Monthly Archives: July 2011

AMELIA ISLAND: I’ve Got a Secret

Fort Clinch on the Northern tip of Amelia Island, Florida

Florida summer vacations are an American tradition. Time and again I’ve endured slides and photos and tales of trips to Disney World, Fort Myers, Miami, and on and on from well-meaning friends eager to share the joy. I’ve listened politely but none of it ever really interested me until I finally, under some pressure, consented to a family vacation at Amelia Island about twenty years ago, a place where members of the extended Hardaway family in the construction business had been doing work for some time. That year we stayed on the South end of the island within the “Plantation,” a modern planned development sporting recently constructed, stylish beach homes, golf courses, a Ritz Carlton hotel, and a sort of Country Club atmosphere.  Though I liked it fine, I wasn’t taken with the place. Was it a little too ”Hoity-toity”, high-brow? I don’t know. But I don’t remember being particularly impressed.  Perhaps I just wasn’t paying attention.

Some years after that we became friends with a family who had access to a home on the North end of the island near the beach and accepted their invitation to spend a week with them. It was an offer we couldn’t refuse.  Good thing we did. We fell in love with the place and have been coming ever since.  What makes it so good is that unlike so many other touristy, overdeveloped, overcrowded places on the Florida coast, Amelia Island, with it’s historic old Florida charm and so much more, has somehow remained a secret, such a secret that I hesitated to write this piece!

Amelia island, where I now sit and write, located on the NE tip of Florida, about the size of Manhattan, was named for the daughter of King George II, sister to George III, yes the one who got the patriots all fired up in  the American Revolution. The original inhabitants of the island, the Timucuan Indians are, unfortunately, long gone. In the rush of Europeans to the New World it passed into the hands of the Spanish soon after the establishment of St. Augustine, sixty miles or so to the south. And so it was for many years, until a brief period of British rule (thus the name) in the 1760’s after which the Spanish resumed control until the early nineteenth century when they vacated Florida once and for all and the new United States gained yet another territory and later a state in 1845. The nineteenth century was a bad time for the Spanish empire, especially in this hemisphere.  First they lost Mexico, then Florida, then most of South America, and finally, just before the century was out, as if to add insult to injury, the they lost Cuba. No, not a good century at all for the Spanish.

The historic town located on the north end of the island, Fernandina Beach, named for King Ferdinand VII of Spain, is, at least in it’s name, one of the few reminders of the old days of Spanish rule. Incorporated and laid out in 1811, it is, in many respects, the premier showplace of “old Florida”, a port town that over the years managed to keep most of its old buildings and homes, never experiencing the ravages of urban renewal, the kind of rapid, unfettered twentieth-century growth in which the wrecking ball was employed with a seemingly mindless abandon in the interest of “progress”.  Today one can walk down quiet  streets bordered by manicured lawns shaded by enormous, delightful moss-draped live oaks and palmetto trees fronting late nineteenth century Victorian homes, remnants of a time when Fernandina Beach was a post-war boom town alive with entrepreneurs who had flocked to Northern Florida to exploit lumber, phosphate, and other resources in the interior.  Some of these delightful homes built by the businessmen of a hundred years ago remain private residences. Others have been converted into businesses such as “bed and breadfast” establishments. Though a tour of the neighborhood will reveal a few “diamonds in the rough” most of the homes in the old town are restored, well-maintained, and utilized-prime photo ops for tourist brochures and conversation pieces for horse-drawn carriage tours.  Every house has a story.

In addition to having a unique historic residential district, Fernandina Beach has lots of other bragging rights. The “Palace Saloon”, where I stopped and enjoyed a local brew and a cigar this afternoon, boasts of being Florida’s  oldest continuously operated drinking establishment (since 1903) Of course, the place had to get creative to stay afloat during Prohibition selling ice cream and gasoline among other things. Today groups of sailors from the nearby nuclear submarine base  on shore leave still frequent this and other tourist-oriented establishments and gift shops in the old business district, many of whom belong to foreign navies, a reminder of the old days in the late nineteenth century when Fernandina’s docks were among the busiest in the South. Though not as busy as a hundred years ago, ships still come in and out of the small port on a daily basis.

Want a good meal? There are lots of choices. Though it’s hard to nail down a favorite, “T-Ray’s”, a burger joint on 8th St housed in an abandoned filling station, is a close contender in our book. Where else could you enjoy a delicious plate of fried, local shrimp seated outside on a picnic table next to unused and rusty gas pumps? Can’t beat it with a stick.  T-Ray himself, a gregarious middle-aged gentleman in a Georgia Bulldogs polo shirt, will likely carry your food to you and greet you as if you’re a long lost friend.

