Visiting Chickamauga Civil War Battlefield

Let me just get this out of the way. My usual reaction to Civil War history is typically “meh.” In fact, that’s my reaction to history of warfare in general (with the exception of World War II). You see, I just think war is stupid. Most of the wars I’ve studied seem to be situations of “Hey, that country has some land we want, let’s go shoot some people and take it!” or “Hey, those people are Catholic and they ought to be Protestant, let’s go make them convert, and if they won’t, let’s kill them!” And so on. I’m being a bit dramatic, but you get the picture. So I think my husband (who loves military history) was shocked when I suggested we go visit the Battle of Chickamauga National Military Park near Chattanooga, TN (the actual location is Ft. Oglethorpe, GA very close to the Tennessee state line). The Battle of Chickamauga took place over two days, September 19–20, 1863. The National Military Park provides a brief description of the battle and its significance:

In 1863, Union and Confederate forces fought for control of Chattanooga, known as the “Gateway to the Deep South.” The Confederates were victorious at nearby Chickamauga in September. However, renewed fighting in Chattanooga that November provided Union troops victory and control of the city. After the fighting, a Confederate soldier ominously wrote, “This…is the death-knell of the Confederacy.”

The death toll in the battle was horrific: over 34,000 men died. The only other battle worse in terms of casualties during the war was the Battle of Gettysburg (with over 51,000 men killed).

museum1

I recently started to read a book about the Civil War called The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South. It’s not about battles, or generals, or soldiers (at least not so far), it’s more about societal norms that led to the war and then societal changes occurred as a result of the war. The changes in society were enormous. I’m looking forward to getting further into the book to better understand this era.

So, even though I usually am not terribly interested in Civil War history, I knew there were several huge battles near my home, and it seemed like it would be interesting to go visit one of the battlefield parks near us. I stumbled across some information about Chickamauga and I was curious about what it’s like. On Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, we headed to the park.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I’d looked at the web page and sort of thought there would be a visitor’s center, a few outdoor exhibits, and some hiking trails. We we got there, I was amazed at the size of the park. It’s huge! Plus, Civil War re-enactors shot off a cannon while we were there! The cannon is beautiful. Of course, it’s weird to say that because the whole point of a cannon during the Civil War wasn’t for ceremony or show, it was to kill or terrify soldiers fighting for the other side.
Civil War cannon at Chickamauga battlefield national military park [Read more…]

The Great Tri-State Tornado of March 1925

This week marks the two-year anniversary of a string of violent and deadly tornadoes that tore through the southeastern US, specifically Mississippi and Alabama. I live almost smack on the Tennessee/Alabama border and the first tornado siren of the day woke me up at 4:30 in the morning; a weak tornado passed within a few miles of my house. I spent the rest of the day hunkered down with my dogs, cats, TV, and weather radio wondering what would happen as tornado after tornado kept ripping through towns I know. That afternoon, when I heard that an F5 was heading in my general direction, I dashed to the storm cellar. I saw the tornado when it was about 10 miles south of my house. A swirl of violent, angry black and green clouds roared past. It seemed as if the sky had turned on us that day. April 27, 2011 was one of the scariest days of my life.

And yet, I knew it was coming. Weather forecasters had predicted an exceptionally violent tornado outbreak days ahead of time. Local weather forecasters said over and over and over: get ready. I got ready. Many in my community got ready. Although it is almost  impossible to hide from an F5 tornado, I wasn’t caught off guard.

The same wasn’t true for tornado outbreaks in the era before Doppler radar. In years past, tornadoes were mysterious and sudden events that appeared without warning, destroyed property, then mysteriously disappeared. That is especially true of the worst tornado disaster in US history, the tri-state tornado of 1925 that affected communities in Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana. This tornado stayed on the ground for a record 219 miles, crossed through three states, killed 675 people, injured over 2,000, destroyed 15,000 homes, and caused massive destruction for a continuous 3.5 hours. Modern-day forecasters believe that the storm moved between 62 and 73 miles per hour, and that the winds within the tornado itself occasionally topped 300 miles per hour.

tri state tornado of 1925 [Read more…]

Fort Mims, Alabama

“The Good Lord willing and the Creeks don’t rise.”
Early Alabama saying that refers to the Creek Indians, not water levels

 “Let the white race perish! They seized your lands, they corrupt your women, they trample the ashes of your dead. They must be driven from where they came upon a trail of blood!  … War now! War forever! War upon the living! War upon the dead! Dig their very corpses from the grave. Our country must give no rest to a white man’s bones.”

