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).

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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

We got there just in time for the first cannon firing. It was really loud! During the course of the day we could hear it firing, even when we were quite a distance away from the visitor’s center. Here’s a video of the cannon firing:

After watching the cannon, we headed into the museum. As a museum geek, I’m pretty picky about when I say a museum is really good, and this one is really good. The displays are really informative and interesting–interesting even to someone like me who enjoys history but doesn’t really care about learning about troop movements around a battlefield. There was an excellent electronic display that showed troop movements for people who do like that sort of thing (Steve stayed camped out in front of that for quite a while). The museum featured some great photos from the era, various artifacts, maps of the larger area, plus a huge display of period firearms.

Various belt buckles, hat buckles, and buttons retrieved from the battlefield:

Civil war artifacts at Chickamauga museum

One small segment of the firearms collection:

Gun display at Chickamauga National military park

This photo of the destruction in Atlanta reminded me of tornado damage in my area two years ago. It’s hard to believe entire cities looked like this after major battles.

photo display at Chickamauga National military park

The bookstore is fabulous. I was happy to see an entire section of women’s history from the Civil War era.

Book display at Chickamauga National military park

After exploring the visitor’s center and museum we headed out to the park itself. It’s so large and features so many monuments it’s a bit overwhelming. We decided to tag along on a ranger-guided tour to hear some details we otherwise would miss. Our guide was a college student working at the park for the summer. She was quite knowledgeable. If you visit and don’t know anything about the battle, check out a guided tour. The park it beautiful. Full of rolling hills, lush meadows, and patches of forest. It’s hard to imagine the serene park filled with tens of thousands of soldiers, the noise of guns, and the fury of war.

Monument at Chickamauga National Military Park

I read about the fact that 34,000 people died in this battle. It’s hard to imagine such huge numbers. Instead of wondering about how the troops moved around during the battle, I wondered about the people who lived and farmed this area. What did they do when the battle started? Were they able to resume their lives after the battle? And what happened to all of those dead bodies? The tour guide knew a bit about that. The people who lived in the area fled before the battle. Immediately following the battle, at least one home was transformed into a field hospital. Then after the soldiers all left, residents were not able to resume farming. For one thing, their pastures and fields were filled with all sorts of metal debris from the battle, making it dangerous to plow. For another thing, the dead soldiers were left where they fell for three years. After the war, the bodies were moving to official nearby cemeteries. Usually there was no way to identify the bodies, unless some sort of very unique personal item survived. Probably the best they could do was to separate Union and Confederate dead simply by their uniforms.

The park has over 1,400 monuments and historic markers sprinkled all over the place. You can see large ones as you’re driving through the park. We went on a short hike through the woods and found historic markers hidden in the trees. Many of the huge markers honor a significant episode in the battle, while some of the small markers simply indicate where different regiments were located at specific times during the battle. Others mark the spot where various Generals were killed. Here’s one of the first stops on our tour, the Wilder Tower. It honors Col. John T. Wilder and his men, nicknamed the Lightning Brigade. Check out the person at the top of the tower. Evidently the tower used to be even taller, but it was struck by lightning and was never fully repaired!

Wilder Tower Chickamauga National Military Park

This is another nice monument right in front of Wilder Tower. The field behind the monument used to be part of a family farm.

Monument at Chickamauga National Military Park

We finally made it to Snodgrass Hill, one of the decisive locations in the battle. This is actually a pretty tiny hill, but Union forces made a last stand there. They were overwhelmed, and once it got dark they retreated to Chattanooga, a hugely important rail hub essential to transporting troops and supplies across the Confederacy. The Union lost  16,170 men in the battle (1,657 killed, 9,756 wounded, and 4,757 captured or missing) and the Confederates lost 18,454 (2,312 killed, 14,674 wounded, and 1,468 captured or missing).

Monument at Chickamauga National Military Park

If you’re interested in Civil War history, be sure to visit this fantastic park. You can easily spend an entire day exploring the monuments and exhibits. If you have more than one day, there are many other interesting historic destinations in the same area, including the Lookout Mountain (in Tennessee) battlefield, the home of Cherokee Chief John Ross (in nearby Rossville, GA), and many other small museums. Check out the different battlefield museums and museums in the area with the Destinations link at the top of the page.

 

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