Archive | March, 2017

Windsor Ruins: Iconic Site of Mississippi’s Past

28 Mar

Perhaps the most photographed location in Mississippi, Windsor Ruins also provides the most iconic image of the Magnolia State. Built in 1861, the large house survived the Civil War only to burn by accident in 1890. Reputedly the largest Greek Revival antebellum home in Mississippi, Windsor must have provided travelers moving along the Bruinsburg Road to Port Gibson an awe-inspiring structure to behold.  It was one of only a few Southern mansions to contain an almost continuous colonnade with 29 grandiose columns topped with cast iron capitals. Interestingly enough, no photographs of the house exist; a drawing made by a Union soldier in May 1863 is the only authentic representation of the house.



The site today is administered by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. A recent examination by an architectural conservator of the remaining columns and balustrades confirms the fear that these columns will continue to decay (and perhaps fall) over time. The price to “repair” these columns in keeping with the “Ruins” appearance is hefty, but hopefully, the state of Mississippi will find the funds so this site can be kept in perpetuity.

During recent discussions of the current condition of Windsor, it occurred to me that perhaps no other site better captures and defines Mississippi than this one. The once stately house, harking back to a time when the state contained more millionaires than any other, now lies in ruins, a distant shadow of its former self. A spectacular house, built upon the backs of so many slaves, the necessary manpower to harvest the cotton crop that has been so synonymous with Mississippi’s history. Windsor Ruins speaks to the past and perhaps even the present, as Mississippi continues to struggle to come to grips with its history and strive towards a better future. This journey has been difficult for the state and has seen unfortunately many more failures than successes. It is a site which I hope will stand for generations to come to serve as a reminder of our complicated past.



Review of Old Mobile Archaeology, by Gregory Waselkov

21 Mar

With a rich history stretching back to the Gulf Coast’s colonial days, Mobile, Alabama, is one of the South’s most storied cities. While many people are aware of the city’s deep roots and annually visit its numerous outstanding historic sites, relatively few are aware that the original city of Mobile was located some 27 miles north of the heart of modern downtown on a clearing along a wooded bluff overlooking the Mobile River. “Old Mobile” as it is known, stood at this seemingly remote spot from 1702-1711 as the bulwark of France’s dreams of empire in the region. At once a pivotal colonial administrative center, deterrent to English advances from the eastern seaboard, and strategic link to friendly Native American communities and nearby Spanish colonial holdings in Florida and Mexico, this small frontier community wielded influence out of all proportion to its modest size. When it was abandoned for the site of modern Mobile due to logistical issues and troublesome flooding, officials had virtually everything worth moving transported south, and Alabama’s first city vanished into the wilderness. For centuries thereafter, it remained an intangible but vital part of early Alabama’s history, an obscure and inaccessible historic site few knew much about and very few had ever visited. Accomplished historians including Peter Hamilton (Colonial Mobile, 1910) and Jay Higginbotham (Old Mobile, 1977) took their turn chronicling the city’s story in detail, but its true reality remained a mystery.

Waselkov Old MobileEnter Dr. Gregory Waselkov of the University of South Alabama, the dean of Gulf Coast archaeologists and the man more than any other responsible for Old Mobile’s discovery and rescue from oblivion. Waselkov has devoted many years of his accomplished career to unearthing Old Mobile, and his work at the site stands as some of the most important investigations into the region’s colonial era performed to date. He has, of course, published several technical reports on his work at the site of Old Mobile and other related colonial sites in the area, but few of those are conveniently accessible to anyone outside of academia. Thankfully, his work has been made available to a broader audience in the form of a brief book entitled Old Mobile Archaeology (originally published in 1999).

In the book, Waselkov’s briskly-moving narrative brings the city to life through highlighting artifacts and archaeological features that inform us about the town. A master at teasing contextual information out of sherds of pottery, discarded nails, bits and pieces of trash and debris buried for three centuries, Waselkov figuratively resurrects a fascinating vanished world we can know in no other way. His investigation is no dry analysis of scientific data; it is an exploration into where streets ran, how homes were constructed, what people ate and how they prepared and served their dishes, and the items for which they traded. In short it is an intriguing glimpse into how diverse people from very different areas of the globe co-existed and lived their daily lives in Alabama’s first colonial community. The slim book, coming in at a mere 35 richly-illustrated pages, is a quick and compelling read. I highly recommend it to anyone wanting to learn about colonial era not only on the Gulf Coast, but America in general.


