When an owl flew up, startled out of a tree by the battle racket, some crows attacked it in flight between the lines. “Moses, what a country!” a soldier exclaimed as he watched. “The very birds are fighting.”Shelby Foote, The Civil War: a Narrative
I’ve been wanting to make a trip to the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, in Fort Oglethorpe, GA, for quite a while now. Aside from its obvious historical interest, just the Chickamauga battlefield portion of the park boasts nearly 50 miles of hiking trails. On a previous hike, we covered a few miles in the Lookout Mountain portion of the national military park, but Chickamauga’s more gentle terrain suggested that we could put in a nice loop hike and cover some ground without seriously testing our dwindling endurance.
There’s no doubt about it, my friends — these are trying times — besieged in our homes by a pandemic; so politically divided that our nation has ground down to a numb paralysis; feeling powerless against the shoots and roots from the insidious evil only partially ripped from our American soil at places like Chickamauga, Gettysburg, and Chancellorsville. In such times, it felt right to go to a place forever marked by the most extreme expression of two Americas pitted one against the other, as a reminder of what we have overcome.
The park has a great website with suggested hiking trails, and we picked out the 5-mile General Bragg trail, which is a loop made up of several segments of color-coded trails. This hike begins in the lower parking lot of the Visitor’s Center on Lafayette Road. Since this was our first visit, we didn’t really have the lay of the land (sort of like Confederate General James Longstreet, who arrived at the 1863 battle site during the night and found himself in command of the Confederate left, with no first-hand experience of the terrain and only some sketchy maps to go by in planning his attack, which was to start in a few hours). We actually drove south of the Visitor Center to a gravel lot where other trails started, but went back to the Visitor Center and parked in a paved lot south of the building, below another paved lot that was closer to the building. This is the correct starting point, though there was no signage to mark the official start of the trail. There was a worn path heading north through the grass, and it led to a wooden bridge over a creek, with an overpass to our left. The written description of the hike says to take the trail under the overpass, but when we reached the wooden bridge, there was no trail heading in that direction. To quote a historical marker we saw later in the hike, we were “thrown into confusion.”
The best option seemed to be to stick to the trail, heading south to the gravel parking lot. Once there, we looked at cannons and historical plaques detailing the units that manned the Confederate and Union artillery positions. We headed south a little farther, but when we came to an intersection with the Green trail it was obvious we had gone too far. So, like many did during September 19-20, 1863, we made a strategic retreat and crossed Lafayette Road to look at the Florida monument and another monument to an Illinois unit in the field behind. Ruth put on her metaphorical commander’s hat and came up with a battle plan — we would walk north on the shoulder of Lafayette Road to the overpass, and see if there was a trail on the other side. This was a winning strategy, as we spied a narrow track heading east down by the creek, so we walked down the grassy bank to the trail, and quickly found a trail marker that confirmed we had found the Red trail. We weren’t the first ones here to find that the maps and the ground truth didn’t agree.
This first segment of the General Bragg trail is a narrow track in the grassy field, sticking close to the woods and bending south around the edge of the field. The going was a bit soggy along the back edge of the field, as its natural bogginess was exacerbated by mud churned from horse hooves. The trails in the park vary in allowing foot traffic and horseback riding; four of the color-coded trails are hiker-only, and three are for horses and hikers. After passing a junction with the Yellow trail, we left the field and headed south, then east, into the woods. Soon after entering the woods, we crossed a little creek and sharp-eyed Ruth spotted a surprise upstream — a deer in mid-crossing!
All three of us were startled, and the deer began thrashing its way across the creek. The whole thing had sort of a “oh, pardon me, Ma’am!” quality, as if we had caught her in the bath.
