Have You Heard The Buzz?


I’ve written before about how much I enjoy playing dress up at the Depot. Last week, however, I found out it could be even more fun than I’d realized.

A bit part of what we do at the Huntsville Historic Depot museum is putting on programs for students on field trips. We have several different programs, and I get to perform different stations for each one. For example, I’ve been the emergency management director of Whoville, a Union general and a train conductor for various activities. I’ve scared kids with ghost stories so badly they had to take a break from the program, and taught them to march around the grounds.

Last week, though — Last week I got to branch out a bit.

The Depot museum is owned and operated by the City of Huntsville, as part of an organization that also includes the Alabama Constitute Hall Village museum and the Earlyworks children’s museum. Last week, while the Depot was closed to prepare for the annual Whistestop Festival, they had me come work at Earlyworks as part of an “American Heroes” program. They gave me the option of who I wanted to be, and asked what I’d need for a costume.

“Well,” I thought, “I do have a flightsuit …”

“Can I be an astronaut?” I asked. Yes, it turned out, I could be an astronaut.

So for two days last week, I went and pretended to be Buzz Aldrin for school kids. And, no offense to Clara Barton and Harriet Tubman, but my Buzz was about as cool an American hero as they come.

I had fun. Like, a lot of fun.

I like talking to kids about space, and I love seeing them get excited about it, and that was definitely the case those days. I had my story that I wanted to cover, and was barely able to get through it each time for them wanting to ask me questions about what it was like for “me” to be in space. I was proud that I was able to answer everything they threw at me, which helped maintain the feeling that it was “real” for the kids. Frankly, I’ve seen actual astronauts do actual Q&A’s with kids, and this really wasn’t that different.

And that part of it made me really happy. I’ve been blessed to meet and talk with astronauts from the early days of spaceflight, and the reality is, there’s a limit to how much longer we’ll be able to hear their stories first-hand. Since I began working on “Homesteading Space,” I’ve always felt a responsibility that, when it’s no longer possible to talk to them directly, the best thing people will be able to do is talk to the people who talked to them, and that I have a duty to carry those stories. These kids will likely never get to talk to Buzz directly, but it made me happy that they could talk to Buzz by proxy. (And I felt like, in places, I was a pretty decent Buzz — when a kid asked if I was the second man to walk on the moon, I responded that “Neil and I were the first men to land on the moon,” a fairly accurate Buzz response, in my opinion.)

I’ve enjoyed all the different programs I’ve done, but this one very well may have been my favorite. Enough that I’m currently trying to convince my boss that, when we do the Civil War program, the Depot should have been captured, not by Union General O.M. Mitchell, but by Buzz Aldrin. THAT would be a great presentation, let me tell you!

The Fall of Huntsville

I was excited to see that I was on the schedule to work at the Huntsville Depot Museum today.

After all, today is a major anniversary of one of the most important days in the history of the Depot, to say nothing of the city of Huntsville.

On this date, 150 years ago, at about 6 a.m., we were invaded and conquered.

April 11, 1862. The Battle of Shiloh was fought four days earlier, and, while a Confederate defeat, delayed the Union army from taking Corinth, Miss., and the strategically important Memphis & Charleston and Ohio & Mobile railroads that crossed there.

In the wake of Shiloh, one General Ormsby Mitchel, a former banker, railroad surveyor and noted astronomer before rejoining the army to claim that glory that had eluded him in his younger days, decided that he was going to break the Memphis & Charleston, and in a way far less bloody than Shiloh had been.

As his target, he picked Huntsville, appealing for at least two reasons — it was the eastern headquarters of the M&C, and it was relatively poorly defended. (Huntsville would also be of value in his plan, launched the next day, to capture Chattanooga, but we shan’t go into that.)

Of course, it doesn’t matter how poorly defended a town is if a large group of reinforcements arrive. Working in Mitchel’s favor was the fact that the Confederate army was still very much pre-occupied with the siege of Corinth, but he wanted to leave as little as possible to chance.

The worst thing for him would be for, when someone saw his army coming toward Huntsville, the impending invasion to be reported to Confederate headquarters and reinforcements to be sent. We don’t know exactly what Mitchel did to try to prevent this from happening, but we do know two things — no telegraph asking for reinforcements was sent, and, when Mitchel’s army arrived, the local telegrapher, stationed at the Depot, was given a job with the Union army.

To further take no chances, Mitchel timed things impeccably. Back during the Civil War, war was, in some ways, in fact more, well, civil. Among those ways, you didn’t fight at night. Under the rules of engagement, that would be  downright rude. But what Mitchel did do was to wake his troops during the night, have them get ready and start marching, to time their entry into Huntsville after daybreak, when it was fair game, if a bit surprising.

As he marched into town early that morning, the vastly unnumbered, unreinforced and generally unready defenders gave in without a battle, and Huntsville and its Depot were under Union control.

For those that haven’t visited the Depot, this resulted in one of Huntsville’s more interesting historical curiosities from the Civil War. When Mitchel captured the Depot, he inherited a train of injured Confederate soldiers who had been evacuated from Corinth in the wake of Shiloh. Unable to transport them immediately to a prisoner of war camp in Ohio, Mitchel detained them in the third floor of the Depot, which was used as overnight accommodations for railroad workers. Visitors today to the Depot can still see graffiti there that dates back to that period.

Looking back, there’s a bit of historical irony to Mitchel’s occupation of Huntsville. Concerned about the economic situation, Michel found a quandary — the local Confederate money was already inflating to the point of worthlessness, while the locals were too proud to use Union money. In hopes of stabilizing the local economy, Mitchel requested that the Union army send a shipment of gold that could be introduced into circulation. The gold was captured in transit, and never made its way to Huntsville, causing that part of Mitchel’s plan to fail.

Fast forward 150 years, to the modern day city of Huntsville as the nation undergoes a very challenging financial time. The main stabilizing force in Huntsville’s economy? Money sent in by the U.S. Army.

Apparently, Mitchel had the right idea.