Sam Burnham, Curator
Southeast Virginia has become a special place to me over the last four years. Between a visit to Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown followed up by my son being assigned to the Norfolk area with the Navy, we try to get to Virginia when we can.
Recently we visited a Virginia landmark that is definitely worth mentioning. A love of history pulled us to this location. It had plenty to offer.
Named for President James Monroe, Fort Monroe was originally commissioned by President James Madison. The War of 1812 convinced him that America needed coastal fortifications to defend the country against invasion. These fortresses still dot the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Fort Monroe’s strategic location protected the Hampton Roads as well as the James and York Rivers. It was such a prime location that a military presence was active here until 2011.
Early in the fort’s history a young 1st lieutenant by the name of Robert E. Lee was assigned to fort. He worked as an engineer while stationed at Fort Monroe. His son, Custis, was born there.
The fort earned the name “Freedom’s Fortress” during the War Between the States. The US maintained control of the fort throughout the war and escaped male slaves who made it to the fort were considered contraband and would not be returned to the Confederacy. This led to thousands of slaves fleeing to Fort Monroe seeking asylum and freedom.
In March , 1862 the fort was witness to the Battle of Hampton Roads. The ironclads USS Monitor and CSS Virginia slugged it out in the waters of Hampton Roads. It is not uncommon for fishermen and boaters to encounter live ammunition from the war in this area.
After the war, the casemate was used as a prison cell for Confederate President Jefferson Davis after his capture in Irwin County, Georgia. Davis was eventually moved to a more humane location at the fort. Davis spent two years imprisoned at the fort before being released without ever facing trial.
Fort Monroe served on long after the war. It played a role defending the Chesapeake during the Spanish-American War, both world wars, and throughout the Cold War.
Today there are several plans that would repurpose the fort. Buildings inside and just outside the walls serve as homes and businesses. The architecture is beautiful. Tourists visit museums and eat in restaurants. People use the fort for walking and jogging. The historic and cultural draw brings people who want to learn about what happened at Fort Monroe. The waterfront location brings tourists to the public beach. Weddings are popular in the fort’s churches. Fishermen and boaters flock to the marina. Two centuries old and yet Fort Monroe is still finding new ways to stay relevant.
With what I saw at this location, I think it’s safe to say Fort Monroe will be an important place for at least another century. It’s one of those places people want to visit. With wise use and planning, there’s no reason that it won’t serve the Hampton area as an economic engine for years to come.
Sam Burnham, Curator
There is probably no documentation of the precise number of small Southern towns with railroad tracks running through them. In the 19th century towns needed a railroad or a river to survive. The trains provided commerce, travel, and a connection to the rest of the world. That’s part of what sustained a small town in western Bartow County.
Welcome to Kingston, population ≈ 679.
Kingston used to be a bustling place. Back during the war it housed hospitals for both armies. The Andrews Raiders hid out near here to allow scheduled rail traffic to pass during the Great Locomotive Chase.
A hotel and several businesses once anchored downtown. The old well house still stands next to the tracks. But the modern water tower overlooks mostly empty storefronts in need of attention.
In this part of Georgia towns are divided into two lists: winners and losers. The lists aren’t etched in concrete. They aren’t even written in ink. Towns hop back and forth as the sprawl of metro Atlanta turns quiet villages into boom towns overnight. Outlying towns lose their populations to better opportunities within the sprawl. As the development spreads out like a shockwave, yesterday’s boom town becomes today’s blight as crime and decay set in. People follow the prosperity but it never stays put long.
So a place like Kingston, which sits hollow and crumbling, can offer something different. It can be a center of neighborly peace and prosperity or it can be more fodder for the sprawl. Taking the better option could provide housing, employment, and community. This can be a healthily isolated enclave. It can be happy and affordable. It can be great.
Kingston has a local government. A modern town hall is small but appropriate for a municipality of this size. There are recreational facilities and ample green space. The local architecture is beautiful. There are homes and churches. The town is a short drive from Cartersville, Adairsville, Rome, or the plush amenities of the Barnsley Gardens resort. Right here you’ll find all the foundations of a healthy and prosperous small Southern town. It’s got good bones.
In a local cemetery you’ll find a large headstone for Melvina Shields (1844-1938). Ms. Shields was born into slavery and died in the era of Jim Crow. You are probably familiar with her great-great-great granddaughter, Michelle Obama.
I’m not writing this one as a greedy profiteer looking to gentrify an ailing town. I’m certainly not trying to make the good people of Kingston feel bad about their community. What I hope to do is shed some light on a good place. Who knows what could happen here? Some good investment with the community in mind could yield profits in the Economy of People, the Economy of Place, and also in the financial marketplace.
One thing that COVID-19 has caused is the realization that a central in-person office isn’t always a necessity. As workers are freed to work remotely and live where they choose. Places like Kingston can fill a niche. People who want to work for big firms no longer have to live in huge cities. There are now more options.
All of this considered, think of the possibilities. Outlets for art, music, or other entertainment. Think about a farmers market supplied from the local area. Think of festivals and celebrations. Think about the chance to fit into the local culture rather than displacing it.
So I’m highlighting Kingston in this article but so many others fit into this category. For now, what can be done in Kingston? Do you see it? Can you envision it?
