Union forces, the place was notorious in my mind as the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan. When not only the countryside but the town proved to be so pretty and appealing, I was flummoxed. I realized I had a
naïve, unexamined idea that beauty and community ought to deter humans from atrocity. Apparently, terrorists did not breathe in the fresh air, admire the vistas, enjoy the vitality of the town square, and sigh, “Ah, perhaps I shan’t ravage any blacks, Catholics, or Jews today.” I was hellbent on finding the marker that noted the Klan’s founding here on Christmas Eve, 1865, now a gathering place for white supremacists, a sacred rallying ground for racists. Pulaski seemed the opposite of Columbia. Though also historic, founded in1809, with a similarly magnificent courthouse, Pulaski’s commercial hub bustled with pedestrians conducting actual commerce. I wanted to stop, wander around courthouse square, and see if I couldn’t find that Klan marker.
“No deal,” George told me. Evening was coming on, and he wasn’t going to set foot in any KKK town. So, it was serious. His nephew in Denver had been taunting him with texts. What the hell was he doing, wandering the Old Confederacy? Any burning crosses yet? George’s apprehension and disgust for the town’s history made my tourist curiosity feel superficial. “I felt the same way at the Chickamauga and Franklin battlefields,” he said, “and for sure at that riot site, the Mink Slide in Columbia. This place gives me the willies. I’ve reached the end of this road, Lee. Let’s go on.”
Okay, that penetrated my thick white skull. George didn’t mind if we drove around the courthouse one more time, if I was so intent on that marker. But it wasn’t really that compelling to me any more. I began to feel morbid. What was wrong with me anyway? What the hell was I doing, wandering the Old Confederacy? It felt ghoulish, searching out these localities cursed with atrocity and sorrow. While normal visitors toured historic plantations and got laughingly lost in corn mazes, I was tramping through battlefields and trying to spot a racist worshipping at a marker dedicated to a terror group. We stopped near the courthouse but didn’t get out of the car. Though I craned my neck to spot the KKK birthplace marker on one of the storefronts, I didn’t want to ignore George’s feelings. I wondered aloud if we might stop at the site of a Civil War skirmish near Pulaski since Austin Patton had also fought near here. “We could just glance, passing by. At this point, after all these battlefields, it would be enough just to see it.”
“You were lucky,” George said, looking out on the busy town square. “You found out so much from the historian in Franklin about your great-grandfather’s whereabouts.” “Yeah, at this point, I feel like I’m crossing Tennessee in Austin’s company,” I agreed. “He’s become becoming more real to me all the time. More than just a name on a death certificate.” As soon as I said it, I realized why George had stressed my luck. All paths to his great-grandmother had ended back in South Carolina, tangled and ungiving, despite so much researching and just plain searching, but I’d found so much about my great-grandfather so easily, just by asking. “It’s weird, though, isn’t it?” I said. “So many specifics available about Austin, who was so much older than your great-grandmother. And an immigrant, to boot.” George nodded. “Austin was part of the Pageant. You had his whole name. And he was white, to boot.”
How much of the grand national narrative of the Civil War era was ever a pageant for African-Americans? “It’s like our history is still covered over,” George went on, “and we need to find it and tell it ourselves. Even when I learned about emancipation, as a kid, I felt like black people were pawns in the story. The outcome of the Civil War was so critical to my life, but in all these battlefields and museums, the black story’s been a back story, a side show. A few panels on the wall.” Brimming libraries and entire museums were devoted to the Official Story, the federal story we heard over and over in the national battlefields. “It’s got to be hard for the historians,” George went on, musing as the sun disappeared behind the courthouse. “They’ve got to serve Americans from all over, all races and ethnicities. So they push this triumphant tale. ‘An undivided United States, returned to unity. With equality for all!’ But isn’t that just as one-sided as the South reducing the conflict to states’ rights? We whitewashed reality then, and we whitewash it now.”
So we left Pulaski without finding that damn marker. Later I learned about the modern town’s predicament. The Klan and their sympathizers would hold birthday party rallies for Klan founder and Confederate leader Nathan Bedford Forrest every July, with most locals in adamant but helpless opposition. Though he didn’t play a role in founding the local Klan, Forrest soon led the fledgling group in wide-ranging atrocities against black freemen and their carpetbagging Yankee allies: “Forrest led the Klan through its most violent period,” wrote Larry Keller in the anti-racist blog Hatewatch, “when thousands of acts of terrorism essentially forced black Southerners back into a form of servitude.”
