More than 150 years after battles in and around Chattanooga, and four-to-six months since the sesquicentennial of those battles, the Civil War continues to make its mark on the consciousness of the Scenic City.
Early next month, a new film series, “Civil War: The Untold Story,” which deals with the importance of the war’s Western theater, its average civilians and the experience of blacks, will be aired on WTCI, the local PBS affiliate. The series, produced, directed, written and largely funded by Chris Wheeler of Great Divide Pictures, will air for five Sundays beginning April 6. Airtime has not been set.
“It resonates with me how relevant this war continues to be,” the filmmaker said in a phone conversation from Atlanta last week. “Though the battles are done, issues that surround the Civil War remain today. We’re dealing with race and civil rights. We’re debating the Constitution. Congress is divided. We’re, arguably, as divided as we were 150 years ago.”
The fourth segment of the series, “Death Knell of the Confederacy,” details the battles of Chickamauga and Chattanooga.
Chances are, unless they are Civil War buffs, few local residents know how crucial the battles were in the denouement of the war.
“Sometimes,” said Wheeler, “we take for granted the history in our own backyards. Chattanoogans should not. These were pivotal battles that helped determine the nation we are today.”
Of particular importance, the film noted, is the Nov. 25, 1863, Battle of Missionary Ridge. Indeed, as the filmmaker said through the voice of narrator Elizabeth McGovern of “Downton Abbey” fame, “The Union attack is one of the most dramatic moments of the entire war.”
The initial skirmish on the north end of the ridge by Gen. William T. Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee went nowhere against Confederates led by Maj. Gen. Patrick R. Cleburne, with one Confederate defender in the film saying, “We feel like we can kill all they send after us.”
But later in the day, farther south than Sherman’s forces, Maj. Gen. George Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland attacked the rifle pits at the base of the ridge. Instead of stopping after seizing them as planned, they continued up the ridge under fire from above with, the film’s narrator said, “one thing in mind — redemption [for the loss at Chickamauga].”
That charge was “not much different than the guys going ashore at Omaha Beach [during D-Day in World War II],” Stacy D. Allen, chief historian of Shiloh National Military Park, said in the film.
At the top, pandemonium and confusion reigned among the Confederates, who fled down the back slope of the ridge.
“I don’t think any feat of the war can equal [the Union] attack on Missionary Ridge,” the film quoted C. Irvine Walker of the 10th South Carolina Infantry as saying. “If only our men had held their ground, it would have been child’s play. … When I saw them running, I could not believe these were the heroes of Shiloh, Perryville, Oak Hills and Chickamauga.”
Because there is little photographic documentation of battles in the Western theater, Wheeler said, he used regional re-enactors — mostly men ages 20 to 30 to duplicate the age of soldiers — to recreate battle footage and was able to film in 2012 on actual battlefields, including Chickamauga and Missionary Ridge, “places where blood was shed.”
“It made for a powerful experience of living history,” he said.
Wheeler said telling the average Southern civilian experience is also important because most people in the North at the time — and perhaps today — don’t understand what many Southerners endured. Not only was most of the war fought in the South, he said, but it was fought on their doorsteps and in their backyards.
“They were part of the war,” he said.
Similarly, blacks are often an afterthought — or their existence as slaves simply given as a cause — in the telling of the Civil War, Wheeler said. So the film depicts their enslavement, emancipation and their part in the fight for freedom.
“Their actions influenced not only government policy but the president [Abraham Lincoln] himself,” he said.
Today, those average white civilians and descendants of black slaves frequently live next door to each other, work together or attend school together in Chattanooga. Though their pasts are different, they now share experiences.
“It’s important to look back 150 years and see the consequence when we as a nation could not solve our problems,” Wheeler said. “In 1860-61, no one could see the horror that lay ahead. But [the problems] are still part of our national conservation, still unresolved.”
How they’ll be resolved is the sticking point, but when the country marks the war’s bicentennial in 50 years, perhaps it will be difficult to imagine there was a time when brother fought against brother.