Amelia Island also has a thoroughly modern dimension. On the North end of the beach (where we stay), if you’re lucky, you may catch a glimpse of a surfaced Trident II nuclear submarine heading either in or out of the King’s Bay base adjoining nearby Cumberland Island, not something seen in many other places in the world. This is quite a sight. One can’t help but wonder how many of our tax dollars are invested in a piece of hardware like that!

Being a military history guy, I like old forts. Fort Clinch is also located on the North end, again not too far from where we stay- a good bicycle ride. For years this early nineteenth century structure of brick and mortar lay abandoned and deserted until purchased by the state of Florida in 1935 and cleaned up/restored by the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) to be the centerpiece of a state park and wildlife sanctuary  now attracting thousands of visitors each year. Pay a fee, go through a little museum, and then explore this huge structure originally erected to guard the harbor and keep away any unwanted ships, be they pirate or navy, from the port of Fernandina. But like so many other well-intentioned defensive structures across the world, no enemy ever tested it. When the Federal navy entered St. Mary’s sound in early 1862 to seize the port of Fernandina Beach, the best chance Fort Clinch ever got for some real action, a chance to fulfill it’s destiny, the Confederate garrison, convinced that discretion was the better part of valor, abandoned it without a fight and fled into the mainland along with most of the residents of nearby Fernandina Beach-not exactly the “Alamo.”  Unlike it’s more famous cousin Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, which was reduced to rubble from several bombardments, Fort Clinch never experienced a bombardment or a shooting match with hostile ships. Though the fort is rarely mentioned outside of Florida history books, and has no interesting war stories to tell, there is an up side.  This lack of activity left the fort in excellent condition, a good specimen for future generations to study and for utilization as a tourist destination.

We hope that future generations will point out something in common with Fort Clinch and the giant submarines that now cruise within sight of it, that both employed deadly weapons that were never used. A missile fired from one of these vessels would level a large city,a terrible thing to consider.

For a Tennessee landlubber like myself, Amelia is quite a change in topography and natural scenery. There are no hills here, the highest point on the island, where an old lighthouse stands, is only 36 feet above sea level.  Salt-water marshes or estuaries formed by fresh-water creeks pouring into salt-water intrusions, carpeted with black needle rush and other distinctive tall grasses, cover much of the island functioning as sanctuaries for a wide variety of migratory birds and wildlife. Once when examining the vast marsh between Fort Clinch Park and the town, I noticed thousands of crabs crawling in and out of their own little one to two inch holes in the sandy mud below the grass. The entire marsh is honeycombed with them. This is not a place to explore on foot. Get chased into this area and you’d quickly sink into that mud before being overwhelmed by these nasty looking little nightmares-a pretty place viewed from a safe distance on terra firma.

Most of all, people come to the island for the beautiful beaches. Except for a few spots here and there, they are mercifully uncrowded even at the height of the tourist season. The beach near our house, due to the dredging of the St.Mary’s river nearby (for the submarines) has been widened and enlarged. There’s plenty to do. Take a pleasant walk, watch the pelicans fly (they seem to float) just above the water, look for that prize shell, catch up on your beach reading, work on that tan and be sure to put the sun screen on the tops of your feet (I forgot yesterday-ouch!)

While visiting the beach be sure not to bump into specially marked spots indicating sea turtle nests under the sand. Due largely to the efforts of local turtle enthusiasts, these have multiplied over the years. One morning a few years ago we chanced upon a group doing what they could to help a group of hatchlings make it from their nest to the water. It was a sweet marvel to behold. Most of them made it but one, before anyone could chase the guy away, fell victim to a hungry crab. But, that’s nature’s way.

The beach has rules. Upon passing through one of the official public entry points, the rules as approved by the city of Fernandina Beach are posted: no littering, no loud music, no alcohol, and be sure to pick after your pets.  In the Boy Scouts we would simply say: Behave yourself and “leave no trace.” A few years ago at Hilton Head beach (South Carolina) I read their posted beach rules. There were many more rules  including a prohibition against nudity, one not mentioned here. This is the US of A, not France.  Maybe it is assumed; I haven’t yet seen anyone violating it if there is such a rule.  And another thing: A sign over each turtle nest warns beach visitors to leave them alone alone upon pain of “fines or imprisonment”  I’ve often wondered if there is a crazy turtle hating guy sitting in prison somewhere getting funny looks from his fellow inmates when he answers their question: “What’re ya in for?”

People also come for the weather. Our Tennessee summers, with long stretches of hot, damp, stagnant air, can be brutal. Come six hundred miles due South to the Northern Florida beach for a welcome change. Yes, it’s still hot, but it’s a different hot. The crisp air and almost constant ocean breeze make coastal Summer living  far more tolerable. Being this far south, the Winters are milder as well. But there is a down side. Every decade or two a hurricane visits the area.  And sometimes, as in 1898, a hurricane  visits with a vengeance and does some real damage, especially to structures along the beach.

