Apr 14

The Civil War Battles for Chattanooga

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In 1889 an uneasy reunion took place in the fields and forest near a fabled creek in North Georgia: a gathering between Union and Confederate veterans who had slaughtered each other in staggering numbers at that spot little more than twenty-five years earlier. Willing to set differences and loathing aside (albeit briefly), they convened for a barbecue and picnic – the first of many meetings at the old Chickamauga battlefield – to work toward establishing America’s first congressionally-preserved memorial battleground. It was the first of many meetings at the old Chickamauga battlefield, which in 1895 would became part of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.

The park, which encompassed several battlefields along the Georgia-Tennessee border, had been the site of some of the most important military turning points of the Civil War. Union and Confederate eyewitnesses to the 1862 and 1863 battles for Chattanooga had seen some of the best and worst of military skill, bravery, and bloodletting: A Yankee route and rebel stampede that resulted in two of the most humiliating retreats for either side in the entire war; heroic charges and forlorn stands, as well as tactical skill and strategic failure by Union and Confederate generals; and perhaps most memorable of all, the terrible carnage that was followed by a series of nearly bloodless victories and defeats. Indeed, the Chickamauga-Chattanooga battles played out almost as though scripted for a Greek tragedy.

The importance of what each side stood to gain and lose at Chattanooga in 1862 and 1863 cannot be overstated. Positioned along the border of the Upper South and Deep South, the city, remote as it was, served as the transportation nexus of the entire Confederacy. Railroads radiated out in four directions, connecting to points in Middle Tennessee, Georgia, the Mississippi Valley, and the Confederate seat of government in Virginia. Whoever controlled Chattanooga would be able to run (or block) supplies and reinforcements to almost any corner of the Confederacy.

Of perhaps even greater importance was the city’s role as a transportation gateway betwixt the nearly insurmountable Appalachian and Cumberland mountain ranges. To the south, beyond Chattanooga’s rugged passageway, lay the Military-Industrial Heartland of the Confederacy, a region that manufactured every material requirement needed for the South to sustain its rebellion. Without the machine shops, armories, arsenals, clothing depots, and gunpowder works in Georgia and eastern Alabama, the South’s long-term military survival was unthinkable.

Neither the Richmond nor the Washington government spared any expenditure of blood or treasure in the struggle to seize and hold Chattanooga. Elements from no fewer than six Union and Confederate armies participated in these campaigns. The 1863 battle of Chickamauga marked the largest clash fought west of the Appalachian Mountains in North America, and the bloodiest 48 hours of the entire war. Chickamauga proved to be the most complete Confederate victory ever won in the war’s western theater. This rebel triumph, however, was almost entirely undone several weeks later, following a series of relatively bloodless Federal victories surrounding Chattanooga. Retreating from the gates of the city that winter, Confederate survivors realized that their hold over the very heart of the western theater was quickly slipping from their grasp.

The consequences of Chattanooga’s loss proved so staggering that one of the Confederate army’s high-ranking commanders, Major General Patrick Cleburne, actually implored his colleagues to pursue a program of incorporating slaves into the South’s military service. The notion was vehemently denounced by nearly everyone who heard it, and rebel forces throughout the western Confederacy continued to trek along on a sixteen-month fighting retreat that only ended with the final surrender of the Army of Tennessee near Durham Station, North Carolina.

A hundred and fifty years later, despite the epic sweep of these events, they rank among the most often overlooked and most widely misunderstood campaigns of the American Civil War. Gateway to the Confederacy brings together a team of historians to offer fresh perspectives on the Chickamauga-Chattanooga campaigns, overturning decades of controversy and misconception that have trailed in the bloody wake of these battles. The book’s ten new essays, from among the most preeminent Civil War scholars working today, provide new understandings of the armies, tactics, common soldiers, politicians and commanders that governed the various battles, marches and sieges waged for Chattanooga, Tennessee and its mountain gateway into the Lower South. Each essay breaks new ground and sheds new light on aspects of these events long in need of reappraisal.

Professor Stephen Innes, the great American historian to whom this book is dedicated, taught his students that the study of history is best pursued through “a colloquy, or conversation with the past.” There is no better place to have that conversation than with the monuments at the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. Now under the protection of the National Park Service, this park remains the largest preserved battleground in America at more than 9000 acres, and it is among the most densely monumented battlefields anywhere in the world. Almost all of these monuments were left behind by the Civil War generation, as a way of speaking to us from across time. The monuments tell us who these men were, what they did, and where they left behind slain comrades. Above all, they implore us not to forget the human cost of the war itself.

Evan C. Jones is the co-editor, along with Wiley Sword, of the forthcoming collection Gateway to the Confederacy: New Perspectives on the Chickamauga and Chattanooga Campaigns, 1862-1863 (more information here).

