NASHVILLE — Nearly 31 acres of Missionary Ridge land, steeped in Chattanooga's bloody Civil War history, should soon be in the protective hands of the people of Tennessee if current plans remain on track.
That's the immediate goal of a multipronged effort aimed at conserving the land above and surrounding the 1840s-era Missionary Ridge railroad tunnel.
Last week the Tennessee State Building Commission's Executive Subcommittee agreed to accept the property's eventual donation by the Trust for Public Land to the state once federal funding is secured, say those involved in the effort.
The 30.7-acre property is located across North Crest Road from the National Park Service's Sherman Reservation, one of four historic miniparks that are part of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.
All four reservations commemorate the November 1863 Battle of Missionary Ridge, in which Union forces ultimately dislodged Confederate troops, breaking Confederates' siege of federally occupied Chattanooga.
"It's been in our mind and on the table for several years," said Rick Wood, Tennessee state director for the nonprofit Trust for Public Land, which is helping coordinate the effort to purchase, preserve and protect the property. "Right now is the time to do it because we were able to work with the Civil War Trust and the [federal] American Battlefield Protection Fund, our funding source."
The property is currently owned by the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum, which currently runs excursion trains through the tunnel. The museum in recent years began purchasing adjacent tracts of historically valuable land which will be transferred by the Trust for Public Land to the state.
Wood said he's hopeful American Battlefield Protection Fund monies will come through in a matter of weeks.
The city of Chattanooga would administer the property for the state.
But the ultimate objective in this modern-day struggle is eventually winning Congressional approval to make the property part of the national military park.
"The National Park Service wants it preserved," Wood said. "For the Park Service to accept this property there would have to be an act of Congress."
The property is a "priority because it's where Union, Confederate battles took place," Wood said. "It's on the side of the slopes where a lot of fighting took place."
The area was known as Tunnel Hill and Union and Confederate forces on Nov. 25, 1863, clashed there on the western slope of the Ridge's northern reaches. It was part of the pivotal Battle of Missionary Ridge in which federal troops broke the Confederates' siege of Chattanooga.
Meanwhile, similar efforts are underway to secure additional federal grant funding to purchase another 17.4 acres of another nearby property, an unnamed hill to the south which was the site of a Confederate artillery unit.
If approved by Congress, the nearly 50 acres would represent the biggest addition in decades to the four Missionary Ridge military reservations operated by the National Park Service, officials say.
Today the area is wooded, peaceful. But on Nov. 25, 1863, Tunnel Hill was the scene of a desperate struggle as Confederate troops repulsed an early advance of Union soldiers.
Jim Ogden, chief historian for the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, described part of the property as "kind of draped over the western portal of the tunnel."
"[In] the battle of Missionary Ridge, this is core battlefield property ... of the Tunnel Hill portion of the battle," Ogden said.
Fighting was intense and close up.
"One Union soldier says that Confederate soldiers on one side of the railroad embankment shot at Union soldiers on the other side of the embankment," Ogden said.
Some 500 exhausted Union troops under Union Gen. William T. Sherman were captured, Ogden said, after Confederates under the command of Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne counter-attacked.
Finally, Union troops launched a major assault on the middle section of Missionary Ridge with federal troops carrying the day, capturing the Ridge and ending the siege of Chattanooga, according to the Civil War Trust's website.
Patrick McIntyre, executive director of the Tennessee Historical Commission, said the state under the Tennessee Civil War Sites Preservation Act of 2013 has provided $232,000 in matching funds to purchase the railroad museum's property.
The funds will provide 50 percent of the acquisition price.
Another $250,000 in state money is slated for the acquisition of the other 17.4 acres, owned by Carrington Montague, he said.
"That's state funding that matches American Battlefield Protection Program funding," McIntyre explained.
Montague has long been involved in conservation and Civil War battle sites and is a member of Friends of Chickamauga-Chattanooga National Military Park and the Chattanooga Civil War Roundtable.
McIntyre said the National Park Service has 38 "significant sites" Tennessee, which endured any number of battles during the Civil War.
The Tunnel Hill and other property are among "the most significant," he said. "It's up there on Missionary Ridge and its part of where the Confederate positions were located on the crest of the Ridge," he said.
Park historian Ogden said it's "great that conservation, preservation, Civil War preservation has such great allies as the Trust for Public Land, the state of Tennessee, the city of Chattanooga, the Civil War Trust."
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550.
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...