• 31st Chemical Brigade visits Fort Tombecbe

    Posted: October 14, 2011

    Author: Gena Robbins

    French military from the 18th Century stationed at Fort Tombecbe in Sumter County used parallel techniques of today’s military, as discovered by the Alabama National Guard’s 31st Chemical Brigade. The unit headquarters, based in Tuscaloosa, recently visited the historical site as part of their annual training. Livingston native Lieutenant Colonel David Ward suggested the visit to Fort Tombecbe.

    “We have a young staff and for the past few weeks we’ve been conducting staff training,” said Brigadier General David Brown. “LTC Ward thought this would be an excellent opportunity to connect the techniques, tactics, and procedures that they used during 18th-century into what we do today. There are a lot of similarities in how they prepare for war and what we do today in our preparation for war and tactics.”

    Brown stated that the unit did background history research on the fort to prepare for their visit. “It’s just important to know where we came from as it is to know where we’re going,” added Brown. “Fort Tombecbe is also close to us in Tuscaloosa, so it’s a great learning opportunity for our staff.”

    Although based in Tuscaloosa, the 31st Chemical Brigade has 2,500 members scattered throughout the state. As headquarters for the unit, they plan all major events for associated battalions and companies.

    According to Brown, there are striking similarities between military practices of the past and present.

    “When we’re in Afghanistan or Iraq, we have a forward operating base, and that’s actually what this was [Fort Tombecbe]. The French military had more forces down in Mobile, but some were sent up river to establish these forward operating bases,” explained Brown. “They used their political strategy when dealing with the natives, such as trading, aiding them, and making friends with the locals. That is exactly what we are doing right now in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

    Ward also recognized wartime skills the French military used at Fort Tombecbe with the local Native Americans.

    “This summer during my First Resident Course at the Army War College we went to Antietam National Battle field to learn military operations during that battle. In much the same way, we wanted to come here today to look at the relationship between what the French, Spanish, and English did years ago with our current operations. An example of this practice would be to make friends- to do some strategic impact in Afghanistan by creating allies with the local tribes and build a relationship with them to help ensure our security.”

    “For the French it was New Orleans, Biloxi, and Mobile,” said Ward. “We can guarantee our security by building relationships in the Middle East with local tribal groups and local government in hopes that they won’t allow any training of terrorists in their regions. Essentially, that’s what Bienville wanted to do when he set up Fort Tombecbe as a trading post. He wanted to make sure that he had Choctaw allies to help fight other tribes that might be antagonistic to French interest.” Although Fort Tombecbe is an important historical part of Alabama and United States history, the location is still on Sumter soil, and that makes it even more special to Ward.

    “I have spent many days at this fort,” said Ward through a warm smile. “When the University did the original dig in the 1980s, I volunteered to work on it. I come up here every time I come home to see Mom and Dad. My wife also loves this place...it’s special to us all. It is a unique part of our history in Sumter County.”

    I’m looking forward to seeing the great work that you folks with the Black Belt Museum are going to do out here,” added Ward. “I’m a long-time Fort Tombecbe fan. I’ve often thought it wasn’t appreciated nearly enough and I’m proud to see we’re making some progress.”

    The University of West Alabama owns the site, which is the focus of archaeological research, living history tours, and prairie ecology studies. The number of visitors to Fort Tombecbe has increased by 500 percent since 2009, the year UWA renewed activity at the site.

    Dr. Ashley Dumas, Assistant Director of the Black Belt Museum in UWA’s Division of Educational Outreach directs research at the fort.

    “Museum staff is happy to lead tours of Fort Tombecbe whenever possible,” said Dumas. “We were especially excited to accommodate David Ward, a native of Sumter County, and his scholarly interest in the fort. Personally, it was gratifying to see such a diverse and worldly group enjoying the history of our area.”

    Historian Brian Mast also conducts research at the site, and portrays an 18th-century French colonial marine for visitors during tours of Fort Tombecbe. “A large portion of the soldiers were military police,” said Mast. “It was interesting to be a part of their learning about the French Marines, who were the 18th-century version of themselves. Knowing someone came from a far away land to do the same job at Fort Tombecbe that these soldiers are doing today, very close to their own base, provides a real connection to the past.”

    “I’m very appreciative of how well we were received by the UWA representatives and thank them for allowing us the opportunity to come down and bring our staff,” said Brown. “Hopefully, we can help raise money for the project or volunteer on future digs. Everyone really got a lot out of this and there appears to be an opportunity for us to help with things going on at Fort Tombecbe.”

    Mast and Dumas are creating living history programs and lesson plans on Fort Tombecbe for local schools, hoping to increase awareness and appreciation for the site. Anyone interested in a group tour of Fort Tombecbe or being placed on the list of volunteers for archaeological digs should contact Ashley Dumas at (205) 652-3830. 
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