The Surrender Tree

Hidden off the side Hwy 518, just ten miles from the Pennsylvania border, is a stone monument and plaque commemorating the surrender of Confederate Brigadier General John Morgan, who, in the summer of 1863, led a 1,000 mile raid up the Ohio River, deep into Union territory. With a force of about 1,200 riders, Morgan destroyed railroads and telegraph lines, skirmished with local militias, and forced the Union to reallocate a portion of its forces away from the main front to chase him through Ohio. Morgan’s raid was notable for its boldness—he was operating hundreds of miles from the nearest confederate force without any hope of relief or resupply—but in the broader context of the Civil War it is remembered as a only minor action. Speaking just for the monument, it is probably interesting less for the event it memorializes and more for the twisting, winding story of its own strange history.

After rapidly advancing up the Ohio River valley, Morgan was out-maneuvered by Union forces on July 26, 1863 and finally captured. He surrendered his command to Gen. James Shackelford at the edge of a field beneath a cherry tree. This tree became known to locals as the surrender tree. For many years after the war the tree stood as an incidental monument to the surrender and to the raid, and it was apparently viewed as such by residents in the area who were proud of having playing a role in Morgan’s defeat. In the early 1900s the tree was cut down but was then quickly replaced by a stone monument erected by the state to officially memorialize the event and the place. For forty years the monument stood beside the stump of surrender tree. It is unclear how many people would have visited the site since it was located on private property and probably was not serviced by any sort of road access. Later in the century, the property’s owners refused to grant renewal of the state’s rights to maintain the monument on their land and demanded its removal. So the stone was moved in the 1950s to a roadside rest area off state route 518, about 200 yards east of the original site. There it stayed for another 50 years. In 1999, the Ohio Department of Transportation closed the rest area due to lack of an adequate septic system. The monument could no longer be visited and was gradually forgotten.

I’m not sure when, but the state historical society did eventually secure a new location and moved the stone from its place in the abandoned rest stop. Today it stands on a tiny plot of groomed land that appears to situated between a residential property and some sort of aging commercial lot, maybe a dairy or a cannery. There is nothing to announce the monument’s presence, no place to pull one’s car off of the road to visit it and nothing to inform the public about the true location of the surrender, which is now probably lost to memory. Today, the Morgan Surrender monument looks like—and for all practical purposes is—an oversize lawn ornament. It is an orphaned memorial, commemorating an event which lives on only in historical non-fiction and in state archives. I wonder if this in some way diminishes the reality event, the fact that there is no longer any concrete indicator to give testimony in physical space that this event happened, and that it can now only be thought of abstractly as a matter of narrated history. I also wonder about the life of the monument, which is now developing its own illustrious history, completely independent of the thing it is meant to signify. The surrender of Gen. John Morgan remains a static and dead period of time long past, but it’s memorial continues to peregrinate around the earth’s surface, accruing new particulates of meaning and incident.

Country Lanes of Urban Detroit

Much has been written about the death and decay of Detroit, Michigan. Especially in the last five years, major news outlets have been covering the story as if it were news; like it was something that had just happened and not the long, slow, inexorable dissolution that it is and has always been. Our understanding of the ruination of Detroit has been shaped a great deal, I think, by these images captured by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre. They have appeared in Time, Huffington Post, and all over the internet. The Marchand/Meffre exhibition is mainly concerned mucking around in wreckage and making a spectacle out of the scale of the desolation. They show big iconic buildings like Michigan Central Station and old assembly plants all abandoned and empty. The images are eerie and apocalyptic-looking because many of the places still retain some of their character as places—they just no longer have people in them. It’s the lack of activity that is disconcerting. They are spaces that ought to have people in them and do not. What’s sad about Detroit is that despite its decline, it still has to go about its business being a large, swarming city.

I prefer these pictures I copied from Google maps on one of my daydream roadtrips. Rather than making Detroit look abandoned, they make it seems as though it was never all that inhabited to begin with.

Detroit was a city built to hold 2 million people. Today, only about 700,000 people live within the city limits. During the 90s and the early aughts, the city embarked on an aggressive effort to condemn and demolish tracts and tracts of abandoned structures throughout the city. In the years that followed, trees and prairie grasses native to southeastern Michigan reclaimed entire city blocks. Many of the central neighborhoods in Detroit look like this now. These pictures were taken in East Poletown and Core City.

Detroit grew big from industrialization. From 1900 to 1950, with the rise of the auto industry and mechanized manufacturing, it probably grew faster than any city in the world. It was one of the first cities to be blessed by large-scale global trade. Anybody who bought a car was sending his money to Detroit. Compare the picture below with those above. It was taken in Black Bottom in the 1920s—more or less the same place, just 90 years earlier.

Modernity tore down Detroit as precipitously as it built it up. It is a stark example of how development always its end in destruction and how one can often necessitate the other: Progress dismantling the past.