Jun 13

Discovering Ancestor’s Involvement in the Civil War Leads to Renewed Interest in History


Alfred C. Young III

In our modern society of technical gadgets and rapid access to information via the Internet and tablets/smart phones, a question frequently offered is, Why should I be interested in that? It is just history.    From the opposite perspective, historic thinkers have often responded that those who do not study history are duly bound to repeat its mistakes.   Fortunately for advocates of this discipline, many members of the so-called baby boom generation have become interested in family history and genealogy.   For people who once found history to be a boring subject of mere events and dates, there is nothing more stimulating than discovering that their ancestor or ancestors participated in a decisive or popular historic event, movement, or conflict.

Many such family studies reveal an ancestor’s involvement in the American Civil War.   Our nation is currently observing the sesquicentennial anniversary of this epic conflict, and many Americans have found in their research of family history that they have one or more ancestors or relatives who served during this war.   The logical step following this initial discovery is learning more about the experiences of this ancestor while in military service.   Questions quickly arise: Was my ancestor a volunteer or was he drafted?  Was he present in any significant battles or campaigns and, if so, was he in the ranks or detailed somewhere in the rear?   Lastly, was he injured or killed, or if not, did he contract a debilitating disease that affected him for the remainder of his life?

A wealth of information on a particular soldier can often be obtained from the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and/or from state archives.   These government agencies house individual military service records and subsequent pension application documents.  They can be photocopied and mailed directly to any interested person for a specified cost.   These records provide information regarding the enlistment date and location of a soldier, his status at selected periods during the war, and information regarding injuries or death that occurred during battle.

The archival records available at these governmental centers, however, often do not provide the full story of a soldier in the war.  They do not clearly indicate the battles or campaigns in which the enlistee participated or how he fared during those events.   In order to learn more about how a soldier performed during a particular battle, it is often necessary to research and learn the history of his unit.   Most of the men who served in the war were volunteers or draftees assigned to designated state units such the 18th Georgia Infantry Regiment or 4th Virginia Cavalry Regiment.   Most of the units were, in turn, assigned to specific brigades.  The men took immense pride in their individual command and, in short time, the relatives back home knew the battle history of their unit and its brigade.  Books dealing with the participation and accomplishments of specific commands are a welcome addition for those interested in their family’s link to the Civil War.

Alfred C. Young III is and independent scholar living in Pennsylvania. His book, Lee’s Army During the Overland Campaign, was published in May by LSU Press.

May 13

Why Readers Today Should Be Interested in Writings about the Civil War

David C. Keehn

David C. Keehn

As the author of a book about the Knights of the Golden Circle—a Civil War–era secret society—I believe that studying events of that era is important and relevant to what is happening today. The Civil War was the most pivotal point in our nation’s history: Prospects were real that our young democracy would be rendered into two antagonistic countries. Its outcome led to basic decisions as to what freedom means and whether we were merely a collection of states or an integrated nation. By studying the Civil War, we gain the wisdom and courage to address the similar issues we are facing today.

Unfortunately, militant secret societies with nefarious objectives continue to exist. Sinister people can gain foot soldiers by wrapping their controversial programs in mystique and ritual and establishing a hierarchical organization through which they can pass down their orders.  They can influence public opinion by spreading half-truths and creating scapegoats.  Learning about what happened with militant societies like the Knights provides a template on how to defeat them.

For example, in May 1861, KGC General-in-Chief George Bickley bombastically threatened that his Knights would assist in floating the Confederate flag over the capitol dome at Frankfort. The editor of the Frankfort (KY) Commonwealth responded that the Knights would first have to face “every Union man, woman and child in Frankfort county.” George Prentice, the determined editor of the Louisville Journal, published an August 1861 exposé on the Knights’ secret program, fully expecting that to do so would lead to his death.  These courageous responses ultimately led to the demise of the Knights and helped keep the crucial border state of Kentucky in the Union.

The saga of the Knights also tells us something about the need for compromise in a democratic society and how a secret conspiratorial group can undermine mutual trust and understanding. Through half-truths and propaganda, the Knights (in conjunction with the fire-eaters) convinced many Southerners that Lincoln and the “Black Republicans” intended to immediately eliminate slavery leading to insurrection and mayhem, thus unleashing the powerful primordial instinct of self-preservation. On the other hand, Lincoln and his Republicans refused to consider compromise (such as the one proposed by Kentucky’s Senator John Crittenden) because it would allow filibustering groups like the Knights to pursue establishment of a slave empire in the southern hemisphere. The Knights’ program of intimidation and innuendo caused principled leaders in the North and the South to simply stop talking to each other. The end result was an horrendous protracted war in which more than 620,000 brave Americans died.