Tecumseh, a leader of the Shawnee and a large tribal confederacy, delivered this fiery speech to the Creek Nation in Alabama in October 1811 on the banks of the Tallapoosa River as tensions were rising within the Creek nation between tribal members embracing American customs to become “civilized” and accepted by the United States, and traditionalists who wanted to bring back the old ways and throw off white control.

Tecumseh grew up during the American Revolution on the border of the frontier and had seen warfare his entire life. He also saw settlers encroach on tribal homelands and his people had to continue to migrate west. In the early part of the 1800s, he decided to try to create an alliance between various Native American tribes and the British. He felt that was the only way to protect the land his people still held. As part of his scheme, he visited the large and powerful Five Civilized Tribes in the southeast. Those tribes, made up of the Creek, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Chocktaw, and Seminole still held vast tracts of land in the southeast, land white settlers wanted.

Menawa, Red stick Leader
Menawa, Red stick chief and military leader; his name meant “Great Warrior”.

Whites were already starting to migrate into Creek country, setting up homesteads and forts. One of those homesteads is now called Fort Mims. Today, the fort is nestled in the middle of a modern subdivision about 35 miles north of Mobile, AL, its boundaries marked with a reconstructed fence made of tall wooden spikes. Back then, it was on the edge of wilderness. Samuel Mims built a house in this remote wilderness of Baldwin County, Alabama then when tensions started to build, hastily erected a sturdy stockade around his home and outbuildings. He got along well with his Creek neighbors and often traded with local Creeks.

william weatherford red sticks
William Weatherford

Meanwhile, by 1812 war had broken out between the United States and the British Empire. The Creeks were paying attention. The factional differences between the tribal members seeking to become “civilized” (the White Sticks) started to come into conflict with the tribal members wanting to fight change (the Red Sticks, so named because of their red war clubs). The Red Sticks, made up mostly of younger men, were willing to do anything to return their nation to their traditional way of life, culture, and religion and overthrow white control. They were ready and willing to use violence to achieve their goals. Red Stick leaders included William Weatherford (Red Eagle), Peter McQueen, and Menawa. The Red Sticks started to negotiate with the British for supplies and support. The British were happy to obligate, especially since alliances with Indian tribes irritated the Americans. By 1813, the Creek nation had descended into civil war.

[Read more…]

Travel tips for Chaco Canyon

This is the last post of my ongoing series about visiting Chaco Culture National Historic Park. If you’re planning to visit the park, there are several things you need to know to have a more pleasant trip. To read my posts about hiking and other activities in the park, here are links to my other posts:

First, you need to know that Chaco is in the middle of nowhere. I didn’t see any hotels or any grocery stores within two hours of driving there from Santa Fe. If you’re coming in from the northwest, Bloomfield is probably the last town with any real supplies. Take what you need with you, especially if you’re planning to camp. Cell phone service is somewhat spotty in the area (and forget about cell service if you have AT&T). The last unpaved portion of the road is really awful. It took me about an hour to drive that little section of road. I ran into a couple who drove in from the south route–they got a flat tire. The southern road is evidently a lot worse than the northern route. Don’t take the southern route if you’re driving an RV or towing anything. I wouldn’t even try it in a car, only a truck. Also be sure to call the park before you head out to check on road conditions.

Road to Chaco Canyon

Beware of taking a cooler or food that needs to stay cold. I thought it would be pretty mild weather while I was there so I took a cooler full of food. I had milk, cheese, lettuce, and a few other perishables. The ice melted in a day. My lettuce wilted and turned into a bag of green mush. The cheese started to smell really, really bad. Luckily, I also had a good supply of dry foods and canned food so I didn’t starve.

