Why Chickamauga / Chattanooga? (Battlefield Series Part VII)

Why Chickamauga/Chattanooga? In my last article, I answered this question partially with an examination of the work of Henry Van Ness Boynton and his cohorts in getting the first national military park of the United States located in our area. They are indeed due a huge amount of credit for this achievement, but they couldn’t have done it if the battles of Chickamauga and Chattanooga hadn’t been critical enough and determinative enough to warrant the honor.

There are many names of battles that are probably better known than CH/CH (this is the symbol the park uses for its territory and using it surely beats having to write the full names of the locations each time they are mentioned): Gettysburg, Bull Run, Chancellorsville, Shiloh and more. Each of these battles was noteworthy, significant and brutal, each for different reasons; so why did the powers that were buy into the idea of CH/CH as the first? To really answer that question, I have to provide a little history lesson which, I hope, won’t be too painful.

It seems hard to imagine it now, but as the Civil War broke out and for some time afterward, both sides thought the war would be very short and that their folks would win decisively. There was almost a celebratory and joyous zest in the air, especially in the South once the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter near Charleston on 12 April 1861. In that town on that day, church bells rang and there was celebration in the streets because war had finally been declared.

The local newspapers were full of braggadocious articles about the havoc the South would wreak on its enemies. Part of this was ignorance—no one in the U.S. had seen war in many generations. The last war on American soil had been the War of 1812 with Britain when the capitol was burned, the national anthem was written during a battle, and considerable damage was done elsewhere, even in the South. But very few people who were alive in 1860 had seen that war. A few West Point-trained professional army officers like Grant and Sherman had seen action in the war we fought with Mexico in 1845, but very little of that happened on our turf except for a few battles in Texas. So, except for the professionals, very few people understood the horror of war in that day.

There was no real strategy on either side in the early stages of the war as neither side really thought one was needed. There were literally people on either side who thought it was going to be great entertainment—sort of like a fantasy league war. James McPherson, a leading historian of the war, quotes a Mississippian on his way to the conflict as saying he had “joined up to fight the Yankies—all fun and frolic.” An Alabama soldier wrote in 1861 that the next year would bring peace “because we are going to kill the last Yanky before that time if there is any fight in them still. I believe J.D. Walker’s brigade can whip 25,000 Yankees. I think I can whip 25 myself.”

Before leaving for the war, locally-raised regiments often paraded through their hometown streets serenaded by local bands and showered with flowers by the communities’ young ladies. This kind of unreality was not unique to the South—it happened in the North, as well. Several Northern regiments spent much more time planning the exquisite uniforms they would wear in battle than learning how to handle weapons. Everybody just knew they were going to fight a war—how it was to be done was much less interesting and important than the romance and glory of doing it. (If you would like to see a vivid example of this, google New York Zouaves regiments in the Civil War for an eyeopener as to how far some units got carried away from the point.)

The best example of the naiveté of the time was the events at the Battle of Bull Run (called Manassas in the North) on 21 July 1861 near Washington. Oddly, although the war had begun in April, relatively little had happened after Fort Sumter as both sides were really unprepared. Most level heads, including Abraham Lincoln, had hoped that sanity would prevail and somehow war could be avoided as it had so many times before. From April to July, both sides dived into preparing for war, still thinking that it would be a quick and glorious affair in which heroic deeds were the order of every day.

Then the generals on both sides decided it was time to stick a toe in the water to get things going and the water proved to be Bull Run, a little country creek in rural Virginia. Apparently, very few folks had thought about what gunshots and artillery could do to the human body and how little medicine could do to treat the terrible wounds that they produced. Bull Run was the object lesson for this and it was one a lot of people learned the hard way.

There were mixups in flags that day because in all the smoke, many Southern unit flags looked like Northern ones. This was disastrous as soldiers follow the flag to keep up with their units in the smoke and confusion of battle. Soldiers from all kinds of units were all over the place that day and utterly vulnerable as a result. After Bull Run, the Confederate commander wound up designing a new Southern battle flag for future engagements (the Saint Andrew’s cross format with which many of us are familiar) so that this did not happen again. There were uniform mix-ups, too. No one had decreed which colors would be worn by which side. In one case, when a group of blue-clad troops showed up near a group of Union soldiers engaged in battle, the Union group did not realize they were Confederate until several minutes had passed and so they were nearly overrun and sustained many needless casualties.

19th-Century chromolithograph of the Battle of Bull Run

Bull Run was the first time the rebel yell was heard in battle and its effect on the green Union soldiers was amazing. Literally thousands of screaming rebs ran at them in huge groups and many of the poorly-trained Unions simply cut and ran, totally unnerved by the experience.

All the confusion of this retreat was compounded by the fact that the battle had had an audience. On hearing that the engagement would take place, many Congressmen and government bigwigs thought it would make for a fun day to drive their barouches out to the field of battle with a group of jolly friends and a picnic lunch to enjoy the spectacle of the battle—some even took their young children. When the shooting began and body parts and bullets began to fly through the air, the audience began a panicked retreat to Washington.

With them and the fleeing Union soldiers on the narrow roads at the same time, it made for a monstrous traffic jam and many did not arrive back in Washington until the next day.

This was pretty much the end of the war as a spectator sport. It was also a disaster for the Union which sent leaders back to the drawing boards with the idea that planning might not be such a bad thing after all. And even for the victorious Confederates, there had been casualties, mistakes and horrors that they could not afford to repeat.

​​So the concepts of planning and strategy became a lot more popular after that day on both sides. And the idea that the war would be over in a few weeks was mentioned a lot less frequently by those with their heads on straight. The “fire-eaters,” as the war promoters were called, kept right on raving for a lot longer.

(To be continued next issue)

-Joy Odom


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