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Musings on the Civil War

Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park

It was on the outskirts of Chattanooga, Tennessee that my fledgling history buff self came into existence. I was one of those teenagers who enjoyed the hobby of geocaching, which in an nutshell is a 21st-century outdoor scavenger hunt where players hide containers called geocaches, then post GPS coordinates online with a few clues for other players to come find. Always inside the geocache is a log where you can sign your name and date when you found the geocache. It was a fun adventure that took me on many expeditions with my friends and family, almost always finding new locations around where we lived. Interestingly, slowly and almost imperceptibly, I found myself interested in the historical markers or buildings in the vicinity of the geocache and not just in locating the ammo can, film canister, or magnetic key-holder itself (common geocache containers). I realized that the joy of geocaching was not just in the find of the container, but also in the journey of discovery of what various locales had to offer.

So I began to hide geocaches myself, often themed around taking folks on a tour de Internet for historical trivia or taking them on a tour of local historical sites in order to figure out the geocache coordinates. That morphed into my starting a YouTube channel in 2012 which I named Historical Geocaching, as I filmed my expeditions finding geocaches at historical locations. Over the years my expeditions to find geocaches has tapered off, but my interest in visiting, finding, discovering little-known bits of history has not! So the name Historical Geocaching is still quite appropriate - now, more of it is focused on traveling throughout the geographical Earth in pursuit of finding hidden "caches" of historical locations!

Chattanooga, I soon learned, was a history buff's paradise. The city is notable historically for two main reasons: 1) as the beginning of the Trail of Tears in the 1830s (I'm sure that future posts I write will focus on this!!), and 2) the site of two major Civil War battles in late 1863. I thrived on visiting these local sites of national importance, and I'd be a liar to say if I didn't say that my parents put more than a few miles on the family van taking me to historical sites around town! I think one of the reasons that I enjoyed the local historical sites so much was I was getting to see with my own two eyes what the cemetery of a mission to the Cherokee Indians looked like, or the battlefields where men in blue and grey fought and died. I was getting to experience American history first-hand.

The Union Army of the Cumberland was commanded by General William Rosecrans and the Confederate Army of Tennessee by General Braxton Bragg. While the aim of both armies was to either capture or hold onto the city of Chattanooga, the two sides first met on September 18th along the banks of West Chickamauga Creek - about ten miles south of the city proper. The next day the bloody contest began in earnest, as reinforcements from both sides swelled the ranks. Unlike the wide-open fields of Gettysburg or Antietam, Chickamauga was fought in woods where communication was hard, successful strategy was almost non-present, and death was rampant. For example,

"Bragg planned an early morning assault, but miscommunication between Bragg and his subordinates delayed the attack until around 9:30 am...That morning, General William Rosecrans experienced its own miscommunication, and it had catastrophic consequences for the Army of the Cumberland. In the heat of battle, he gave conflicting orders to General Thomas Wood regarding how he should position his troops. Wood pulled his troops out of line and began to move them to the north, creating a gaping hole in the center of the Union army. At that moment, disaster struck, as Longstreet's Confederates attacked the spot Wood had just vacated near the Brotherton Cabin." (1)

Snodgrass Hill

As the ever-increasingly victorious Confederates chased the Union off the battlefield, General George Thomas and his men put up a valiant fight - Thomas became known as "The Rock of Chickamauga" during this time - but by evening even Thomas and his crew were forced to surrender Snodgrass Hill. I've visited Chickamauga Battlefield many times, and almost every time I try and make sure to visit Snodgrass Hill before I leave. The experience always overwhelms me's so peaceful today, but to realize how not peaceful it was a century and a half or so ago...all the blood, so much wow. The juxtaposition of a blood bath now being preserved as a field of peace really gives one pause for thought. Over two days almost 35,000 causalities occurred, making Chickamauga one of the deadliest battles of the Civil War - second only to Gettysburg.

Lookout Mountain, facing Chattanooga

The second battle, fought for the capture of Chattanooga city itself, took place two months later on Lookout Mountain and the surrounding heights of Orchard Knob and Missionary Ridge. By this point, Generals Ulysses S. Grant, William Sherman, and Joseph Hooker had come to reinforce Rosecrans. The upside was the boys in blue found themselves inside Chattanooga, the downside was that the Confederates held all the high ground and had laid siege to the city. But one night the Union used the disguise of darkness to float down the Tennessee River, west of Lookout Mountain, and establish a supply route across the neck of Moccasin Bend into the city. Then, through fumbles and follies, providence and perseverance, the Union swept the Confederates off their perches. I'm skipping over a lot of fascinating history - maybe I'll write more about Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge in another post sometime - but by the end of the fighting, Lincoln's men had won Chattanooga and the surrounding area (2). After all, their commander-in-chief had once stated "...taking Chattanooga is as important as taking Richmond" (3).