Things to bring with you:

Must-haves:

  • Large water container: Individual campsites don’t have water. You can find a water pump near the visitor’s center
  • Small water containers: If you plan to hike or even spend lots of time exploring the ruins, take a small water bottle with you and fill it up before leaving the visitor’s center. No water is available at individual ruins or along trails.
  • Plenty of cooking fuel: If you run out of fuel you’re out of luck. There isn’t a camp store.
  • Food: No food is available at the park, either. Take everything you need.
  • Sunscreen: Even the in cooler times of the year, you’ll get a sunburn!

Nice to have:

  • Binoculars: There are lots of things I wish I could have looked at through binoculars. Staircases on distant cliffs, the ramp up onto Fajada Butte, and distant views while hiking. Next time I’m definitely taking binoculars.
  • Firewood: If you visit in the cooler months, you can bring firewood with you and build a campfire at your campsite. You can’t buy or collect firewood in the park.
  • Telescope: If you have a telescope, this is one of the best places to use it. It’s very, very dark at Chaco and many of the park rangers and campground hosts are astronomy enthusiasts.
  • Tarp for shade: There are no trees or anything to provide shade at the campground. I didn’t have  a tarp and one hot afternoon ended up sitting on the ground in the little piece of shade my car offered. A tarp/shade tent would have been better.

General tips:

  • Try to plan your visit during the week in the spring and fall if you’re planning to camp. The park is most popular when the weather is mild and the campground can actually fill up. If you can arrive during the middle of the week the campground will likely be pretty empty. If you must arrive on a Friday, try to get there pretty early in the day so you can grab a campsite. The campground filled up while I was visiting. If you don’t mind really hot weather or really cold weather, you can probably find a campsite anytime in the summer or winter.
  • When you first arrive at the park, stop by the visitor’s center and watch the introductory video. It’s really helpful. You can also pick up guides to the various great houses and a wide variety of books.
  • The campground bathrooms don’t have hot water. The bathrooms at the visitor’s center do. I would wash my face in the mornings at the visitor’s center.
  • There are no showers. If you can’t stand going without a shower for a few days, don’t camp. I took a baseball cap to hide my hair.
  • If you’re going hiking on any of the backcountry trails (Penasco Blanco, Pueblo Alto, South Mesa Trail, or the Wijiji Trail) buy the Backcountry Trail Guide from the Visitor’s Center. It’s only $2 and provides an awful lot of information about things you’ll see on the hike. It’s totally worth it.
  • Either borrow or buy the guides to each pueblo. They contain really interesting and useful information.

Helpful books:

The reason I visited this park was because I read Craig Child’s book House of Rain. There are other fabulous books about Chaco, the Anasazi, and modern pueblo cultures. Reading about the area before visiting will help you better understand the culture and get more out of your visit. Some of my favorites are:

Museums:

If you have a chance, visit some pueblo museums in Santa Fe or Albuquerque before heading to Chaco. That way, you can see some of the artifacts recovered from the area before you visit. Ireally enjoyed the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe. There’s also a good museum at Mesa Verde National Park.

Archaeoastronomy

I first heard the term “archaeoastronomy” in a college course a few years ago. I’d gone back to school to study ecology and environmental issues and one of my professors worked as an archaeologist in the jungles of South America uncovering Mayan temples. He noted that many ancient cultures throughout the Americas built structures that were intended to chart the course of the stars, the sun, and the moon. I thought that was pretty cool.

When I drove down the road to Chaco, I landed right in the middle of one of the largest and most precise archaeoastronomy destinations in North America. But I didn’t really know that until I attended a fabulous lecture on a Saturday evening during my visit to the park. That evening, after dark, I headed to the Chaco planetarium to join one of the most seasoned park rangers, and an astronomy nut, to learn all about astronomical clues scattered throughout Chaco Canyon.

As I walked to the planetarium, the night sky spread out a blanket of stars across the horizon. I leaned my head back as far as it would go and took in the view. No street lights blazed down the streets here, or anywhere for miles around. It was very, very dark, making it possible to clearly see the brilliant rope of our Milky Way galaxy stretching all the way across the sky.

I sat down next to many of the other campers and ranger GB Cornucopia stepped up to the front. He flipped on a projector that showed a time lapse movie of stars racing across Fajada Butte.

Fajada Butte Chaco Canyon [Read more…]