I’m sure that, growing up, many of you heard, as I did, the often-told story that Rommel, the famous German field marshall of World War II, had visited Baldwyn sometime in the 1930s. According to the story, he stayed in the Home Hotel and toured the Brice’s Cross Roads battlefield to study the cavalry tactics of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest. It was from Forrest’s tactics, reportedly, that Rommel learned the skills of cavalry warfare that he employed with his tanks against the Allied Forces in North Africa. His successes in those engagements earned him the nickname “The Desert Fox.” (Later Rommel was implicated in the plot to assassinate Hitler, and he committed suicide rather than face trial for treason.)
Here is my contribution to the myth of Rommel’s visit to Baldwyn (from my forthcoming book of poems Crossroads):
Years later he would recall
how oldtimers would point
to the corner window, just there,
on the second floor
as the very room where Rommel
stayed when he came to Baldwyn
to study General Forrest’s cavalry tactics
against the Yankees at Brice’s Cross Roads.
It was almost enough to make
the Desert Fox an honorary member
of the community, the one German
who could be forgiven for his misdeeds
even as his tanks chased and crushed
American troops in the North African desert.
How exciting it must have been
to see a German officer in the 1930s,
in full military uniform,
walking the streets of our small town,
sipping coffee with locals in Gentry’s Cafe,
talking with oldtimers about Forrest,
the unschooled farmboy
who became a military genius,
tracking his cavalry’s movement
along the Baldwyn road
to ambush Sturgis’s tired
and mud-splattered army at the Crossroads.
Who started such a story? And why?
What desperate boredom and mediocrity
could require the anonymous present
to revive the heroic and legendary past?
And what small boy, of any time and place,
could ever doubt any story his elders
had convinced themselves was true?
But history always rewrites itself.
Old men die, and their myths with them,
and young boys become old men
in their turn, inventing younger myths.
Thus Forrest, the hero, in time
becomes a devil, and Rommel,
an enemy who also distrusted Hitler,
becomes a hero, the more so
because he once stayed at the Home Hotel.
(Note: perhaps someone on this site can tell me which café the locals would have frequented in the 1930s—Gentry’s may have come later.)
None of his biographers believes that Rommel ever visited Baldwyn and Brice’s Cross Roads, though some of them acknowledge he may have been influenced by the military strategies of Forrest. But the story persisted for decades—and was even expanded and enhanced by Larry Wells, the Oxford novelist, whose novel Rommel and the Rebel (1986) not only has Rommel visit Baldwyn and Bethany but also has him drive to Oxford to spend a day conversing, drinking, and playing tennis with the famous American author William Faulkner. What kind of story is it if it can’t grow a little!
Yet, as with most good myths, there may be a kernel of truth embedded in the old story we heard. According to a 1937 newspaper story (which I have read about but never seen--Milton Copeland: have you ever seen such a story in the Baldwyn or Tupelo papers?) five German military officials (though Rommel was not among them) did visit Brice’s Cross Roads—and they could conceivably have stayed in the Home Hotel.
Do any of you remember hearing about Rommel in Baldwyn? And if so, what details of those stories do you recall?
There are additional stories of famous and infamous people visiting the area.
Famous: Edison, inventor. Has been reported to have stayed at the hotel at Guntown while demonstrating some of his inventions, ie. the electric light bulb.
Infamous: Jesse James also is thought to have stayed at the same hotel, and after checking out, a bank in Corinth was robbed of $5K with the robber making a clean get-away. Coincidence?
Frank James is listed as having been a guest at the Home Hotel. The name can be seen in the register that is preserved at the BCR museum in Baldwyn.