Civil War Trails: Chickamauga Moves me
edited: Wednesday, February 18, 2004
By Helga Ross
Not "rated" by the Author.
Posted: Saturday, July 28, 2001
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Dedicated to Dixie Man and his ancestors who fought there:
Pvt. John T. Hill, Co B, 3rd SC Regt.
Pvt. William James Taylor, Co.I, 3rd SC Regt.
Kershaws Brigade of Infantry
Helga’s Heartlines: A Journal
Thursday, October 19, 2000
Chickamauga National Battlefield Park
Well, here I am Dixie Man, Southron Separatist I’ve never seen. I hardly believe it. After 18 driving hours, 1000 unremitting miles, I have arrived, at last, at this hallowed historical site. In a way, the trip, all the way from Toronto, Canada, is for you, as much as for me. I promised I’d write an article about my impressions here, one I dedicate to you - and your ancestors. It's a primary object of this odyssey of mine. Today, I will retrace the paths and positions of the opposing armies, including two of your great-great grandfathers, who fought here for the Confederacy and survived to fight further Civil War battles. The information you shared about your historic connections lends a context, a sense of reality, and immediacy, to my personal experience of one of the wars’ bloodiest battles, one of its critically important, strategic battlefields.
It couldn’t be more perfect: an Indian Summer day “to die for”. The sun is warm and the air still. I stare into a crystal-clear, brilliant blue sky, as I stand outside Chickamauga Battlefield Visitor Center and soak up the scene that surrounds me. Several vehicles are unloading passengers about to embark across burnished fields and worn footpaths on their bikes, while others limber up in preparation for jogging these same seasoned trails. The harvested field in front of me is draped in shades of tawny faded taupe, fringed by treed canopies of yellow, russet, and butternut gold. I gaze upon this vista for a considerable length of time, then, as is my custom, close my eyes for lingering moments, to seize onto the lasting impression.
My man, Jack – trusty, stand-in Canadian “trooper” - who, all the while, has been preoccupied with the cannon on display at the entranceway, suddenly agitated, shouts my name - a command - to arouse me. I open my eyes with a start. What! What is it? Wait.... How can that be? There was nobody there just moments ago. I absorbed everything. Yet, there it is! Out of nowhere!
My heart skips a beat. With a deep breath, and racing pulse, I dash down the driveway to intercept what I’ve seen - A classic Confederate officer mounted on a magnificent beige-gray beast. The two of them blend in perfectly with each other and the scenery, yet stand apart. It’s eerie, almost – impressionistic. Is this a ghost rider I’m seeing? I know it can’t be – Jack saw him, too.
The horse, full of spirit and fire, neck arched, mane and tail flying, wild-eyed, chafes at the bit, mightily, in an attempt to “have his head”, rears, side-steps, prances; but the rider, whose image I can’t quite distinguish, sits him steadily and with a single-hand, adeptly reins him in. A marvelous equestrian - A splendid sight. He must be most handsome. They surge together up the hill and out of view before they see me, or I can reach them. I stop in my tracks, mad at myself, crestfallen. How could I miss them? Will I see this Rebel soldier again? Will I see another? He is not a Park Ranger. There is no reenactment scheduled. Why this feeling? A premonition it’s as close as I’m going to get - this trip - to my elusive Confederate hero?
Resigned, and a little let-down, I head back to the car, and Jack, who’s waiting for me, there. We self-guide our selves over to the first stop on the tour - Battleline Road, near where the fighting started on the second day, September 19, 1863. It’s a more formidable battlefield than I could have imagined – not the inconsequential backwater it sounds like – Chickamauga Creek. The region around the four miles of front is heavily wooded, interspersed with occasional open fields. The most renowned of these and the most significant for ‘my’ Dixie Man, as well, is Snodgrass Hill, where the “Rock of Chickamauga”, Union General George Thomas, earned his name by holding off “Bull of the Woods” Confederate General James Longstreet long enough for the Federals to beat a hasty retreat.
There are monuments and markers along the tour road – Metal tablets – blue for Union, red for Confederate - to mark locations of units and batteries, positioned so that visitors can view the scene much as did the soldiers engaged here. Until now, I hadn't seen a front this narrow on my battlefield excursions - the two sides so physically close, in many spots, it’s frightening. Here, in these woods, one can still see where Thomas’s Union soldiers cut down trees during the night of September 18th and lined up behind log barricades for protection from the onslaught they knew would come in the morning from Bishop Leonidas Polk's Confederate right. I imagine myself one of these Union men, and the desperateness of the situation “hits home”. With a wide grin, Jack taunts and waves, a pretend Rebel from a location within a few hundred feet of me. The idea of real Rebels charging for me from such close quarters is too dreadful to dwell upon. I know I would be fighting for my life with not great odds against being maimed or killed....
