Published Articles by Doris Weatherford

Southern Mountain Road Trips

June 26, 2017

The historical image of the South has so concentrated on Charleston, New Orleans, Virginia’s Dismal Swamp, and other low-lying areas that many Americans forget we also have mountains. Tampans are less likely to take that view because so many of our affluent families have sought refuge from summer heat over the years in North Carolina. Relatively few of us, however, go to Tennessee or north Georgia. These areas are indeed part of the Great Smokey Mountains, and Hubby and I renewed our acquaintance with them last week, when we vacationed with family at a lake house south of Knoxville and drove back through the mountains north of Atlanta.


We first got to know the Smokey Mountains when we still were honeymooners, in the summer of 1966. Living then in Washington, DC, we drove home to Arkansas (which also has mountains, the Ozarks in the north and the Ouachita in the south). Soon after you leave DC, you hit Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains and then continue on through the Smokey chain in the eastern half of Tennessee. We made that trip many times, estimating eight hours in Virginia and twelve in Tennessee before we got to Arkansas. (The Tennessee twelve, however, was not entirely mountainous, as after Nashville, the land lowers to become the Mississippi delta around Memphis.)


For the mountain part, there was no alternative to US Highway 11, and it was terrifying. With just two-lanes and long stretches between passing zones, it was slowly up and rapidly down. Well, actually, there were occasional third lanes --emergency ones to be used only by runaway trucks. This happened more often than one would hope. Believe me, it’s frightening to have a big truck with burned-out brakes behind you, with its driver trying to get to the barrier that will stop his out-of-control vehicle. You had to speed around curves to outrun him, as there was no place to go except off the mountainside. Hubby and I repeatedly tell each other now how grateful we are for the safety of interstate construction that eliminated such cliffhangers.


Interstates began, you know, under President Dwight D. Eisenhower as a defense project, after the military discovered during World War II how inadequate the era’s roads were for moving massive amounts of men and materiel. People and things largely traveled by railroad during the war, but cars and trucks replaced trains during the postwar era, as Americans with new discretionary money preferred the freedom of individual vehicles to the efficiency of trains. We are rethinking that now, as our interstates are packed to the point of gridlock every day.


I remember an Arkansas friend – a smart guy who is an internationally known cardiologist now – visiting us in Boston about 1970. We were caught in that town’s infamous traffic, and he shouted from the back seat, “You can’t stop here! This is an interstate highway!” How things have changed: Now we expect several stops daily during rush hours on I-275 and even the newer I-75.


It opened in the 1980s, several years after we moved here in 1972, and there was no traffic at all on it at first. Speed limits were lower then, and a bored cop gave me a ticket for going 73 mph. When I suggested that his time might be better spent on I-4, his reply was that traffic there was sufficient to enforce speeds. And now everyone seems to view speed limits as merely suggestions -- or perhaps minimums, not maximums -- and we seldom see the highway patrol at all.


Southern Mountains and the Civil War


It’s rather odd how little the Civil War is associated with Southern mountains. Very significant battles occurred there, but Gettysburg and northern Virginia/Maryland get the most attention. The true turning point of the war, however, was in the mountains of eastern Tennessee late in 1864. Another irony is that the states most eager to secede were on the coast, yet they suffered relatively little damage. Imagine a map in your mind and visualize Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina: Already by February 1861, before Lincoln’s inauguration in April, they had left the Union. Most people in Border States were less rebellious, and many never did embrace the Confederacy -- yet these relative moderates would endure the worst of the combat.


I thought of that repeatedly on this trip, imagining tens of thousands of men fighting through the unmarked mountain forests that soar above rivers. Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River and Fort Henry on the Tennessee saw battles early in the war, and Nashville fell already in February 1862. These battles were big: In April fighting at Pittsburgh Landing, Tennessee, for instance, Union forces suffered some 13,000 casualties and the Confederacy about 11,000 – in just two days.


