All Quiet on the Tennessee
All quiet along the Tennessee…at least from this slab of limestone in Point Park, where I stand.
Standing at the tip of Lookout Mountain, fifteen hundred feet above the Chattanooga Valley floor, I can see the river winding between plateaus and ridges. To a hazy northeast stand two cooling towers of a nuclear plant, standing sentinel over the unsuspecting river. Directly below my craggy perch, the river makes an almost complete reversal on itself, creating an effect from here that the Indians called “Moccasin Bend.” to my right, Missionary Ridge slices the city in two, its residentially green slopes contrasting with the blue-and-white industrialness on both sides of the ridge.
Almost 150 years ago, others also watched from this rock, from this mountain that now serves as their memorial. In 1863, Confederate soldiers watched and waited on a late November morning as Union troops moved in from the west.
Even though the modern city of Chattanooga has occupied the valley, even though interstate highways criss-cross the panorama, even though the haze obscuring the distant mountains comes not from battles or campfires but from automobile exhaust, I can almost visualize what it must have looked like…almost, since the Civil War exists only in my mind.
Behind me, the cannons in Point Park (a unit of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Battlefield park system) rest silently, pointing out at the calm valley. As North Georgia guitarist Norman Blake eulogized,
And the cast-iron markers they stand there Guarding the battleground with care Cannons rest all in a row Prepared to meet some ghostly foe
Indeed. There are ghosts here…yet not only those from the battle. They are those of my childhood, both my friends and the soldiers we became in our wistful innocence.
Because I grew up not far from the park, my friends and I frequented the park, especially in the summers. We developed almost a routine, cemented with the building blocks of inherited Civil War interest and the mortar of sunshine and summer vacation.
We would bounce through the castellated twin-towered park entrance built in the 1930s by the Army Corps of Engineers and the Civilian Conservation Corps. We sat around with the rangers stationed in the visitor’s reception booth. I spent so much time with them that they trusted me to watch the entrance while they walked across the street for coffee. It was also thrilling when a ranger would allow me to climb the steps inside the tower to haul the U.S. flag down at the end of the day.
After we’d visit with the ranger, we would wander through the park. First we’d go up to the twin Parrott cannons, guns that during their day could hurl a ten-pound projectile more than a mile away. To us, the black-painted barrels resting on cast-iron replica carriages roared and bucked still. Sweat streamed down the cannoneers’ faces as they swabbed the bore, loaded, and tensely waited for the commands: “Exploding fuse, eight hundred yards! Ready, number three! Guns one and four, FIRE!” We covered our ears at the imagined roar and sighted down the barrels with a gunnery sergeant’s intensity.
Soon we would trot down the paved path that wound along a precipice. To our left, across the close-cropped lawn, rose the New York Peace Monument. This fifty-foot tall column, topped with bronze figures of a Confederate and a Union soldier shaking hands, was dedicated in 1902 by veterans of the battle. To us, this wonderful granite structure became not a monument commemorating the valor of the dead and the commitment to peace but a place to fight imaginary skirmishes around.
We neared the next pair of Napoleon smoothbore cannons. We stood dangerously close to a hundred-foot drop. This slab of limestone became my favorite perch, a place I returned to and continue to visit so often that it is as associated with me as a gravestone is to the person underneath it.
We would climb all over this rock, underneath it where cul-de-sacs and cubby-holes made us feel like Indian Joes. Tourists standing by the cannon would gawk and point at us and marvel at our sure-footed courage. We would ignore them and sometimes goad these interlopers on as we clambered precariously on cliffs.
From this rock we would descend by trails that wound through limestone outcroppings, sandstone slabs rising thirty feet above our heads, overhanging maple and pine trees sometimes shutting out the summer sun, and end up at the Ochs Museum.
This eighty-year-old locally quarried stone museum housed relics and historical displays, along with bronze arrows marking significant items from the Chattanooga campaign: Signal Point, Moccasin Bend, Cameron Hill, Orchard Knob, and Missionary Ridge. Named for Chattanooga Times founder and New York Times savior Adolph S. Ochs, the museum also had an easy-to-access flat roof that we would leap to from an overhanging rock.
We felt we owned this place, its terrace looking out over the valley. We stood along with tourists looking out toward the Cumberland Plateau, gazing with the eyes of soldiers who’d stood on this promontory so long ago. We saw the war as a grand lost cause. We were the heroes. We were the ones who got away.
Once, a friend and I explored trails that had been closed for twenty years or more, on account of the danger that climbing around some poorly maintained mountain trails can have. We climbed over rocks, laurel bushes, and No Trespassing signs. Finally, we came to a gentle slope, where the carpet of leaves cushioned our footfalls. I couldn’t hear the city sounds below nor the tourists’ cackles above. instead, I heard wagons creaking, rifles cracking, cannons booming, and men screaming.
And there, on the right, was a faded red-and-gray cast iron marker. Forgotten since this trail had been closed, the sign simply read, “Final line of Walthall’s and Pettus’ brigades.”
No explanation of who Walthall or Pettus was, why this was a “last line,” or whether they advanced or retreated or surrendered from this spot.
It didn’t matter to me. For the first time since I had read The American Heritage Golden Book of the Civil War for Boys, instead of glorious flags flying, I saw the wounded and the wrecked remnants of some desperate bunch of men, of people, fighting without hope in the confused woods.
I never explored those woods again.
Reflecting on events in Charleston recently, I also see my wandering of those woods and rills and rocks in a different light as well. Though the tactics of each regiment and company and platoon dealt little if at all with slavery preservation, the very fact of the Confederacy was built on its retention…and those who struggled bravely and heroically and honorable for their own battle flags did so for a dishonorable cause.
I never saw that then. I see it all too clearly now. Sometimes, the scales do fall from our eyes.