Commemorate Civil War History at Land Between the Lakes this February
Susan “Ski” Witzofsky isn’t strictly a historian. No – she changed her major from history to health and physical education as a student at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee. She started camping, fishing and hunting at Land Between The Lakes National Recreation Area (LBL) when she was 9 years old. She accepted an internship with LBL in 1978, and has worked at the site ever since. Now with 50 years invested in exploring LBL by foot, book and oral history, Ski’s a historian, outdoorswoman and steward of this national treasure accessible from Dover, Tennessee.
“I used to camp near Fort Henry,” she recalls of her first visits to LBL, referring to the Civil War-era fort now buried at the bottom of Kentucky Lake (the lake was created when the Tennessee River was dammed between 1938 and 1944). “The history always interested me,” she says.
Construction of the Confederate fort, a five-sided, earthen structure, began in the summer of 1861. The fort was positioned on the eastern side of the Tennessee River to stop Union traffic, but high water levels plagued its efficacy, and ultimately, its existence. As Ski recounts, on Feb. 4, 1862, the river was in flood stage. Fort Henry was near drowning when General Ulysses S. Grant’s new ironclads began firing down the river. Confederate Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman surrendered before Grant’s ground troops, slogged by weather, even arrived to enact their full plan: to attack by water and land, along both sides of the river.
To commemorate Fort Henry, LBL will host the Fort Henry Anniversary Program and Walk on Feb. 8, 2014, starting at LBL’s Homeplace. From 1-2:30 p.m., Ski will open with a presentation illuminating the story of the fort and display period newspaper articles, maps and images of gunboats and battles. From 3-4 p.m., she’ll lead the Fort Henry Anniversary Walk through a section of trails not yet accessible to the general public (Ski reports they’re working to that end). She tells participants to expect “good-sized earthworks” along the route, brought to life by her explanation of the earthworks’ strategic location. Meet in the Fort Henry trail parking area to join. Registration and full deposit are required to participate in the Fort Henry Anniversary Program ($5) and Walk ($3). Call 270-924-2020 to reserve.
It’s impossible to discuss Fort Henry without discussing Forts Donelson and Heiman or Johnsonville State Historic Park. Ski says she’ll touch on them all during the Feb. 8 program, and I’d follow up your visit to LBL with a day at Fort Donelson National Battlefield (12 miles from LBL, it’s where many of Tilghman’s men escaped following the surrender of Fort Henry). Today, a 20-minute drive from the southern portion of LBL will deliver you to Fort Donelson and its new visitor center exhibit, re-created river batteries, hiking trails, national cemetery, Fort Heiman and the Dover Hotel (also called the Surrender House, where Confederate General Simon Buckner accepted General Grant’s surrender terms). Take the audio driving tour and a picnic – the grounds are gorgeous and full of interpretive signage to augment the tour narration. Bonus: 2014 marks 152 years since the battle at Fort Donelson. Mark your calendar for Feb. 11-16…more details to come.
Back in the southern portion of LBL, hike the Fort Henry trail system, nearly 30 miles of connecting paths including a historic wagon road used by Grant’s troops en route from Fort Henry to Fort Donelson (the Artillery Trail) and old home sites and cemeteries (the Telegraph Trail) amid upland and bottomland forest, streams and ridges. Free backpacking permits are available.
Then, take the short drive to The Homeplace to walk a re-created 19th-century farm, where interpreters demonstrate rural life amid the buildings relocated here from farms nearby – rest in the breezeway of a two-story farmhouse; breathe in the drying leaves inside a tobacco barn; witness feeding time for the hogs.
The entrance to The Homeplace faces a boundary of LBL’s Elk & Bison Prairie. Rangers say the best sightings occur around dusk. Want to stay overnight? We like RVing in South LBL’s Piney Campground, but primitive cabins on the site make a homey option for non-campers. Perhaps LBL’s strongest endorsement, however, is from one of its strongest stewards – Ski. “You’ve got the national recreation area right here in your backyard. People come from all over the world here,” she says, inviting all those passers-through who’ve yet to feel LBL’s pull.
Have you visited LBL? What’s your favorite story or activity in the area? Tell us in the comments section below.