The Red trail runs next to Alexander’s Bridge Road at this point, where a row of granite monuments mark the positions of various Georgia infantry units on the second day of the battle. This being a national military park, there are numerous plaques, stone monuments, and cannons scattered about on trails, next to roads, and in fields. Taken individually, they mark where units were located at various key times during the two-day battle. Sadly, the Visitor Center was closed due to the pandemic so we didn’t get a good historical overview of the battle before taking the field ourselves. I’ve since reviewed Shelby Foote’s account of the battle in his extraordinary The Civil War: a Narrative and have a better understanding of what we were looking at. Perhaps we should pause here for a brief overview.
The battle of Chickamauga was the forerunner to the battle for Chattanooga. Confederate troops commanded by General Braxton Bragg held the city in early September 1863, but retreated south on September 9, fearful of being caught between two advancing Union armies, one under the command of William Rosecrans. Bragg’s retreat was strategic though — he planted “deserters” who turned themselves in to the advancing Federal troops, with tales of how Bragg’s army was demoralized and fleeing in disarray. This was a ruse to draw Rosecrans into pursuit, which worked to a degree. However, the Confederate leadership in the western front (yes, this was considered the western front of the Civil War) had a couple of serious problems. Bragg held responsibility for a very large geographic area, and the usual political and military maneuvering resulted in numerous reorganizations of commands, which made for a disjointed command structure. One of Bragg’s two subordinate Lieutenant Generals, Leonidas Polk (who was known as the “Fighting Bishop” because he was, in fact, an Episcopal bishop in Louisiana) detested him. Bragg’s cautious nature, general disorganization on the part of his flag staff, and Rosecran’s own wariness caused a few planned ambushes to fizzle out. However, Rosecrans consolidated his scattered forces, and Bragg’s army headed north for battle, and the two forces met up on opposite sides of Chickamauga Creek. After digging in for the night on September 18, a colossal two day battle started the next day.
Our route took us into the contested spaces around the north end of the battle — the Union left and the Confederate right. Today, the battlefield is heavily wooded. It was even more wooded in 1863. The fighting was savage, contested primarily by infantry and dismounted cavalry.
Fighting deep in the woods, with visibility strictly limited to his immediate vicinity, each man seemed to take the struggle as a highly personal matter between him and the blue or butternut figures he saw dodging into and out of sight, around and behind the clumps of brush and trunks of trees.Foote
The battle turned on a mistake by Rosecrans on September 20, acting on two incorrect scouting reports that he had a gap in the center of his line. In moving a division to fill the gap, he unwittingly created a real gap, just at the time the Confederates launched an attack at that location, directed by the veteran commander Longstreet. The Union lines broke, and the retreat was underway. Rosecrans retreated ultimately to Chattanooga, escaping annihilation of his army by heroic tactics by his subordinate commanders in covering the retreat. The ever-cautious Bragg also had a good excuse for not pursuing the Federal troops — his own army of roughly 65,000 had over 18,000 casualties. It was a horrific slaughter — ultimately the second bloodiest battle of the war, and the bloodiest on the western front. Each side had around 65,000 troops; combined, over 10,000 men were killed or missing in action, with over 34,000 combined casualties (deaths, missing, injured). Think about that for a minute — 10,000 men killed or presumed killed in two days.
Back to the hike now. After passing the Georgia monuments, we turned northeast on the Green trail, a nice wide corridor passing many monuments and plaques. In about .6 miles, we reached the northern edge of the battlefield and turned east on the Yellow trail. This was our least favorite stretch of the hike, as a good portion of it ran just south of Reed’s Bridge Road, with few if any monuments and no wildflowers to speak of. It was a nice shady level trail, to be fair.
At about .75 miles from the Green/Yellow intersection, the Blue trail merged in from the north and we followed it for about .35 miles to a junction of the Blue, Red, and Yellow trails, marked with a small cairn. By the way, this might seem confusing as you read along, because the park repeats the same blaze colors on several different unconnected trails in the park. The trail map may help clear this up! This leg of the trail was enlivened by a few wildflowers in bloom, including daisies and healall.
