Chester Martin Remembers His Family Ties To The Civil War

Tuesday, February 21, 2017 - by Chester Martin
Chester’s Great Grandmother, Elizabeth Sarah Willett Smith (1828 – 1913), of Rhea County, TN, who lived through the Civil Wa
Chester’s Great Grandmother, Elizabeth Sarah Willett Smith (1828 – 1913), of Rhea County, TN, who lived through the Civil Wa

It is only thanks to Talk Radio that I can write these next lines. I have lived in Chattanooga for a great many years without ever getting the "big picture" of what took place here in the mid 1860's. Civil War history was just a boring jumble of isolated battles and events to me. Only very recently have the puzzling pieces fallen together - via radio - to make the whole drama understandable. I have long understood that my grandparents Smith lived through some pretty horrible stuff at their home in Old Washington, Tn., then an important port on the Tennessee River in Rhea County. Great-Grandfather Nathaniel Henry Smith fought on the Southern side at the battle of Stones River, was wounded, and was allowed to return home to Old Washington.

But while he was still away, Union armies heading south toward Chattanooga ravished the entire countryside, burning and pillaging everything that was not edible. Later, when that same army had reached Chattanooga - and won the battles - some Northern-sympathizing neighbors of the Smiths set fire to their family business - an inn, forcing them into a small house they luckily owned on the edge of town.

That was the Union Army heading south through Rhea County, into Hamilton County - in what we used to laughingly call, "in columns of bunches", when I was in the U.S. Air Force - to regroup, hidden from view behind Stringer's Ridge just north of the Tennessee River. When the entire army finally straggled in, they attacked Chattanooga, Missionary Ridge, Chickamauga, and Lookout Mountain.

The Union soldiers on their way to Chickamauga marched along the crest of Lookout to near its junction with Pigeon Mountain. At a point called Neal's Gap, they came down off the mountain following the narrow path of a wagon road going east. At the foot of Pigeon Mountain they passed a small cabin owned by Adam Neal. An attempt had been made by some locals to block the road with felled trees, and one of Adam Neal's daughters, in her ire, yelled out some choice words in their direction, immediately running inside to hide in the large fireplace as the soldiers began shooting at her. This would have been a sister of my Great Grandmother Sarah Neal Martin, wife of Enos. Marks of the lead bullets lasted for many generations; I have not checked to see if they might still be visible, although recent photos seem to prove that at least the chimney is still standing.

A number of my Martin kin lived on the western side of both Walker and Chattooga Counties, Ga. - very near said Pigeon Mountain. The women and young children who remained at home, while the adult men went to war, remembered hearing the guns roar at Chickamauga. Great-Grandfather Enos Martin fought as a Confederate. His tombstone (pictured in an earlier writing) designates him as having been a Corporal - and a Prisoner of War. Nothing is known about where he was incarcerated. (My mother's Grandfather Young, however, died as a POW in Fort Delaware, Del. One published comment I found about THAT venue stated that there was more life ON the prisoners than IN them (!) - a pretty horrible thought). A small wooden box of Great Grandfather Thomas Young's meager belongings was returned to his home after the war. I have the empty box, though all contents are now forever gone.

Two known Martin women are connected to names well remembered on the Chickamauga battlefield:  one daughter of James Cicero Martin (b.1846, and first child of Enos and Sarah), married a Brotherton, and another married a Crutchfield. There are cabins by both those names inside Chickamauga Park. I have never investigated any familial connections beyond those facts.

 I will admit I have been very tardy in connecting those Civil War dots. it was obviously the same army that swept through Rhea County, that devastated Chattanooga a short time later, before continuing on southward to burn Atlanta, before going, "onward to the sea", as the old song, MARCHING THROUGH GEORGIA says. ( not ask me to repeat that!)

At least for me, my family's story has come into clearer focus (thanks to Talk Radio) by unifying  the plights of my mom's people in Rhea County, Tn., to the north, and my dad's people in Walker and Chattooga Counties in Georgia, to the south. Could I have been born anywhere BUT Chattanooga?

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at )

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