#16 FRIDAYS WITH DAVE POWELL

crossposted from Facebook:

A conversation with Chickamauga’s leading author.

QUESTION: Dave, as we all know, Chickamauga was the second-bloodiest battle of the entire Civil War. Only the Battle of Gettysburg was bloodier. When I was very young, for Christmas my Dad gave me the huge America Heritage History of the Civil War (remember that?). Having grown up close to the Chickamauga Battlefield, I was very disappointed to see that Chickamauga and Chattanooga were barely footnotes in that massive volume (they did earn one of the cool maps though!). Only recently, and largely through YOUR effort, has Chickamauga, and the Western Theater as a whole, begun to garner national attention. My question to you is, why do you think Chickamauga was so “forgotten” for so many years? Was it because it was a “hollow” victory? Was it because of largely unknown and “forgotten” commanders? Was it because no Lee or Grant or Stonewall or JEB fought here? Was it because of the Eastern press? Chickamauga is (and WAS) certainly worthy of study. By volunteering at the Visitor Center at Chickamauga I can attest that many visitors have recently “discovered” Chickamauga and are driving in to visit the field in growing numbers. So….why was Chickamauga forgotten and ignored for so long?

ANSWER DAVID POWELL: I do remember the American Heritage History of the Civil War. My Dad had a well-thumbed copy. I went out and bought a replacement a few years ago.

Interest – and tourism – at Chickamauga began less than three weeks after the battle. When Jefferson Davis visited the army in October of 1863, he requested a tour, and park lore tells us that soldiers created signboards identifying key features of the field – the first such markers, and forerunners of today’s surviving “Fingerboard” signs that still dot the park in places. In December, after the Confederates were driven off Missionary Ridge, Grant, Thomas, and numerous other Federals visited the field. Grant and Thomas cut walking sticks from some of the timber on the field.

In the 1870s and 1880s, the railroads promoted Chickamauga and other western battlefields, since so many of those fields lay alongside their tracks through Kentucky, Tennessee, and Georgia. In 1892 the famous “Dixie Flyer” – first-class passenger service from origin points at Chicago and St. Louis all the way to Florida, via Nashville, Chattanooga, and Atlanta – began service. To promote it, the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis RR, along with the W & A (Western & Atlantic) published a guide highlighting those battlefields. In it, the guide described Chickamauga (incorrectly) as “the bloodiest battle of the war.” Reunions were held in Chattanooga for both sides, and, as evidence of the national interest, today you can travel to Civil War museums and memorial halls all over the country to find “Chickamauga Logs”: battle-scarred tree-trunks cut from the field and shipped everywhere. They were in such demand that there was actually a cottage industry of creating fake Battle Logs, embedding shells and shell fragments in drilled out tree-trunks to produce suitably impressive artifacts.

Certainly among the reasons Chickamauga and Chattanooga were selected to jointly form the country’s first National Battlefield Park was because of the importance of the campaign, and not the least, because so many soldiers from almost every state in the Union contributed men who fought there.

So the Veterans remembered.

But times change. The rise of the Lost Cause in Civil War lore was driven largely by prominent ex-Confederates who fought in the Army of Northern Virginia and for whom Robert E. Lee was Southern Manhood personified. The focus on Lee’s campaigns, and especially Gettysburg, was a natural outpouring of that. Lee and Jackson also caught the attention of a certain class of foreign officers, primarily British, who wrote extensively about the Eastern Theater.

As a result, by the time of the centennial, (1960s) the entire Western Theater had been eclipsed by the war in Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. Antietam and Gettysburg studies appeared frequently. What attention that was paid to the west centered largely on Grant, as a sort of curtain-raiser to his title bout with the southern heavyweight contender, Lee, in 1864. Sherman absorbed most of the remaining energy not absorbed by the East.

Chickamauga was the subject of one of the earliest battle studies, by Union participant John Turchin in the 1880s. After that, however, it barely merited a mention. Glen Tucker’s monograph appeared in 1961. No other single study of the battle would appear for another 31 years until Peter Cozzens tackled it in 1992. Chattanooga has done a little better, with modern studies by Cozzens, Wiley Sword, and a couple of others; but even the least decisive battles in the East (Fredericksburg, say) have had more works.

I think that as a study subject, Chickamauga suffers from a host of “problems.” Firstly, neither Bragg nor Rosecrans are first-rank personalities; certainly not A-list CW Celebrities. Secondly, The Army of Tennessee was an army ravaged by constant defeat; ill-fated and seemingly inept. The army’s tactical successes never produced lasting results, and thus, were seemingly wasted. There was no panache of victory as with the Army of Northern Virginia. Only frustration and confusion.

Thirdly, Chickamauga’s immense tactical complexity works against it. It was the most confusing battle of the war, bar none. The same ground exchanged hands repeatedly, and one side’s tactical advantage could be supplanted within just a short span of time by the other side’s resurgence. Regiments found themselves fighting over the same positions from multiple directions. For a modern historian untangling all this confusion represents a major investment of time and commitment. The sage of all Chickamauga Historians, Glenn Robertson, took decades to finally publish his work. My own efforts consumed nearly fifteen years. This is a very hard battle to digest and understand, let alone explain.

I have also noticed an upswing in interest, however, and I love to see it. At last Chickamauga is receiving the attention it deserves.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: