Today was one of my favorite days of the tour – albeit for slightly selfish reasons. I am a Civil War buff and we were able to spend some quality time at the Parker's Crossroads Battlefield in Henderson County. Usually, when traveling with my family, it is a tough sell to stop at a Civil War historic site. The best I can hope for is a slow drive-by. But today, I was actually allowed to get out of the RV and walk around, read signs and listen to an excellent audio CD tour available from the Parker's Crossroads Visitor Center. I was also delighted to learn that my girls have taken an interest in the subject they never showed previously and they actually got out and walked around with me as I explored the battlefield.
Some people may be surprised to learn that after Virginia, Tennessee was the site of more Civil War battles than any other state. The Battle of Parker's Crossroads occurred on December 31, 1862 and it pitted legendary Confederate cavalry general, Nathan Bedford Forrest against a Union force led by Gen. Jeremiah Sullivan. The five hour engagement ended in a flight from the battlefield by Forrest, just when it looked like he had the Union forces surrounded. Forrest, who never had formal military training, rose from the rank of private at the start of the war to lieutenant general – an accomplishment not duplicated by anyone else on either side of the conflict. He was known for his unconventional tactics and decisive battlefield decision-making. He was notorious for making his forces appear larger than they were by various ruses and for taking advantage of every possible aspect of the terrain. But today, he was not prepared for the complete surprise of a Union brigade that appeared at his rear just as he was about to force the surrender of Gen. Sullivan, whom he had surrounded. So, when victory was almost at hand, Forrest found himself suddenly beating a hasty retreat and in a matter of minutes, 300 of his dismounted men were surrounded and taken prisoner.
We started our visit with an interview with Rep. Steve McDaniel who was instrumental in the decades-long effort to save 350 acres of core battlefield land. He is also an acknowledged expert on the battle. In the interview he mentioned the value of preserving the "view shed" of the battlefield and how frustrating it is to see people toss litter onto it. Luckily, the park administrators are very pro-active about the litter and have been able to keep it to a minimum.
The preservation of the battlefield involved many partners including: The Parker's Crossroads Battlefield Association, the Civil War Trust, and the Tennessee National Civil War Heritage Area. Its inspiring to see people come together for the common cause of preserving history and green space and ultimately, honor the people who lost their lives 150 years ago. In their sacrifice, we have the legacy of a tremendous cultural resource in this battlefield that will educate generations to come about the Civil War and its importance in our history and also help fuel the local economy with heritage tourism. I firmly believe heritage tourism is one of the most forward-looking ways to preserve green space, to fight sprawl and to create lasting jobs. I would love to see more of this kind of economic development in TN. I applaud what the fine folks in Henderson County have done to preserve the battlefield and to interpret it and they deserve our support. I was very impressed with the visitor center, the orientation film, the audio tour and the quality of the wayside signage. For any Civil War enthusiast, Parker's Crossroads is a must-see. Plan on stopping for a few hours on your next trip to Memphis or Nashville on I-40. The interstate literally bi-sects the battlefield, so it is not out of your way to get there.
We are now in the midst of the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War (150th anniversary). The Tennessee Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission has set up an excellent website resource if you are interested in traveling to any of the state's many Civil War sites. The Tennessee Civil War Preservation Association is an excellent non-profit group working hard to preserve lands across the state. I am proud to be a member for the last several years and I encourage others with an interest in history (or simply an interest in preserving green space) to join. If you're a Civil War junkie like me, there is also a statewide Civil War Trail driving tour. It is a fairly comprehensive catalog of historic sites pertaining to the conflict that goes beyond battlefields to include historic homes, cemeteries, vantage points, sites of 19th century industry and other points of Civil War interest. You could easily spent a year driving that trail and experiencing everything on it.
Because the battlefield itself was relatively free of litter, our litter pick-up for the day was less than a mile away from the battlefield and I was very happy to see a group of fine young men from Boy Scout Troop 119 from Lexington, TN. They braved the almost unbearable heat to help us pick the roadside and a bridge clean. We were also joined in the clean-up by a few ladies from the Parker's Crossroads Visitor's Center, including Kim Parker, a direct descendant of the Parker family, among the first settlers in the area in the early 1800's. The battle took place partly on land occupied by the Parker family.
Our musical act today was canceled due to the musician's untimely bout with kidney stones. We took advantage of the situation to start the long four hour drive back to our home base in Chattanooga to re-charge our batteries for a few days. As we passed through Nashville, we decided spontaneously to stop and have dinner at one of the best kept secrets in Tennessee – the Omni Hut restaurant in Smyrna. The Omni Hut is a classic Polynesian-style restaurant and has been owned and operated by the Walls family for 53 years and is now managed nightly by Polly Walls, the founder's daughter. At one time, Polynesian or “tiki” restuarants were all the rage in post-War America. From the 30's until the early 70's, there was hardly a city in America that did not have such a restaurant. Most of those places are long gone, but the Omni Hut endures. It was started in 1960 by Polly's father, James, an Air Force pilot who traveled the world and collected recipes and stories. The restaurant has endured changing food tastes, the evolution of chain restaurants and even a fire to stand alone in the state of Tennessee as the torch bearer for all things Tiki. Polly tells me that she has regular customers who have returned with third and fourth generations of children. About ten years ago, I had the privilege of profiling this institution in a piece for the Turner South travel television series “Blue Ribbon.” Ever since then, I have made an effort to stop by for dinner any time I'm in the area.
When you walk in the door, you are instantly transported to a remote Pacific isle and Polly, clad in muumuu, warmly greets you. You are then seated in a room that might as well be in Waikiki, Papeete or Bora Bora. Fishing nets and bamboo light fixtures float from the ceiling, day glow orchards hang from the walls and tropical fish cavort in a giant tank. The strains of exotic music filter through the air and a server brings Hawaiian tea to your table. The menu includes my personal favorite, the Pu Pu Platter – consisting of many classic tiki appetizers including Rumaki, Crab Rangoon and Tahitian Tid Bits. No meal is complete at the Omni Hut without a flaming volcano for dessert – a mound of vanilla ice cream topped with a lava flow of chocolate syrup and a sugar cube that has been soaked in vanilla extract and lit afire. The evening is not complete unless you leave the Omni Hut with a bottle of their house-made Teriyaki sauce.
We've reached the halfway point in our tour and I cannot believe how fast it has come. When we are out on the road, the time just seems to fly by – much more than a typical day at home.