Further along the route we stop and walk around the region of Kelly Field. Whereupon, while I've turned my back on him to read a Union tablet, Jack suddenly disappears. I make my move into Rebel territory to look for him and locate their various units. No sign. No sound, except the gentle rustle of leaves. I follow the footpath leading to a Confederate momument deep in these woods, but hesitate. (Jack has declared this will be the last of the Civil War, for him, for a long while. Yeah. As if it could be, for me! Perhaps he meant literally right now and has abandoned me already!) I will attend his return near the road and the car.
Standing here, by myself, waiting, on the Confederate side of the front, a feeling for the gravity of their situation that day overtakes me. It is a bright, beautiful day, but now my spirit does not soar with it. It was the last real chance the Rebel army had to stem the tide of the war, which had turned against them, this same year, this summer of ‘63 - all but irresistible. The Northern and Western fronts had caved in – Gettysburg and Vicksburg – It was left to this body of brave men to determine whether the portals to Chattanooga and Atlanta and the Deep South would be flung open, finally, or not. They would have known this, and summoned every last ounce of energy from within – every act of will, conscious thought, raw emotion, nerve, sinew - to produce a victory....
Jack ambles out from the depths of the forest, just in time, smiling. His appearance brings a lighter mood to the proceedings, and we move on. My emotions continue to lift in keeping with the change in setting. We are out of the woods. Dixie Man! Here I am at Brotherton Field, at the gap, created in confusion, in the Federal center, which Longstreet, the “War Horse” exploited, and his heavy assault wave struck. A part of the incredible breakthrough belonged to the famous Kershaw Brigade, and your two great-great grandfathers in Companies B and I. Metal tablets mark the positions of the Brigade and other’s in the advance to Snodgrass Hill. The Rebels poured through the field unchecked, splitting Rosecrans’ army in half, and the routed Yankees streamed toward Chattanooga, carrying Rosecrans with them. “No order could be heard above the tempest of battle.... Fugitives, wounded, caissons, escort, ambulances, thronged the narrow pathways,” a northern officer wrote. As I stand today near Brotherton Cabin, facing the field, the pandemonium is hard to imagine. All is utterly peaceful. Just moments ago I saw several deer, sleek gray ghosts, bounding through the trees along the forest’s edge. A regular visitor informs me this place has thousands of them.
Near the site of Rosecrans’ headquarters, where Col. John Wilder and his 2000-man brigade of mounted infantry tried, unsuccessfully, with seven-shot Spencer repeating rifles, to stem the Confederate tide, I witness a most unusual phenomenon - One that seems impossible to my mind somehow. But, there is no mistaking the experience of my senses on this balmy day. Not the slightest whisper of wind, or a breeze, or an air current drifts in this wide open field partially bordered by wood lots; not a single leaf stirs, or moves, or falls, on the gigantic red tree which towers in its midst. All is absolute stillness.
Finally, we arrive at Snodgrass Hill and overlook the field from which those brave and desperate Confederates, including Kershaw’s men, attacked Thomas’s determined defending force. As I behold the scene, I am struck with amazement at the incredible fortitude these men displayed, especially Dixie Man’s great-grandfathers and fellow soldiers, who made such an impressive charge, and endured all day, never letting up until the darkness would overtake them. Thomas could retreat in safety, now. The Rebels had won their victory....
I cannot rejoice. So much was at stake. After all that went on here, it was a hollow victory for the Confederates. General Braxton Bragg let the Union get away and retreat to Chattanooga. What was meant to be accomplished, in the end, was not accomplished. While the Union suffered tremendous losses, too, they ultimately won Chattanooga and the War. So many Confederate losses – more than 18,000 – effectively - were for nothing. I am relieved that Dixie Man’s were not among them that day.
I take a last look around this spot before departing, and am struck once more by nature’s sympathetic vibrations. Another enormous tree - only this time, with barely a breeze in evidence, it's tender yellowed leaves drift down in gentle showers, and cascade with each fresh current, creating a plush golden mantle over the hard-won, precious ground.
copyright © Helga Ross 2000