Will the Big One hit West Tennessee again?

March 19, 2007

People are still talking about the 1811-12 series of earthquakes that hit the northwest corner of Tennessee. The New Madrid earthquake was so powerful that it caused the Mississippi River to briefly run backwards, created Reelfoot Lake, and made clocks stop in Boston, Massachusetts. Passengers on a steamboat miraculously survived what must have been Tennessee’s all-time greatest white water ride, and history doesn’t record if they ever set foot on a boat again.

Scientists argue today about the likelihood of this level of damage occurring again. An article originally published in the Memphis Commercial Appeal quotes a researcher who says “‘It’s (the New Madrid seismic zone) going back to sleep for another thousand years,’ said Seth Stein, a professor of earth and planetary sciences who has studied the New Madrid zone for 17 years.”

We shall see. In the meantime, cue up Mama Cass singing “they tell me the fault line runs right through here.”


Did John Wilkes Booth Survive and live in Tennessee?

February 19, 2007

Today’s Chattanooga Times Free Press (alas, subscription required) trots out the latest John-Wilkes Booth-escaped-death theory, this time claiming that the assassin of Lincoln married a Sewanee woman and lived for a period of time in Tennessee.

Tales of Booth’s second act have been around for a while, as this Wikipedia entry explains.

As Dick Cook writes in the Times Free Press, “. . . there was one piece of physical evidence: the signature of “Jno. W. Booth” and his bride, Louisa J. Payne, recorded Feb. 24, 1872, in the marriage license records office of the Franklin County Courthouse.”

The rest of the story centers in a Flannery O’Connoresque tale. Seems that one Ken Hawkes, who was an autopsy technician for the Shelby County medical examiner’s office, heard accounts of “a mummy that was purported to be Mr. Booth being toted around the Midwest in carnivals during the 1930s.” If this mummy could be found, Mr. Hawkes believes, DNA tests would reveal if it is the remains of the notorious Booth.

And there’s the rub. The mummy has disappeared–nothing on eBay or in the National Enquirer. “I do believe the mummy still exists,” Hawkes said. “I think it’s in a private collection.”


Seventh book on seventh president is on the way

January 14, 2007

The Knoxville News Sentinel takes a look today at the Andrew Jackson Papers Project at the University of Tennessee library. The goal of the project is to publish as many significant letters or other documents as possible that the seventh president wrote or received during his life.

When it comes to scholarly efforts, this is the long haul. According to the story, Dan Feller, director of the Papers Project, has “just delivered the seventh of a planned 16 volumes to the University of Tennessee Press, which expects to have it in print by this time next year.”

These books are not cheap. Amazon.com lists the volume covering Jackson’s papers from 1825-1828–just three years yet 784 pages long–at $70 new, and the least expensive used copy is $65.

The story concludes with a comment by Feller on how interpretations of historical figures change. “‘Historians respond to their own interests and concerns of their time,’ Feller said, noting that Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s 1945 Pulitzer Prize-winning history, The Age of Jackson, devoted barely two sentences in 500-plus pages to Jackson’s role in Indian removal and the Trail of Tears – events for which Jackson is most closely associated today.”

However historians interpret Ole Hickory, having his papers available will provide them the best tools for their trade, now and for decades to come.


Rival scholars claim new site for Sgt. York heroics

December 9, 2006

An article in today’s Tennessean states that a professor from Tennessee Tech and another from Middle Tennessee State University have found the site of Sgt. York’s World War I heroic actions that led to his lifelong fame.

Tennessee Tech issued a press release back in March of 2006 claiming that “TTU’s Michael Birdwell and MTSU’s Tom Nolan think they have the artifacts to prove it — including 12 of 15 rounds from a Lee Enfield Model 17 rifle believed to have been fired by the Tennessee war hero when his marksmanship killed 25 German enemy troops and helped him capture 132 more in the 1918 battle of Meuse-Argonne.” The pair went back to France in November, and came home with what they claim is conclusive proof that theirs is the one true site.

Yesterday, Middle Tennessee State issued its own release announcing that the professorial pair had spent two weeks tramping over the battlefield and recovered more than 1,400 artifacts.

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Get Ready Now: Civil War Sesquicentennial Begins in Four Years

December 6, 2006

While the national news media argue over whether to apply the term “civil war” to the unpleasantness in Iraq, a piece in today’s Chattanooga Times Free Press (subscription only, so no link) says that tourism officials in Georgia are making ready for the 150th anniversary of our Civil War.

