A Vision Takes Shape (Battlefield Series, Part VI)

November 6, 2018

Very soon after the end of the Civil War, people in significant numbers began to visit the former battlefields. There is no way to know exactly who came and why, but it is certain that many of them were veterans of the war who wanted to remember and to try to come to terms with the things they had experienced. Other visitors were probably interested in history in general and still others were perhaps just curious. But for whatever reason, they came in significant numbers.


At least at Chickamauga, the local landowners appear not to have objected. Maybe this was a chance for them to pick up a little extra money for providing a visitor a cup of coffee or a place to stay for the night, and some of them actually came to promote the battlefield tourism. There are pictures in the park’s archives of home-made signs nailed to trees to direct people to locations such as Bloody Pond or Snodgrass Hill, sites of major events during the battle. For many years, this was the extent of efforts to preserve the significance of the Battle of Chickamauga.


At Gettysburg, efforts had gone a little farther. A veterans’ association had been formed and members had put up markers indicating where the primary battles lines had formed and where important engagements had taken place. Since they were ahead in this effort, it has always surprised me a bit that Gettysburg was not the first of the nation’s 17 national military parks—but it wasn’t.  Chickamauga was.


There has always been a little competition between supporters of the Gettysburg and Chickamauga parks and Gettysburg has some advantages: It has a huge cemetery which Abraham Lincoln dedicated and at which he made one of the most famous speeches in history, and it is in the North, which was certainly an advantage. But Chickamauga had a greater advantage in the dedication of several individuals who had a bigger vision than those at Gettysburg and whose vision became the basis for all the Civil War battlefield parks as we know them today.


The germ of the idea for the National Military Parks may have begun with a visit to the Chickamauga Battlefield in June 1888 by two men who had fought there in 1863. They were Henry Van Ness Boynton and Ferdinand Van Derveer. Both men had fought for the Union—Boynton with the 35th Ohio Infantry and Van Derveer as his brigade commander. Sometime during the day of their visit as they looked over the battlefield and talked about past events, they began to discuss the idea of preserving the battlefield for the future, to make it a memorial site. And, knowing what was happening at Gettysburg, they decided to go a step further and plan their memorial to honor and remember both sides that fought at Chickamauga.


They were determined that the full scope of the battle would be remembered in the military park they envisioned with detailed information as to the movements and engagements of Confederate as well as Union soldiers. They decided to establish a steering group which would consist of both Northern and Southern veterans, and to plan the park from the beginning as a place of joint honor for those who served there.


A lot of effort stood between them and the realization of their idea. But this seems to have been one of those fortunate times in history when exactly the right person, in terms of abilities and connections), was present at just the right time to do a job that involved significant challenges.

Henry Van Ness Boynton (above), who became the driving force in the establishment of the Chickamauga National Military Park, was born in Massachusetts and raised in Ohio, and he graduated from a Kentucky military institute in 1859. From July 1861 to September 1864, he served as a commissioned officer in the 35th Ohio Infantry where he quickly rose up the ranks to become commanding officer and a lieutenant colonel. He led the 35th at the Battle of Chickamauga and at Missionary Ridge where he earned the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions.


However, while leading his men up the ridge, he was hit by one or more bullets and sustained a terrible injury in the groin and the upper leg which effectively ended his military career. It took him a year to recover.


But Boynton was not the kind of man to retire to a quiet life. As soon as he was sufficiently recovered, he took up a career as correspondent for a prominent Ohio newspaper and eventually became the Washington correspondent for that publication. This meant that he lived in Washington D.C. for more than 25 years, and during that time, he rubbed elbows with politicians and power brokers of every kind. He was a close personal friend of President Rutherford B. Hayes and of many members of Congress. These connections would be of great benefit to him as he fought to establish the first national military park.


Like many driven people, though, he was so convinced of the importance of his mission and of his perception of it that he sometimes also made enemies, and his strong and very public opinions often created difficulties as he worked to establish the park. This never seemed to deter him at all. He always persisted toward his goal and, as the years passed, devoted more and more of his time to the establishment of the first national military park.


A brief aside: If you are not a student of the Civil War, you may not be aware that there are issues and decisions from that war that people still disagree and take sides on. One of the most well-known of these occurred during the run-up to the Battle of Shiloh (just west of us in Tennessee) when, for reasons he thought were valid, Ulysses Grant decided against having his men prepare defenses for their encampment on the night before the fighting began. They were overrun early the next morning by thousands of sGrant’s enemies, of whom there were many—including Henry Boynton—declared that he had been unprepared and surprised and, therefore, obviously at fault for the many Union casualties that day. Grant denied this and insisted, even in his memoirs written at the end of his life, that he had had good reason for doing what he did—or did not do—and that he was not surprised. Dedicated students of the war are still arguing to this day about who was right! There were similar issues and disagreements about things that happened at Chickamauga and all of them had to be dealt with during the formation of the park. 


So, as he aged into his 50s, Henry Van Ness Boynton exchanged his position of nationally-known newspaper correspondent for that of battlefield preservationist. He still wrote articles here and there, but his major efforts were devoted to the new mission. He began to write articles published in many newspapers pushing the park idea, and he and Van Der Veer met with the Society of the Army of the Cumberland in Chicago in 1888 to float the idea and begin to get veterans involved, Confederate as well as Union. They were received there with enthusiasm, and meetings with many other veterans’ groups followed.


The next step was to get Congress involved and, through their efforts, to get the federal government moving toward fulfillment of his plan. Throughout all this, Boynton’s connections and his determination were of tremendous help, and things began to crystallize. The first meeting of the Chickamauga Memorial Association, its membership made up of large numbers of veterans of both sides, took place on ​​September 19, 1889, during the Society of the Cumberland’s reunion at Chickamauga which I described in a previous article.


And Henry Van Ness Boynton’s dream, which was the dream of many others, as well, was on the way to fulfillment. 


--Joy Odom





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