Rufus Ward: Halberds, ghosts, buttons and Hernando de Soto

January 19, 2013 9:12:56 PM

Rufus Ward - [email protected]


Over the years searching for the route of the Hernando de Soto Expedition through Alabama and Mississippi has been about like hunting a ghost. So I guess that in looking for the route of his 1540 trek through what is now Lowndes County, it is only fitting that an old ghost story turned up. 


Around 1900 a halberd (a weapon that looks like an ax with a lance on top mounted on a long pole) that was referred to as "an old Spanish battle-ax" was found in Lowndes County on the Military Road between Black Creek and Howard Creek. Since halberds were commonly thought of as medieval weapons, it was considered to be a relic of the de Soto expedition and in 1912 it was donated to the State Historical Museum. In the 1920s the DAR placed a marble marker on the side of the Military Road near where it was found in order to mark de Soto's trail. 


However, the Luxapalila Halberd, as it became known, had its place in history rearranged by a button and a ghost story. It would seem that this classic de Soto artifact probably had nothing more to do with de Soto than a hubcap off of his 1953 namesake automobile. 


Circa 1810 uniform buttons of the U S Army's 1st Regiment of Artillery contain an eagle on a cannon with several flags and a halberd that looks like the Luxapalila Halberd. A little research on halberds also showed that they were not just medieval weapons. During the American revolution and into the War of 1812, sergeants carried a halberd as a symbol of their rank. Leech & Rigdon a Confederate weapons maker in Memphis, who in 1862 moved to Columbus, even made a few "Irish pikes." They were bayonet heads with hooks for cutting attached to long poles and were similar to halberds. After a few choice words from Confederate officers about what weapons were really needed, their manufacture quickly ended. 


But what U S artillery unit was in Columbus around the time of the War of 1812. There in lies the ghost story. In 1851 Joseph Cobb wrote a book, Mississippi Scenes or Sketches of Southern and Western Life. 


One of his stories was The Legend of Black Creek. It is the story of the haunting of the Military Road's Black Creek crossing. The Military Road was constructed under orders from Andrew Jackson to provide a direct route from Nashville to New Orleans. As the story goes, two U S soldiers drowned crossing a flooded Black Creek and the ghost of the soldiers thereafter haunted travelers along that stretch of the Military Road.  


The Military Road was constructed between 1817 and 1820 by soldiers from the 1st and 8th Infantry Regiments and a detachment from the Corps of Artillery. There was a work camp on the hill at Howard's Creek about three miles north of Black Creek. At that camp site two soldiers actually did die in 1819 and were buried there.  


It was about halfway between Black Creek and Howard's Creek that the Luxapalila halberd was found. Rather than a relic of de Soto, it is most likely a halberd that had been carried by a sergeant attached to the troops building the Military Road. With the halberd looking like the one on the Regiment of Artillery button, he may well have been a sergeant in the artillery. 


What makes history fun is to take seemingly unrelated bits of information and put them together to tell a story. Then you have to wonder if the soldier who lost the halberd could have become one of the Ghost haunting Black Creek. 


I have had a lot of people ask me about purchasing copies of my new book Columbus Chronicles and when the next book signing will take place. I will be at Books-A-Million in Lee Mall for a book signing from 2 to 4 this afternoon. If you haven't gotten a copy of this collection of 60 of my history stories then stop by and get one. 


Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]