According to the article, “About 900,000 people a year come through the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, the nation’s first and largest military historical park. The tourism injects about $36 million to the area’s economy, Mr. Culpepper said.”

The article quotes a Georgia tourism official who claims that Georgia is second only to Virginia in Civil War sites. I have always heard that Tennessee had more Civil War battles than any state except the Old Dominion, but “sites” covers a lot of ground.

I was a mere lad during the Civil War centennial, and we boys at Miller Perry School would turn out for recess wearing blue or grey kepis and conduct mock battles. My parents, although we lived in Tennessee, always bought the Atlanta newspaper every Sunday, and each week that newspaper printed a facsimile copy of a front page from 100 years earlier.

Americans never get as fired up about 150th birthdays as we do 100th or 200th–we love our zeros– but the anniversary will mean increased tourism for Tennessee. This time around, I think we’ll see more attention spent on African-American participation in the war. I hope that Tennessee cities and towns make some solid gains on preserving battlefields and significant structures. If we don’t, we’ll have a new version of The Lost Cause.

Sgt. York casings to be given to museums

November 28, 2006

I got an email from Lieutenant Colonel Douglas Mastriano, whose discovery of the site in France where Sgt. Alvin York and his men captured four German officers and 128 men and marched them back across the lines was reported around the world. The Colonel writes:

“I am pleased to formally announce that 21 of the 21 .45 Colt ACPs that SGT York fired were found in October 2006. The spot matches the 1919 post war photo and is congruent with both American and German testimony/records. The find was where the German archival data led us. There is no doubt that we found the “York spot.” It was an honor to stand on this hollowed ground – where York earned his Medal of Honor. It was quite a moving experience to actually hold the cartridges that were once in his hands. I am humbled that God has blessed us so. It was incredibly hard work – but it was well worth it.

“The discovery does not end the work. The group is working closely with the mayor of Châtel Chéhéry, Roland Destenay, to create a Sergeant York historic trail to ensure everyone has a chance to walk in the steps of Alvin York to ensure that his legacy is honored. As to the artifacts, the group will donate portions to the mayor of Châtel Chéhéry, the York family and various American museums.”

I hope that some of the 21 casings will go to the York museum at the Sergeant Alvin York Gristmill And Park in Pall Mall Tennessee and to the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville.

The Colonel further writes: “In addition to the Colt ACPs, we also found four of the .45 slugs he fired. They were in a row along the exact area where German LT Endriss led the bayonet attack against him. I am pleased to confirm that the archeological evidence is consistent with the York story and puts to an end recent second guessing and revisionist theories to the contrary.

“The mayor of Châtel Chéhéry walked through the area and was shown the artifacts – and he is in agreement with us that the spot was found and that the search is over. He has already agreed to our plan to build a historic trail retracing York’s steps. I have a tentative agreement from three Boy Scout troops to help in this endeavor to start work in the spring.

“It is a great day for the York legacy.” Indeed.

More photos after the break.


Photo credits: Kory O’Keefe

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Tennesseans on Most Influential List

November 23, 2006

The Atlantic Monthly has issued a list of the 100 most influential Americans, and three Tennesseans make the cut.

Andrew Jackson comes in at Number 18: “ The first great populist: he found America a republic and left it a democracy.”

James K. Polk is Number 50: ” This one-term president’s Mexican War landgrab gave us California, Texas, and the Southwest.”

And–you knew he’d be there somewhere–Elvis comes in at Number 66: “The king of rock and roll. Enough said.

Exact location of Sgt. York’s heroism found

October 27, 2006

After spending more than 1,000 hours on a quest, Lt. Col. Douglas Mastriano, an American military intelligence officer working for NATO, claims to have identified the exact site where Tennessee’s most famous war hero won his fame. Sgt. Alvin York, a pacifist who only reluctantly entered World War II, became famous for capturing 132 Germans after his unit came under attack. A 1941 film, in which York was portrayed by Gary Cooper, cemented his fame to a new generation of Americans.

For more on York, go to the Tennessee Guy link below.

TNGuy.com – Sergeant Alvin York Gristmill And Park

Officer Says He Found Site of York’s Heroics in 1918 – New York Times