Neither side quit, so more than two years passed before the final breakthrough from Chattanooga to Atlanta late in 1864 – just in time to save Lincoln from the real possibility of losing the November election. He replaced his first-term vice president, Hannibal Hamilton of Maine, with Andrew Johnson of Tennessee in the 1864 election. This outreach to the middle states probably helped Lincoln win re-election -- but after his assassination, Radical Republicans from the Northeast would prove unwilling to work with a president from Tennessee.


Meanwhile, Tennessee battles continued, with an eventual total of 450 in that state, more than anywhere else. Some, such as Shiloh, Stone River, and Chickamauga were huge. The Union alone had some 70,000 soldiers at Chickamauga late in 1863, but nonetheless lost and had to retreat to Chattanooga. General William Tecumseh Sherman – of the “war is hell” motto -- took over early in 1864 and relentlessly drove southeast. Confederate losses at Stone Mountain and Kennesaw Mountain north of Atlanta meant that Sherman eventually marched with almost no opposition across Georgia, destroying farms and plantations as his armies headed to Savannah and the sea.


He was the only Union general who did not allow women as nurses in his camps -- except for one. She was middle-aged Mary Ann Bickerdyke of Illinois, and at the Battle of Lookout Mountain, she had to try to care for more than 2,000 wounded men. More Union women served at Fort Donelson and Fort Henry under the aegis of the US Sanitary Commission, the forerunner of the Red Cross. Others went back and forth on ships that took the wounded to giant hospitals, often near the junction of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, and often composed of tents.


The only book that I seriously researched, but never published, featured women’s Civil War diaries. Of these, Mary Livermore’s My Story of the War may the most revealing: A volunteer with the US Sanitary Commission, she was in charge of hospitals and hospital ships in several areas of the mountainous South. On the opposite side of the conflict, there’s Kate Cummings’ A Journal of Hospital Life in the Confederate Army of Tennessee, as well as A Very Violent Rebel: The Civil War Diary of Ellen Renshaw House. For African Americans, the best choice may be Mighty Rough Times, I Tell You: Personal Accounts of Slavery in Tennessee. And isn’t it wonderful to live in a world where you can just type a title and find a book?


Briefly Back to the Road


I am going to think seriously before taking I-75 North anywhere again, especially around Atlanta and Marietta. I keep believing that because of the construction that has gone on for decades, things will be better the next time -- but it just gets worse. I think one of the reasons may be that everyone’s GPS is like ours in sending everyone to the same overused road. We call our British commanding voice “Zelda,” and we constantly have to erase her electronic mind so that she stops saying “perform a U-turn when possible” and allows us to take the route we want instead of insisting on her one-size-fits-all program. The main reason we turn her on at all is so that we don’t miss any of the increasing number of interesting dining options off the beaten path, but she doesn’t like going off the path.


So although Zelda insisted we should return home via Chattanooga on I-24 and then go to Atlanta on I-75, we took US 27. This was partly because I wanted to drive through Chickamauga. It’s the only battlefield I know that has a highway at its heart, and you can go slowly and study the monuments on both sides of the road that are dedicated to regiments from Illinois, Wisconsin, and other Union states. Most date to around 1900, when Civil War veterans were aging and when Tennessee residents got over whatever Confederate sentiment they had, at least enough to accept Yankee visitors and their money. Old guys came south, showed their children where they had fought, and erected memorials to their lost buddies.


We stayed on US 27 until the north Florida town of Perry, where it heads inland while US 19 goes south near the Gulf Coast. It eventually becomes the Suncoast Parkway and then Tampa’s Veterans Expressway. This route avoids everything, including Atlanta and Tallahassee, and is a divided road with little traffic. It’s true that it becomes two-lane in the downtowns of places such as lovely old Monticello, but that means it’s slow enough to enjoy their well-preserved houses and courthouse squares. Between them, you can fly down a divided highway -- often with no cars in sight. I really shouldn’t be telling you this, as I don’t want more traffic on that route– but it is a great way to see the Old South and to live in the past.


doris@dweatherford.com





Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.

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