At night one can see shrimp boats  out on the ocean horizon. About a hundred years ago, Fernandina Beach hosted the birth of the American shrimping industry and for many years it was a major industry here but in recent years it has declined. Today the Amelia Island fleet is modest, numbering ten to fifteen boats. Usually they fish in nearby waters, but often they head to other parts of Florida and the gulf. The decline is not due to a decline in shrimp consumption but rather  to competition from foreign imports and  shrimp “farms,” landlocked lakes where the tasty little guys are raised commercially.  Both have undermined the efforts of local shrimpers and one can’t help but wonder if they will survive. The “Bubba-Gump” enterprise would have a hard time these days.

Alright I know. This blog is about US history, not beaches and shrimp, salt water marshes, Victorian homes, and Summer vacations. But, I’m enjoying things here right now with family and friends too much to keep quiet. And so, at no extra charge, I’m confiding in my readers, many of whom just may be looking for a good vacation in a unique historical setting. Though I’m not really sure why, Amelia Island as a good tourist destination has long been a well kept secret. And we’d kinda like it to remain that way. We don’t want it to become one of those typical Florida destinations that Yogi Berra spoke of when he said: “The place is too crowded; no one goes there anymore.”  But you guys are special.  Come on down. The water’s fine.  Just don’t tell a lot of people. It’ll be our little secret.

Jim Hardaway, 7/28/11


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First Manassas- The Ball Opens

Collapse of Ricketts Battery-turning point in battle of Manassas

After a great deal of shouting, seceding, yelling, arguing, insulting, and name calling the armies of the North and South finally came to blows one-hundred and fifty years ago near a railroad junction in Northern Virginia called Manassas on July 21, 1861. It was, until upstaged by SHiloh a few months later, the largest battle ever fought on American soil. By comparison the battle of Brooklynn, 85 years previous, with about thirty thousand participants, was probably the largest battle of the revolution. There were about that many warriors in the Southern army alone at Manassas. To Americans in 1861 it seemed a reasonable guess that the war just might be one of big battles with lots of participants.

Furthermore, a big fight near a railroad junction was equally prophetic. The American CIvil War became the first war in which the “iron horse” became a major factor. Many of the troops that fought on the Southern side that day had traveled to Manassas from their home states on the rails, even units like the 7th Lousiana-quite a trip. Moving large bodies of men overland by rail became commonplace in the months and years ahead. As many historians have noted, it was the last of the “old” wars and the first of the modern, industrial wars.

After the disgraceful rout of the Union army, many Southerners felt that the Confederacy had probably won the war and predicted that after a few more skirmishes and possibly another major battle or two the two sections would go their separate ways. Jefferson Davis was said to have remarked of the retreating Union army: “they won’t be back.” Celebrations erupted all across the South. Many new recruits were disappointed that they had missed the war. Cocky Confederates quickly forgot just how close their army had actually come to losing the battle.

Wiser heads in the South knew better. The celebrations were premature,the thing was far from over. They knew that they had better continue their preparations as the Northern armies had, like John Paul Jones, “not yet begun to fight.”

Confederate strategists were painfully aware that the real danger to the new Confederacy was out West. A modern ironclad navy unlike anything ever seen before was being built in Cairo, Illinois to exploit the Tennessee, Cumberland, and Mississippi Rivers, giant superhighways into the Southern heartland. A joint army-navy force was being assembled in the midwest and there was little they could do about it.

Confederate authorities rushed men and big siege guns that might sink those dreaded new gunboats to hastily constructed forts at key places on the rivers:Island No. 10 on the Mississippi, Forts Henry (on the Tennessee) and Donelson (on the Cumberland). But in the end, it was all to no avail. Throughout 1862, Northern forces quickly captured those forts and assumed control of the rivers and key river towns such as Nashville, New Orleans, and Memphis. Only Vicksburg and Port Hudson seemed to give them any real trouble and by mid-July 1863,those key strategic points had fallen.

Forts alone were insufficient. The South needed a navy and had neither the means to build a navy or the time to do it even if they had. From day one the South was far behind in that race and never caught up.

Things always seemed to go better for Confederate forces in the East (VIrginia), where scarce resources were allocated to protect the capitol, where the rivers running East-West functioned as barriers to the invaders, not superhighways, and of course, the East was the theatre where the most glorious of the glory boys commanded: RE Lee and TJ “Stonewall” Jackson.

