Confederate Memorial Park reveals part of state’s heritage

By Harry D. Butler
Times Correspondent
Published: Saturday, January 17, 2015 

A remark in a national news article about Alabama “still believing the Civil War is not over” piqued my interest in a sign along Interstate 65 north of Montgomery that I’ve seen for years, but had no idea what it was about.

Like many Alabamians who travel that road, I always thought I would “check out that place” — Confederate Memorial Park — the next time we were in the area.

Well, the other day, my wife and I did so and got a joyful surprise — history buffs that we are, shocked may have been a better word — to learn a bit of our state’s heritage we had never known before.

A brochure detailing the 47 sites on Alabama’s historic Civil War Trail tells of a 102-acre park in Chilton County that includes our state’s only Confederate soldiers’ home, the residence of hundreds of war veterans and widows between 1902 and 1939. Also on the grounds are two cemeteries, a church, a post office, trails and pavilions. A unique museum tells the story of the men whose conduct left a legacy of bravery, honor and devotion to duty during wartime, and courage in the face of adversity during peacetime. The museum has an extensive collection of Civil War uniforms, weapons and equipment. The gallery pays homage to the rank and file.

Included are many rare artifacts. One is a colored ambrotype (a type of picture on glass) that shows a soldier who lost his trigger finger during the Battle of the Wilderness in Virginia. Another is a horse blanket made of Spanish moss because of the shortage of wool. A most interesting exhibit is that of a mounted Confederate trooper, Capt. N.H.R. Dawson, Company C, 4th Alabama Infantry. His wife, Elodie, was the half-sister of Mary Todd, who married Abraham Lincoln, president of the United States during the war.

Interest in the “War Between the States” is worldwide, according to Park Director Bill Rambo. “We had 14,000 visitors the past year; they came from all over the United States,” he said. “In the past two years, every state has been represented, and … such countries as Sri Lanka, England, French Guyana, Sweden and many others. Foreign visitors have their trips all planned; they know a lot about the Confederacy.”

According to park literature, Alabama in 1900 counted more than 2,000 survivors of the Southern armies that had surrendered 35 years before. Many were infirm because of age or physical disability and no less than a hundred of the old ex-Confederates were living in county poorhouses.

Since the federal government granted pensions only to Union veterans, their Confederate counterparts depended on whatever stipends were available from the individual Southern states. Alabama paid these men small pensions.

Montgomery lawyer Jefferson M. Falkner, a Confederate veteran, decided to do something to provide a comfortable home for his aging former comrades. The area then known as Mountain Creek was a summer resort area, and Falkner donated 80 acres of land for the construction of the home. After a vigorous fundraising effort and a successful campaign to have the state take over administration of the facility and provide desperately needed operating funds, it grew to include 22 buildings.

The new appropriations transformed the tranquil wooded hills into an impressive complex. In addition to cottages for the residents, there was a hospital, administration building, mess hall, dairy barn, an elaborate water and sewage system and more. At its height, the home was the residence of 91 Confederate veterans and 19 widows of veterans. Over the years, it’s estimated that as many as 800 people lived at the site. The majority had served in Alabama outfits, but many were from other Confederate states who moved to the state in their aging years. The park has two cemeteries containing the graves of more than 300 Confederate soldiers.

Erma Dennis has worked at the park since its grand opening 21 years ago. She is the cultural resources assistant, knows every “nook and cranny” of the site and delights in telling of the history of the park and the museum’s exhibits.

She explained that in order for a veteran to be admitted to the home, “He must have been an Alabama resident for two years with an honorable service record and a yearly income of less than $400; if applying with his wife, they must have been married at least five years and she must be 60 years or older.”

After the home closed in 1939, the care of the two cemeteries was assigned to the State Soil Conservation Service, and for many years afterward the site was all but forgotten.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans rekindled interest in the site. The Alabama Legislature in 1964 created Confederate Memorial Park on the site of the Alabama Confederate Soldiers’ Home as a “shrine to the honor of Alabama’s citizens of the Confederacy.”

The park is 11 miles from Clanton, at 437 County Road 63 in Marbury. The museum is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, and is closed on state and federal holidays. Group tours and programs are available by calling 205-755-1990.

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