But why did Lincoln feel that taking Chattanooga was just as important as Richmond? The key to understanding this is realizing where the centers of manufacturing and transportation in the Confederacy were located: predominately Richmond and Atlanta (4). Coming from north or south, chances were that people and supplies had to go through the rail center of Chattanooga. It's one thing to win a battle against your enemy, but if he has fresh recruits and supplies he'll be back to fight you another day. Grant's strategy of winning the war majorly included cutting off the Confederacy's ability to keep fighting. Chattanooga was indeed the key to the lock of Atlanta.

I finished my undergraduate degree at a university near Chattanooga in 2017, and after a two-year stint in Michigan for my master's, was delighted to return to my parents, a warmer climate, and Civil War history when I was accepted to the University of Georgia here in Athens. For those needing a refresher, Sherman brought the Civil War to north Georgia in summer 1864 following the capture of Chattanooga the previous fall. Having lived so long in Tennessee (and being steeped in local Civil War history), it's rather enjoyable living in north Georgia now and having access to different historical sites which really tell the sequel to the Chattanooga story.

The "Texas"

You may remember that in 1862, Union spy James Andrews and his men had kidnapped the steam engine General while the engineer and other crew were all off eating breakfast at the Lacy Hotel. Conductor William Fuller chased his runaway engine by foot, handcar, and eventually by running the engine Texas backwards north along the Western and Atlantic Railroad line. Andrews and his men courageously tried to cut telegraph lines, burn bridges, and in general wreak havoc...but the recent rains destroyed any hopes of success. The General literally ran out of steam just south of the Tennessee/Georgia border, and Fuller on the Texas quickly apprehended the the runaways. Several were executed and some were exchanged and given their freedom (5). What Andrews attempted, Sherman accomplished. The Atlanta campaign began on May 7th, 1864 at Ringgold Gap, and from there the Federal forces worked their way southward (6). After a series of battles at Resaca, Kennesaw Mountain, and other sites, Atlanta was surrendered to the Union on September 2nd.

* * *

Last fall I had the opportunity to to visit the Atlanta History Center with my wife. For being Atlanta's premier area history museum, the collection didn't disappoint me in the slightest - especially the Civil War exhibits. Highlights of the collection include the actual Texas and the Atlanta Cyclorama - a 49' tall 360-degree wrap-around painting of the 1864 Battle of Atlanta. But the Atlanta History Center has much more than its' star artifacts of the Texas and the Cyclorama. Their major Civil War gallery, which I'm confident is one of the best in the nation, is both extensive and a delight to explore. The exhibit started with showing off a collection of flags, uniforms, and musical instruments used in both the Union and Confederate armies. This initial display reminded me of the general sense of optimism and hope that many in the Union entertained early in 1861 that the Southern rebellion would be quelled quickly.

Flags in the AHC Civil War exhibit

As Ernest Fergurson wrote for Smithsonian magazine, prior to the First Battle of Bull Run (the first major Civil War battle)

Swarms of civilians rushed out from the capital in a party mood, bringing picnic baskets and champagne, expecting to cheer the boys on their way”. (7)

Flags waved high, swords glistened, and...after a terrific back and forth, the Confederates sent an overwhelmed Union army (and townsfolk) back to Washington like a dog with its’ tail tucked between its legs (8).

The frivolity had quickly disappeared. Battle followed battle, and the casualties at Shiloh and Antietam each soared well over 20,000. Camp conditions were boring at best and disgustingly insanitary at worst. The American Battlefield Trust brings the challenges of camp life to my vivid imagination especially well through sharing the words of Sgt. Austin C. Stearns, who hailed from Massachusetts:

During the fair-weather campaign season, soldiers could expect to be engaged in battle one day out of 30. Their remaining days were filled with almost interminable drilling, punctuated with spells of entertainment in the form of music, cards and other forms of gambling...Despite such diversions, much time was still left for exposure to the noncombatant foes of poor shelter, unhealthy food, and a lack of hygiene, resulting in waves of sickness and disease.

After the first months of the war, the shelter half, or “dog tent,” became the most practical means of overnight shelter. While portable and lightweight, shelter halves provided minimal protection for their two inhabitants. [Stearns] described his shelter as

“simply a piece of cloth about six feet square with a row of buttons and button holes on three sides; two men pitched together by buttoning their pieces together and getting two sticks with a crotch at one end and one to go across at the top and then placing their cloth over it and pinning it down tight.”

To protect the soldier from the damp ground, a tarred or rubberized blanket could be used. A stout wool blanket kept the chill off. Unfortunately, many soldiers discarded these heavy items on a long march or when entering combat, and lived (or died) to regret it when the weather changed. As the war moved forward, an exhausted soldier often merely lay on his blanket at night in an effort to simplify his life and maximize periods of rest. Such protracted exposure to the elements boded ill for his life expectancy." (9)

I particularly enjoyed that the Atlanta History Center had on display a dog tent, surgical tools, and piano music of the time period. The exhibit went on to feature equipment used by soldiers, such as knapsacks or canteens. Several coats, guns, and other miscellaneous parts of uniform were on display too. I especially liked the flags and drum! I also appreciated seeing larger artifacts as well, such as a supply wagon and cannons. Seeing the things that people in the past owned or used helps me to connect to them and understand their world better.

