Thursday, October 19th, 2000.
Chickamauga National Battlefield Park, Ga.
Well, here I am Dixie Man, Southron Separatist I’ve never seen. I hardly believe it. After 18 driving hours, 1000 unremitting miles, I have arrived, at last, at this hallowed historical site. In a way, the trip, all the way from Toronto, Canada, is for you, as much as for me. I promised I’d write an article about my impressions here, one I dedicate to you and your ancestors. It's a primary object of this odyssey of mine. Today, I retrace the paths and positions of the opposing armies, including two of your great-great grandfathers who fought here for the Confederacy and survived to fight further Civil War battles. The information you shared about your historic connections lends a context, a sense of reality and immediacy, to my personal experience of one of the wars’ bloodiest battles, one of its critically important, strategic battlefields.
Could my timing be more perfect? It's an Indian Summer day “to die for”. The sun is warm and the air is still. I stare into a crystal-clear brilliant blue sky as I stand outside Chickamauga Battlefield Visitor Center and soak up the scene that surrounds me. Several vehicles are unloading passengers about to embark across burnished fields and worn footpaths on their bikes, while others limber up in preparation for jogging these same seasoned trails. The harvested field in front of me is draped in shades of tawny faded taupe, fringed by treed canopies of yellow, russet, and butternut gold. I gaze upon this vista for a considerable time, then close my eyes for lingering moments to seize onto the lasting impression.
Jack, my travel companion and trusty stand-in Canadian “trooper”, who, all the while, has been preoccupied with cannon on display at the entranceway, suddenly agitated, shouts my name - in sharp command - to arouse me. I open my eyes with a start. What? What is that? Wait -- How can it be? There was nobody there only moments ago. I saw everything. Yet, there it is! Out of nowhere!
My heart skips a beat. With deep breath and racing pulse, I dash down the driveway to intercept what I’ve seen - a classic Confederate officer mounted on a magnificent beige-gray beast. The two of them blend in perfectly with each other and the scenery, yet stand apart. It's eerie, impressionistic, almost - a ghost rider I'm seeing? I know it can't be – Jack saw him, too.
The stallion, full of spirit and fire, with arched neck and steaming flanks, mane and tail flying, chafes at the bit mightily, in an attempt to have his head; rears, side-steps, prances. The rider, a marvelous equestrian, whose image I can’t quite distinguish, sits him steadily and with a single hand, adeptly reins him in. What a splendid sight! He must be most handsome. They surge together up the hill and out of view before they see me or I can reach them. I stop in my tracks, mad at myself, crestfallen. How could I miss them? Will I see this Rebel soldier again? Will I see another? He is not a Park Ranger. There is no reenactment scheduled. Why this feeling? A premonition it’s as close as I’m going to get, this trip, to my elusive Confederate hero? A symbol of my experience of this place?
Resigned and a little letdown, I head back to the car, and Jack, who’s waiting there. We self-guide our selves over to the first stop on the tour - Battleline Road, near where the fighting started on the second day, September 19, 1863. It’s a more formidable battlefield than I could have imagined – not the inconsequential backwater it sounds like – Chickamauga Creek. The region around the four miles of front is heavily wooded, interspersed with occasional open fields. The most renowned of these – and the most significant for ‘my’ Dixie Man, as well – Snodgrass Hill – where the “Rock of Chickamauga”, Union General George Thomas, earned his name by holding off “Bull of the Woods” Confederate General James Longstreet long enough for the Federals to beat a hasty retreat.
There are monuments and markers along the tour road, metal tablets, blue for Union, red for Confederate, to indicate the locations of units and batteries, positioned so that visitors can view the scene exactly as the combatants did. Thus far, I've never seen such a narrow front, the two sides so physically close in many spots, it’s frightening. Here in these woods one can still see where Thomas’s Union soldiers prepared log barricades during the night of September 18th for protection from the onslaught they knew would come in the morning from Polk's Confederate right. I imagine myself one of these Union men and the desperateness of the situation “hits home”. With a wide grin Jack taunts and waves at me, a pretend Rebel, from a location within a few hundred feet of me. The idea of real Rebels charging straight at me from such close quarters is awful to contemplate. I know I would be fighting for my life with not great odds against being maimed or killed. It would be a struggle to the death, marked by much fierce, bloody, hand-to-hand fighting....
