Roy Exum: We Fought On This Day

Saturday, November 24, 2012 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

As I sat in the sun outside the Market on the Mountain last Saturday, a pretty and bright 26-year-old Lindsey Davis arrived for a hurried lunch and a brief conversation that triggered my curiosity. Lindsey, an “Air Force brat” who teaches high school history at the Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, wore the uniform of the National Park Service and was on Lookout Mountain to help with tours at Point Park.

Young and vibrant, the UT-Chattanooga graduate spent a few minutes telling me about the key battles that were fought in Chattanooga exactly 149 years ago. For instance on Nov. 24, 1863, the Battle of Lookout Mountain was staged not a mile from where we were talking. The day before there was the Battle of Orchard Knob and this Sunday will be the anniversary of the Battle of Missionary Ridge.

I’ve lived here all my life and have never paid much attention to it but – perhaps because Lindsey was so well versed she could make it fascinating – I’ve spent my vacant hours this week reading about our area’s role in The War Between the States and now understand why generations of Americans have flocked here for nigh 150 years to study what to me is the darkest time in America’s history.

“It was all because we couldn’t get along with each other,” she cut to the chase but just the logistics of 120,000 men waging war in Chickamauga are confounding. And how the battle shifted between Orchard Knob, Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge in just three days is equally puzzling. Our ancestors who fought didn’t have Trailways buses, good roads, Hampton Inns and Hardee’s.

It seems Chattanooga was deemed the “Gateway to the South” because of railroads, the navigable Tennessee River and the influx of troops on both sides. The Battle of Chickamauga had been on Sept. 19-20 and it was second only to Gettysburg in human slaughter during the Civil War. For the record, Union losses were believed to be 16,170 (1,657 killed, 9,756 wounded, and 4,757 captured or missing), and Confederate losses were 18,454 (2,312 killed, 14,674 wounded, and 1,468 captured or missing).

What you have to know is the Union forces retreated to Chattanooga – thus making the Rebels the winners of Chickamauga in some eyes – but when the Confederates surrounded the “Northern aggressors” and cut their supply lines in an effort to starve them into submission – Abraham Lincoln sent General U.S. Grant to break up the snafu.

Grant opened “The Cracker Line,” building a pontoon bridge at Brown’s Ferry, and viciously fighting at Wauhatchie (Oct. 27-28) in order to get a supply line of “crackers and animal feed” to the suffering Yankees. Wauhatchie is at the western slope of Lookout Mountain and by late November there was enough troop movement for Grant to take the city in what is collectively called “The Battles of Chattanooga.”

My primary source this week has been the Wikipedia website but it is obvious scholars have spent years studying the Chattanooga theatre and the Civil War itself. The reason for all the sudden uproar is this whole exercise is a “dress rehearsal” of sorts for next year when the susquicentennial of the Civil War will be portrayed to many thousands who are expected here.

I asked Lindsey, who attended high school in Japan, about her rapt interest and she told me, “The study of history is one of the greatest teaching processes we have. The more you look into what happened, the more eager you become to find out what really happened. I love doing this.”

The daughter of Tony and Mary (Davis) Maxwell who graduated from UTC in the late ’50s, Lindsey visited Chattanooga often when her dad served as a career officer. “My grandparents are still here – Kathy and Don Maxwell – as well as Theresa Davis, who lives in East Ridge. I adore Chattanooga but when you study the rich history that made Chattanooga what it is today, it becomes even more alive.”

This weekend, just like last, the National Park Service has numerous tours, demonstrations and lectures that are being offered to the public. A complete list and schedule can be found on the Chickamauga-Chattanooga National Military Park website.

As you consider it, remember the words of Confederate General D.H. Hill, who would later recall, “It seems to me that the ‘elan’ of the Southern soldier was never seen after Chickamauga. ... He fought stoutly to the last, but, after Chickamauga, with the sullenness of despair and without the enthusiasm of hope. That 'barren victory' sealed the fate of the Confederacy.”

A sergeant-major of the Illinois 96th said of The Battle of Lookout Mountain: “Much of the ground over which we advanced was rough beyond conception. It was covered with an untouched forest growth, seamed with the deep ravines, and obstructed with rocks of all sizes which had fallen from the frowning wall on our right. The ground passed over by our left was not quite so rough; but, taking the entire stretch of the mountain side traversed by our force ... it was undoubtedly the roughest battle field of the war.”

At the Battles of Chattanooga – that were fought this very weekend -- the Union Army casualties were  5,824 (753 killed, 4,722 wounded, and 349 missing) of about 56,000 engaged; and Confederate casualties reported were 6,667 (361 killed, 2,160 wounded, and 4,146 missing, mostly prisoners) of about 44,000. But note this, when a chaplain asked Union General George Thomas whether the dead should be sorted and buried by state, Thomas gruffly replied "Mix 'em up. I'm tired of states’ rights.”

It all happened right here, exactly 149 years ago to the hour.

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