Review of From Midnight to Dawn: The Last Tracks of the Underground Railroad, by Jacqueline L. Tobin

14 Mar

Everyone reading this review is no doubt somewhat familiar with the “Underground Railroad” in American history. At least they are likely to have heard of the term in reference to the informal, clandestine network of support which assisted escaping slaves from the Southern states seeking freedom in the North during the antebellum era. The story of how this secret network actually functioned seems to occupy so much more space in the historical record than accounts of what refugees who accessed it did after traversing its circuitous route that it seems as if the individuals who obtained freedom via the route sometimes are lost to history. I will admit to never having given much thought to exactly where the runaway slaves who found freedom ended up aside from the nebulous “North.” So when I ran across an audiobook version of Jacqueline L. Tobin’s book From Midnight to Dawn: the Last Tracks of the Underground Railroad, I picked it up in hopes I might learn about a historical topic I had never investigated.


The focus of Tobin’s book is the region where a great many of the estimated 30,000 blacks who made the treacherous journey to freedom settled; “Canada West,” or modern day Ontario, Canada. In fact the title of the book comes from the codenames for Detroit (“Midnight”) and that of its cross-border sister city, Windsor, Ontario (“Dawn”). Tobin chronicles how this region became the home of communities essentially founded by and for former slaves, and details the many noteworthy individuals involved in that struggle. Celebrated historical figures involved to various degrees in the story of Canada West, such as Harriet Tubman, receive treatment, but so do a host of lesser known individuals such as Mary Ann Shadd, Osborne Perry Anderson, Henry Bibb, and Josiah Henson among others. In relating details about their lives, Tobin simultaneously tells from a variety of perspectives the ways in which they experienced freedom, what the concept of liberty meant to them, and what they thought was the proper path forward for black people in America. Needless to say, they were intriguing variances of manners, methods, and opinion on all of these counts.

I found From Midnight to Dawn to be informative, but somewhat disjointed and glaringly dry for a book dealing with such an emotionally and morally loaded topic. It is in truth a series of straightforward biographies that never quite succeeds in coming together to form as cohesive a narrative about a time, place, or experience as I had hoped. Admittedly, given the subject matter, such an engrossing narrative might be especially difficult to achieve. Still, I came away from the book feeling like I did not learn quite as much as I thought I might, and a crucial part of the story had yet to be discovered. The actual story of escape to freedom via the legendary Underground Railroad is barely discussed, and the functioning of the communities which the freedmen formed is not addressed in as much detail as I would have liked. There are some compelling vignettes about some individuals, but these hardly make the book lively. In summary, From Midnight to Dawn is a unique assemblage of information on some of the lesser-known but important individuals from American history which played an underappreciated role in one of our nation’s most pivotal dramas, but it is far from the authoritative word on the subjects it addresses owing to its structure and composition.


Touring the Lee Chapel

7 Mar

Robert E. Lee is one of the most consequential individuals in American history. He moved ordinary men to accomplish extraordinary feats. He inspired his troops, and through his dignity, humility, and ability became the very embodiment of the Confederate war effort for the South during his lifetime and an icon for generations in the South afterward. Yes, he was for much of his life a slaveholder and thoroughly a man of his times, but for both his praiseworthy attributes and less noble qualities alike he has been and continues to be relevant to any understanding of American history as much for what he did as what he represented. Certainly, we think about him much differently today than when he died in 1870. Indeed, we think about him much differently than we did in 1970, for that matter. But it is hard to imagine a discussion of the South, the Civil War, and its legacy in which he does not figure prominently.


I was therefore delighted that on my tour of Civil War battlefields last summer, I had the opportunity to visit the Lee Chapel and Museum on the picturesque campus of Washington and Lee University in Virginia, the school he headed in his postwar career and the site of his tomb. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. As with any great historic site, I found my visit enhanced my understanding of the time period and subject it interprets, and left me more informed about its place in history. I found the exhibits on Lee’s life to be balanced and informative, and the tour of the building and grounds to be compelling. Perhaps the most moving exhibit, in my opinion, was his office—left exactly the way it was the day he suffered the stroke that days later took his life. It is one of the more powerful portals to a previous time I have had the good fortune to visit. His tomb and the tombs of other family members are on view just across the hall from the office in the mauseleum, and, just outside the door, the grave of Lee’s trusted horse, Traveller.

As a historian, I naturally find myself drawn to iconic historic sites, even if they are somewhat controversial or have mixed meanings. The Lee Chapel certainly fits both those descriptions given Lee’s role in history and our contemporary headlong attempts to efface our historical record of any trace of men who did not think as we do today. I will admit to wondering exactly what type of marketing problems Lee’s inherently visible legacy on the campus of the school creates for its administrators given the climate of historical sensitivity in this country at current. I will also admit to being relieved to find the Chapel and Museum to be such professionally interpreted historic sites that seem to grasp their rather significant place in the overall story of how we remember the Civil War in the South. Lee was in some ways a great man, even if he was simultaneously a bigot, in modern parlance. That we have places like the Chapel to evaluate his significance in historical terms rather than measure his merit by strictly modern standards is something I am glad to see still exists in America.