History Book: Hallowed Beauty

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Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park memorializes some of the fiercest battles of the American Civil War in a setting that is incongruently peaceful and pastoral.

story by KATHRYNE SLATE MCDORMAN | photos by OLIVIA GRIDER

Without historical markers to check her, nature reclaims these grounds where men struggled against one another with passionate fury.

Certainly in Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, in Georgia and Tennessee, the dense woodlands and green meadows hide the scene of one of the most violent and bloody encounters in the American Civil War.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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Strategically, the battle was of great importance in the South’s efforts to hold nearby Chattanooga, Tenn., a critical rail and water port for supplies and men throughout the South. The timing, September 1863, was crucial. After two years of ceaseless struggle and bloodshed, the tide was slowly turning in the Union’s favor. The temporary Confederate victory at Chickamauga came at enormous human cost and caused one soldier to reflect in a letter home that it was “the death knell of the Confederacy.” Indeed, after Chickamauga, the Confederate siege of Chattanooga was lifted and remaining troops were forced to retreat into Georgia. That meant Tennessee was completely out of the war and occupied by federal troops.

Jim Ogden, staff historian for the National Park Service at Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, asserts the loss of Chattanooga struck a blow from which the Confederacy never recovered. “This city was the gateway to the heartland of the South,” he says. “There would have been no other viable route for the North to invade central Georgia and Alabama, except through Chattanooga.” In fact, the following year, Sherman would use Chattanooga as his supply base for his devastating march through Georgia to the sea.

Of course, as a Southern woman, I grew up hearing about “that devil Sherman,” and seeing framed prints hanging on my neighbors’ den walls of a funny looking little gray-clad figure, draped in the Rebel flag, with the caption, “Fergit? Hell!” These things puzzled me because, despite my family’s love of history, the Civil War was never discussed. If I asked either of my parents about it, they shook their heads, heaved a baleful sigh and uttered, “It was a terrible time…a terrible time.”

As a small child, I assumed that they had actually lived through the war. It was not until I was an adult that I learned from an aunt that my great-grandfather had been a captain in the Confederate Army. My aunt whispered conspiratorially to me that if I ever wanted to join the United Daughters of the Confederacy, she had done the necessary research. I was now completely baffled. I knew nothing and had no feel for the war that, more than 100 years later, still clearly agitated conversation among people I knew.

Decades later, as I visited friends in Chattanooga who had grown up amidst ever-present reminders and symbols of the Civil War, my interest was stirred. One can scarcely throw a rock in Chattanooga without hitting a memorial or encountering an interesting story about the city’s pivotal role in the Southern cause. My friends took me to places as touristy as the original Confederama, a huge diorama displaying all the battles in the area and now known as The Battles for Chattanooga Museum, and as awe-inspiring as Point Park, with its dramatic history as the site of the “Battle Above the Clouds.”

Then one sunny fall day, my friends suggested we drive down to see Chickamauga, Ga., and the national battlefield that was being preserved there. It was an easy, beautiful drive as my friends filled me in on what they knew about the battle. We drove slowly through the park, stopping occasionally to look at a stone marker that indicated certain troop movements. Still, having no overall understanding of the battles and tactics, decisions and mistakes, I came away with only a fuzzy idea of the significance of the place.

Today, the park’s visitor center provides a film that beautifully documents the two-day battle, displays armaments used and offers guided tours as well as maps and a cell-phone-accessible audio tour to guide a drive with walking stops. Programs are held throughout the year that inform both the mildly curious and the well-read Civil War buff.

The National Park Service took charge of the park in 1933 and today manages its 12.69 square miles, as well as the Lookout Mountain Point Park and the Cravens House, both within the city limits of Chattanooga. Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park is open every day except Christmas and New Year’s Day and is free. Point Park carries a very small charge.

Another enjoyable option for visiting the battlefield is the Tennessee Valley Railroad’s Chickamauga Excursion, which I recently took. For train or just nostalgia buffs like myself, the half-day trip from Chattanooga includes a Civil War re-enactor telling the story of the battle. In the village of Chickamauga, we paused to have lunch in one of the delightful cafes, window shop and visit Catfish Springs in the heart of the town. The springs used to provide drinking water, and because the banks of the springs were cool, they served as an impromptu hospital for both armies during the battle.

After lunch and a walk-about, we re-boarded the train and chugged out to our last stop – the Wilder Tower where Union Col. John T. Wilder and his “Lightening Brigade” held off a Confederate charge, giving time for Union troops to regroup.

At the tower, we disembarked as our re-enactor explained the particular significance of the delay and how it affected the overall battle. This added a sense of immediacy and drama. The park is well maintained, but, not surprisingly in today’s mood of economic austerity, the National Park Service struggles with budget cuts and land-acquisition legal limitations in its effort to preserve more battlefields.

Battlefields can be deceptively beautiful places. From the peaceful shores of French Normandy to the rolling fields and hills of the American South, these spaces reveal little of the mayhem that left their names redolent with tragedy and slaughter.

