Two bronze eyes of a statue tarnished green over almost a century gaze over Georgia Avenue beneath the broad trees of the Hamilton County Courthouse.
The plaque beneath the memorialized bronze bust reads “A.P. Stewart, Lt. General, C.S.A., 1861-1865.”
A lesser-known figure of the Civil War, Alexander P. Stewart cemented his ties to Chattanooga about this time of year in 1863. He led a Confederate division against the Union offensive at Chickamauga on Sept. 19-20. He later returned to Chattanooga to help establish and lead the nation’s first military park.
Sam Davis Elliott
“He was an important figure, but in many ways a secondary figure,” said one of Stewart’s biographers, local attorney Sam Davis Elliott.
Much of the general’s story has been publicly forgotten even though his monument still stands in front of the courthouse’s main stairs. Stewart has faded to a curiosity — a wedding photo backdrop and the subject of a former county leader’s song. But some key local figures still know the story of his entanglement with Chattanooga’s past and present.
A.P. stands on the courthouse lawn, and every now and then when everybody’s gone, I walk out and chat awhile with him...
Former County Executive Dalton Roberts wrote these lyrics in 1980. He first noticed Stewart during walks around the courthouse.
“Sometimes I’d just get a little upset or get a little tense and go out there and walk around on the lawn,” he said. “I looked at him and asked, ‘What is he doing here?’”
So Roberts, a musician, wrote and recorded a song, “Old A.P. and Me.”
A local Daughters of the Confederacy chapter named after Stewart unveiled the statue in 1919, seven years after local leaders laid the courthouse cornerstone.
The Daughters provided Roberts with a brief history about “Old A.P.” after he began his song.
Back then, that brief account was the most comprehensive work about Stewart, Elliott said.
Like Roberts, Elliott began to wonder who Stewart was and why he was memorialized in 1995 while walking to and from the courthouse for work. Elliott began to dig into Stewart’s past and wrote a biography of the general, which the Louisiana State University press published in 1999.
“It was one morning — I had not really thought much about writing or anything like that,” Elliott said. “It just struck me that I kind of needed a diversion at that point anyway.”
Stewart was born in Rogersville, Tenn., in 1821. He spent his early years near Winchester, Tenn., Elliott said.
Stewart received an appointment to West Point, where he graduated 12th in the class of 1842, Elliott gleaned from the general’s academic records.
Elliott found a collection of Stewart’s papers at Duke University and made the trek there, only to find a handful of pages. He contacted the Library of Congress and attempted to find Stewart’s descendants.
One of his greatest finds was the long-lost reports from the Battle of Missionary Ridge, which Elliott said he located in Savannah, Ga., at a historical society with the help of Jim Ogden, historian for the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.
Old A.P. and me, we’ve got a whole lot of things in common, like getting into wars that we can’t win...
Stewart surrendered in North Carolina, then applied for and received a pardon, Elliott said.
He served as a mathematics professor at Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tenn., before heading to St. Louis to work for an insurance company.
In 1874, he became chancellor at the University of Mississippi, where he worked for 12 years. A building there still bears his name.
Stewart moved to Chattanooga after Congress passed legislation creating a national military park at Chickamauga. He lived here from 1890 to 1905.
“There were monuments at Gettysburg, but it wasn’t a national military park,” Elliott said. “The legislation that created [the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park] required a serving Army officer, a Union veteran and a Confederate veteran.”
Stewart had friends in Congress and became the Confederate veteran representative who “supervised in a lot of ways the startup of the battlefield,” Elliott said.
He later died in Biloxi, Miss., at 87 years old in 1908. He and another lieutenant general were the highest-ranking Confederate survivors at the time of his death, news accounts from the time reported.
After his death, the county planned to make him the focal point of the courthouse rotunda. County commissioners passed a resolution to that effect when the Daughters of the Confederacy began the project, news archives show.
But Belle Kinney, a Nashville sculptor, designed the statue to be placed on a marble base.
Once the bronze was cast at Tiffany in New York City, county employees learned from an architectural report that the rotunda floor would have to be reinforced to support its estimated 14,000 pounds.
They opted instead to place him between the sidewalks to the main entrance.
One of the political wars Roberts said he lost in his time as county executive was an effort to keep open the courthouse entrance behind Stewart.
“All that security is foolishness. I spoke against that very strongly at the commission when they added that,” Roberts said. “Anybody that thinks an intelligent criminal couldn’t get in there and hurt somebody is a damn fool. That’s one of the wars I didn’t win.”
Now the courthouse’s front doors are locked, monitored with cameras by guards who man metal detectors at the street entrances to the building.
As a result, few people walk along the twin sidewalks past the bronze Confederate general mounted on a marble pedestal beneath a towering osage orange tree.
Stewart stands solemn, shown from the waist up, gripping the handle of a sword. Two rows of buttons secure his jacket, which he wears beneath a cape.
He’s still Old Straight today like he was back then...
When Roberts wrote his song, he didn’t know much about Stewart’s past, or that the general’s nickname was “Old Straight.”
“I didn’t know that when I wrote that verse, and I said ‘he’s still as straight’ as he was back then,” Roberts said.
He changed the verse once he read about the nickname.
Elliott said the moniker was probably sparked by either Stewart’s role as a math professor or his “moral uprightness.”
Stewart spent most of his life as a Presbyterian. Elliott said he could never verify what prompted the general to convert from a Presbyterian to a Jehovah’s Witness.
Roberts said that Stewart joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses late in life because he didn’t believe in hell.
Stewart’s politics were conservative, but he didn’t believe in owning slaves, Elliott said.
“At the time the Civil War came, he opposed Tennessee leaving the union,” Elliott said. “When it did leave, he went into the Tennessee Army.”
Elliott’s research didn’t yield much criticism of the memorial.
“I haven’t heard that, maybe a murmur here or there,” Elliott said. “It’s not as flagrant as the Confederate flag flying or anything like that.”
In fact, most people don’t even notice him, said County Trustee Bill Hullander, who has a view from his office window of Stewart’s back.
Hullander said Old A.P. is sometimes in the background of wedding pictures taken by couples married near him on the courthouse lawn.
Just ride your horse and shoot your gun
And when your final race is run
Come stand and look out on the town with me.
Ansley Haman covers Hamilton County government. A native of Spring City, Tenn., she grew up reading the Chattanooga Times and Chattanooga Free Press, which sparked her passion for journalism. Ansley's happy to be home after a decade of adventures in more than 20 countries and 40 states. She gathered stories while living, working and studying in Swansea, Wales, Cape Town, South Africa, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Ga., and Knoxville, Tenn. Along the way, she interned for ...