One of the strange things about human nature is our tendency to ignore things that are most familiar to us because we see them constantly. I can remember a clear example of this from my own childhood in a southwestern suburb of Atlanta.
In those days, the 1950s, there were many things the stores in my little town didn’t offer and we often had to travel to downtown Atlanta to visit Rich’s or Davison’s department stores for things we needed. On every trip, in the eastern distance, the bulk of Stone Mountain was often visible. When I sat in the dentist’s chair on the sixth floor of the Candler Building, I could also see the mountain in the distance on a clear day, but I paid no attention to it as it was just a part of the overall panorama. It was privately owned then, not yet a state park, but it was open to visitors. Still, I never went and never felt curious about it.
Then, when I was in college, my geology professor explained what an amazing object the mountain is and I knew I had to go there immediately and see it with the new perspective he had given me.
Essentially, Stone Mountain is a giant bubble that began as molten rock far below the earth’s surface during its formation some 300-350 million years ago. Geologists still don’t understand how that one bubble somehow solidified and made its way to the surface to rise some 1,600 feet above its surroundings but it did. And it became the largest piece of exposed granite on earth. After I came to understand what an amazing natural wonder the mountain is, I never viewed it as just a piece of the natural furniture again.
For some years, I have been a volunteer at the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park in Fort Oglethorpe. As an old history teacher, my working there has been a little like being Brer Rabbit as he was thrown into the briar patch--it’s a wonderful place for a history hound to be. The park is now more than 100 years old and its historical collections of objects and records are vast and fascinating, over and above the critical military events that happened there so many years ago.
In talking with my fellow Dade Countians, and even some folks in Walker and Catoosa who are a lot closer, I often encounter the same phenomenon as my childhood detachment regarding Stone Mountain. Many of my neighbors and friends, who are often lifelong residents of this area, tell me that they have never visited the battlefield other than to drive through it. They have never been inside the Visitor Center and have never attended any of the programs and activities at the park (which are almost always free). I think that there are discoveries to be made at the battlefield which are equivalent in importance to my awakening to the awesomeness of Stone Mountain and I hope to share that view over the next few months.
The 155th anniversary of the Battle of Chickamauga is coming up on September 14-23 and the park staff has planned a huge number of programs to honor this occasion. Some of these are geared to true “history nuts” like myself, but many are more geared to folks who just want to see the park, get to know it better, and have a better understanding about what happened there.
Some of the programs are focused on military tactics and strategy, but many are more focused on people who were affected by the battle either as participants or as victims in some way. For instance, one of the programs will focus on the experiences of Julia Snodgrass, a 6-year-old whose family occupied a cabin on land that was to become the most critical site of the battle. Julia Snodgrass lived to a ripe old age and often visited the battlefield as an adult to share her memories of her childhood and of the events surrounding the battle. Some of those memories will be part of the program at her old residence. Also at that site will be re-enactors who, for the period of the anniversary, will camp, cook and do chores as soldiers did at the time of the battle.
(Photo from park website.)
Another program which, like the one on Julia Snodgrass, might be of interest to children as well as adults, will center on John McCline, a 10-year-old boy from middle Tennessee who amazingly wound up serving as a teamster for the 13th Michigan infantry during the Battle of Chickamauga. His story is truly unique.
Chickamauga was a pivotal battle of the Civil War and, although it is considered a Southern victory, it was so damaging and costly that it had much the same effect as a loss, and after it, things began to go downhill much more swiftly. If you would like a general overview of what happened at Chickamauga and its importance in the overall war, then you might enjoy taking one of the Car Caravan tours which will be offered a number of times during the anniversary celebration. This is also a good experience for those who cannot easily walk for distances. Participants tour the battlefield in their cars led by a ranger who stops at important sites around the battlefield and explains the significance of that place in the overall battle.
(James Walker painting from the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park website.)
Chickamauga was not a chosen battle site--it was composed at that time as it is now mostly of hills and woods which made fighting there a nightmare and almost nullified the value of certain weapons and tactics, especially the use of artillery. The battle began when small groups of Union and Confederate soldiers ran across each other accidentally on their way to other places and this bit of happenstance resulted in one of the most important battles of the war.
The park itself and its establishment are also unique and worthy of note. Chickamauga was the first of the nation’s many national military parks. Most people think this honor belongs to Gettysburg since it is so much better known, but Chickamauga is indeed older. It came into being because a group of officers who fought there thought that what happened at Chickamauga was worthy of memorializing in very concrete terms. They lobbied the powers-that-be in Washington over a number of years and, finally, the park as we know it today began to form. But this took a long time and great fortitude and determination on the part of the founders and, because it had never been done before, they had to confront problems in all kinds of areas that no one could have foreseen.
For instance, how do you keep farmers from sending their cows to graze on parkland since the land was “vacant” and it used to be theirs anyway? And how do you transport multi-ton monuments from the Lytle train station to their sites in the park when every wagon you have at hand sinks a foot into into the ground under their weight? And how, in 1910, do you cope with the “automobilists” who are “tearing through the park at up to eight miles per hour?” (That is one of my favorite lines from the many monthly reports of the park superintendent of that era to his superiors in Washington.)
The Battle of Chickamauga and the all the events of that portion of the War were very important to the people of the surrounding areas including Dade County. Over the next months, I will be writing a series of articles which focus on the connections between the battle and our county in terms of people, events, etc. Some of these are quite surprising,
In the meantime, I hope you will consider participating in one or more of the programs during the park’s anniversary in September. There are many more events planned than those I mentioned, so please go to the park’s website and look over the events calendar to find what might appeal most to you. The website is: ww.nps.gov/chch or
you can just google Chickamauga National Park and get there.
Maybe this experience will bring you to a greater appreciation of your home turf, as my Stone Mountain discovery did for me.