Further along the route we stop and explore the vicinity around Kelly Field and Poe Road. At one point, while I turn my back to read some Union tablets, Jack disappears. I make my move into Rebel territory to look for him and locate their various units while I’m at it. No sign. No sound, except the rustle of leaves. I follow a footpath part of the way toward one of the monuments, but suddenly spooked, hesitate. (Jack has declared this will be the last of the Civil War, for him, for a long while - Yeah, really. As if it could be, for me! Perhaps he literally meant right now and has abandoned me already...) I will attend his return near the road and the car.
Standing by myself, waiting, on the Confederate side of the front, a feeling for the gravity of their situation overtakes me. It's a bright, beautiful day, but now my spirit does not soar with it. It was the last real chance the Rebel army had to stem the tide of the war - all but irresistible - which had turned against them, this same year, this summer of ’63. The Northern and Western fronts had caved in – Gettysburg and Vicksburg – It was left to this body of brave men to determine whether the portals to Chattanooga and Atlanta and deeper South would be flung open, finally. The Rebel soldiers would have known this and called upon every ounce of personal power and passion they possessed – every act of will, conscious thought, raw emotion, nerve, sinew - to produce a victory....
Jack ambles out from the depths of the forest, just in time, smiling, still the soldier. His appearance brings a lighter mood to the proceedings and we move on. My emotions continue to lift in keeping with the change in setting. We are out of the woods.
Dixie Man! Here I am at Brotherton Field, at the gap, created in confusion, in the Federal center, which Longstreet, the “War Horse” exploited, and through which his heavy assault wave struck. Part of the incredible breakthrough belonged to the famed Kershaw Brigade and your two great-great grandfathers in Companies B and I. Metal tablets mark the positions of their Brigade and the other’s in the advance upon Snodgrass Hill. "The Rebels poured through the field unchecked, splitting Rosecrans’ army in half, and the routed Yankees streamed toward Chattanooga, carrying Rosecrans with them. No order could be heard above the tempest of battle.... Fugitives, wounded, caissons, escort, ambulances, thronged the narrow pathways,” a northern officer wrote. As I stand today beside Brotherton Cabin, facing the field, the pandemonium is hard to imagine. The place is sublimely peaceful. Just moments ago I saw several deer, like sleek gray ghosts, bound through the trees at the forest’s edge. A regular visitor informs me there are thousands of these creatures here.
Near the site of Rosecrans’ headquarters, where Col. John Wilder and his 2000-man brigade of mounted infantry tried, unsuccessfully, with their seven-shot Spencer repeating rifles, to stem the Confederate tide, I witness a most unusual phenomenon - one that seems impossible, somehow. Yet there's no mistaking the experiences of my senses on this balmy day. Not the slightest whisper of wind, or a breeze, or an air current, drifts in this wide open space partially bordered by wood lots; not a single leaf stirs, or moves, or falls from the gigantic red tree which towers in its midst. The stillness is absolute.
We continue to the supreme, final position of that battle, Snodgrass Hill, where I overlook the field across which those brave and desperate Confederates, including Kershaw’s men, attacked Thomas’s equally determined defending force. As I behold the scene I'm struck by the incredible fortitude of Dixie Man’s kin and fellow soldiers, who made such an impressive charge, endured all day, never let up until the darkness would overtake them. Thomas could retreat in safety, then. The Rebels had won their victory....
I cannot rejoice. So much was at stake. After all that went on here, it was a hollow victory for the Confederates. General Braxton Bragg let the Union get away and retreat to Chattanooga. What was meant to be accomplished, in the end, was not accomplished. While the Union suffered tremendous losses, too, they ultimately won Chattanooga and the War. So many Confederate losses, more than 18,000, effectively were for nothing. I'm relieved Dixie Man’s were not among them that day.
I take a last look around this spot before departing and am struck once more by nature's sympathetic vibrations. Another enormous tree - only this time, with barely a breeze in evidence, it's tender yellow leaves drift down in gentle showers, cascade with each fresh current, drape a plush golden mantle over the hard-won precious ground.
~ Helga Marion Ross ~