An Idea Grows at Chickamauga (Battlefield Series Part V)

October 22, 2018

On Sept. 19, 1889, the 26th anniversary of the Battle of Chickamauga, an amazing event took place on ground that had once been the battlefield: The annual reunion of the Army of the Cumberland, one of the groups of Union soldiers who had fought there.


(This army had been commanded by General William Starke Rosecrans and one wing of this group, under General George Thomas, had marched through Trenton on the way to the battle at Chickamauga, although they didn’t know yet that it would be there. That’s how we lost our first courthouse.)


This meeting at Chickamauga was remarkable in several ways and would have even more remarkable outcomes. It was the first formal meeting of a group of Union veterans to be held in the South and, more importantly, it was the first such meeting to which Confederate veterans had also been invited. The original purpose was to help veterans move further down the path of reconciliation which we have talked about in previous articles, but the organizers had another goal in mind which they planned to introduce to the attendees and which, they hoped, would be supported by the group.


The September 19 meeting was held in a huge tent set up on the field but the tent couldn’t begin to hold everybody as there were more than 12,000 veterans and family members present, Northern and Southern. Although there was a train station in the little community of Lytle just west of the battlefield, most people were still using horses and buggies to travel. To think that so many came so far for this occasion is amazing!


On the 19th, the first day of the reunion, the attendees heard speeches by some of the stars of the battle and others who hoped to use the occasion to move forward with a plan. The day was a huge success; in addition to hearing and applauding the speeches, the veterans visited with each other and walked around the battlefield discussing what had happened and where and thoroughly enjoying each other’s company. There were some good-natured arguments over different versions of events of the battle, but no recorded evidence of any serious discord. Most of the veterans present were now old men, so I imagine they were just glad to be there.


This photo is shared from the collection of the Chickamauga National Military Park. It depicts the picnic in 1889 which took place at Crawfish Springs and was another step in healing our nation after the war. Approximately 15,000 veterans, families and other interested persons of both sides of the conflict at Chickamauga and other skirmishes nearby attended/


On the second day of the convention, the veterans met at Crawfish Springs in Chickamauga for what had to be one of the largest barbecues ever held in this area. Because the vets were encouraged to bring spouses and other family members to this event, it is estimated that more than 15,000 people ate together that day. The park archives includes an old photo of a sea of long tables set up for the occasion with huge loaves of bread placed about every five feet along them and thousands of people milling around in Victorian-era clothing waiting for the meal to begin.


(I have attached another photo from the park to this article. The tables are not so clearly visible, but many more people can be seen. As you will note, many ladies attended this event.)


Recently I stopped at Crawfish Springs in Chickamauga with a copy of that photo and looked around while trying to imagine what it would have looked like to see all those people gathered there, eating and visiting and swapping stories. I suppose all lovers of history wish often that there were really such things as time machines so that we could go back and be there when important things occur. I would love the chance to make the trip back to that day to talk with those in attendance about their experiences during the war and their feelings so many years afterward....


After the barbecue, the leaders met at a local Baptist church and got down to business and the business was the effort to establish the first National Military Park in commemoration of the Battle of Chickamauga. They formally organized the Chickamauga Memorial Association and elected a number of people they called “incorporators” from each state. The number of incorporators per state depended on the number of troops that state had fielded at Chickamauga.


Also elected were a group of 28 directors who would devise and oversee plans for the park as they took shape and were presented to them. Most important was the election of a group of 28 “directors” who would do the planning and the lobbying to make the park a reality.


The spirit of reconciliation continued in this part of the effort. Among the directors was John Wilder of Indiana who had led the famous Lightning Brigade which had been such a determining force in the battle. Another director was former Southern General Joe Wheeler who was by then a U.S. Representative in Congress and would serve as vice president of the directors’ group.


Speeches were made during the convention which emphasized reconciliation and unity, and all were met with enthusiasm and cheers by those in attendance. Several notable comments from the day were recorded. Former General Rosecrans probably said it best: “This occasion is one for which you will look through history in vain to find a second...It is very difficult to find an instance where contending parties after years meet together in perfect amity. It took great men to win that battle, but it took greater ​​men still, I will say morally greater, to wipe away all the ill feeling which naturally grows out of such a contest.”


It was recorded that applause from both sides filled the arena.


Next segment: The Men Who Made It Happen.


--Joy Odom




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