After the battle of First Manassas in late 1861, Confederates had another big problem looming on the Western horizon-an unknown brigader who had somehow risen to command the invading Union army, a man almost ignored initially by the state authorities in Illinois and even George McClellan (who wouldn’t even grant him an interview), a man who had a knack for command and when the going got tough just refused to back down and retreat: Ullyses S. Grant. When he came into Tennessee in early 1862, he won a victory at Fort DOnelson that far surpassed the SOuthern victory at Manassas.

But, in all honesty, it wasn’t until the great and bloody battle at Shiloh(in the Western theatre) two months afterward that the American people scanned the grim casualty reports and realized that the war had suddenly become very serious business. Despite the tremendous disparity in resources the war continued, astonishingly enough, for another three years.

Important as it was, the battle of FIrst Manassas, with comparatively light casulaties, was only a sober preview of what lay ahead-bloodshed and body counts like the country has not seen before or since.

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General Nathan Bedford Forrest:A Controversial Legacy

NB Forrest-"The Wizard of the Saddle"

Now that we’ve entered the 150th anniversary commemoration of the Civil War we’d best get ready to hear about General Forrest and prepare ourselves for the inevitable fireworks. They are inevitable because the subject of the war in Tennessee really cannot be discussed without a frequent mention of his name. His military legacy is simply stunning, the stuff of myth, legend, and folklore. He was a pure warrior, a no-nonsense “get-in-there and get it done” kind of leader, absolutely fearless, clever, a natural tactician with no formal military training, and without question one of the most respected generals of a war that produced lots of generals and lots of competition. He seemed to have led a charmed life having had over thirty horses shot out from under him in dozens of battles and skirmishes throughout his four year military career. Very few generals survived that much combat. Time and again he did not merely order his men into the battle but led them. When Robert E. Lee was asked after the war who was the greatest soldier of that war he was said to have answered without hesitation: “A man I’ve never met-Forrest.”

Today, July 13, is General Forrest’s birthday. And I believe that today was once a Tennessee state holiday. I did a lot of googling last night but was not able to confirm this. But if it was, it certainly isn’t anymore.

When driving up I-65 toward Nashville from the South just past the Brentwood exit one cannot help but notice an odd gold and silver equestrian statue surrounded by flagpoles thirty or forty yards from the road on the right a mile or so before reaching the Harding Place exit. You can’t miss it. A blind man could see it. Of course, this cartoonish statue, all out of proportion with the head too large and the horse too small, is a bizzare depiction of the famous general. Hardly anyone likes it, even the general’s most ardent admirers. But it is located on private property and there is little that anyone can do about it but fuss and complain.

People have been complaining about NB Forrest for a long time. First, it can be assumed that the slaves he bought and sold before the war weren’t happy with their situation. Surely they complained-not that you’d blame them-not that it did them any good. Next, came the Yankee soldiers and Federal authorities. For four long years Forrest was a serious nuisance prompting General WT Sherman to label him “that devil Forrest.” And then, after the war, when he assumed a position of leadership in the newly formed Ku Klux Klan, he once again stepped into the hot seat of controversy. The distraught, complaining Reconstruction government let him know in no uncertain terms that he’d better lay low and give that up as they were itching for an excuse to arrest Mr. Forrest, their old enemy, one that they had never been able to conquer or capture during the long bitter war. And Forrest wisely did just that, dying of natural causes soon after at the age of 56.

Yet the controversy continues. One man’s hero is another man’s villain. His old equestrian statue in a park in Memphis surrounded by African American neighborhoods is often vandalized. I remember well the controversy and protests that ensued thirty years ago when his bust was installed in one of the halls in our state capitol building. For many years Middle Tennessee State University featured an image of Forrest on university logos, etc. as the “MTSU Raiders.” After protests were raised a few years back this changed, but university officials were not able to come up with a suitable substitute. I’m not sure what it is now, but it ain’t the famous general. To many Americans who couldn’t care less about his military legacy, he is no hero. To them Forrest is a villain.

To the “good ole’ boys” in “red state Tennessee” NB Forrest is a hero. Numerous sites, such as the state park in West Tennessee, are named for him. All across the state official historic markers tell of his wartime exploits. When the subject of the war comes up many Tennesseans boast of having an ancestor who “rode with Forrest.” Ride into Chapel Hill, his birthplace, and it is obvious that the people of that small town take great pride in their native son. I used to visit the “Cotton Patch” restaurant along I-40 between Jackson and the Tennessee River, an establishment located on the “Parker’s Crossroads” battlefield that for many years functioned as a shrine to the general with portraits of the man hung on the walls between cases of Civil War relics. And, of course, there are the statues.

The Forrest legacy represents a dilemma in historic remembrance and preservation. Many are willing to take steps and spend money to see that he is remembered and honored. Others would like to see him demoted to historic footnotes and, for the most part, forgotten.