The dangers posed when these “sacred grounds” are not adequately protected grabbed headlines two decades ago when a proposal to build a history-themed Disney Park at the site of the Battle of Manassas in Virginia was beaten back by public outcry. Proponents argued visitors would be attracted to examining the history of the war and the battle more closely if they were exposed to them in an entertaining way. Opponents argued it represented “dumbing down” complicated historical developments, such as the issue of slavery.

Fortunately, there has been no such proposal for Chickamauga Park. The National Park Service’s welcoming visitor center presents a thoughtful and historically accurate portrait.

And make no mistake, for all the beauty of the fields and woodlands, this was a gory and horrific battle. By the end of two days of fighting, 34,000 men had been killed or injured in the second bloodiest battle of the Civil War. Only Gettysburg, with more than 50,000 casualties, exceeds it. Like most battles, it was marked by confusion, exhaustion, poor communication and, because in the 19th century heavy artillery chewed up whole groups of soldiers, high death counts. The Union soldiers also had the advantage of Spencer repeating rifles, helping to make the loss of Southern troops so high. For the men who survived it, the nightmarish quality of this battle was made more hideous by the fires that broke out, burning alive some of the wounded who could not crawl away. There are certainly no tidy battles, but the Battle of Chickamauga had a special level of brutality.

That is what makes it so remarkable that the veterans of this battle were the driving force behind the creation of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. In September 1889, survivors from the Army of the Cumberland (Union) and the Army of Tennessee (Confederate) met in the village of Chickamauga for a barbecue to celebrate the 26th anniversary of the battle. Georgia’s governor welcomed them, and former Union Gen. Rosecrans addressed them. This meeting of former combatants was, in itself, remarkable and represented an effort to heal a still-bleeding nation.

Reconstruction was over, and the next generation wanted to move beyond the bitterness of war. To that end, a joint committee of veterans on both sides of the conflict had been formed in February of 1889 to promote such gatherings. From that committee also came the idea of honoring the sacrifices and efforts of both sides of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga conflict by purchasing the land upon which the battle was fought and creating a unique open memorial to the soldiers who fought there. As Rosecrans himself argued at the barbecue, “It took great men to win that battle, but it takes greater men still…to wipe away all the ill feeling which naturally grows out of such a contest.”

By early in the next year the veterans of the committee proposed a bill in Congress to create the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. Not only was this seen as a step in national healing, it was also part of a larger conviction at the time that the United States government needed to be actively involved in preserving important sites and wilderness areas. In these same decades, Yellowstone and Yosemite were set aside as public lands. The House Military Affairs committee approved the bill, and by 1890, it was signed into law. The first and largest National Military Park was dedicated in 1895. It was soon followed by Shiloh, Gettysburg and Vicksburg.

Steven E. Woodworth, a prize-winning Civil War historian, believes the battles fought between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River were far more critical to the outcome of the war than the more famous battles to the east. Certainly historians can disagree, but the area described by Woodworth and emphasized by Ogden is the heart of the Confederacy – Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Georgia. So, here in the shadow of Lookout Mountain is arguably not only the first national military park, but also a site that represents one of the most significant battles of the war.

Eugenia Trinkle, a member of the Fort Worth, Texas, Civil War Roundtable who has visited most, if not all, the Civil War battlefields, says of Chickamauga: “The woods were so dense and the open fields so small that conventional Civil War battle tactics would have been incredibly difficult. Of course, for the modern visitor, those woods are a lovely place to stand in the shade and study various parts of the battle.”

Civil War scholars like Trinkle study the war to remember the issues, the people and the sacrifices in our nation’s history. Historical memory is deceptive, however; Lincoln expected the Gettysburg address to be forgotten, but the sacrifice at Gettysburg to be remembered. Surely the opposite is now true for many. But it is important that a nation revere its “mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone,” as Lincoln said in his first inaugural address.

Forget history too soon and a nation is rootless and shallow; hold to those memories too long and it is easy for bitterness and vengefulness to create melancholy and despair. As usual, my parents were right. The Civil War was a terrible, terrible time; but even terrible times must be remembered, studied and gleaned for wisdom.

“The Civil War is the watershed moment in America’s history,” Ogden says. “As our nation struggled to realize more perfectly the goals we set in our Declaration of Independence, the Civil War represents the time when we changed as a country. We were not the same country before and after the Civil War. To be able to stand at Chickamauga or to see Lookout Mountain battlefields is to stand on the cusp of that change.” at the Big MillSips, sandwiches & more Enjoy a casual lunch/dinner within a historic 125-year-old former hosiery mill Experience the ambiance of a New Orleans-style courtyard Stroll through a spacious antique mall where artists, craftspeople and antiquers gather On/off premise beer and wine including local craft brews256.845.3380Vintage1889.com 151 8th Street NE Fort Payne, Alabama

If You Go

GETTING THERE: The Chickamauga Battlefield visitor center is at 3370 LaFayette Road, Fort Oglethorpe, GA 30742. The Lookout Mountain Battlefield visitor center is at 110 Point Park Road, Lookout Mountain, TN 37350.
MORE INFO: nps.gov/chch; 706-866-9241

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