Finally, studying the Civil War provides important perspectives on what freedom means in our nation. During the war, our country was divided, with brother fighting against brother. This led to restraints being imposed by both sides on our cherished freedoms, including the suspension of habeas corpus and the suppression of opposition newspapers. Were such restraints justified in the face of internal threats and sabotage?  We continue to ponder such questions today.

Jun 12

Guest blogger: Benjamin G. Cloyd

This past Memorial Day, as a part of marking the Civil War sesquicentennial, I had the privilege of giving the keynote address at the yearly ceremony held at Andersonville National Cemetery.  I made it clear to the park officials at Andersonville that I would use the occasion to respectfully, but honestly, address the enduring problem of how Civil War memory has always been contested and controversial, particularly in the case of Civil War prisons.  The rangers warned me that in straying from the usual pattern of patriotic affirmation, I could expect a strong reaction to my speech.  They were right.

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Jun 12

Guest blogger: Daniel L. Fountain

During my college’s most recent commencement I found myself completely distracted from the usually entertaining and joyous proceedings.  As I sat in the outdoor amphitheatre my eyes and attention were drawn to a small group of earnest looking people seated in front of me.  My attention turned completely to them as they were joined by an ever-increasing number of security personnel and paramedics.  Throughout the growing commotion, a well-known, influential, and very impressive alumna was addressing our graduates in what I’m sure was a thoughtful and engaging speech.  I heard none of it.  There was an elephant in the room that prevented me from giving her a moment of my attention; someone was in distress and I was concerned about her wellbeing.  This moment made me think about what it might have been like for enslaved men and women to listen to a nineteenth century Christian minister in the South.    Imagine what your response would have been to a sermon such as this.

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May 12

Guest blogger: Brian D. McKnight

When the World is Really Out to Get You, Champ Ferguson and the Civil War

My old buddy Bill Carter used to say, “You’re not paranoid if someone really is out to get you.”  Bill used to a say a lot of things so this one didn’t strike me as particularly important until I started writing Confederate Outlaw.  To be fair, Bill was not a big Civil War fan but he did have a keen historical eye that constantly focused on history’s undercurrents.  Bill was also no diplomat so when he got to the pith and marrow of an issue, he usually did so with the deftness of a chainsaw.

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May 12

Guest blogger: Aaron Astor

What if our whole geographic understanding of the Civil War is wrong? What if, instead of viewing the Civil War as a grand, ideological struggle between the wage labor-based, urban, industrial North and the slave plantation-based, staple-crop producing South, we looked at the war as a battle of thirds: North, Middle and South.  Yes, there was, in fact, an expanding industrial capitalist North stretching from New England to Chicago, perpetually seeking financial capital, immigrant labor, technological efficiency, natural resources, and national and global markets to exploit.  And, yes, there was a vast plantation belt beginning among the tobacco fields of the Virginia Tidewater, traversing the indigo and rice swamps of the South Carolina Low Country, and then enveloping the Deep South cotton belt – all worked by millions of African American slaves.

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May 12

Guest blogger: Paul C. Anderson

I’m going to post a lie.  A couple of them, actually.

At least I think they’re lies. They’re not mine. (The Liar’s Golden Rule: make the fib bigger than yourself. Lying has a remarkably selfless quality when you do it that way.) The first is Thomas Jefferson’s. “The passage of the Potomac through the Blue Ridge,” Jefferson wrote in his famous description of Harpers Ferry in Notes on the State of Virginia, “is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in nature. . . . This scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic.” Turns out Jefferson had never been there. According to a contemporary who claimed to know, Jefferson’s copped his description “from the representations of others.”

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Apr 12

Guest blogger: John M. Sacher

“Louisiana is a unique southern state” is a proposition that fails to raise an eyebrow.    Whether one is thinking Cajuns, Creoles, New Orleans, Mardi Gras, jazz, or gumbo, one can quickly conjure an image of Louisiana that differs markedly from Mississippi, Alabama, or South Carolina.  Yet, in January 1861, the Pelican State acted in a decidedly southern manner when it became the sixth state to secede from the Union.

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Apr 12

Guest blogger: Mark H. Dunkelman

As a child, family tales and relics of my great-grandfather, a Civil War veteran of the 154th New York regiment, convinced me that General William Tecumseh Sherman’s marches through Georgia and the Carolinas were a noble freedom crusade and a freewheeling frolic. In other words, I was exposed to a northern legend of the two campaigns that largely cleansed them of their violence and destruction. In subsequent decades I gathered abundant letters, diaries, and memoirs by members of the 154th to chronicle the regiment’s role in the marches (and to correct my misconceptions).

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