To those who want the general remembered and honored I say this: bear in mind his dark side-the pre-war fortune he made in the slave trade, the Fort Pillow “massacre” and, of course, his role in the early Ku Klux Klan. Be sensitive (I hate that word) to this. Be aware of the feelings of your black neighbors.

To our African-American friends who consider the famous general a villain, I would say: I understand. But be aware of everyone’s first amendment rights that if the “good ole’ boys want to honor the old general they have a constitutional right to do so.

Be aware of the fact that nearly all major historic figures have a dark side. Woodrow Wilson? By modern standards he is a vicious racist. Lincoln? For much of his career he was a colonizationist, one who believed that “negroes” had no real future in the US and should be sent “back to Africa.” Even George Washington was a slaveholder. Andrew Jackson? Yet another slaveholder, and don’t mention his name around an American Indian. And on it goes, one after the other.

Human beings are a mix of good and evil, light and darkness. No one is perfect. Even Martin L. King Jr., perhaps the most revered figure in US history by blacks and whites alike, one who is honored in a national holiday, well…uh…he liked the women folk I’ve heard. Bill Clinton, a big hero to many millions of Americans? A hopeless womanizer. And yes I know, “no one died when Clinton lied.” But yeah some people suffered, especially his wife and family. And yeah, he did lie. W.E.B. Dubois? Wasn’t he at one point a committed communist, as was Nelson Mandela? Helen Keller? Committed socialist and communist sympathizer, sorry not my kind of hero.
In all fairness to the old general there is good evidence that he began to rethink some of his views on race in his later years. Biographer Jack Hurst says: “after the war he pretty quickly evolved into a forward looking businessman rather than a backward-looking slavocrat. Unlike so many of his white Southern peers, after 1868 he seems to have become assured of the South’s ability to survive and prosper in a nationally mandated new South in which whites and blacks mutually participated in the democratic process and society at large. Biographers have ignored the events and implications of his final eight years, the period which he repeatedly heaped scorn upon the violent racial hatred and oppression by the Fort Pillow incident and practiced by the Klan.” (NATHAN BEDFORD FORREST, A BIOGRAPHY by Jack Hurst, Vintage Books, New York. P.385)

Maybe the new and improved Forrest caught the public imagination about as much as the new and improved George Wallace did years later. No one remembers the repentant Wallace of the nineteen seventies, instead they remember the racist of the nineteen sixties standing in the door of the University of Alabama proclaiming the virtues of segregation. Prodigal sons who actually do come home and say “I’m sorry” aren’t nearly as interesting as those who get bad, stay that way and go out with an infamous bang. The racist (prodigal) in our time has become the bad guy we love to hate, the villain in our stories, the guy least deserving of our forgiveness, the prodigal most likely to be sent away empty-handed. There is no fatted calf for the bigot.

The parade of prominent but flawed human beings is a long one and shows no sign of disappearing. The old general belongs in that procession. He demonstrated many qualities that human beings admire: great skill and intelligence, and incredible courage. But he exhibited other qualities that were not so admirable. He was a mixture, kinda like most human beings. Near the end of Clinton’s second term one of his former staff members, George Stephanapolis, remarked that he thought “Clinton had been a pretty good president, I just wish he had been a better man.” Perhaps we can say the same of General Forrest, he was truly a remarkable general, but we wish he had been a better human being.


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JFK:Was there a Conspiracy?(cont)

Knowing that people were not content to simply read the Warren Commission report and that, the report itself is flawed in certain places, which is understandable forty years later,  Gerald Posner published his book CASE CLOSED to make anew the argument that LH Oswald acting alone murdered the president. This careful analysis cuts through the distortions, misconcptions and utter fancy that has characterized so many of the conspiracy theories, and looks at the hard evidence, an effort that one commentator praises saying: “at last the voice of sanity…a long awaited, much needed antidote to the conspiracy theorists…utterly  convincing and compelling.”

FOr at least half of the book the emphasis is upon Lee Harvey Oswald. Posner takes a long hard look at the short tortured life of this man-his early school days, his stint in the Marine Corps, his defection to the SOviet Union, his marriage, the short time spent in New Orleans upon his return to the US, and finally the move to Dallas and his activities and interests there. What emerges from this is a portrait of  a strange, egotistical, social outcast with his own twisted view of the world. Posner makes a good case for Oswald being that person who made an attempt upon the life of the radical right-wing, anti-Communist spokesman General Walker, an event that preceded the presidential assasination by two months, an event not mentioned in the Warren Commission REport. Shortly before this, Oswald’s wife Marina, took photos of him posing in their backyard with his recently purchased weapons, one of which was the Italian-made Mannlicher-Carcano, the very weapon used against the President a few months later. Over the years conspiracy buffs have questioned the authenticity of these photos. Posner reminds us that the HSCA (HOuse Select Committe on Asssinations) in the late 1970’s, due to careful analysis by various scientists and photography experts, concluded that the photos were indeed genuine-not good news for conspiracy buffs. 

