About 30 minutes from Montgomery, up 65 and then east into Chilton County, is Confederate Memorial Park. The 102 acre park was previously the site of Alabama’s only home for Confederate war veterans, and now offers a trail, two cemeteries, some woods, a museum, and a research facility (closed when we were there). It’s all free except for the museum, which costs $5 ($4 if you’re a student).
On Sunday, instead of eating pretzels and enduring hour after hour of Super Bowl pre-game (yes, we know that this basically makes us Communists), we took off with the dog. It’s a fairly quick drive, part of which is on the W.S. Newell Highway. Later we found out that W.S. Newell is the owner of the property where the famous I-65 “Go to Church or the Devil will get you!” sign is located (here’s a great interview with him about his decision to endorse Lucy Baxley for governor in 2005). After you exit from 65, you go west and pass such local landmarks as the extremely sketchy-looking 31-65 Club and D.O.A. Deer Processing. The park entrance is about thirteen miles from the freeway.
You can park at the museum and walk across the street to the nature trail entrance. The trail is about half a mile long (what’s up with these really short trails at all these parks?), and has three kinds of signs along the way. Sign #1 is the usual nature trail plaque nailed on a tree explaining what kind of tree it is. These seemed suspiciously generic (“Grows many leaves,” “Likes moist soil.”). Sign type #2 is the site-specific historical marker, often corresponding to the numbers on the free map/guide we picked up in the museum. Most of these signs had to do with the remnants of the utilities used to heat and irrigate the “old veterans” home (gas works, natural springs, reservoir, etc.). This seemed odd until we realized that none of the original buildings from the home were still standing. Signs in the third category were of the hilarious “Gee, isn’t science interesting!” type, filled with bogus “activities” for children involving observation of habitats and calculation of water flow. You could really imagine that the park got some money for being a Potential Destination for Science Field Trips. The “learning content” is thin enough that it’s hard to imagine any repeat field trips.
If you go, keep an eye out for the second-largest yellow poplar in the state of Alabama. It’s got a 174 inch circumference, is 105 feet high, and sports a 69.5 foot crown span. It’s 225 years old. In case you are wondering, the sign says there is a bigger one somewhere in Lawrence County.
So what’s interesting to see at the brutalized-by-time remains of an estate once used to house old war veterans and their wives? Well, the concept itself was enough to spark a lot of good conversation as we wandered around the property. It’s 102 acres. It calls to mind the situation in 1900, when there were over 2,000 survivors of the CSA army living in Alabama. The state gave a tiny pension to these vets because the federal government (obviously) only paid pensions to Union troops. A lot of the CSA vets were injured and living in county poorhouses. Homes to care for such vets sprung up around the southern states (and one in California too).
Jefferson Manley Faulkner, a Montgomery lawyer, decided to fund and build the Confederate Soldiers Home. He gave 80 acres of his own (still beautiful) land for the new facility. The vets lived in cottages, along with (sometimes) their wives and families. The state took over a few years after the home opened, after private donations faltered. The home became a 22-building complex with a 25-bed hospital. It had its own electrical and sewage system. The old men had a pond that was stocked with fish. They had meals, clothing and a place to be buried in a military grave. There are two cemeteries on the site, and the one we visited (Cemetery #2) was on a beautiful hill with vaguely crooked marble gravestones lined under the three flags of the CSA.
There were 313 vets housed there total: 187 from Alabama, 15 women, 5 deserters. Two lived to be 112 (estimated since they didn’t have, you know, birth certificates back then). The last veteran died in 1934 and the last widow, Lula Camp, died in 1936. Once the state Legislature closed the home in 1939, the homes and outbuildings were (tragically) torn down immediately. One destroyed building was called the “Blue and Gray House,” a home that was paid for by Northern Soldiers. Sad to rip down a home that was built as a symbol of reconciliation between warring fellow Americans.
Look, the CSA cemetery is no Arlington, but there is still a sense of dignity. With the wind flapping in the three CSA flags, it wasn’t hard to muster reflection on the brutality of the war, the ragged rebels, the post-war lives of those that survived the war and their injuries. Did they feel guilt, these old men fishing out Reconstruction in their tiny stocked pond? Did they think about their doomed vision of a sovereign nation, their illegal institutions, their dead friends?
So much more can be said: about how current vets went to the disgracefully mis-managed Walter Reed hospital while these warriors went to a summer resort community near Mountain Creek, and about how these soldiers and their families lived in state housing and were cared for by blacks that still would have been legally considered property if the CSA had successfully broken away.
Race relations aren’t much of a topic here at the Park – just the odd servant in pictures of the Home, some video footage a group of African-American bodyguards from a reunion of soldiers early in the 20th century, and this quote from William Hooper Council, who was a black college president of what would later become Alabama A&M. He said, offering the services of his students to help at the veterans home, “Although I drank from the dregs of the cup of slavery, still I honor these gray-haired veterans.” Was he trying to be conciliatory to still-in-power whites? Or expressing genuine feelings of interest in honoring elderly whites and their CSA memories?
The museum is worth the cost even if it’s a bit slim. Particularly wonderful was the video display with footage of Civil War vets talking, joking, parading, and dancing with young girls in modern shift dresses. There’s an exhibit of leaflets and souvenirs from the annual Confederate Veterans Reunion (scheduled to last until “only two soldiers are left,” according to the president of that organization) which was held in Montgomery in 1931. Hugo Black addressed the group, and more than 1,200 veterans were housed in the recently opened Sydney Lanier High School.
Other than the site-specific memorabilia, the museum offers only the standard Civil War filler. We’d seen plenty of guns and musket balls before, so we skipped out on that stuff. We loved the place, though – its quiet dignity, its complex character, the beautiful woods.