At this point, we continued south on the Red trail for a half mile down to Brotherton Road. This leg of our loop had a few points of interest: (1) our standout wildflower of the hike, sundrops; (2) some tarnished Union cannons in a grove with historical plaques describing how they were taken and subsequently recovered; (3) a couple of monuments to Indiana infantry regiments; and (4) an nice healthy anole sunning itself on one of the Hoosier monuments.
After crossing Brotherton Road, we paid a short visit to General Bragg’s headquarters. There’s no actual structure there; just more plaques, a few clumps of false garlic, and a pyramid of cannonballs. We had one nice realization there: northwest Alabama’s own Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler was in action in Chickamauga. We’ve been to his house; now we can say we’ve been to his office.
Our route took us back across Brotherton Road, where we then turned northeast on the Blue trail, which we took .3 miles to a junction with the Yellow trail. This junction was the site of Jay’s Mill, where the first shots of the battle proper were fired on September 19. Just over a shallow creek, there’s a field with the woodline to the west and Jay’s Mill Road to the east. There’s a pull-out on the road there, where a historical plaque accompanied by an audio presentation tells the story of the battle’s beginnings. To paraphrase, a Union general, acting on intel that there was an isolated Confederate brigade, sent two Union brigades to capture it. They had the poor luck to blunder into the path of Confederate cavalry wizard (pun intended) Maj. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, who checked their assault until reinforcements arrived. One of the Union commanders, Col. John Croxton, found himself facing four or five brigades instead of the one he expected, and badly outnumbered. Col. Croxton then assured his place in the Smartassery Hall of Fame by sending a dispatch to his commanding general, asking which of the brigades in his front he was supposed to capture. I had to know if such cheekiness was rewarded, and in a way it was. Croxton was wounded in the battle, but survived to occupy northwest Alabama later in the war. He’ll live in infamy in Alabama (at least in some quarters) for seizing Tuscaloosa and burning most of the University of Alabama in April 1865. He survived the war, and was appointed U.S. Minister to Bolivia by President Ulysses Grant, where he died of tuberculosis in 1874.
Our route now took us back to the northwest on a .88 mile section of the Yellow trail. This stretch is also near Reed’s Bridge Road for a good part of its length, and we found it to be akin to hiking in a dry streambed. We arrived at the cairn and turned west on the Red trail, which was really just more of the same, though it did have a few stands of pale blue-eyed grass to liven it up. This segment continued west for about .6 mile, passing one of Polk’s headquarters sites and the site where Confederate Brig. Gen. Benjamin Helm was mortally wounded, one of the three Confederate BGs to lose his life at Chickamauga. He was married to a half-sister of Mary Todd Lincoln. After passing the Helm monument, we emerged from the woods next to the Georgia infantry monuments and retraced our steps to the parking lot. Though the General Bragg loop is described as a five-mile loop, our GPS track logged our hike at about 6.5 miles. Remember, we did have a false start and detoured to look at monuments.
After our excursion, we were hot and tired but had made relatively quick work of the hike, so we had time for a side trip to Naked River Brewing Company for an early dinner, some of their MoonPie Stout, and (for me) a deep-fried chocolate Moon Pie. Altogether, it was probably more calories than the average Civil War soldier had in five days. We think we identified at least ten wildflowers, with showy evening primrose and bull thistle in the mix, along with a few others, so I felt entitled. By the way, NRBC did an excellent job with social distancing.
Maybe it was the beer, or the moon pie, or the successful hike we had just finished, but I was feeling pretty good about how the day had turned out. Then I started looking at the internet, and all the hate and division came roaring back, like the crackling rifle fire at Chickamauga some 156 years ago. I watched rioters attack journalists live on Facebook in Birmingham. I saw peaceful protesters gassed and shot with rubber bullets in our nation’s capital. Generations after Chickamauga, we are once again two Americas.
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address
Come on, America. Bind up the nation’s wounds. Work for a just and lasting peace. That’s how you honor the fallen.