And the bad news keeps coming. Many conspiracy buffs point to the eye-witnesses as “proof” of a second shooter, that Oswald didn’t act alone. They insist that there were, had to be, shooters on that grassy knoll in Dealy Plaza. One who for many  years testified to this was Jean Hill, the so called “woman in red” in the famous Abraham Zupruder film who was standing only a few feet from the president when the fatal shot was fired. TIme and again she spoke to conspiracy-assasination conventions with her intriguing tale. What does Posner make of this? SHe was, after all there on the spot? Why is she not to be believed? There is a huge problem with her modern testimony-it doesn’t square with what she said at the time. She was interviewed by a TV news crew (I’ve seen this film) minutes after the event. When asked if she saw who had fired the shots she shakes her head and replies: “No, I only HEARD the shots.” A year later when the Warren Commission represenative Arlyn Spector(yes, the future Senator) questioned her, she responded similarly. But years and many conspiracy books and conventions later, her story has changed dramatically. 

Perhaps the most important contribution Posner makes to the argument is his three-bullet theory. For years conspiracy theorists have maintained that the Warren Commission’s conclusions that Oswald only fired two-bullets is a grave error. Posner agrees with them that it is an error, but not a grave one. Through a careful examination the Zupruder film he makes a case for three bullets that many noteables such as historian Stephen Ambrose and journalist Dan Rather (a longtime student of the subject) and G. Gordon Liddy (not a shabby ballistics  expert himself) found utterly convincing. 

As to the JFK movie, Posner can only roll his eyes in utter exasperation. In one of the final chapters he goes over the trial of New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw(dramatized in the movie) who was brought up on charges of being involved in the assasination conspiracy by local district attorney Jim Garrison. Upon hearing of Oswald’s residence inNew Orleans prior to the assasination Garrison had developed a special interest in the subject. He asked around and somehow managed to find “witnesses” who testified that they had seen Mr. Shaw at various social functions in the company of Oswald. It was all dubious heresay but the energetic, persuasive Mr. Garrison managed to bring Mr. SHaw up on charges and get the thing into the courtroom, the ideal forum for Garrison to draw diagrams and articulate his belief in a broad, terribly succesful conspiracy of government officials who, he was convinced were still at large. 

Forty years later they’re still undiscovered and at large.  Posner calls this unfortunate episode a “fiasco” arising out of the fertile imagination of the publicity-seeking, grandstanding Mr. Garrison who chose Mr. Shaw as his victim in large part because Shaw, a known homosexual, was an easy target. Of course Mr. Shaw was acquited of all charges, (the jury wasn’t out for long-more evidence, no doubt, of the long deadly tentacles of the conspirators) but the whole sorry business financially ruined him. Posner reminds us that Jim Garrison (portrayed by actor Kevin Kostner) was profoundly undeserving of the status given him in the movie and that a terrible injustice was done to Mr. Shaw, a completely innocent citizen who must have found the case against him utterly baffling.

Americans love conspiracies. It is doubtful that Mr.Posner’s book will change the widespread belief that LH Oswald did not act alone. Millions of people will continue to believe that there had to be shooters on the grassy knoll even  though no real evidence has ever emerged to support this. Indeed, there is no hard evidence to support ANY conspiracy theory. Every conspiracy theory that has emerged is little more than hypothesis, heresay, and thin circumstantial evidence that will not fare any better in a modern court of law than the assertions of Jim Garrison  did in that New Orleans courtroom forty years ago. The hard evidence, reliable eye-witnesses, ballistics, film, and so much more, Posner reminds us, all points to one conclusion: LH Oswald, that pathetic opininated little waif, unlikely as it may seem on balance, took out the President of the United States, the most powerful man in the world, with a bolt-action rifle fired from the window of a building in Dallas Texas that fateful day. Case closed.

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JFK: Was there a Conspiracy?

Nov.22, 1963-I’ll never forget the day when our school principal walked into our classroom and made the historic announcement that our president had been shot. I was in the 4th grade at McGavock Elementary in Donelson, TN It was a quiet time and I was working on my first novel, , or perhaps novella, entitled “The Atomic Ship”, a sci-fi thriller inspired largely by my reading of the Jules Verne book TWENTY THOUSAND LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA. (The manuscript has, unfortunately been lost).

Within hours it seemed, it was announced on the airwaves that an arrest had been made of one Lee Harvey Oswald, an employee of the TExas School Book Corp who had been spotted wielding a rifle out the window of the building as the presidential motorcade moved past. For awhile it all seemed terribly simple-a lone gunman had done the thing and that was that.