So this town, named after a Polish hero in the American Revolutionary War, had to live with the Klan’s notoriety. But Pulaski also had claim to a gentler history. At its very birth, the town’s first established law was to punish anyone who discharged a firearm against “any bird on wing.”
Finally, I learned that my reason for visiting town had long been impossible to see. In 1990, the new owner of the law office where the Klan marker was placed turned it around so its smooth, empty backside faced out. It remained that way, not denying the birth of the KKK, but not inviting acknowledgment, either. Commemoration without celebration.
Further south, we were about to find modern Klan types still busy trying to destroy commemoration of civil rights struggle. George would soon return to Colorado, while my other writing partner, Kristen, would arrive to join me down in Alabama. In Anniston, the little city famous for the fiery 1961 attack against Freedom Riders, Kristen and I would arrive the day before a new fire was set ablaze.
Finding my great-grandfather’s battle ground in Franklin, Tennessee
Even if Franklin, Tennessee had been a toxic hellhole, I would’ve visited the town, site of one of the Civil War’s most sadistic and deadly battles. But just south of Nashville, Franklin was one of the richest communities in the entire country and fastidiously preserved, its village squares and quaint shops giving off an aroma of self-satisfied affluence.
I had to pay homage to my great-grandfather by walking in his footsteps. Years before, a historian at the National Soldier’s Home and Cemetery in Dayton, Ohio informed me that my great-grandfather had fought for the Ohio Infantry in Franklin. Austin Hill Patton was a teenage arrival from Ireland who fought for the Union. Since Austin enlisted so young, and since his son did not father my father until late in life, and since my father had me later in life, too, I ended up weirdly close in generational time to this Civil War ghost. I knew nothing more about him than what I learned in Dayton —that Austin entered what was then the Old Soldiers Home still in his forties, dying from a long list of physical ailments. The Dayton historian had told me it was no wonder he was in such terrible shape; my great-grandfather had fought in the “worst of the worst.”
Franklin, Tennessee. Three patchwork Civil War sites were stitched into the town’s development. Pizza joints, boutiques and golf courses covered the graves of generals and cannon fodder with equal disregard. George and I visited Carter House, a central point in the battle that once overwhelmed the entire town. I had a sentimental idea that I would stand in my unknown great-grandfather’s place, draw him closer and somehow dust off a century and a half of oblivion. I had a proprietary feel for this small farm, this set-aside of open land within the town, my own blood claim on Southern real estate. What I ended up learning was bloody, all right, and that I was tied to a much wider swathe of the South.
The battle of Franklin lasted only four or five hours on November 30, 1864. It was nearly suicidal and/or homicidal on both sides, pent-up vengeance seizing the forces for past humiliations and stand-offs. As the short November afternoon melted into darkness, the curtain was raised for “the last great drama of the war.” In a family’s cotton fields and private gardens, the armies unleashed lunatic violence and hatred. Many scholars describe the battle at Franklin as a psychodrama rather than a strategic maneuver. Some speculate it accomplished nothing and would have resulted in the same outcome—the next battle in Nashville—no matter what happened here at Franklin.
The excruciating Civil War ordeal of the Carter family was detailed with speed, passion, and poetry by our guide Robert Donald Cross, associate historian for the Battle of Franklin Trust. “Don’t call me Johnny Reb, I won’t call you Yank,” Rob said, then led us through the home and the family’s story with vivid detail, in the elevated diction of the era. We ended up in the basement, just as the family did as they waited out the siege, bullets flying ceaselessly above them. Scores of bullet holes still riddling the outbuildings and walls gave silent testimony to what must have been relentless pandemonium overhead.
Rob stressed the battle’s terrible losses. Over two thousand men were killed within hours, more killed in less time than on any other day in the entire war. Corpses were left standing, propped by other corpses. The Carters’ fields of wheat, corn and cotton, then worked by their twenty-eight slaves, were now cemetery-like green turf. Franklin was built over countless unmarked graves.
As we wandered the site, George said, “Rob’s so intense, but keeping a lid on himself, like a pressure cooker. History is like a creation he wants us to understand. He’s expressing his art, trying to convey the best interpretation, to take us there.” George stared at a greensward that sloped toward a highway. “I just wonder, how is all this important to me?” Walking on, he wistfully answered his own question: “I guess, because I’m an American. It’s part of our kinship, and so, it must be part of me.”
We came to a slave cabin, cater-corner from the Carter House. Unlike a brick, gabled pump house nearby, the slave residence was a rough-hewn, one-room wooden shack with a dirty mattress thrown on the floor. “Where were the slaves,” George asked, “while the Carter family gathered in the basement?”
