Sunday, November 6, 2011

Montgomery Historic Locations Poorly Marked

Alabama Voices: City Civil War sites poorly marked
Oct. 24, 2011

By E. Terry Brown
Several years ago I lamented in this newspaper the lack of identification of many Montgomery historical sites associated with the Civil War. Alas, though we are now in the first year of the four-year sesquicentennial of the war, a visitor to Montgomery who wishes to see where seminal events in that struggle occurred is not going to find any beyond a state brochure which mentions only the state Capitol and the First White House. Those two sites are our tourism crown jewels, to be sure, but so much more is here to be exploited so that tourists linger and enjoy our hospitality and amenities longer.

There are a few sites which are appropriately marked: the Teague Mansion on South Perry, where the surrender of Montgomery occurred; the Winter Building on Dexter, where the Fort Sumter telegraph originated; the Montgomery Theater across from the Montgomery City Hall, where Dixie's Land (Dixie) was first performed; and Government House on Commerce, where the executive departments toiled, though a tourist to Montgomery will only know of them if they happen upon them by chance.

Incredibly, though, downtown Montgomery, the most historic square mile in the South, possesses numerous Civil War sites which are not currently marked in any way including:
The site of the Exchange Hotel on Commerce Street where most of the delegates to the Confederate Congress lived and worked while in Montgomery.

Notably, from its balcony just about where the faux balcony is now on the old Colonial Bank building, Jefferson Davis was introduced to Montgomery and a huge crowd of onlookers with the famous words, "The man and the hour have met."

The site of Montgomery Hall on Dexter Avenue where some of the Confederate Congress and cabinet officers lived and where Mary Chestnut, the famous Civil War diarist, wrote of the stirring events she witnessed during the months that Montgomery led a new republic.
The original site of the First White House at the southwest corner of Bibb and Washington, a block away from the Government House and the Exchange Hotel.

The site of Mrs. Elizabeth Cleveland's boarding house, at the corner of Catoma and Montgomery streets, where Vice President Alexander Stephens, ironically a close friend of Abraham Lincoln, enjoyed a private room in crowded Confederate Montgomery.

The Confederate Post Office on the northeast corner of S. Perry and Washington, which actually served as the offices of the Postmaster General John H. Regan. The Confederate Post Office Department holds the distinction of being the only postal service on this continent ever to pay its own way.

While there are additional sites that deserve recognition and a place on a self-guided walking tour, there is one existing site that we may be about to lose to short-sightedness.
That site, the little known Estelle Hall, should be saved and developed by the city, not as condominiums or loft apartments, but as a tourist attraction.

Stretching across the second floor of buildings on the northern corner of Dexter and Perry, Estelle Hall was, on the evening of Feb. 18, 1861, the location for the inaugural levee of President Jefferson Davis.

Neither the city nor the Alabama Historical Commission has marked any of the sites enumerated above but their failure to do so for what is the third-most important existing Confederate site in Montgomery is not simply negligent -- it is tragic. It deserves to be on the National Register of Historic Places.

I urge the city of Montgomery, the local chamber of commerce and Alabama tourism officials to appropriately survey and mark all of the Civil War sites in Montgomery and develop for our city a self-guided walking trail of these historic sites available to any tourist. It is astonishing that despite the minimal costs this has not been done.

This year we enter the 150th anniversary of the historic events which made Montgomery for a brief time the focus of the world. We owe it to ourselves, our children, and our tourism guests to commemorate the events of the Civil War, especially those which occurred here. The educational and economic benefits from tourism would be tremendous.