About a year later the Warren Commission, a group headed by the chief justice of the supreme court charged with investigating the whole sorry business and producing a document(s) stating their results, released it’s official report. It was issued in two forms: (A) a multi volume set including hundreds of interviews with key participants, police reports, eyewitness accounts, and much more and (B) a condensed 200 or so page summary of all the above. It was a remarkable achievement and, in the minds of many, put the matter to rest.

Not everyone was satisfied with this. Soon after author Mark Lane released his best-seller RUSH TO JUDGEMENT, the first of the multitudes of similar books questioning the Warren Commission findings and articulating their own theories as to what really happened. And what really happened? JFK died as a result of a conspiracy they say; LH Oswald didn’t act alone. However, no two authors of these many books is in agreement as to just what kind of conspiracy Oswald was involved in and just who he was in league with. As to who was really behind it all the conspiracy theorists, for the most part, fall into three camps: rouge elements in the US government, Castro, and the Mafia.

In time it all became quite a cottage industry. There were assasination conventions where the various authors gave talks and peddled their books. Eye witnesses, people who were there at Dealy Plaza that fateful day, for a fee, tell their story. Souvenirs were sold and much more. The flood of assasiation books  have rolled off the press at a steady rate for forty years. And these authors, according to various polls, have, in a sense, won the argument. These days most Americans believe that Oswald did not act alone, that there was some sort of conspiracy, even though, like the various conspiracy authors, there is a wide range of theories held.

I take the minority opinion, based largely on the book CASE CLOSED:LEE HARVEY OSWALD AND THE ASSASINATION OF JFK by Gerald Posner. In this carefully researched, well written book Mr. Posner s demolishes the many conspiracy theories in a number of ways. (More on this later)

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Movie Review: The Conspirator

Every schoolchild knows that an angry Southern-sympathizing actor named John Wilkes Booth assasinated Abraham Lincoln as he and his wife were sitting in the balcony at a theatre in Washington DC, or simply Washington City as it was known in 1865. What is not so well known is that Booth did not act alone; he was part of a conspiracy-not a a well organized, professional bunch but a clumsy cabal of would be revolutionairies, one of whom might have been mentally-retarded, out to topple the US government and somehow rescue the  fallen Confederacy. Within a few days almost the entire bunch was rounded up and thrown into smelly stable-like brick prison cells to await trial-a trial that promised to be swift and decisive. The outcome was never in doubt.

One of those imprisoned to await trial was Mary Sarrat, a woman who operated the boarding house in Washington where the conspirators had met on numerous occassions to make their plans. She had aided and encouraged the conspiracy, the prosecution would later say, and deserved to hang with the others. Mrs. Sarrat maintained her innocence, that she was not fully aware of what the secret meetings had been about and when she grew suspicious of the bunch, that they were up to no good, she encouraged her son, who had attended some of these meetings, to  part ways with his new friends. For Mrs. Sarrat, it was all in vain. Despite her protestations and the efforts of her defense attorney, she was hanged with three others. And so she passed, for the most part, into the footnotes of history, forgotten by all but Civil War era scholars.

Until now. Recently the Robert Redford film “The Conspirator” ressurected Mrs. Sarrat and told her story to the modern audience, a story that few in 1865 had really heard. It wasn’t like the OJ or more recent Casey Anthony trials, affairs widely viewed by the public that went on for weeks and months. The trial of Mary Sarrat and the other conspirators was a closed affair presided over by the military and lasted only a few weeks.

Historians like myself complain frequently that moviemakers have far too little interest in “getting it right”, that, obsessed with their own filmakers agenda,  they ignore the facts, twist the story, and in general, get things wrong. They hire professional consultants and use them for window dressing,  paying little attention to their counsel. Time and again we groan aloud when we watch a movie with great expectations and in disappointment see innaccurate uniforms or clothing, phony accents, and most of all, Hollywood-ized versions of great historical events.

Redford and company will get our nod of approval for this effort. Though I did see a scene or two with overweight, over-aged soldiers, I can’t fault the movie in this regard. Though I’m no expert on 19th century military courts, this dramatization seemed well done and accurate.

The  “Conspirator” is worth seeing although I doubt that it will run away with a bagful of oscars. It is far superior to Mr. Redford’s last effort: “Lambs for Lions”-his preachy, convoluted, tedious commentary on the modern American war on terror. Michael Moore and Cindy Sheean might have liked it but I doubt that anyone else did. It died a quick death at the movie theatres and made a rapid move to the bargain DVD rack where it belongs.