Back at the museum, Rob was working historical magic. With no more than my great-grandfather’s name and town, Springfield, Ohio, he had uncovered in-depth information on Austin Hill Patton’s Civil War engagements throughout the South. The vague scraps I’d learned in Dayton became a feast of specific data. Rob had memorized footnote citations and sub-numbers and knew arcane guideways to identify ordinary soldiers. Austin Hill Patton, 19, enlisted on January 27,1864, and mustered into Company I, 101st Ohio, 1st Brigade, 1st Division, 4th Army Corps. At the Franklin battle, he was probably sent to reinforce the center of main area near Carter house. My sentimental goal more than attained, I got chills thinking of that Irish kid enduring that carnage. My own great-grandfather shot or dodged some of those bullets still lodged in the walls.
But Rob told me so much more. It turned out that Austin took part in the Atlanta campaign. He served in several battles heading south into Atlanta—Rocky Face, Resaca, Kennesaw Mountain, Atlanta, and Jonesboro; battle grounds I had already seen with no idea of Austin’s presence in them. After that, presumably while Sherman went on scorching earth through Georgia, Austin was assigned to the Western campaigns, taking him north again, into the heart of Middle Tennessee: Columbia, Spring Hill, Franklin, and finally Nashville.
Weird how blood bonds animate the imagination’s capacity for connection.
Our conversation with Rob turned to his thoughts on certain Southern attitudes. A lifelong Tennessean, Rob felt “Southern xenophobia regarding the Civil War was sickening and idiotic.” He rebelled against the very term “Union” (favoring “Federal”) and the assumption that any Northerner is “just a Yankee.” He studied military history and found his passion for recovering soldiers’ stories after his father told him of his own great-great grandfather’s history in the Franklin battle.
See what I mean about blood bonds?
After closing time, Rob’s conversation got more personal. Inspired to join the service at age twenty-one, after the 9/11/01 attacks, he hoped “to fight on behalf of a “specific victim, to carry their picture with me into battle.” So Rob was devastated, during training, to be dismissed for heart murmur. He struggled, agonized by a sidelined feeling. At rock-bottom emotionally, he sought his pastor’s counsel. “My pastor told me flat out that I was an idiot. It was obvious, given my education in history: my calling was to educate others on war.”
That’s exactly what Rob devoted his career to, right at home in Franklin. Along with many public presentations and outreach for the Battle of Franklin Trust, Rob also counseled Vietnam veterans, drawing out their funniest stories, then eliciting the worst. “They hunger for their stories to be told truthfully.” Because the vets tell themselves tales of self-delusion in order to cope with atrocity, Rob explained, they struggle to be “truthful even to themselves.”
Another associate joined us and our talk turned to current social topics.. The two young historians thought that our times were “the worst, the most divisive, ever since the Civil War.” As at so many other cultural-historical stopovers on this journey, the staff at Carter House seemed astute and super-informed. The whole place gave the vibe of reverence for the past’s horrible burden and respect for those who sought to learn more, commemoration at its best. This was honoring the past and our ancestors with digging for depth. This was accepting the outcome of the search, no matter how savage or contradictory to some shallow patriotic or nostalgic narrative of our national story—that self-serving slant on history which George and I had come to call “The Pageant.” This wasn’t pageantry at Carter House; it was public truth-telling. Maybe this was the real patriotism.
Taking leave of Rob, full of gratitude, feeling I’d finally discovered my great-grandfather, I also felt the sting of history’s slap here in Middle Tennessee. Starting with my great-grandfather’s role as a youthful infantryman here, and after Rob’s intense interpretation, I’d felt blindsided by raw injustice and wanton violence, old blood gushing under my feet. I felt revulsion at what ought to have been unnecessary struggles for basic equality. The past was a wretched place. Would it always be?
Our Velveeta War Summit in Chattanooga, Tennessee
After our dead-end search for traces of George’s great-grandmother in South Carolina, we set off across the Appalachians in search of my great-grandfather’s Civil War battle site in Franklin, Tennessee. We took a few days to get there, first detouring into Chickamauga National Military Park. The Civil War battlefield had accidently saved a chunk of natural beauty in Chattanooga’s staggeringly ugly suburbs, a greensward built on war corpses. We learned that Civil War veterans had come together here in 1889, giving birth to the very idea of preserving the major battlefields: There will be no place here for…the show of wealth; no place for lovers to bide tryst; no place for pleasure-seekers or loungers.
In fact many visitors used the battlefield for lounging and pleasure seeking —bikers, joggers, and picnickers. I don’t know about trysting, but who knew what was shaking in those blushing thickets?
