Young: Military park owes much to veterans

Young: Military park owes much to veterans

August 25th, 2013 By Christopher Young in Opinion Columns

In 1865, as surrendered Confederate soldiers journeyed home from faraway places such as Appomattox Court House, Va., and Durham, N.C., feelings of sadness, anger, and contempt for the victors were still very much alive in the hearts of the vanquished.

Veterans affected by the desolation brought on by Civil War, which ravaged the country by prematurely extinguishing hundreds of thousands of American lives, created safe havens of remembrance. Ex-Confederates organized the United Confederate Veterans Association (UCV), while their Union counterparts created organizations such as the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) and the Society of the Army of the Cumberland. These organizations became the vehicles for the reconciliation of over 24 years of separation and anxiety between the nation's two sections.

In 1889, the Society of the Army of the Cumberland, made up of Union veterans who once fought in the battles of Chickamauga, Lookout Mountain, Missionary Ridge, and others, extended an olive branch across the Mason-Dixon Line to their Southern brothers. Upon deciding to hold their reunion in Chattanooga, members of the society invited Southerners to join them in attending a large barbecue feast held at Crawfish Spring (present-day Chickamauga, Georgia).

From this gesture, advocates sprung forth supporting the creation of a national park that would honor the sacrifices of soldiers, North and South, yet overlooking the real cause of the war. In less than a year's time, veterans, who were now congressmen and senators in Washington, D.C., passed legislation creating a park that would help heal the still festering wounds of war. As a result of this joint effort, on August 19, 1890, Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park was established, becoming the first of its kind in U.S. history.

Five years later, on September 19, 1895, veterans, their families, and other patriotic Americans traveled to Chickamauga Battlefield from all corners of the country to dedicate the ground hallowed by their loved ones' sacrifices 32 years prior.

As the hot sun shone through the forest leaves along the base of Snodgrass Hill, an impressive scene unfolded. At noon, General J. S. Fullerton, chairman of the park commission and a veteran of the battle, called the 40,000-50,000 participants to order as he stood upon a grand stand erected to hold 2,000 dignitaries and veterans.

As if this awe-inspiring sea of participants was not impressive enough, the words Fullerton spoke next helped define the veterans' reasons for amassing north Georgia's rural countryside.

"It was not in my thoughts to say a word beyond presenting the presiding officer when I came upon this platform. But this anniversary, the scenes of this battlefield around us, and the many old comrades into whose faces we now look for the first time since our war cloud went down -- all these bring a swelling flood of memory that irresistibly sets my tongue in motion.

"What soldier of Chickamauga, indeed, could keep silent under these circumstances? What one could look with unrestrained feelings upon the scenes before us? ... Indeed, this celebration -- the inauguration of this park and commemoration of the grand and noble idea -- marks the beginning of a regenerated national life. Never before has such harmonious work been possible."

Throughout the remainder of the day, dignitaries and veterans made grandiose speeches, rousing the hearts of the people. Although tensions remained between Northern and Southern veterans, they seemingly placed those differences aside in order to dedicate and consecrate the ground that would forever be Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.

However, the national military park did not stop growing in 1890. As history marched along, the work of the veterans passed to a new generation. On Aug. 25, 1916, the National Park Service was established, eventually being tasked to preserve and protect the grounds and visions passed down by the veterans. Today, through various efforts, continued land acquisitions provide connective experiences for visitors to learn about the national significance associated with the park. The stories of those individuals who struggled in peace and in war can now be found at places the veterans were unable to immediately preserve, places such as Moccasin Bend National Archeological District, Signal Point Reservation, Point Park, and sites in Lookout Valley.

This year, while driving, walking, or biking through these sites, remember that although veterans have long ceased walking these hallowed grounds, their memories live through their writings, the monuments they erected, and the people who continue to share their stories of bravery and sacrifice.

Christopher Young is a park ranger at Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. For more, visit chattahistoricalassoc.org or telephone LaVonne Jolley at 423-886-2090.