Was Mary Sarrat, skillfully portrayed by actress Robin Wright, guilty as charged? Did she deserve to die with the others? The movie is noncommittal here and the question left unanswered. We do know this, at least this movie message is clear: there was a rush to judgement and the prosecution, embolded by the public thirst for vengeance, manipuolated evidence and consistently put the hapless defense attorney, an inexperienced young man just back from the war, at a real disadvantage. In short, Mr. Redford reminds us, it was, at least for Mrs. Sarrat, anything but a fair trial. But passions were high, and not only Booth, but all of his “confederates” had to pay. And pay they did.

The irony is that her son, who had fled to Canada during the initial trial, returned to Washington a year later to face the music. This was wise on his part.  Passions had cooled and he was tried by a civilian rather than a military court. Perhaps feeling bad over what had happened to his mother, he was, due to lack of any real evidence, acquited and set free.

Another frustrating but interesting irony lies in the comparison of this movie that other presidential conspiracy movie: JFK by Oliver Stone. This was not only a commercial success but garnered a number of oscar and oscar nominations. But there is a problem. Historically speaking, the movie is the biggest load of, to put it kindly, horse manure imaginable. Fact and pure fiction are so inextricably intwined into its compelling narrative that the viewer learns very little about the real facts of the actual historic event, that no real evidence of a conspiracy has ever surfaced, that the alleged “shooters on the grassy knoll” remain elusive and unknown, probably because they never existed. The hard evidence all points to Oswald as the lone gunman who got off one darned impressive, but terribly tragic shot from the window of the 6th floor of the Texas School book repository.

In short, Oliver Stone’s movie about an imaginary assasination conspiracy is, unfortunately, a far better, more watchable and entertaining movie than Redford’s movie about a real one.

Some filmmakers seem to take our history seriously and feel a responsibility to get things right. Others, determined not to let the truth get in the way of a good story, couldn’t care less. Perhaps at a later date I’ll do a list of those historic movies where the real facts are mangled and distorted juxtaposed with those where they are not.  You may be surprised.

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TheGreat Train Wreck

Wreck at the Dutchman's Curve behind present site of Publix in Belle Meade

Sylvan Park, the old West Nashville neighborhood where I live is well known  in Middle Tenn these days for being a good place to live, a good place to invest in a historic home with a handy commuting distance to Vanderbilt and various downtown places of employment. It’s also a mecca for people in the music business. Many successful songwriters and players hang their hats in homes arranged in straight rows along streets named after various Western states like Nebraska, Dakota, and Wyoming. All in all, it’s pretty quiet here, neighborly suburban living with a distinctly old Nashville urban flair.

About the time our neighborhood was being developed and laid out, an event occured nearby that made the history books.

No one is quite sure to this day exactly what happened and who goofed. But somebody did and with devastating consequences. An East-West rail line running from Memphis to Nashville just behind the present location of Aquinas College and St. Thomas Hospital at a place locally known as “Dutchman’s Curve” was the site of what is now considered the worst train wreck in US history. For some reason still not known, the West bound train was released ahead of schedule at Union Station in downtown Nashville producing a head on collision with its East Bound counterpart. The sound of the crash could be heard for miles.

Photographers were among the thousands who rushed to the scene in the aftermath. Their dramatic photos show passenger cars piled up and scattered. Others, curiously enough, were shoved inside other passenger cars, almost like a snake swallowing another snake. The carnage was frightful with the injured trapped in the wreckage, and various bodies and body parts strewn across the adjoining cornfields.

One of the fatalities was Willis Farris, a local lumberman riding the Westbound train for a routine check on his operations in nearby Kingston Springs. He swapped seats, for some reason with another fellow. Bad for Farris and good for the other fellow who lived to tell the tale. His great-gandson, Willis M. Farris III and I have been close friends for over forty years. I spoke with Willis’ sister just the other day.

It was big news across the state and even made mention in several national newspapers but was quickly upstaged by news from Europe. The great war was on and the AEF (American Expeditionary Force) was finally getting into the fray in a big way, a force that included many Tenneseans in the 30th “Old Hickory” infantry division and another fellow from East Tenn who would return to the states at war ends with a Medal of Honor around his neck waving to crowds at ticker-tape parades-Alvin C. York.

Many of those injured or killed in the train wreck were African-American men on their way to work at the new gunpowder plant located near Old Hickory on the Cumberland river. Later known as Dupont, the war was over before any gunpowder was produced there.

Today one can take a leisurely stroll or bike ride along the new greenway next to McCabe Golf course and read a marker located close to the spot where the wreck took place. Maybe someone will gasp as they do so, turn to another and say: “Gosh, that was ninety-tree years ago today.” Then they’ll pause as they read on and say:”Oh,my that must have been awful.” Well, it was. And according to the record books, it was and remains the worst train wreck in US history. I hope it stays that way.

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