Yellow Bluff Fort, New Berlin Road: Earthworks and Hobo Jungles

by Tim Gilmore, 6/17/2012

The two boys stand beneath the tree canopy and try to place-read. It feels like an unvisited, dilapidated park with its picnic tables beneath the oaks, but the picnic tables are interspersed with corroded cannons mounted on white concrete. It feels like the first phase of a tacky tourist place no one would ever visit, the first phase grown terribly old and undeveloped. On the other side of those trees are several consecutive rows of semi-trailers parked in sand. On the other side of the trees in the opposite direction is a trailer park. In fact, the two teenage boys, with their deep Southern accents and their camouflage jackets, think of these picnic tables between cannons as a good place to drink cheap beer at noon. They live in nearby trailers. This place is Central Park for the trailer park. They’ve never really thought about why the cannons are here. They’ve never paid much attention to the memorial marker. They’ve never noticed what it says about this place.

They’ve never noticed the marker calls their trailer park Central Park a “Confederate earthworks,” never noticed the marker claims General Robert E. Lee designed it. They certainly have no idea of historians who doubt that assertion. They haven’t noticed the marker’s statement that Yellow Bluff Fort was one of several fortifications built along the St. Johns River. They’ve never noticed the marker claims to have been placed by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1950, Robert E. Lee Chapter.

The boys like to drink Bud Light and Coors, bottle after bottle, when they wake up at noon, and then they like to swing their whole bodies into breaking the bottles against the cannons and shatter glass all over the ground. Shattering beer bottles is exciting to them. It makes them feel like something has happened, something is happening. The boys chunk Coors bottles at the cannons and shout, “Ha!” and “Ya!” and “Hyah!” and “Uuughghgh!” and “Huuughgh!”

Confederates built Yellow Bluff Fort in 1862 and the corresponding fort at St. Johns Bluff on the south side of the St. Johns River. September 1862 was a constant exchange of fire between the two forts and Union gunboats in the river.

Within the next two years, Federal troops took over the fort and the all-black 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry populated Yellow Bluff. They built rifle pits, stockades, and a signal tower. No group of soldiers occupied Yellow Bluff for long, and several companies used it for very brief periods. Then the Civil War ended and what one Union report had called “almost impenetrable jungle” once again grew quickly over the battlements and smothered them into the 20th century.

The fort was never a fort. Yellow Bluff was always only an earthworks. It’s a great word: earthworks sounds more natural, more ancient, more real, as though the earth itself offered itself up. Yellow Bluff was never a big artificial edifice, always a place dug and shaped into the earth. If Frank Lloyd Wright were to have designed a Civil War battlement, he would have created the idea of place that harmonized with and grew from and was part of the earth. He would have created Yellow Bluff. Yellow Bluff was the Fallingwater of Civil War stations. Or something like that. Now, it’s a good place for two teenage boys to break beer bottles on cannons the way people once broke champagne bottles against the hulls of new ships. Yellow Bluff was never only a fort. Yellow Bluff was always an earthworks.

Nobody knows when Yellow Bluff was abandoned. It’s harder to see its usefulness as a defense on the river now. The bluff and its embattlements have been covered for a century in dense growth of weeds and vines and trees and palmettos. The jungle thrives on the obsolete battle stations. The channel of river flowing between Yellow Bluff on the Dames Point peninsula and Blount Island and Quarantine Island has been altered by engineering at its mouth and dredging and the creation of jetties. The rifle pits and earthen powder magazines no longer show the possibility of strategic warcraft.

If this part of the rural Northside can be called the city, it can be called the city inasmuch as so much of this city is not city at all, and that, so it happens, is a good way of defining this particular city.

Past the small trenches in the earth and the cannons on white concrete and the picnic tables and the semi-trailers and the trailer park are this path and that path into sudden woods that are followed by wide sandy fields randomly punctuated with their own intermittent woods. In the fields are camps and recent campfires and sand mounds and small territorial territories.

Behind the supposed site of the fort, but before the reach of the river, through weeds and wildflowers and tall grasses, several broken and busted chairs encircle the site of a recent fire. Empty gin bottles lie in palmettos. The daytime charcoal of the night’s fires of nearby fallen limbs offers no clues to who comes here. Several such camps, several such hobo-jungles, occur at random distances in the woods-interrupted fields like a constellation of castoffs invisible in the daytime, congregating at night.

In the old days, hobo jungles were located near railroad access points for easy train hopping and migration to seasonal labor. In the early 21st century Yellow Bluff hobohemia, the coming and going of strange men in the dusk and the night and dawn is less connected to travel, certainly not to railroad migration. The immigrations to and emigrations from these field camps have less to do with work too. The camps have more to do with who knows who might have access to beer or gin or pot or meth. Even the lack of daytime population feels sinister. You feel an absence here, a positive absence, a present absence. The people whose camps these are know these spottedly-wooded fields better than you do. They know how to breathe and see in this medium. They have eyes in the briars, but you see nothing.

Somewhere on the other side of these fields, two teenage boys drink a lot of cheap beer. Somewhere on other side of these fields, black soldiers from the North built entrenchments and a signal tower in the land of slavery. Somewhere on the other side of these fields, Timucuans harvested shellfish. But right here, in these fields themselves, on the other side of day, several campfires burn at random intervals, each a transitory homeless home to the men inhabiting hell here. Even the river has distanced its circuit from Yellow Bluff.

When January begins, with its face looking forward and its face looking back, an old man drags two Christmas trees, one at a time, from the curbs where they had been placed by mobile home residents for garbage pickup, past the cannons, through the paths in the woods, into the fields, and lays them like crossties on last night’s fire. That night, none of the four men who sit in broken chairs around this particular campfire thinks anything about how much sap they smell on the trees. When they light the Christmas trees, flames gather and combust and shoot 15 feet up into the air, fueled by the sap that had glistened all over the trees. Three of the men fall backward out of the chairs. One man stays in his chair, singed, staring vacantly into the tower of flame. The trees don’t burn long; they burn themselves up and out.

But the Christmas tree flames lap up the hard fronds of the solitary palm tree that stands over the camp, and everything above the branchless stalk of the palm tree rages with fire.

The men in two other camps look through the night at the roaring. They see a fire palm in the short cold distance. They see a fire balanced on the top of a tall stalk. The palm fronds at the top of the tree burn like a giant demonic whirligig stuck into the battered earth. The top of the palm burns like a nimbus, a halo, the Burning Bush that spoke to Moses, a mad holy vision, a light in the night, a lighthouse, a long obsolete god burning in the jungle fields, or a tall woman alone in the distance whose imagination and intelligence is lit up on fire in the crossings and recrossings of its electrical neural circuits.

Though what the fire palm mostly inspires is a speechless and thoughtless awe.