Tag Archives: The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture

The One About Erwin Rommel Riding a Motorcycle Through Tennessee

23 Sep

I was flipping through the channels and found a documentary about Erwin Rommel. I watched it for a few minutes but eventually lost interest. My mental quota for documentaries about Nazi Germany has been filled for a while. However, the documentary brought to mind a story from long ago.

When I was a kid, I heard that, before World War II, Rommel traveled to Tennessee a studied the military tactics of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a southern cavalry general who operated in these parts.

Yes, I was the kind of kid who found that kind of story interesting. I was the kind of kid who knew who those people were.

Anyway, the story continued with proof. Apparently, there was an old hotel register in Waverly, Tennessee that had Rommel’s signature.Rommel

Through the years, I have thought about this story and never questioned it. I have told people about it. Heck, I have even mentioned it in class. However, I never thought about digging into it and finding out what happened….until last night.

I typed a bunch of stuff into Google about Erwin Rommel, Tennessee and Nathan Bedford Forrest. I did not find much, and I began to worry. If he was around here, then something would be written about it. The only thing I could find was an article called Second Guessing the Past – The Desert Fox and Mississippi at hottytoddy.com. For those who do not know, “Hotty Toddy” is a cheer at the University of Mississippi, which will not make my colleague from Mississippi State University all that happy.

I encourage you to read the linked article, but I need to offer a synopsis. The writer traveled to West Tennessee to track down a story that he had always heard about Rommel visiting the state. People told him stories of seeing Rommel riding a motorcycle and talking to him on their front porches. The memories of these sightings were as vivid as if they had just happened.

He found out that Rommel was in Clinton, Tennessee and signed a hotel register. The hotel, which no longer exists, even placed a plaque on the room where he stayed. It was called the “Rommel Room.”

After visiting Clinton and talking to people who met Rommel, the writer visited Manfred Rommel and asked him about his father’s trip to the United States. It turns out that Rommel never made the journey. The son was told the stories of people who met his father, but he insisted that his father never traveled to Tennessee.

Reading, the article will provide you with a better sense of the story, but chances are that Rommel was never in this state. The story that I was told and repeated never happened. Heck, the story I heard was wrong about the town. However, it makes me wonder about memory and legends and all sorts of things that historians have to deal with.

People were convinced that they met Erwin Rommel and were convinced of a signed register proved it. Did they make it up? Did they tell the story long enough that they started to believe it? Did they actually meet a German officer who was riding around on a motorcycle? If so, then who was he? Did he introduce himself as Rommel? Since Rommel did not become famous until World War 2, why would meeting him before the war be considered a big deal? Did they meet a traveling German and assume it was Rommel after they started hearing his name?

It is a simple story, but it leads to question after question after question. I only know that it is a story I have heard for years, and it is one that a lot of people believe. It is even mentioned in The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, which is a good site because I have an article on there. It would be nice to know its origins and how it came to be thought of as fact.

That would make a better documentary than the one that I turned off.

 

Looking for John Washington Butler and Finding Johnny Cash

2 Jun

The Scopes Monkey Trial is one of my favorite topics to discuss with students, and it ranks high for several reasons. First, it took place in Tennessee, and it is important for them to know that not all important events happen in faraway places. Second, it was a debate between religion and science, and that debate continues ninety years later. Third, it is an interesting story with interesting people.

When we talk about the trial, a few people tend to stand out. William Jennings Bryan had been a leader in the Democratic Party for thirty years and saw this as one last fight for ordinary citizens. Clarence Darrow was the most famous lawyer in the country and also viewed himself as a defender of the people. John Scopes was a high school teacher and coach who agreed to a publicity stunt and ended up with his name in the history books.

Of course, a lot of other people played important roles, and I try to talk about as many as possible. However, there is one person who played a vital role who tends to get skimmed over.

A lot of time is spent on the Butler Act, the law that banned the teaching of evolution, but little time is spent on its author, John Washington Butler. I know from an episode of American Experience that he was a member of the Tennessee legislature and that he represented the counties of Macon, Sumner and Trousdale, all of which are just across the Cumberland River from where I am sitting. However, that is about it.

With that in mind, I went looking for John Washington Butler. First, I wanted a picture of him and found it at findagrave.com.Butler

Then, I did what I tell my students not to do. I went to Wikipedia and found an article that was three sentences long. Obviously, that did not provide much information. However, there is one thing useful about Wikipedia. The sources at the bottom of the articles can be valuable.

Butler’s page has two links. The first is an entry by Jeanette Keith in The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. It is a short sketch of the man and provides some insight into why he pushed for the ban on teaching evolution. I know this is a good place to find information because I wrote an article about a local sportswriter for the online encyclopedia.

The second source links to an article by Doug Linder for the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law. It goes into great detail about Butler’s life and political career. It also describes the morning when Butler wrote the bill in his home.

My problem is that I do not know where the writer got this information. There are a few notes, but they do not provide much help. Also, there is another issue that may have been an accident but may also lead to questions about this article. When describing the trial, the following is written.

Sue Hicks, a local member of the prosecution team, ridicules the defense claim of unconstitutionality. It is “perfectly ridiculous to say,” Hicks says, “that a teacher…can go in and teach any kind of doctrine he wants.” What if, she wondered, a teacher hired to teach arithmetic decided he would rather teach architecture?

I highlighted the pronoun because Sue Hicks was a man. Legend states that he was the inspiration for “A Boy Named Sue” by Johnny Cash. The story goes that the writer, Shel Silverstein, attended a speech by Hicks and was inspired to write the song.

That is an interesting story, but it has gotten me off subject. After my search for John Washington Butler, I know more than when I started. I know what he looks like. I know some things about his life and his career. However, I do not know as much as the Internet would like for me to believe.