Jordan M. Poss, ABG Contributor
One night in April 1942, a German U-boat sighted and torpedoed the American tankers SS Oklahoma and Esso Baton Rouge. The two ships sailed unescorted en route to Europe, where, at this stage of the war, the Allies were still weak, holding out in Britain while the Nazi military prowled the Atlantic and Mediterranean and slugged it out with the Soviets thousands of miles away. Both ships sank, with a loss of twenty-two crewmen. The U-boat slipped away into the night to continue its raiding.
Fortunately, this incident did not occur in the frigid north Atlantic but in the waters just off the coast of St Simons Island, Georgia. The Coast Guard rescued the survivors and brought them to shelter on the island. Even the two ships were not total losses—both were refloated and towed into St Simons Sound to be repaired and relaunched at Brunswick’s shipyards before the end of the year.
As the museum film and exhibits at St Simons’s World War II Home Front Museum make clear, the sinking of the Oklahoma and Esso Baton Rougechanged things for coastal Georgia. One elderly Brunswick native interviewed for the museum film remembers the whole city shaking when the ships were torpedoed, the sea amplifying the shock of the explosions and concussing the peninsular town from all sides. That made the war startlingly present for them, he says.
Within months coastal Georgia saw the largest military buildup since the Civil War, or perhaps even the days of Oglethorpe, when Georgia was briefly the most heavily militarized place in the western hemisphere. Brunswick, once a small but busy port city, grew by 16,000 people as the JA Jones shipyards expanded to build Liberty ships, the mass-produced cargo vessels that fed men and materiel to multiple fronts on the other side of two oceans. One of Brunswick’s Liberty ships would steam to Europe, North Africa, and the Philippines before the war was over. Radar aerials went up along the seaward shores of Jekyll and St Simons Islands and St Simons’s luxurious King and Prince Hotel hosted a radar training school. Two naval air stations went in, one north of Brunswick and the other carved out of the marshes and live oak forests of St Simons. Both had runways for the fixed-wing aircraft—fighters, bombers, scout planes—that would patrol the sea lanes around the islands, and NAS Glynco housed Squadron ZP-15, a unit of LTA (lighter than air) ships in some of the largest hangars in the United States. Trainloads of raw material arrived in Brunswick daily as the Liberty ships—ninety-nine before the end of the war—slid down their slipways into the sound, as radar scanned the sky for threats, and as planes and blimps criss-crossed the heavens, watching, shepherding.
While the beaches of Normandy, the black sands of Iwo Jima, or the skies over Europe command our imaginations when we think of the war, none of these—the sharp end of the spear—would have been successful or even possible without the unromantic and quietly diligent work of the home front. The World War II Home Front Museum pays brilliant tribute to this often-overlooked side of the war.
The museum stands on St Simons’s East Beach, in the old Coast Guard station where the survivors of the U-boat attack were brought in the aftermath. The station’s old boathouse features the first exhibits, which include a mural-sized map of Brunswick, St Simons, and Jekyll, with key military features labeled, and a good photographic timeline of the events that led up to the war and US involvement. A short museum film includes stunning archive footage and photographs and interviews—like the one I mentioned above—with some of the precious few remaining of that generation. But rather than infantrymen or pilots, these interviewees were welders and dockworkers, the men and women often lost in the accidentally glamorous and abstract image of Rosie the Riveter. The second half of the museum, housed in the main building, includes extensive exhibits on radar, the blimps that patrolled out of NAS Glynco, and the construction of the Liberty ships.
The entire museum is beautifully designed, subdivided into inviting rooms on specific aspects of the war on the home front and decorated with hundreds of large photos. The museum also benefits from lots of well-designed interactive exhibits, which are both informative and entertaining. One is a game in which you have to shop for groceries using a limited number of ration points, and another invites you to build a historical Liberty ship from the hull up, offering a sense of the labor required to produce even one, and then animates your chosen ship’s fate, adding a further sense of the dangers involved in just getting to the front. Yet another is an aircraft spotter game, in which you must identify friendly and enemy planes based solely on silhouette as they “fly” over. All were a huge hit with my kids, ages five and almost three, and there were other interactive exhibits unavailable at the time owing to COVID-19.
Perhaps most striking of all, though, were those photos, presented without overt political messaging or activism—hundreds and hundreds of them, showing Americans of both sexes and all races welding, riveting, building together, rejoicing with each other over the launch of each Liberty ship, and each time turning seriously back to their work, the defeat of not one but two evil enemies. Together these civilians built and launched almost a hundred ships, and these sailors, aviators, and coast guardsmen escorted them and hundreds more, with no more losses in Georgia’s waters.
The Home Front Museum is a magnificent tribute to the home front generally and the experience of coastal Georgia and these civilians and soldiers of the home front, who are so seldom depicted in movies or worshipfully remembered during our holidays. If you find yourself in or near the Golden Isles, pay a visit to this museum and commemorate this forgotten front of the war. If the sinking of those ships in the dark of night in the spring of 1942 made the war real for Georgians on the home front, this museum can make it real for us, too
Jordan M. Poss is a Georgia native and graduate of Clemson University. He is the author of Dark Full of Enemies, No Snakes in Iceland, The Last Day of Marcus Tillius Cicero, and Griswoldville, all of which are available at his website. He lives in upstate South Carolina with his wife—a Texas native—and three children.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire