I was flipping through the channels and found a documentary about Erwin Rommel. I watched it for a few minutes but eventually lost interest. My mental quota for documentaries about Nazi Germany has been filled for a while. However, the documentary brought to mind a story from long ago.
When I was a kid, I heard that, before World War II, Rommel traveled to Tennessee a studied the military tactics of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a southern cavalry general who operated in these parts.
Yes, I was the kind of kid who found that kind of story interesting. I was the kind of kid who knew who those people were.
Through the years, I have thought about this story and never questioned it. I have told people about it. Heck, I have even mentioned it in class. However, I never thought about digging into it and finding out what happened….until last night.
I typed a bunch of stuff into Google about Erwin Rommel, Tennessee and Nathan Bedford Forrest. I did not find much, and I began to worry. If he was around here, then something would be written about it. The only thing I could find was an article called Second Guessing the Past – The Desert Fox and Mississippi at hottytoddy.com. For those who do not know, “Hotty Toddy” is a cheer at the University of Mississippi, which will not make my colleague from Mississippi State University all that happy.
I encourage you to read the linked article, but I need to offer a synopsis. The writer traveled to West Tennessee to track down a story that he had always heard about Rommel visiting the state. People told him stories of seeing Rommel riding a motorcycle and talking to him on their front porches. The memories of these sightings were as vivid as if they had just happened.
He found out that Rommel was in Clinton, Tennessee and signed a hotel register. The hotel, which no longer exists, even placed a plaque on the room where he stayed. It was called the “Rommel Room.”
After visiting Clinton and talking to people who met Rommel, the writer visited Manfred Rommel and asked him about his father’s trip to the United States. It turns out that Rommel never made the journey. The son was told the stories of people who met his father, but he insisted that his father never traveled to Tennessee.
Reading, the article will provide you with a better sense of the story, but chances are that Rommel was never in this state. The story that I was told and repeated never happened. Heck, the story I heard was wrong about the town. However, it makes me wonder about memory and legends and all sorts of things that historians have to deal with.
People were convinced that they met Erwin Rommel and were convinced of a signed register proved it. Did they make it up? Did they tell the story long enough that they started to believe it? Did they actually meet a German officer who was riding around on a motorcycle? If so, then who was he? Did he introduce himself as Rommel? Since Rommel did not become famous until World War 2, why would meeting him before the war be considered a big deal? Did they meet a traveling German and assume it was Rommel after they started hearing his name?
It is a simple story, but it leads to question after question after question. I only know that it is a story I have heard for years, and it is one that a lot of people believe. It is even mentioned in The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, which is a good site because I have an article on there. It would be nice to know its origins and how it came to be thought of as fact.
That would make a better documentary than the one that I turned off.