Three days after the end of the battle of Chickamauga, a man on a mission arrived on the scene. His name was Mark Thrash and he was a slave in the service of Dr. Christopher Thrash of Meriwether County, Georgia.
He had been in service to the Thrashes all his life as had his parents before him. They were brought from West Africa to Virginia via Jamaica, then a huge slave-trading center, in June of 1820 and were purchased there by Dr. Thrash. Six months later, on Christmas day, they became the parents of twins and Dr. Thrash, a fan of classical history, named the babies Mark and Anthony. As was the custom, the boys took their owner’s surname, so they became Mark and Anthony Thrash.
By the time Mark Thrash arrived at Chickamauga, he was a man of 46 who had grown children of his own, and that was one of his reasons for being there. Mark’s eldest son had accompanied one of Dr. Thrash’s sons as a body servant when the latter went off to war. Somehow, Dr. Thrash had gotten word by the grapevine that the two Thrash boys--one white, one black--were involved in the fighting in North Georgia and that they might have been wounded or killed. Dr. Thrash felt compelled to find out if this was true, so he sent Mark Thrash to find out the truth. As it happened, Dr. Thrash’s son and his body slave, Mark’s son, were actually fighting in Florida and both survived the war, but it took a long time to get all that sorted out.
In the meantime, Mark Thrash remained at Chickamauga, not because he wanted to but because he was forced to. It had been decided early in the war that slaves might be co-opted into the service of Confederate forces as needed for performing menial labor and other similar tasks. When Mark Thrash arrived at Chickamauga, there were still unburied bodies everywhere, so he was ordered to remain and be part of the burial effort. What he saw was so horrific that he still spoke about it with great emotion and great clarity decades later in his life.
He saw the bloated bodies of thousands of dead soldiers, horses, and cattle strewn across the battlefield, and he breathed the overwhelming stench as all these corpses decayed. Most of the human bodies were those of Union soldiers since the Confederate army, as the winner of the battle, had had the opportunity to bury their dead. According to Mark Thrash and others, by the time he got there, wild animals, especially wild pigs had already begun to devour the bodies, which only added to the horror. In later years Mark Thrash remembered, “We got busy burying the dead and in about 15 days, conditions became more bearable.”
After completing his work on the burial detail, Mark Thrash was kept on by the Confederates and served some of its officers for a time before escaping. Almost immediately, he was picked up by a cavalry unit of Union soldiers who were following the Confederates on their southern retreat into middle Georgia. Because he was extremely skillful in working with horses, he was kept on by this group for a period of time, perhaps until the war was ending. Both armies were in disarray by then and record-keeping was not a priority. At some point, he was allowed to leave and return to his home.
(Portrait of Mark Thrash from NPS.gov.)
After the war, when all the slaves were free and trying to figure out what was ahead for them, Mark Thrash and his family lived through some difficult times. They survived on foods such as boiled acorns seasoned with salt from the dirt dug up from the floors of old smokehouses. For a while during this time, Mark Thrash relocated to Arkansas. One of his former master’s sons had gone there and that may have been the reason, but Mark was not happy and eventually worked his way back to Chickamauga, arriving in 1890 at age 70, but appearing much younger.
He spent some time working as a night watchman at a local hotel, then as a bodyguard for General H.V. Boynton, one of the fathers of the park. In 1892, Mark Thrash moved into a log cabin on land that would soon become part of the Chickamauga National Military Park. He went to work for the park as it was being built in 1894 and retired in 1922 after 28 years of service, for which he received a government pension.
He lived at Chickamauga Park for a total of 51 years. If you have been adding up the years of Mark’s life as you read this story, you are aware that it was long, and indeed, it was. He lived to be 123 years of age--which was documented by the U. S. Civil Service. His twin, Anthony, lived to be 119. At the time of his death, he was married to his fifth wife and was the father of 29 children. He has descendants in this area today.
But it was not just the statistics of his life that made him so memorable. He was a man of humor and grace and a true character. People from all over came to visit and talk with him and hear about the events of his life. If you can imagine what Uncle Remus must have looked like, you have a concept of Mark Thrash. He was large and strong and vigorous until the very end of his life, with a wreath of white hair and a wonderful smile.
He lived in a succession of cabins on a hill in one of the most beautiful areas of the park and, while he lived very simply, he had standards. He always wore a white apron to indicate that he had held the position of house slave, a notch up the ladder from field slaves during the time of his servitude. He was a great storyteller and enthralled the people who visited him with tales of his life and his memories.
The battlefield bookstore offers a book about Mark Thrash called Seen the Glory, by a man who first met him as a teenager in 1931. Much of the information I have used in this article comes from this book. Along with several other boys, the writer was rambling through the park looking for Civil War relics and stopped at the cabin to ask for water. Mark Thrash and his wife treated them royally and so they returned many times to talk with him.
According to this author, Stephen Addison: “During his lifetime, Mark was, without question, one of the main attractions of the park...You could sense that he felt in his heart that he owned the park, that it was his.”
There was good reason for this. As Mark Thrash stated, he had a part in “planting” practically every monument in the park and he helped build every foot of road. He was proud that he had seen it turn from a place of horror into one of the most beautiful spots in the country.
During his time on earth, Mark Thrash was: a slave for 45 years - longer than the average lifespan of a person during that time; the oldest person ever on a U.S. government payroll; the nation’s oldest voter in the years 1928, 1932, 1936 and 1940; the oldest twin in the world; the oldest person to receive a military funeral; the oldest black person in the U.S.; and a guest on CBS news broadcasts in the 1936 and 1940 election years.
He died on 17 December 1943, just a week short of his 124th birthday, and was buried in a private family cemetery on a farm belonging to friends in Chickamauga. If you know where to look, the location of his cabin is still easily seen in the park.
Years ago, when I taught English and history, I always had my students write an end-of-year essay on which character in U.S. history they would most like to meet and talk with. My answer to that will always be Abraham Lincoln, but Mark Thrash would definitely be on the backup list.