The battlefield parkland was stately, faithful to its “hallowed ground” sentiment and full of white marble monuments to military units from many states. Weirdly, combat started by accident and ended with a random, surprising breech of Union lines, the Confederates’ last victory on the South’s road to defeat. Often drunk, commanders on both sides could not communicate strategies, leaving troops in uproarious confusion. The Civil War’s second-bloodiest battle after Gettysburg ended with Chickamauga Creek running red.
Sunny and absorbing as this pleasure ground/killing field excursion was, our Chickamauga stopover also felt existential and stomach-churning, revelatory of things we didn’t really want revealed. George wondered about the “utility” of visiting battlefields at all, and I felt a chill, realizing he had named my own doubts about these touristic outings. Utility. The word mocked our very presence here, the very possibility of authenticity in travel and travel writing.
We soldiered on, even so, through the park’s heaps of historical fact. In the museum, we learned of the Union’s overall acceptance of Southern slavery. The North’s real fight and passion was over its extension into the Western territories, not the inhuman institution itself. Even Lincoln’s emancipation move may have been merely strategic. Not exactly our high school lessons of unmitigated Northern virtue.
Earlier, at a Waffle House breakfast, George and I had tried to define our ever-shifting Civil War attitudes over omelets gooey with processed cheese—a Velveeta War Summit. In the down-home chain diner’s cheery, multiracial atmosphere, we discussed our ways of relating to the Civil War, individually as Northern African-American or Average White Guy, or together as Westerners, or as Yankees, in the eyes of locals; and as ordinary modern Americans appalled by secession and slavery. Now at a popular pull-off-spot in the battlefield park, George and I roved different paths. He got itchy as the lone black guy while exploring a watchtower, feeling singled out or unwelcome, sensing the uneasiness of other visitors with his presence. When we rendezvoused at the car, I felt his estrangement. He wondered aloud if he was just being peevish, the unappeasable Race Man.
It stabbed me, how George had to suffer slights, then wonder if he really did. The battlefield was definitely White-landia, not only in the complexions of the visitors, but in the marginal mention of black roles and black stakes in this great battle. Here, of all places, the contest over who really possesses this history, who really belongs, went on and on. “The uneasiness is on both our parts,” George said. “Like neither me nor those white folks can know what the other is thinking. It’s like an awkward dance. The little courtesies just don’t flow. It seems to happen more down South, especially in places where ‘history’ happened. I felt it at Fort Sumter. I felt it in Charleston. Like I’m not supposed to breathe the rarified atmosphere.”
“Maybe we should stick to the Waffle House,” I tried to joke, thinking of the way adoring white waitresses fussed over him. The way a trio of girls at a fast food joint had gasped in joy, mistaking George for President Obama. Then he got to Chickamauga, and damn! That white stare that asks, what the fuck are you doing here?
At our last battlefield stop, a hilly overlook, vintage muscle cars lined the lane. Each one featured pairs of young women with fluorescent hair. We were told it was a photo shoot for a Chattanooga salon, Zombie Candi. The stylists posed, all
laughter and playful hauteur, while alone on the hood of one of the cars was the single black girl. George glanced at her, smiling sardonically. “I know just how she feels.”
* * * *
After Chickamauga’s battlefields, in old Rossville, we sought Cherokee chief John Ross’s house, a now-dilapidated wood structure surrounded by smelly ponds and helter-skelter commercial buildings.
I wondered what John Ross, the founder of Chattanooga, would think of the suburban town named in his honor. Rossville’s ugliness, notable even by metro Chattanooga standards, sprawled with no value but expediency. Here was a town which looked as if nothing was ever planned or improved over a couple hundred years. The site of one of America’s most tragic ethnic cleansings, Rossville today was nearly all-white, a centerless heap of strip businesses from the twentieth century’s cheap-gas car craze.
How beautiful the forests and hills must have been—like those shrouding the nearby Chickamauga battlefield—when Chief Ross lived here. Leaving aside Ross’s conflicting reputations as either the Moses of the Cherokee or an exploitative fraud, a blunt plaque underscored Andrew Jackson’s hostility to the Cherokee plight. After Ross failed in complicated legal challenges to stop the Indian Removal Act, in 1838 the Cherokee were ejected from Georgia and Tennessee on that deadly and torturous forced march to present-day Oklahoma , the Trail of Tears. Reduced to leading the removal himself, Ross lost his wife, who died en route.
A chain-link fence barred us from the historic home. It was a sad but apt commemoration: visitors fenced-out of the story, clinging instead to the metal bars and wondering which side encircled the real prison.