This diorama displayed the homefront

To pass the time away at camp, letters were frequently written from a son to his parents, from a brother to his sister, or from a husband to his sweetheart. Common topics included the writer’s undying love for the recipient, fear for the future, or the wounds acquired in battle. These letters were precious communications to loved ones “back home”, which very well could also be where fighting was going on. A prime example was Wilmer McLean, whose home in Manassas, Virginia was occupied by Confederate General Beauregard in the First Battle of Bull Run. Trying to escape the war, McLean moved his family south to Appomattox – only to find Lee surrendering to Grant in his front parlor four years later! (10)

* * *

The Civil War, no doubt, was comprised of a lot of things.

Drums, rifles, and letters to name a few.

But more than anything else, it was made up of people – people who wore the blue and grey uniforms, people who loved, rejoiced, and celebrated. People who fought, grieved, and died. An estimated 620,000 soldiers died in the Civil War. At the time of this writing, we’re in a worldwide COVID pandemic and this virus has taken the lives of over 500,000 Americans (11).

Let that sink in for a minute.

I’ve always heard growing up that the casualties in the Civil War were so bad that almost everyone had some they knew – whether friend or family member – that had perished in the war. One thing this pandemic has done for me is drive home this reality – because maybe I’m blessed to not have any friend or family member die because of COVID so far, but there’s plenty of people I know who have had COVID.

For those interested, below you will find a video I published today on the Civil War gallery at the Atlanta History Center. I had so much fun writing the script for this video that I decided I needed to guest write a blog post to share the "director's cut" extended version of my thoughts on the subject!

You see, there's a reason my wife and I named this website Telling Their Stories. But the obvious question is who is "Their"? Well, so often in your stereotypical history class you'll learn about Abraham Lincoln, William Sherman, and maybe Jefferson Davis during your time on the Civil War (possibly Longstreet, Grant, or Lee, too). That's a great start and knowing the actions of these major figures helps students to comprehend the headlines of what happened during the Civil War. But chances are, you or I will never be a president or general. I find it hard, especially with history, to relate to well-known figures who have become almost legendary. It's only in finding the faults, the multifacetedness, and the ever-depening layers of an individual's personality that I can finally start to relate. I find it easier to relate to the more little known people, because mostly I have less knowledge about them and less chance a bias for/against them formed. As my wife wrote back in October, Lizzie's story matters just as much as that of Lincoln or others. Same goes for Robert Cravens and the Brothertons, families who had to flee their homes because the war had come to Chattanooga. The lives of these little-known Civil War soldiers, families, and civilians matter. Remembering and telling their stories matter. Because when we tell their stories, we implicitly affirm that your story matters. My story matters. Our stories matter.

Back when I was in high school, my dad and I sat down and watched the entire epic "Civil War" documentary that Ken Burns produced back in 1990. It was intense, heart wrenching, and incredibly emotional realizing how it was real people going through this war - real people that I could identify with. One of the historians featured was Shelby Foote, who made a statement that still sticks with me:

Before the war, it was said "the United States are." Grammatically, it was spoken that way and thought of as a collection of independent states. And after the war, it was always "the United States is," as we say to day without being self-conscious at all. And that's sums up what the war accomplished. It made us an "is." (5)

And what is the United States? That's what you learn when you study our history - the events, places, and particularly the people. People like us. People that are us, just a couple of generations back. Whether you have the opportunity to come to a big museum like the Atlanta History Center or a battlefield like Chickamauga, do it. If you have the chance to stop by a small forgotten cemetery near your home or a historical marker on your commute to work, do it. If all you can do it read a book or blog article like this one, do it.

My dad and I off to read another marker at Chickamauga!

Visit, learn, read, and you will find in the process a new appreciation for what it means to be an American citizen and why we should fight today so strongly to maintain our beautiful democracy. Anyone who's not living under a rock these days will have some understanding that this nation is still very much an experiment in progress, albeit 240 years and counting! I may or may not disagree with your political views, but that doesn't mean that we should destroy our ability to vote, expect a peaceful transfer of power, or have debate from both sides of the aisle. January 6th of this year is a chilling reminder of where America is headed if we all don't do our part in maintaining the fundamental rights, ideals, and protections that our Founding Fathers set up. I think it is crucial to understand that it's not just up to the lawmakers in Washington to enact change - it's up to each and every one of us to have civil discourse with others, show understanding and compassion, and do random acts of kindness for the neighbors down the street. Ultimately, understanding where we come from helps to inform us who we are and where we should go.

So, don't fall for the lie that history is boring or not worth your time. After all, it is our story - and I'd wager that we're pretty interesting!


Unless otherwise noted, all photographs were taken by the author or his wife.



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